Rebecca West, on the fresco of the Dormition at Gračanica in Kosovo

15 Aug

From her magnificent Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey through Yugoslavia:

(click)

“Across one of the walls of Grachanitsa is shown the Falling Asleep of the Virgin Mary, the state which preceded her Assumption, a subject often treated by the Byzantines.  There is no man living today who, exploring his mind in the light of that idea, could draw out so much.

“In the foreground of the fresco is the Virgin lying on her bier.  By the lax yet immutable line is rendered the marvel of death, the death which is more than the mere perishing of consciousness, which can strike where there is no consciousness and annul a tree, a flower, an ear of corn.  Above her bier there shines a star of light; within it stands Christ, taking into his arms his mother’s soul in the likeness of a swaddled child.  Their haloes make a peaceful pattern, the stamp of a super-imperial power, within the angles of the star.  About them throngs a crowd of apostles and disciples, come hastily from the next world or from distant lands to attend the Virgin’s death, wearing their haloes as bubbling yet serene spheres.  On the edge of the crowd stand some bishops in their cross-covered mantles, rock-like with the endurance of the Church, which cannot be perturbed by the most lacerating grief, and still others, also in flowing garments but with bodies liquid with grief, and others, also in flowing garments but with bodies tautened by effort, low under the weight of the bier.  The background is full of angels as the Eastern Church loved to conceive them, ethereal messengers who are perpetually irradiated by the divine beauty and communicate its laws to flesh-bound man, a dream of perfect vision and unfrustrated will.

“The huge imaginative space occupied by this small fresco is washed by two swinging tides. There is a wave of such sincere and childish grief as children feel when their mothers die, that breaks and falls and ebbs; there is a rising sea of exaltation in the Son who can work all magic and cancel this death or any other, making glory and movement where stillness and the end seem to be ineluctable. The sides of the fresco are filled in with buildings, distorted with the most superb audacity in order to comply with the general pattern, yet solid and realistic in effect; we are amazed, as we all so often are during our lives, that our most prodigious experiences take place in the setting of the everyday world, that the same scenery should be used for the pantomine and the tragedy. Behind these buildings there is a firmament which evokes another recurrent amazement. It is the most astonishing of all the things which happen to us that anything should happen at all. It is incredible that there should be men and women, mothers and sons, biers and buildings, grief and joy; it would seem so much more probable that the universe should have as its sole packing empty nothingness. Existence in itself, taken at its least miraculous, is a miracle.”

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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