Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Mother of God Icon The Virgin Platytera

July 28th, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously in this series: here

Virgin Orans Great Panagia*

ca.1224, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

“For he who before all time radiated from the Father, the only begotten Son, it was he who was born of you O Pure One, and miraculously became flesh. He who by nature is God, also by nature became man for our sake.”**

This Marian icon type is a version of the Kyriotissa type, its reference being the Incarnation. Platytera means “spacious” or “wider than” and, of course, refers to the fact that Mary, a human being, contained in her body He who cannot be contained.

This type is the most abstract of Marian images. The Christ Child is depicted in a sharply defined  medallion shape on Mary’s chest. The shape symbolically represents the sense of containment in Mary’s womb as well as holding that which cannot be held. It appears as an insert in the image and explains the reason for another title of this icon type, Our Lady of the Sign. The inspiration for the image comes from a text in Isaiah (7:14):

“The Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

The facial expressions are serious; the poses frontal and approximately symmetrical. The Virgin in this category of Marian icon often stands on a regal cushion or decorated riser, substitutes for a throne. The folds of Mary’s robe behind the medallion imitate those of a curtain or drapery meant to enshrine the medallion.

Two interesting details in this particular icon from the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow both unite the Child with His Mother and yet extend His presence beyond her.  Notice that the Child’s arms visually seem to connect the curved lines of the tops of Mary arms to make one complete sweep or downward arch that seems to hold the medallion’ shape to the Mother, uniting Mother and Child. Also notice, however, that the Child’s hands reach out beyond the borders of the medallion suggesting the “wider than” or “spacious” attribute of divinity -cannot be contained.

There is yet another interesting aspect to this composition that reinforces the theme of the Incarnation. There are four circles in the top half of the design that form an inverted triangle the apex of which is the medallion as if to suggest the descent of divinity from heaven into the body of Mary.  Even the angels at the top two corners seem impressed that such a thing could happen. Mary’s arms help emphasize the downward movement.

The “sign” shape and stylized rendering of forms presents us here with a universal symbol of the Incarnation, not a natural portrait of a mother and child.

Orant figure from a 4th century pagan sarcophagus.

As the Virgin appears to be praying –her arms are extended outward- this icon type is also called the Virgin Orans. The title Orans (a person praying) comes from a type of non-narrative symbolic figure with outstretched arms we find in the catacombs and on sarcophagi (used in other situations, as well). Such figures –always female- were common in pagan imagery and were thought to symbolize filial piety. They were used, in funerary art, to represent the  human soul (also thought to be female) of a deceased person. The early Christians adopted the figure for the same symbolic reason. Some art historians are of the opinion that the so called “orans” (or orant) figure also symbolized the whole Church at prayer. For this reason, the Virgin Orans is sometimes understood to be Mary, in her role as image of the Church, bringing Christ to the world and interceding for mankind with her Son. Orans or orant are generic terms now often used to describe any person in life or art praying with outstretched arms.

*Panagia means “All Holy” and is often used when referring to Mary as Theotokos, “God Bearer”

** Dogmaticon from The Great Vigil, tone 6


Book Suggestions:

A History of Icon Painting by Lilia Evseyeva, et al. , Trans. Kate Cook, (Moscow, Grand-Holding Publishers, 2007)

The Mystical Language of Icons by Solrunn Nes, (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005)

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