Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Posts Tagged ‘Marian Types’

Breathing With Both Lungs

March 22nd, 2014, Promulgated by Bernie

There are many differences between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches but usually it is a difference of emphasis rather than (in my view) serious substance. Most often the differences are complementary. We need both views to understand more completely.

The most common subject dominating the apse wall behind or over an Orthodox altar is the Holy Virgin of the Sign or a slight variation of it –the Madonna holding the Christ Child in her lap. In Western (Catholic) churches the single most used subject is the crucifixion. Protestant churches almost always employ the plain cross.

view toward apse and iconostasis screen cropped

Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit, Rochester

Saint Stanislaus Catholic Church, Rochester

Saint Stanislaus Catholic Church, Rochester

The different imagery reveals the different emphasis each places on the same economy of redemption and salvation.

In the East it is the Incarnation as a whole that effects redemption. Man was redeemed when God took on human flesh, lived a human life in all respects except sin, suffered the worst death, and resurrected and ascended back to the Father. With the Incarnation, human flesh became capable of deification (sanctification). It became possible for man to enjoy eternal life with God in heaven.  The icon of the Incarnation in the East is the Virgin of the Sign or the Holy Virgin holding her Son in her lap. It is the Eastern iconic image of redemption.


“Mother Of God The Sign”

The Western Church does not believe something different but she most often chooses a specific moment, the moment of Christ’s horrible death, to symbolize the redemption. Catholics and Protestants emphasize an atonement theology as part of the Incarnation; that Christ paid for our sins through His sacrificial death. This is especially true in Protestant churches.


Westminster Presbyterian Church, Pierrefonds

Catholic churches, in addition to the crucifixion, have a very rich tradition of highlighting other images of redemption (including images of the “Virgin of the Sign”) behind or above the altar, such as scenes from the life of Christ and images of the sanctified –the saints.

"The Conversion of Saint Paul" Caravaggio, 1610, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome. Besides the Crucifixion Catholic chancel imagery often displays snapshots from the history of redemption or salvation.

“The Conversion of Saint Paul”, Caravaggio, 1610, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome. Besides the Crucifixion which is the most represented subject, Catholic chancel imagery often displays snapshots from the history of redemption or salvation. Here we see an analogy to that history; brilliant Divine light pierces the darkness of Paul’s pre-Christian life as Christ’s Incarnation deified fallen flesh.

The Eastern Church chooses to display as its most important icon in the church building an image that views redemption as a whole piece. In the Western tradition redemption appears as a crescendo climaxing in the sacrifice of the cross. Neither emphasis diminishes the importance of the other. We should see them as complementing each other  –“breathing with both lungs”.

We Westerners, especially Protestants, may be puzzled or even scandalized by the prominent emphasis of the Holy Virgin in Eastern Orthodox or Byzantine Catholic churches until we realize the meaning behind the icon.


Our Lady of Walsingham

April 15th, 2013, Promulgated by Bernie

With the spread of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter1 in North America it is no surprise that “Latin” Roman Catholics are becoming more exposed to the title of Mary as Our Lady of Walsingham.  The title comes from the appearance of the Holy Mother to an English noblewoman in 1061 in the village of Walsingham in Norfolk, England. Walsingham became a popular pilgrimage destination for both Catholics and Anglicans in England.  The affection for Our Lady of Walsingham is naturally strong among the Anglicans who have entered into full communion with the Catholic Church through the Ordinariate. That is true in the case of the Fellowship of Saint Alban2 which is the presence of the Ordinariate right here in the Rochester Diocese.

Anyway, I thought folks not too familiar with Our Lady of Walsingham might appreciate a post on the topic.

Thomas, is the official bearer of Our Lady of Walsingham's banner at the Fellowship of Saint Alban.

Thomas, is the official bearer of Our Lady of Walsingham’s banner at the Fellowship of Saint Alban.

The Fellowship of Saint Alban has a nice summary on its website’s homepage.

The appearance of Our Lady of Walsingham is one of the earliest Marian apparitions in history. Richeldis de Faverches, a noble widow living in Norfolk during the reign of Edward the Confessor, petitioned the Blessed Virgin to inspire her to a notable work of charity. In answer, Our Lady gave her a vision, taking Richeldis to the house in Nazareth where the Annunciation occurred. She instructed her to build a replica in Walsingham to commemorate Mary’s joy at the Angelic Salutation of Gabriel, the heralding of the Incarnation.

The Holy House became a shrine, a place of pilgrimage and miracles. Ballads were penned in praise of Our Lady of Walsingham, and many kings made pilgrimage there. This included…   (Read more here – scroll down when you get there)

statue_our_lady web



1         Catholics of Anglican heritage. The Ordinariate was established following the publishing of Anglicanorum Coetibus an Apostolic Constitution that allowed for Anglicans to enter the Catholic Church with their Anglican liturgical tradition. The Ordinariate is under the protection of Our Lady of Walsingham

2         The Fellowship of Saint Alban is devoted to the liturgical practice of the Anglican Use Liturgy in the Catholic Church.  Mass is at 3pm on Sundays at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Henrietta.  Directions can be found here.

Mary Shows Us The Way

March 14th, 2013, Promulgated by Bernie

IMG_3626_web name

Click on picture for a sharper image.

New Icon for UR Newman Community

October 22nd, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

"Mother of God" icon by Minhhang K. Huynh, UR Newman Catholic Community


One of our staff writers learned of the appearance of a new piece of liturgical art in our diocese. The UR Newman Community recently unveiled a newly created Marian icon.

The Community’s October 16 bulletin mentions that the Newman Community had started (in 1999) a small collection of images of the Blessed Mother from the many cultures of its students. The collection has grown to over 15 images.

The bulletin also explains that over seventy people were involved in the current selection and commissioning of a Marian image and the composition of a related prayer. Apparently, holy cards have been printed.

Well known local liturgical artist Minhhang K. Huynh was commissioned to ‘write’ a Byzantine/Eastern style icon. It is a stunningly beautiful work. Its prototype is the “Mother of God Eleousa (the Merciful)” or the “Mother of God Oumilenie (of affectionateTenderness).” From what Father Brian Cool, Director of Catholic Pastoral Care, wrote in the bulletin concerning the icon it seems the community wishes to stress Mary’s virtue of Mercy.

Mercy (Eleousa) and affectionate tenderness (Oumilenie) are two aspects of the basic Eleousa prototype.


Even though in both cases (Eleousa and Oumilenie) the faces of Mother and Child are touching affectionately, Eleousa and Oumilenie express two different aspects of the icon of the Mother of God: Eleousa refers to the virtue of Mary, mercy, Oumilenie refers to the sentiment experienced by the Child, following the intervention of his Mother, of affectionate Tenderness. The name Eleousa pertains directly to the Mother, whereas the name Oumilenie pertains to the Child.[1]

Among several ways the icon unites mother and child is the very nice alignment of contours that join the two figures into an intimate embrace of tenderness.

Father Cool added some personal observations on the icon in the Community Sunday bulletin:

“Honestly, my breath is taken away when I look at this image. Look at it from many angles. Ponder the subtle and the not so subtle. Pray with it and let it lead you to the sane devotion Mary had to Christ whom she holds so tenderly and close. …I believe this is the most significant project that I have been part of while here at Newman. It will inspire many for generations.”

A previous related post here.



Mosaic of Mary, “Mater Ecclesiae”

October 19th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

From Opus Dei

(Click on Picture to see a larger image.)

In an article published in “L’Osservatore Romano,” Javier Cotelo recounts how the mosaic dedicated to Mary, “Mother of the Church,” came to be placed in St. Peter’s square, in December 1981.

October 07, 2011
Javier Cotelo // L’Osservatore Romano

“One of the most recent architectural features in St. Peter’s square is the mosaic dedicated to Mary Mater Ecclesiae, inscribed with the words Totus Tuus, a sign of Blessed John Paul II’s immense affection for our Lady.

I had the privilege of knowing something about the origin of the decision to put up this mosaic, a reflection of Blessed John Paul II’s special relationship with young people and his deep sense of gratitude.

During Holy Week in 1980, Pope John Paul II received in audience several thousand young people who came to Rome for the UNIV Conference, an international meeting of university students who take part in activities at centers of Opus Dei throughout the world. This yearly event, which began in 1968, combines the desire to spend the Holy Week Triduum in Rome, the city of Peter, with activities of cultural enrichment for the students.

At the end of the audience, one of the young people there, Julio Nieto, told the Holy Father that among all …”

Read more

Mother of God Icon Galaktotrophusa

August 9th, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously here


Mother of God Galaktotrophusa (The Nursing Mother of God)

“…a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to Jesus, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!’”

But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”

(Lk 11: 27-28)

The Nursing Mother of God is a relatively minor subject in Christian art and Marian imagery but a rather persistent one. The earliest examples come to us out of Egypt during the Late Antique period. It has a certain heightened popularity during the medieval period but can be found at many other times as well. The visual archetypal origin of the image may be, as with the Virgin Kyriotissa, the enthroned Egyptian goddess Isis feeding her child, Horus.

It seems, like the Mother of God Eleousa, to stress Christ’s humanity and the intimate relationship between Mother and Child and therefore should be less dogmatic than the other Marian types. But St. Germanus of Constantinople (a great defender of the use of icons in worship) seizes upon that very intimate mother and child moment to make a dogmatic point:

“Christ did not just appear to be a man, like some kind of shadow, but he was really and truly a man.”

The image is, in fact, often interpreted in a dogmatic way. This is partly due to the exaggerated abstraction of the mother’s anatomy (in strict Byzantine iconic fashion) which suggests a metaphoric interpretation. The highly intimate relationship between mother and child is understood as a metaphor for the Church feeding the faithful spiritual food through the sacraments. The Church gives new life to believers through baptism and nourishes them through the scriptures and, in a special way, through the Eucharist. She comforts them and extends mercy to them in confession. In this metaphor, without the Church, the faithful cannot possibly survive. This is a very Catholic/Orthodox understanding of the role of the Church and stands in marked contrast to Protestantism.

This post brings us to the end of our brief look at the basic categories of the Mother of God icons. We will continue, from time to time, to look at some examples of Western as well as Eastern Marian images that can, generally, be placed in one or the other of those categories.

I hope you have enjoyed the series and -if you were not already familiar with the categories- are now better able to utilized the Marian icons as an aid to prayer.

Mother of God Icon Eleousa (Oumilenie)

August 4th, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

"Our Lady of Vladimir", ca. 1131, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

This Marian icon type is the most expressive of what we might think of as the normal relationship between a mother and child. Unlike the other, more dogmatic, icons of the Virgin and Child we have looked at (here), this one stresses the touching and typically deep attachment of a mother and child. Christ’s exalted status as the Divine Word is hardly apparent here. In fact, He seems as vulnerable and as much in need of His mother’s love and protection as any child. He snuggles up to her, nestles in her arms and nudges her cheek. He appears reluctant to leave her; she appears reluctant to share Him.

“But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a child quieted at its mother’s breast; like a child that is quieted is my soul.” (Ps. 131:2)

She seems pensive; perhaps she is recalling what the future holds for her son -and for her. 

Eleousa is a Greek word which means merciful; oumilenie is Russian and can be translated as mild, tender, loving, or compassionate. Even though under both titles the faces of the Virgin and Child touch affectionately, each title refers to different aspects or interpretations of the image. Under the title Eleousa the Virgin is understood as “the Merciful” while the title Oumilenie refers to the sentiment experienced by the Child –following the intervention of his Mother– of affectionate Tenderness. Eleousa pertains to the Mother, whereas Oumilenie pertains to the Child.

Christ sometimes referred to children in His teaching finding meaning in their trust and innocence.

“…unless you turn and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt. 18:5)


Suggestions for more information:

Icons Explained

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

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)

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. 

The Nicopeia of San Marco

July 20th, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

"Nicopeia" before (left) and after (right) theft of the icon's jewels

Byzantine school, first half of the twelfth century
(cleaning and consolidation, 1969,
in conjunction with the International Fund for Monuments)

(left) Chapel of the Nicopeia Madonna in the Basilica de San Marco, Venice; (right) detail of "Piazza San Marco" by Canaletto, Venice, c.1730-35

When Doge Enrico Dandolo returned from the Fourth Crusade in 1204, he brought with him many spoils from the horrible sacking of Constantinople. Among these were the famous Horses of San Marco and the Nicopeia Madonna. This icon had been carried in battle at the head of the Imperial Army. Venetians venerated the Nicopeia Madonna (“she who brings victory”) as protectress of their city and on solemn occasions they displayed her on Basilica de San Marco’s high altar. She had also been the protectoress of Constantinople before it was stolen by the Venetians. Both frame and image were encrusted with valuable jewels placed there as votive offerings. In 1970 a robbery resulted in the loss of the painting’s jewels. So warned, the procurators removed the rest of the jewels from the frame before those could be stolen. The image is not thought to be the original taken from Constantinople, but a copy painted over several times.

The Nicopeia (and others like it) is a version of the Kyriotissa type but without a throne and in a portrait format rather than full figure. It has much in common with the next category of Marian icon we will explore, the Mother of God Platytera type.


Image Sources:

Nicopeia images:…/ (the right image was edited by me)

Chapel of the Nicopeia Madonna in two picture panel:

The Kyriotissa of Hagia Sophia

July 16th, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously in this series here and here

Enthroned Virgin and Child

Apse Mosaic, Church of the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia), Constantinople, before 867

A mosaic image of the Enthroned Virgin and Child in the apse vault of the “Great Church” was perhaps destroyed and replaced with a simple unadorned mosaic cross at about the start of the iconoclastic controversy in 726. Certainly by 754 the old image was gone by order of the so called Iconoclastic Council that banned the use of all images save simple crosses in churches. The monks who defended the use of icons in worship were persecuted between 762 and 768. By the end of that period icons were no longer being produced in the traditional capitol of icon painting, Constantinople.

I won’t get into the arguments both for and against the use of images in Christian worship except to say that the argument that eventually prevailed rested upon the doctrine of the Incarnation. The Second Person of the Trinity –the eternal Logos- had become man in Jesus Christ; by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man. In the Incarnation, God was imaged in Jesus Christ. To deny the use of images of Jesus Christ and all other human images in worship is to deny the doctrine of the Incarnation.

The restoration of the icons on March 11, 843 is celebrated in the Eastern Church as “The Feast of (the) Orthodoxy.” The apse mosaic in Hagia Sophia of the Mother of God Kyriotissa was eventually restored. “The images which the imposters had cast down here, pious emperors have again set up” is the inscription that accompanied the restored image. In a homily delivered on March 29, 867, the patriarch Photius addressed the following words to the Virgin and Child in the apse:

Christ came to us in the flesh, and was born in the arms of His Mother. This is seen and confirmed and proclaimed in pictures… Does a man hate the teaching by means of pictures?…  Who is there who would not marvel, more from the sight of it than from the report (hearing about it)…? For surely, having somehow through the outpouring and effluence of optical rays touched and encompassed the object, it too sends the essence of the thing seen on to the mind, letting it be conveyed from there to memory… Has the mind seen? Has it grasped? Has it visualized? Then it has effortlessly transmitted the forms to the memory.

Why are so many of our churches today devoid of an important role for images? Why do we no longer visualize, grasp and hold “effortlessly” the Incarnation in our collective memory?


Picture Source:

Center picture of panel:…

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

Mother of God Icon Kyriotissa

July 12th, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously in this series: Here and Here

Click on images for a clearer display

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)

Protectress of the Roman People

July 7th, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

A Hodegetria type icon:

Protectress of the Roman People

(Attributed to St. Luke)

Possibly dating from as early as the 5th century but repainted to a large extent in the 13th century, this icon is the most important Marian image in the city of Rome.  It now hangs in the Borghese/Pauline Chapel of Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica. The title, Salus Populi Romani (Salvation –health or well-being– of the Roman People), was given to the icon in the 19th century and has its origins in the ancient pagan legal system in which the gods were asked for permission so the praetors could pray for the city.

The Pauline Chapel of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome. The icon is rather large as panel icons go measuring about 5 feet in height.

Pope St. Gregory the Great (ca. 540-604), as a story goes, carried the icon in procession through the streets of Rome to put an end to the plague which was ravaging the city. In answer to the prayers and sung litanies of the marchers, the air cleared and became fresh and sweet. Gregory then saw an angel standing on top of the castle of Crescentius wiping a bloody sword and sheathing it. The castle was henceforth called the Castle of the Holy Angel –Castel Sant’Angelo.

Castel Sant'Angelo with close-up of angel, Rome. Bridge of the same name stradles the Tiber River in the foreground.

Prior to 1240 the icon hung over the door to the basilica’s baptistery and was known as the Regina Caeli (Queen of Heaven). For the last five hundred years it has been considered a miraculous icon and became associated with the Jesuits’ Sodality of Our Lady movement. Salus Populi Romani is also said to be the source of the title Mater ter Admirabilis (Mother Thrice Admirable) used for the Blessed Virgin Mary  within the Schoenstatt Marian Movement.

We can see that this icon is of the Hodegetria category of Marian icons. The Christ Child holds a book in his left hand and blesses with a raised right hand. He looks at his mother who, in turn, looks out at us. Mary appears rather self assured in this icon and, unlike later versions (after the 10th century), rests her hands on the child’s knee rather than appearing to point to him. She holds a mappa or mappula in one hand which was a ceremonial napkin type cloth symbolizing consular status and, later, imperial dignity; thus the title, Queen of Heaven –Regina Caeli.

This icon has enjoyed special papal devotion. Pope Pius XII, a native of Rome, celebrated his first Mass in front of this icon. Popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI have honored the image with personal visits and liturgical celebrations.


Resource suggestion:

A History of Icon Painting: Sources, Traditions, Present Day by Lilia Evseyeva, Natalia Komashko, and others; translated by Kate Cook, (Grand-Holding Publishers, Moscow 2007)

Our Lady of the Passion icon examples

July 2nd, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

Continued from Mother of God Our Lady of the Passion icon

–Click on images for larger, clearer images–

 1                       2                       3

These images have been removed with apologies to Vlad Rogalsky for publishing number 4 without permission.

4                       5                       6

7                      8                       9


Picture sources:


2. The Virgin of the Passion – Sts. Vladimir and Olha Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, Winnipeg, MB; icon is displayed over the table for the preparation of the gifts.

3. Icon of Our Lady of the Passion: this icon hangs outside a high school’s main office and is a painted wood carving.

 #s 4-6 images removed

7. Icon, Ank Landwier – Boone Kamp

8. Lost source

9. Anna Terentieva, Iconographer

Mother of God Our Lady of the Passion icon

June 30th, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

(also known as Our Lady of Perpetual Succour and Our Lady of Perpetual Help; )

Previously in the series: Mother of God Icons: Virgin of Hodegetria

–Click on image for a larger, clearer display–

Our Lady of the Passion

Ank Landwier – Boonekamp, Iconographer (1944-1993)

Attired in mortal flesh and fearing fate doth gaze upon them in trepidation”

(Text in the margin of the original archetypal icon.)

This is one of the more traditionally popular images among Catholics of Madonna and Christ Child icons. Depicted is the very human reaction of the child Jesus to a premonition of his passion symbolized by the two angels. In the upper left corner is the Archangel Michael carrying the lance and sponge of the crucifixion of Jesus. In the upper right is the Archangel Gabriel carrying a 3-bar cross, and nails. Jesus has fled to his mother, jumping into her arms; a sandal has fallen off one of his feet. The child looks anxiously at the vision, clasping the hand of his mother with both of his hands. Solemnly, she looks out at us.

Gabriel, who announced and explained the Incarnation to Mary explains the meaning of the cross to her son in this image. His human reaction is to seek comfort and assurance from his mother. Both angels, however, hold the objects of the passion with covered hands, symbolizing that they hold holy things. In a type of time warp, they have retrieved the instruments of torture from Golgotha on Easter morning. The instruments are actually symbolic here of victory over sin.

We can see that this is a variant of the Hodegetria icon except the child looks neither at us or his mother, and he does not hold a book or scroll or raise a hand in blessing as he so often does in the pure Hodegetria type icon. Angelos Akotantos had introduced this Mother of God Passion iconic theme into icon painting on the island of Crete in the second half of the 15th century. With the fall of Constantinople in 1453 Greek icon painting lost its center, many artists going to Crete which belonged to Venice. In this way these painters got into contact with Western painting and especially Italian influences. Cretan icons were often imported to Europe at that time where they became widely popular among westerners. Italian Andreas Rico and his sons made this image type popular in Europe after producing many copies of the original. Influenced by Western art Mother and Child wear a crown on their heads. Strictly speaking, this is against iconographical principles, which do not admit any distraction of attention from essentials.

The mother renders comfort and protection to her son under the title of Our Lady of Perpetual Help while the title Our Lady of the Passion suggests her own anticipation of suffering and passion in union with her son. She is an example for all of us.

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Lk 1:38)


*Image source: Icon

A successful contemporary Hodegetria sculpture

June 26th, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

Continued from Cathedral’s Hodegetria sculpture

Let’s take a look at this sculpture and try and answer the two questions I proposed in the last post. The first question addressed the success of the image as a faithful presentation of the Virgin Hodegetria type. The second question –more difficult– asked if the image shows a world that has been restored –does it offer us the hope of divinization?

While gazing at us Mary holds up her baby for us to see. He sits on her right arm while she holds him steady with her left hand. Her left arm and hand act as a visual arrow pointing to the child. The child is shown as the savior of the world –the redeemer– for his arms are outstretched as they will be on the cross, the Christian symbol of redemption. Divinity and holiness are indicated by the traditional halos. The red cross inscribed on the child’s halo makes his identity and sacrificial role clear. The artist has skillfully manipulated the elements of art (line, shape, form, value/tone, color, texture, and space) to indicate the close relationship between mother and child. Notice that the lightest value in the color scheme –the white of the child’s robe and the shoulder veil of the mother–  forms a common ground or field. Squint and you will see what I mean.

Notice also that the artist uses a principle of design, movement, to unify the child with his mother. The movement begins at the child’s right hand, moves across to his left hand, up the veil on the mother’s left side, around and down the head, terminating near the child’s head at the mother’s collar. The halos, not by accident, overlap. The heads of the two incline inward, toward each other. Yes, this image successfully depicts the Hodegetria type Mother of God icon.

But does the image show us a redeemed world? Does it hold out for us the hope of an eschatological perfection? Is Mary represented as she now is in heaven? All Christian liturgical art must represent the world in glory as it will be after the Second Coming of Christ because that is our Christian hope. A world represented as it is, in a fallen state, does not offer us hope but leaves us stuck where we are, without hope.

Let’s see. Notice that Mary’s robe is lined with precious gold while the outer surface is a gorgeous brilliant blue; sacred colors. The gold echoes the gold of her halo. The three colors in this work are intense red, intense yellow and intense blue.  Those three colors are equally spaced on the traditional color wheel. A design that limits itself to three colors equal distant from each other on the wheel is often employed by artists to indicate harmony, balance, well-being and perfection; heavenly peace and serenity.  Also, Mary’s day-to-day clothes were probably relatively rough in texture compared to what we see here. These appear soft, shimmering and comfortably flowing. The significance of the decorative band of Mary’s robe is not lost on us. We see golden lilies which are Mary’s flower of purity and the traditional flower symbolizing the resurrection; resurrection to a life of divinization. The human images here are not realistic but stylized or abstracted to indicate grace and a spiritual otherworldliness. Mary’s glance is a peaceful gaze and not an anxious glare. Her pose is a graceful sway.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners!


Book suggestions:

Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy by Dennis R. McNamara, (Hillenbrand Books)

Art in Focus by Gene A. Mittler, (Glencoe/McGraw-Hill). This is the best textbook for an introduction to understanding art history, art appreciation and art criticism. It is written for high school students but is terrific for any audience. If you always wanted to learn the basics this is the book for you. The 2000 edition is the one I used with my classes just before I retired but I had used all the earlier editions since it first came out. I have not looked at the 2006 edition. (Get the teacher wrap-around version if available it has even more good information.)

Cathedral’s Hodegetria sculpture

June 23rd, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

Continued from A contemporary Hodegetria icon

Here is the Mother of God statue at Rochester’s Sacred Heart Cathedral. Compare (or contrast) it with the icon in the last post and with the one’s from the 15th and 16th centuries. What is your reaction to this one?

All of the icons we have looked at beginning with the Eastern Orthodox prototype, the 15th and 16th century western variations, the Christmas card design, and this cathedral sculpture should communicate the doctrine or meanings of the Hodegetria icon, namely:

–that Mary knows the way and presents the way to us

–that the “way” is the eternal Logos, the Word of God, and Redeemer of the world;  Jesus the Christ

Now, I used the word “should” but there is no written canon or rule for representations of divine or holy persons in the Western Church. In the East the canon is always the original and miraculous prototype –that is the “written” canon for them. The West underwent a liberalizing development –the Renaissance– which gradually moved religious imagery into naturalistic expression and away from the Eastern/Byzantine icon spiritual style.

The requirements of icons/religious images for use in the Liturgy

(You could rightly argue that the above sculpture is a devotional image and not meant to be a liturgical one. The requirements are, indeed, different. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument that it is intended to be a work of liturgical art. The purpose of this post is to see if we can establish a way of judging art for use in support of the Sacred Liturgy.)

What Gregorian chant is to the Western Church the Icon is to the Eastern. Both seem to be the result of Divine intervention as they fit so perfectly with the Liturgy –the “Divine Liturgy” as the Mass is called in the Byzantine Rite. Neither chant nor icons fit into any other human activity. Hear the one or see the other and you are immediately transported into the spiritual realm. There is nothing profane about them and yet both make use of the natural world: the human voice and human imagery.

As I inferred in an earlier post, the development of naturalism in the West presents a challenge for it risks upsetting the balance between the physical and the spiritual by favoring the physical.

What’s this “balance” I’m referring to, you might ask? It was disclosed to Peter, James, and John on Mt. Tabor, in the Transfiguration. At that moment the three were able to “see” all aspects of the Glory that is the Incarnated Son of God. Further, they were able to see their own futures for they, too, would become living Icons of God through a lifelong process called theosis (deification).

Icons (religious art) for use in the Liturgy (which is the limited and yet real experience of the heavenly Liturgy) must meet this requirement: somehow the imagery must represent a world restored with divine life.

Mary, then, must always be represented as she now exists in heaven, as also all the saints and angels. That is the hope of Christianity, a completed process of divinization.

Now look at the cathedral sculpture, above, again. Examine it by answering two questions:

  1. Does it communicate the doctrines a Hodegetria icon should represent?
  2. Does it communicate a world that has been restored –does it offer us the hope of divinization?

Has your opinion of the sculpture been changed or confirmed?

Ask yourself the same two questions while examining the sculpture shown below.

Mother of God Hodegetria, St. John Weston Anglican Church, England


Book suggestion: Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy by Dennis R. McNamara, (Hillenbrand Books)

A contemporary Hodegetria icon

June 22nd, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

Continued from Variations on the Mother of God Hodegetria Icon

also from: Mother of God Icons: The Virgin Hodegetria

and from: Icons of the Mother of God

In the last post of our little introduction into the Icon type titled the Virgin Hodegetria we looked at some Western variations from the 15th and 16th centuries. While researching this series I ran across an image that is a contemporary interpretation of the basic Hodegetria Virgin (loosely based on the Hodegetria type). It is an illustration for a Christmas card by an artist who seems to specialize in fantasy imagery. I’ll let the artist speak for himself:

This is a Christmas card that I was contracted to do…   The point of the card was to create an image of Mary and Jesus while adding an Irish taste in the vein of the Book of Kells. I’ve always liked traditional Christian art, so I wanted to try to do an “old meets new” kind of thing. The card was supposed to have gold leafing with the halos of Jesus and Mary, but that didn’t happen, much to my dismay.     … I hope you enjoy the picture and have a very merry and blessed Christmas!!

Christmas Card Design by Parker Fitzgerald*

Can we examine this image from the standpoint of a Virgin Hodegetria icon? Does it convey the Madonna as “the one who knows/shows the way?”  Is Christ’s humanity and divinity suggested? If so, how is it suggested differently than in the prototype? Are we drawn into a relationship with Mary? How does she appear to us and what is our reaction?

Finally (getting to that “whole other” subject), would this image work as a liturgical work of art? Why or why not? Could it function above and behind the altar or perhaps somewhere else in the church? Should it be in a church at all?  If not, what would we have to change to make it work?

*The artist’s website: or ninebreaker


Book suggestion: Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy by Denis McNamara, (Hillenbrand Books)

Variations on the Mother of God Hodegetria icon

June 21st, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

continued from Mother of God Icons:The Virgin Hodegetria and Mother of God Icons

Within each category of Mother of God icons we can find numerous variations, more so in the Western Church than in the Eastern. Recall that faithful copying from the prototype is of paramount importance in the Eastern Church. I shall not get into the rather long explanation for that tradition except to reinterate that miraculous powers are usually associated with original images; therefore, faithful copying extends the grace to the newer images. Artists in the West eventually pursued a much more naturalistic approach to religious imagery. Increasingly, personal interpretations by artists began to play a role. You can judge for yourself as to whether that was a good or bad development. It was certainly a far more challenging approach as far as what should or should not be used in the service of the Liturgy. That’s a whole other subject.

Below are some variations in the category of the Mother of God Hodegetria icons (“She who knows/shows the way”). You might want to try to determine how each artist has tried to express the concepts we briefly explained when looking at the Virgin Hodegetria icon in the previous post.

As always, click on the image for a larger, clearer display.

“Madonna and Child”

Left: Fra Angelica (b.1395-d.1455); Center: Raphael (ca. 1503);

Right: Domenico Ghirlandaio (ca. 1470-75)

“Madonna and Child”

Giulio Romano (ca. 1523); a pupil of Raphael

“Madonna and Child”

Left: Duccio (1293-1305); Center: Michelangelo (ca. 1501-05);

Right: Carlo Crivelli (perhaps 1480-86)


Picture credits:

Raphael Madonna – Norton Simon Museum of Art, Pasadena, USA.

Ghirlandaio Madonna -National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Fra Angelico and Romano Madonnas – Art Experts Website. 1 January 2010. Art Experts, Inc. June 19, 2010

Michelangelo Sculpture – Vrouwekerk, Bruges


Crivelli Madonna – Pinacoteca Civica, Ancona