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.