Epitaphios – the Entombment of Christ

This Greek Orthodox icon was written by iconographer, Anathios Clark, in a stark and simple form that conveys the grief and devastation of the little group that laid Jesus in the tomb that Friday at dusk.

Though there are sometimes others in the scene, the people most often depicted in the Epitaphios (related to the Greek word: epitaph) who took Jesus down from the Cross and placed him in the Tomb are Mary, his Mother; Mary Magdalene; John the “Beloved Disciple,” and Joseph of Arimathea, as mentioned in John, Chapter 19.

Dressed in the dark terra-cotta color of the red earth, Mary bends low over Jesus and is shown here in a touching gesture that movingly duplicates the cheek-to-cheek caress of Mother and Child in the icons known as “Valdimirskaya” and “the icon of humbleness.”

Behind her is Mary Magdalene, who is crying out in her grief and distress, hands raised in the “orens” position of outspoken prayer.

In her role as preacher and proclaimer, the “Apostle to the Apostles” she was depicted with her hands raised this way in some of the very earliest examples of Christian art. She is dressed in the brighter red of witnesses, saints, and martyrs (‘witness” in Greek).

Dressed in purple and blue, colors of nobility of spirit and gratitude, John is beside Jesus, and behind him looms the foot of the Cross, but we do not see the arms where Jesus was hanging – that part of the story is over, now.

Jesus is shown on a winding sheet that resemble traditional Eastern European as well as Hebrew textiles, and while the wounds in his hands and feet, and in his side, are clearly visible, they are not graphically emphasized, as in Latin American and Spanish art traditions.

An Epitaphios is also a liturgical, ritual object as well as an icon. The body of Christ, as represented in this icon, is embroidered on a pall, which is laid out in the church, as for a funeral, on Good Friday evening, and until the Great Saturday Vigil begins. It is carried, horizontally, as on a stretcher, in a funeral procession around the church, three times, and then placed in the church to rest, as in the Tomb.

Joseph of Arimathea, who is dressed in green, the color of paradise and unity between heaven and earth, is placed at the feet of his teacher. Behind him is the cave that represents the Tomb.

Echoing the Eastern Orthodox tradition that Jesus was born in a cave (stables were often in caves in those times) and was buried in a cave, this is an ancient symbol of the mystery of the unknown in birth and death, a mystery which caves have represented, as an archetype, since neolithic times, if not before.

Were you there when they laid him in the Tomb?
Were you there when they laid him in the Tomb?
Were you there when they laid him in the Tomb?
Oh, Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble...
Were you there when they laid him in the Tomb?

African-American traditional sources

Written by St. Matthew’s Parish Iconographer, Lisa Bellan-Boyer
One Spirit Interfaith Seminary Class of 2011

See the website of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.


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