Icons of the Mother of God

The Theotokos and Christ

Modern Icon of the Theotokos

Besides Christ, the basis of all iconography, no other subject has been more depicted than Mary, the Theotokos (Greek for “Mother of God”, literally “God-Bearer”). It shouldn’t be surprising: no human being resembles Jesus Christ more than His Mother. We can certainly look to her as an example of what it means to be “Christ-like”.

The tradition of the Orthodox Church maintains that the first iconographer was the evangelist Luke, and that the first icon he painted under divine inspiration was of the Mother of God holding the Christ-child. Just like the icon of Christ Pantokrator, icons of the Son of God with His Mother are powerful testimonies to the reality of God’s incarnation as a human.

Mary is shown wearing a veil typical of Jewish women of the period, an historical fact no doubt, but which also reveals to us her humility and piety. The veil is red, the colour of divinity, whilst the clothes under the veil are green or blue, the colours of humanity. This is the exact opposite of the usual depiction of Christ: Who has humanity worn upon His eternal, divine, nature. As the evangelist Luke records, the angel Gabriel said to Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the Power of the Highest will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35) And so this is shown in Mary’s veil.

Also upon her veil are three stars, which represent her eternal virginity: before, during, and forever after Mary’s pregnancy she remained a pure virgin. Much could be said on this subject, and much could be brought forward to support this teaching, but this is not the subject of this post or this site. Suffice to say that the ever-virginity of Mary is dogma within the Orthodox Church that is even proclaimed in its artwork.

On this icon, and many more, Mary looks directly at us, yet with her hand she directs us to the Infant she is holding. That Infant is identified to us as Jesus Christ (abbreviated as IC XC), Who even as a child is shown with a scroll, embodying all the wisdom of the true God. His halo contains those three Greek letters meaning “I AM”, testifying to His divinity, and even as an infant His right hand is shown giving a blessing.

This icon is of Mary, without doubt. It shows us her humility, her piety, her tenderness, and the sorrow she endured. Properly inspired and painted, an icon of Mary can truly reveal her love for us, and draw us closer to her. Yet when we are drawn to her, where does she lead us? The word by her right shoulder is “Hodigitria”, which means “guide”, and her hand is clearly guiding us to her Son. He is shown as truly divine, truly wise, and truly the source of all blessings. Above her head are the letters “MP OY”, an abbreviation of the Greek: “Mater Theos” – the Mother of God. Yet even this grand sounding title tells us more about the nature of her Son, Jesus, than about Mary herself and so once again leads us back to Christ. This is what we know about Mary and why we love her: through her we receive her Son, the Saviour of mankind, God in the flesh, Jesus Christ. The icons of Mary embody this teaching and this love.

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13 Responses to Icons of the Mother of God

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  4. Shouldn’t be blue the color to express divinity instead of red? I’ve read elsewhere something like that and now can’t be sure…

    • iconreader says:

      Hello Cecilia:
      I’ve read both! The first thing to say is that colour is a tricky thing in icons, as different places at different times had different colours available; only very recently have colours in painting (and printing, dying etc.) become standardized. So even though blue could symbolize divinity, what happens when/if the bright blues fade to a dark green? Anyway, I talk more about that in another post:

      http://iconreader.wordpress.com/2011/06/22/the-100-non-definitive-guide-to-colour-in-icons/

      As I said, for the colours of the Mother of God’s robes (and also Christ’s robes), I have heard two versions, each of which could be true:

      Blue = Divine/Heavenly (the sky); Red=Humanity(blood)
      Here, the Mother of God wearing red on top of blue symbolizes Mary, who is human/red, carrying Christ, Who is Divine/blue, within her.
      Similarly, Christ wearing blue over red symbolizes humanity/red being clothed with Divinity/blue that comes through the Incarnation.

      The alternative is:

      Red = Divinity (flame, like the Seraph who are closest to God); Blue = Humanity/creation (being a form of green, which is the colour of creation and nature)
      Here the Mother of God wearing red over blue garments symbolizes the overshadowing of God’s grace which came with the Annunciation.
      Similarly, Christ wearing blue over red symbolizes Jesus, as truly divine (red) taking on human flesh (blue) in the Incarnation.

      So… take your pick!

      It may be that both are right, and that perhaps the first explanation is true when a blue coak is used, and the second is true when the clothing is red and *green*.

      What is most important, however, is that if Christ and the Mother of God are shown together – for example on an iconostasis – then their clothing should be complimentary i.e. Blue/Green over Red for Christ and Red over Blue/Green for the Theotokos.

      Hope this helps, rather than confuses.

      • It really helps! Thank you! ^_^

      • Mario says:

        About the colors of the robes – your first wersion is correct. Yesterday I talked with priest from our church, which we call a swiaszczennik about some issues regarding the Ikons and he tod me about the robes. Today I am reading this comment and I had to respond regarding this isue of the robe. God bless you all.

      • geloruma says:

        I have read that red was the colour worn by virgins in biblical times, so that could be another reason for red.

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  6. Atticus says:

    Thank you for your postings which I have only now (March 2013) discovered. I like the fact that you use the name “iconreader” since icons are written and not painted.

    Having seen many representations of Mary in both Western and Eastern Christianity it appears to me that in the Catholic West she is most commonly depicted with a blue veil and the color blue is associated with her. In Orthodox Christianity, royal purple (Tyrian purple–a deep red or crimson) is the color of her veil. Also, forgive me, but as a classicist who knows Greek I think it best to point out that the abbreviation for “mother of God” is from the Greek ΜΗΤΕΡ ΘΕΟΥ (ΜΡ ΘΥ and not MP OV).

    • iconreader says:

      Thank you for the correction, Atticus; I have made the appropriate changes in the post.

      You’re right about the different colours in the west and the east, and I believe the difference in both cases is down to the expense of the dyes used. In the west, the blue used for the Mother of God’s veil was expensive, and so its use honours her. In the east, it is Tyrian purple that is expensive and rare – so rare that only the emperors were allowed to wear robes of that colour. That is why it was used for the robes of the Mother of God, as well as Christ Himself.

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  8. geloruma says:

    Thank you all for this, I am about to make an Icon of Mary Undoer of knots for a local R.C. church – In the byzantine form. I need all the help I can get, I love this site, thanks for continuing with it.

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