Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Mother of God Kyriotissa from the Sinai*

July 13th, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously in this series: Here

(left) "Mother of God Kyriotissa", 6th c., St. Catherine Monastery, Mt. Sinai, Egypt; (right) "Isis Breast Feeding Horus", ancient Egypt, Louvre Museum, Paris, France.

The earliest icons created in the East have nearly all been lost to the destruction wrecked during the iconoclast period. There are only a few still extent from the sixth century and one group of them is located in the Monastery of St. Catherine at the foot of Mt. Sinai, in Egypt. Probably because of their remote location from the center of the iconoclastic movement in Constantinople, they were spared. One from this group is the enthroned Mother of God icon shown here.

It was in Egypt “that the title Theotokos (God Bearer) originated, having been applied to the Egyptian goddess, Isis.” In the classical world, images of Dionysos and Herakles as children were included in worship but never shown with a mother. The Egyptian god Horus, however, was often depicted as a child in his mother’s (Isis’) lap or arms. The term Theotokos was “popularized by the Christian writer Origen” and became “shorthand” for the Incarnation. Cyril of Alexandria defended the term at the Council of Ephesus in 431 as representing the dogma of the two natures of Christ –human and divine- which was eventually defined at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

The throne of the Mother of God Kyriotissa was probably adopted from depictions of Isis who was usually shown holding and feeding her infant son while seated on a royal throne. In fact, the name, Isis, “seems to have meant throne. Her hieroglyph was a throne and she was the protector of pharaoh’s throne.” Christian iconographers adopted the Isis imagery as, certainly, Mary was more worthy to be depicted in such a regal manner. Not having a visual tradition of their own—Christian artists usually baptized selective pagan images. Some people seem shocked when they hear of the adaptation of pre-Christian imagery or practices in Christian worship. Such images and practices, however, are evidence of pre-Christian searching for the Truth which is Christ. Early Christian writers saw in Greek philosophy and religion and pagan religious practices and myths, a kind of second “Old Testament” revelation given by God to the Gentiles that was eventually fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

The above icon is 27 inches in height and painted with tempera on wood panel. The enthroned mother and child are guarded by two saints. The saints stare at us directly while standing stiff at attention. The child, too, looks out at us but Mary casts her eyes off to our right in somewhat of an attitude of detachment.  Two angels in the background, more conscious of the meaning of the Icarnation, turn their heads upward and look toward the hand of God entering the scene from the top.


Book suggestion and reference:

*Holy Image + Hallowed Ground: Icons from the Sinai, Nelson, Robert S. and Kristen M. Collins, eds., (Los Angeles, Getty Publications, 2007) pp 47-50

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