Why Is There An Angel Chopping a Man’s Hands Off On The Dormition Icon?

Why Is There An Angel Chopping a Man’s Hands Off On The Dormition Icon? August 15, 2016

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This is a public domain historic standard icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos (think the Assumption, Westerners), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, and I love it. We have Mother Mary deceased in the foreground, on one of those elaborate violently tilted beds of which I’ve remarked before. I can’t quite tell whether she’s lying on a cushion or surrounded by a visible nimbus of light, and the ambiguity is probably deliberate. She is lying in a similar position to the one she takes on Nativity icons. There are the apostles, Saint Peter being the gray-haired one in the foreground as usual. There is Our Lord up above, cradling His mother just as Our Lady cradles baby Jesus in a Theotokos icon. Beautiful.

And who are those two guys right up front, practically spilling out of the frame?
Dormition_of_the_Mother_of_God_Church_Filipovo_Dormition_Icon

Oh, that’s just an angel chopping a dude’s hands off.

That little tableau is not included in every single Dormition icon, but it’s very common. Here it is again (and thanks again to Wikimedia Commons):

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Nothing to see here, folks, just an angel chopping a dude’s hands off, as the dude reaches creepily for the cushion/nimbus thing.

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This one is my favorite, though, because of the dramatics. A lot of times in icons, we find a very formal, static and numinous gaze and pose in all the subjects; there isn’t much movement or strong emotion. And this is fine, because icons aren’t just ordinary paintings. To gaze upon an icon is more like reading a language than looking at an illustration. The formality is part of the code.

In this one, however, the man who’s just had his hands chopped off is emoting like something out of Star Wars. The angel still looks totally nonchalant, as they do. Also, the angel appears to be wearing Ugg Boots.

So, why is there a man getting his hands chopped off by an Ugg-Booted angel in the Dormition Icon?

I can answer you in one word: Tradition.

There is a traditional legend, which I just found out about and which has just become my favorite traditional legend about the Dormition of the Theotokos. It is said that, as the Theotokos was passing away, a man tried to turn the mattress over. Why did he try to turn the mattress over? Well, he wanted to get close to her. Very close indeed. He was curious, you see. He wanted to lift her *ah-hem* veil, to see if she was truly, physically an intact virgin or not. Faith was not enough; he needed proof and he was planning to violate the Theotokos to get it.

It didn’t work out for him. Just as he reached for the mattress, an angel from Heaven swooped down and chopped off both his hands. A similar thing is said to have happened at the Nativity, but that’s another story.

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Suddenly I have a new favorite angel.

I’m going to call him “Holy Angel None-of-Your-Business,” and I’m going to ask his assistance all the time.

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I move that we all do. I move we make him into a meme. The next time somebody questions my virtue as a non sequitor in a Facebook argument, I’m going to mutter a quick prayer, and post a pic. The other day when somebody said I only speak for rape victims because I “gave away my virginity like a concert flyer,” I didn’t have a snappy comeback. Now I do. I have a meme. We all have a meme we can slap on a discussion as soon as an ad hominem argument of any kind comes up. We also have a patron.

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I love our church so, so much.

No one needs to believe in Holy Angel None-Of-Your-Business, and nobody needs to believe in that particular legend if they don’t want to. It’s not doctrine. But I like it. I think we should always look for the truths weird little legends tell.

Are we too eager for proof of things unseen? Do we get so lurid and excited at the idea of miracles, that we forget to attend to the invisible miracles always present in the sacraments? Has the focus of our faith become signs and wonders, rather than Christ? Have they become our idols?

How does this lead us to treat people?

Do we see people as instruments? Do we only love them insofar as they can prove their virtue? Has this gotten to the point that we totally dehumanize them without realizing it? That we don’t even recognize when we’re acting like creeps? That we’d molest the Blessed Mother if we thought we could get information out of it?

Lord, have mercy. I  think we’re all a bit like that sometimes. That gives us plenty to think about. If Holy Angel None-Of-Your-Business doesn’t technically exist, there are a host of others who do, and may all the Bodiless Powers intercede for us.

Happy feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos to one and all.

 

Note: A few days after Mary wrote this we learned that Holy Angel None-Of-Your-Business is traditionally identified as St. Michael the Archangel.

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