Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Kyriotissa Icon in National Gallery

July 24th, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously:  here and here and here

"Virgin and Child Enthroned", ca. 1290, National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Andrew W. Mellon Collection

This Kyriotissa type Marian image is one of those wedded to the Hodegetria type; the Mother sits on a throne (Kyriotissa) and presents the Child to us (“shows us the way” –Hodegetria). The Child raises his right hand in benediction and holds a book in his left. *

The throne in this case is reminiscent of the Coliseum in Rome.  The left front edge of the throne overlaps the throne’s cushion and creates a spatial depth somewhat unusual in the Byzantine style. Rather than floating in front of the throne, Mary and the Christ Child actually appear to be seated in a niche. 

Two archangels are depicted in medallion shapes in the top corners and the background is, once again, the solid gold leaf symbolic of heaven. The figures are gracefully stylized: elongated, curved and delicate. The expressions and gestures are sweet and soft. The facial features of the Virgin reflect the mature Byzantine style: narrow eyes, a thin long nose, and small pinched mouth. 

Particularly noteworthy are the colors and lighting. The three primary colors red, yellow and blue dominate the composition but two secondary colors, orange and green, lend contrast and emphasize the Christ Child. Green is the opposite color from red on the color wheel; orange is opposite blue. The green color on the Child’s cloak is as the red color is on the Mother’s, and the orange of the Child’s tunic is as the Blue is on Mary’s. Such clever compositions are the result of a skillful use of the elements and principles of design by artists. In this case the use of colors and their proportionality and placement convey a harmonious, balanced, and peaceful feeling. The brilliance and intensity of the colors suggest nobility and are appropriate to the “enthroned” theme. 

Light glows from the forms in this icon, as it does in most Byzantine icons. It originates from the gold leaf background, explodes through the forms, exiting from points of protrusion or stress in sprays of gold lines. 

I like art historian James Snyder’s description of the upper half of the icon: 

“…but there are other mystical associations at work in the style here. The upper half of the panel is dominated by circular forms: the throne that encloses the Virgin, the perfect circles of Mary’s head and halo, those of the Child, and the circular medallions with the angels. This repetition of perfect circular forms evokes a gentle hypnotic response in the more sensitive worshipper and leads him slowly into a trancelike meditation.”** 

Like all icons this one is a “window into heaven.”

Heaven; our ultimate goal. Be encouraged!


*I love this icon. It is the first one I ever took a liking to. We have a very large print of it hanging in the entrance to our living room. I don’t think Pat is as fond of it as I am but she has tolerated its placement in the entrance for many years. We have a votive lamp hanging in front of it that she picked out when we visited Istanbul. 

**Medieval Art: Painting, Sculpture, Achitecture 4th-14th Century by James Snyder (New York, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1989) p155. (The customer review at Amazon refers to the book seller, not the book.) Other of Snyder’s descriptions of the icon on that page informed the content of this post. 

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