Icons of the Virgin Mary

It is rare to see an icon of the Virgin in which she is shown by herself, without Christ present. This also illustrates an important theological point about human nature: we fully become ourselves through relationships. Our relationships are integral to our identity, which is why traditional Christianity has recognized only two “stable” states for the human person — marriage or monasticism. In both situations, the challenges of interacting with others are a catalyst for spiritual growth and increased maturity.

There are a variety of types of icons of the Virgin Mary. There are three types that are the most famous, known in Greek as:

  1. The Hodegetria, translated as “the One who points the way”

  2. The Orans, or “the Virgin of the Sign”

  3. The Eleousa, or “the Virgin of Loving Kindness”

All of these images show Christ as an infant with Mary, but each one has particular theological significance. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, authored a book called Ponder These Things which offers some beautiful, thought-provoking insights into these three main Marian icon types.

Factum

Though Islam prohibits the use of images in worship, when the prophet Muhammad destroyed the images he found in the Kaaba in Mecca, he left one image untouched — the image of the Virgin Mary, which he could not bear to deface. Similarly, when the Turks invaded Greece, they defaced many icons in the churches, but often left the ones of Mary intact.

Eleousa Icons

In the Eleousa, the infant Christ appears as almost any child — eagerly, desperately, even, seeking the loving attention of his mother. The infant Christ pushes his cheek against his mother, and she leans into him with a look of tenderness on her face. Her eyes are often shown with bags beneath them, perhaps to express the weariness of loving this child who was born to die. Whatever the bags beneath her eyes express in terms of theology, the image certainly resonates with the parents of any young children. The task of parenting is awesome and, at times, overwhelming.

In this icon, the infant Christ clutches his mother's veil in his fist in the same way any infant might grab onto his mother's clothing or hair, his face pressed to her cheek with the eagerness of a child seeking his mother's love. One leg seems to be digging into her, as if he is trying to climb up her side as small children love to do. The Virgin Mary holds the child close, gathering him up in her embrace.

According to Rowan Williams, this icon is not only an image of the tender love between Mary and Christ, but is also an image of God's seeking, eager, love for humanity. One can also view this icon as a reminder of Christ's searching, intense, personal love for every person in the world.

Orans Icons

In the Orans or “Virgin of the Sign” icon, Mary stands in prayer with her arms raised up and Christ is shown in her womb. Often, there are one or more seraphim surrounding Mary, expressing the presence of the angels in prayer and the mystery of redemption. This image has been considered for centuries to be an image of the Church, in which each person is called to “give birth” to Christ in their own way by faithfully responding to his call.

As Mary prays in the ancient tradition of the church with arms raised, we are reminded that through prayer God becomes present in our lives and in our world.

Sometimes in this image, the Virgin Mary will hold a shawl over her hands, which is symbolic of her protective veil over the Church. You will learn more about the Virgin Mary's veil in Chapter 12, because it is associated with one of the ancient apparitions of the Virgin.

Hodegetria Icons

The Hodegetria or “She Who Points the Way” style of icon originated in Byzantine times. This icon offers an effective balance to the concern some hold that churches that honor the Virgin Mary occasionally fall into idolatry. In this icon, the Virgin Mary holds Christ with one arm, but with her other arm she gestures toward him, as if to say, “Look to him.” In most icons of this type, Christ gazes at his mother and his hand is raised in blessing.

Icons for Parents

One of the moving things about this icon is how fully Christ and his mother engage each other. The icon seems to suggest that Mary is best known by the way that she points to or guides people to her son, while at the same time, one is better able to understand Christ in light of his love for his mother. In this icon, neither Christ nor his mother seem to call attention to themselves. Both draw the viewer in with their eyes, and each directs the eyes of the viewer to the other person, so that one's eyes move from child to mother and then back again to child.

Symbolism

One of the beautiful themes in icons of Christ and Mary is universal among parents and children. When children are small, they depend upon their parents, but as they age and grow increasingly independent, their parents tend to depend on them.

One of the most striking depictions of this role reversal can be seen in the icons from Mary's death, in which she is a small form wrapped in linen, held in the arms of her much larger son Christ. The burial shroud she wears closely resembles the swaddling cloths worn by the infant Christ. In a sense, she has become the infant and he has become the parent.

Images from Christ's infancy show him as a small child, leaning into his mother's arms. As much as Mary was the first person to embrace Christ in her own life, she is ultimately the one who shows us what it is to be embraced by Christ. These images demonstrate the cycle of life, which moves from dependency to interdependency and then back again to dependency.

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