Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Mother of God Icon Kyriotissa

July 12th, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously in this series: Here and Here

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Mother of God Kyriotissa*

(The Most Holy Mother of God Enthroned)

A true religious icon (in the narrow definition of that term) provides us with a view into heaven. Through carefully constructed symbolism and deliberate stylization of forms, light and colors we are mystically transported into the spiritual realm. Such images are more than mere story telling or photographic portraiture. We find ourselves soaking in the richness and depth of our faith. It is the kind of immersion that weds doctrine (dogma) to experience.

The Marian icon Kyriotissa is such an icon. The child sits in the lap of the mother who sits upon a throne. The throne, of course, adds a regal tone to the setting and we feel as though we are perhaps being granted an audience in a throne room. The space is flattened by the solid gold background. The perspective lines of the back of the throne seem unnatural. Everything glows with light. We seem to be in a different dimension. The poses of the figures are formal and frontal; approximately symmetrical. The facial expressions are rather neutral; both look out at us with a captivating stare.

The atmosphere is dignified and solemn.

In You, O Woman Full of Grace, the angelic choirs and the human race, all creation rejoices, O Sanctified Temple, Mystical Paradise and Glory of Virgins, He, Who is our God before all ages, took flesh from You and became a Child, He made Your Womb a Throne and greater than the heavens! 1

We are exposed in this icon to a mystical comprehension of the paradox of the Incarnation. The Creator of the universe lets himself be contained in the womb of a woman. The only begotten of the Father, without a mother, is born as a man without a father. The throne of the divine child is his human mother’s lap!

How shall I give You milk, Who give food to all creation? How shall I hold You in My arms Who hold all things? How shall I look upon You without fear, on Whom the cherubim with many eyes dare not to lift their gaze? 2

The image encourages us. We are not lost. The redemption of the cosmos has begun and we look forward to its completion, the ultimate union between heaven and earth. This mystical vision assures us that our past has been let go, our present renewed, and our future glorious.

Let the creation cast off all that is old, when it sees you, the Creator, as a child. For through your birth you recreate all things, renew them, and lead them back to their original beauty. 3

(left) "The Virgin Nino"**, 4th century catacomb, Rome; (right) "The Adoration of the Magi"***, 5th century, Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome.

The Kyriotissa image appeared fairly early on in Christian art. There is a rather well known one, The Virgin Nino, from a 4th century catacomb in Rome. Most historians refer to the Council of Ephesus (431) when discussing this icon type as the fathers of that council declared “that the holy virgin is the mother of God (for she bore in a fleshly way the Word of God become flesh.)” She is the Most Holy Theotokos (God Bearer). The basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome was constructed to celebrate the council’s proclamation.  The original 5th century mosaics of the basilica include an image of the adoration of the magi in which Mary and the Child Jesus sit upon thrones.

In some versions of this icon type saints and angels fill the space all around the throne contributing to the feeling of a celestial vision. Two small saintly figures can be found in the top two corners of the icon that heads this post. In the West especially the formal symmetrical poses of the mother and child figures are replaced with the informal asymmetrical poses of the Hodegetria type, in effect combining the two types.

*    Image source: Icons Explained


*** mealsfromthegirlinthelittleblackdress.wordpre..

1 A portion of a Marian hymn by Basil the Great, as quoted in The Mystical Language of Icons, Second Edition by Solrunn Nes, (Grand Rapids, Eerdman’s, 2005) p51

2 Nes 51 (Matutin, 6, tone)

3 Nes 51


Book suggestion:

The Mystical Language of Icon, 2nd edition by Solrunn Nes, (Grand Rapids, Eerdman’s, 2005)

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