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Weep not for me, O Mother

The icon entitled Weep Not for Me, O Mother [also, Do Not Lament Me O Mother] appears in the Russian tradition from the 16th century. It is an image of the dead Christ whose bust emerges erect from the tomb in front of the Cross, and of Mary his Mother who seems to be supporting him in an embrace. This image of a Pietà has ancient origins and is particularly interesting both because of its subject – a privileged testimony of the appearance and evolution of the expression of sentiments in religious art – and because of its history, an instructive example of the cultural exchange between the East and the West.

“Pietà” (Monastery of Iviron, Mount Athos, 16th century)

It initially appeared in the Byzantine world as a single portrayal of Christ the Man of Sorrows (11th century) – later set on a par with the image of the Virgin and Child (an association which was to lead to the birth of the iconography of the Eleousa, the Virgin of Tenderness, in which the Christ Child embraces his Mother), or as in a diptych in the Monastery of the Transfiguration at Meteora with the image of Mary afflicted by sorrow – it arrived in Italy towards the 18th century and here met with considerable success, being transformed and disseminated in Northern Europe, in France and in Germany. Simultaneously, also in the Byzantine area, the iconography of the Man of Sorrows (called Akra Tapinosis, Great Humiliation) became more complex, borrowing elements proper to the images of the Crucifixion and the Deposition from the Cross and probably, in addition, subjected to the influence of Western developments. An icon from Thessalonica that dates to about 1400 shows Mary who is embracing the dead Christ and is entitled The Descent. It may be the first example of this subject. The same image was discovered at Mount Athos at the beginning of the 16th century, and it was from here, in my opinion, that it reached Holy Russia, where it became extremely popular. When in the second half of the 20th century Russian icons were discovered by Western culture, we felt, as it were, at home with this image.

In the Byzantine tradition Mary, who embraces Christ deposed from the Cross who is rising from the tomb, is already an announcement of his victory over death and a compendium of the three holy days, as emerges from the troparion for matins of Great Saturday from which the icon has taken its name: “Lament me not, O Mother, seeing me in the tomb, the Son conceived in the womb without seed, for I shall arise and be glorified with eternal glory as God. I shall exalt all who magnify you in faith and in love”. A long patristic and hymnographic tradition has contributed to establishing in the liturgical text this dialogue between the dead Christ and the Blessed Virgin which appears as the troparion of Ode ix, which corresponds to the Magnificat and is taken up in the successive Liturgies of Lament ( Enkomia 164-166):

“O light of my eyes, O my sweetest Son, how can you now conceal yourself in a tomb?

I suffer this Passion to set free Adam and Eve, O Mother, do not weep!

I glorify, my Son, the immensity of your mercy; it is for your mercy that you suffer”.

The element of dialogue between Christ and his Mother in the hour of the Passion – attested by the Liturgy only in these brief passages for Holy Saturday – seems to have been introduced by Romanos the Melodist (first half of the 6th century) in the hymn Mary at the foot of the Cross. Through a dramatic style he succeeds in expressing clearly and forcefully the meaning of the Passion and death, interpreting them in the light of Christ’s great mercy: “A little more patience Mother… so that you can sing: ‘With suffering he destroys suffering, my Son and my God’” (13).

The lament over the dead Christ refers to Adam’s lament and to the mercy of Christ, who, in order to free Adam and Eve, hastens in the Passion, goes to seek the lost sheep and like the Good Samaritan comes close to its wounds and cures them. The image of Christ Man of Sorrows is already in itself the image of Christ’s embrace of humanity in its flesh. It corresponds symbolically to the Child’s first embrace of his Mother, full of impetus, while she is meditative and almost predicting the mystery of the Passion, captured in the icon of the Virgin of Tenderness.

The expression of the sentiments of joy, suffering and affection were attested in Christian art only after the iconoclastic controversy. From the 9th to the 10th centuries artists in Byzantium began to paint the dead Christ on the Cross, his deposition and his burial, encouraged by the influence of homiletic texts and the liturgical innovations of the time of the Comneni. Significantly, however, the title that appears both under the image of the Crucifixion and under that of the Great Humiliation is King of Glory, a title that we also rediscover when the Virgin’s embrace of her dead Son was introduced, as in the icon of the Monastery of Iviron. Great peace, especially on Christ’s face, emanates from this icon, so far from the extreme expressions of anguish known in the West. The signs of suffering are not effaced but it is a matter of an interiorized suffering, expressed in the closed eyes of the dead Christ and in the sorrowful features of his Mother. It should be noted that Mary is not bowing her head but raising it to Jesus’ face. One might perhaps think of the Gospel sentence “The powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.... Look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Lk 21:26-28). This passage is well adapted to the spirit and epoch of Theophanes the Cretan. A little more than half a century after the tragic fall of Constantinople to the Turks (1453), Theophanes’ painting is a sign of resistance and a means of preserving the great Byzantine spiritual patrimony. Broken and harsh lines, light and shadow are juxtaposed in his work, evidence of a demanding ascetic tension but bearing the light of the Resurrection. “Weep not for me, O Mother – or more exactly, do not make a funeral lament – I suffer… to set Adam and Eve free”. Yes, “with suffering he destroys suffering, my Son and my God”.

Raffaela D’Este




St. Peter’s Square

Oct. 20, 2019