Icon, Part 11b: Icon Types of the Theotokos

 
Hodegetria icon on the iconostasis of my own church

In Part A I gave an overview of just why Mary is so highly venerated in the Orthodox Church. In this second part I will show some of the major examples of her icon types, and what they each represent. This will not be exhaustive, of course, for styles and types have changed over the centuries, and some nations and regions have seen the emergence of different themes that have not gained as much traction in the wider Orthodox world. Each major type has a different message to convey about both the Theotokos and Christ (for her importance is a reflection of Christ), and so each will be found in a different context within either church or home.

There are certain common elements to how the Theotokos is depicted in all of her different icons. The first thing any viewer should note is that Mary always has three stars (or star-like flowers) on her cloak: one on her forehead, and one on each shoulder. The origin of this theme is so old that it is unclear, being even seen in early Christian frescos in catacombs. On these early pre-iconographic depictions a great amount of what is shown is symbolic in ways that later icons would not do – this was done at a time when Christianity was still persecuted, and was moreover spreading through people whose only prior religious knowledge was of the Roman pantheon. Keeping the artwork symbolic and somewhat abstracted both aided in its teaching, and in evading scrutiny when caught. In these early works, for instance, one will often see Christ depicted as “the Good Shepherd”, a beardless young man tending or carrying sheep. The three stars on Mary are likely a holdover from that time. These stars represent her past, present, and ever-virginity.

Mary’s cloak is usually red, and is covering over a blue tunic and kerchief. The blue garment is a sign of her humanity, while the red cloak shows that she has partaken of divinity through her carrying Christ, the God-Man, in her womb. Her cloak often has fringe or tassels on the sleeves, indicating royal status. This is in constrast to how Christ is usually shown, wearing a blue cloak over a red tunic – in this case showing how He has become man, but is still divine. Lastly Mary will usually have a nimbus around her face, just like all other saints, but instead of seeing a saint’s name written about her you will see the Greek letter “ΜΡ” and “ΘΥ” (an abridgment of “Mother of God”).  

Nearly all icons of Mary show her in relation to Christ. She is either holding Him as a young child, He is an adult. In icons where Mary is carrying the Christ-Child, He is often depicted holding a scroll of wisdom. It is rare that Christ is depicted as an infant, usually instead being somewhat older, and sometimes with an almost adult face. This is because Christ is God-incarnate and possessing wisdom and authority at even a young age. In the other icons, Mary will be seen usually gesturing towards Christ. Always our attention in these icons should be drawn to Christ. There are some icons that do not have Christ present, but He is always implied.

Note: While I give the Greek names for these icon types, the words in quotations afterwards are not always literal translations so much as more common names or approximations.

Platytera, or “More Spacious than the Heavens”

Platytera at Sts. Peter and Paul Chapel, at Antiochian Village

If you enter a very large Orthodox church, this may well be the first icon you even notice. Here is the Theotokos looking directly back at the congregation, with her arms spread wide in the old gesture of prayer called “Orans” (you can see an example of this in catacomb paintings*, and many Orthodox still use something of the gesture during certain prayers, especially the Lord’s Prayer). Hovering in her center you will see an icon of Christ, but neither as an infant or as an adult, holding a scroll in His left hand, and making a sign of benediction (blessing) with His left. The icon represents how Mary, a mortal, contained within her womb the uncontainable God, a cosmic paradox. God is greater than His creation, and yet Mary bore Him for a time. This is perhaps my favorite Marian theme for all that it conveys, and for the serenity of Mary. A warden at the largest church in our area also rather fondly describes it as an overtly missionary icon, for in the wide sweep of her arms in prayer she also welcomes all who enter. This is also sometimes called “Our Lady of the Sign”.

Russian Platytera at Museum of Russian Icons, MA
Platytera icon, painted by Mother Alexdra at Transfiguration Monastery, Ellwood City, PA

 

 

Hodegetria, or “She Who Shows The Way”

Hodegetria at Antiochian Village

This icon type show the Theotokos holding the Christ child, either on her left or her right side, and gesturing towards Him with her hand. Though Mary is always the larger figure in this icon form, she is always directing the focus of attention to Christ. Christ meanwhile is usually again holding a scroll, but rather than making a sign of benediction He is gesturing with 2 fingers, indicating that He is both fully God and fully Man. Mary’s gesturing to Christ is to say “He is the way,” just as Christ himself said in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” This icon type is very common on the iconostasis because of this apt message. Very often you will also see the phrase “Quick to Hear” written on the icon as well. If you recall from part A, and Mary’s ongoing ministry for Christians everywhere, the Orthodox frequently pray for intercessions from Mary, for as the Mother of God she is indeed quick to hear prayers.

Eleousa, or “Tenderness”

Late Byzantine icon at Museum of Russian Icons

In this type, Mary holding the Christ Child to her cheek in a motherly embrace, while the child is stroking or touching Mary’s own cheek. This is a much-beloved type frequently found on its own, and less frequently on an iconostasis. Very often Mary appears mournful in these icons as if she already has awareness of the coming crucifixion. Perhaps the most famous (and quite touching) example of this type is the Virgin of Vladimir. If you look closely, you’ll see Christ’s small hand on the back of her neck, reciprocating the tender embrace. This is an iconic style very often seen in homes, for this style is especially resonant with mothers. It is a very human portrayal.

At St. Gregory Palamas Monastery, Ohio

Deesis, or “At the Cross”

Deesis at Antiochian Village, 16th century

In the Deesis icons, Mary is gesturing towards the crucified Christ on the cross, and she is visibly mourning. The Deesis is one of the few iconographic depictions of Mary where she is sometimes featured alone. It is not uncommon, especially on large iconostases, to see Mary in Deesis as but one panel among several in one of the upper tiers of saints, gesturing towards Christ at the center.

Panachranta, or “The All Immaculate”

This type is very similar to the Platytera in form, except that Mary’s is seated on a throne and holding the Christ child, instead of reaching her arms out in prayer. The message of the icon is otherwise much the same as the Platytera type, conveying that Mary contained the Uncontainable God.

Panachranta at Mt. Sinai, 5th or 6th century

The Burning Bush

“The angel of the LORD appeared to him in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush; and he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was not consumed.” (Exodus 3:2) (NASB) (Kindle Locations 1882-1884). The Lockman Foundation. 

As with the Platytera icon above, this is another expression of the marvel at how Mary, a normal mortal human female, could contain the Uncontainable God within her womb, and yet not be destroyed. As with the famous Burning Bush of Exodus, in which the Angel of the Lord appeared to Moses without the bush itself being consumed by fire, so Mary is frequently likened. This icon is frequently shown very stylized, instead of an actual burning bush, with two overlapping diamonds – red for the fire, and green for the bush – and Mary, holding Christ, at the center. Within the points of the red diamond, sometimes one may see the ancient symbols for the four gospel authors – a man for Matthew, a lion for Mark, an ox for Luke, and an eagle for John (these come from Revelation). Prophets may be represented in the green points, and the design can become very complicated in its depictions. 

Burning bush, from Museum of Russian Icons

Skepi, or “The Protection”

This last icon type differs from the others in that it depicts a major event that occurred centuries after Mary’s life. In the mid 10th century, Saint Andrew, the Fool for Christ (holy fools are something of a subject unto themselves), along with Saint Epiphanius, his disciple, in a prayer vigil in the Blachernae church in Constantinople (where, since the 5th century, Mary’s actual cloak and veil had been kept), witnessed the Theotokos open and descend through the dome of church, mystically spreading her veil over the entire city in a sign of her protection. Shortly after this, the city was saved from an invading Rus fleet. Since that time, Mary’s protection has been sought many times during invasions and wars. Today both St. Andrew’s vision, and a refusal by Greece to capitulate to the Axis in WWII, are celebrated in October, though on different dates.  

The icon shows Mary above the Blachernae church and holding her veil over her arms, with St. Andrew (usually just covered in a cloak, or wrapped in a sheet – fools often going nearly naked) and St. Epiphanius below. She is sometimes attended by the hosts of Heaven, including angels, and other scenes may be depicted below. Sometimes Mary is depicted alone too – this icon type can have a great number of variations.

Conclusion

As I said at the outset, this list is not exhaustive. Some of the types not discussed above were already covered in earlier essays (in particular the Nativity and the Annunciation). There are types, particularly in the 17th-19th century Russia, that I have not covered here – these tend to be more florid and imaginative due to Renaissance influence (I’ll put a few examples in the comments). Some of the Russian styles remain quite popular there, but have not necessarily been taken up by the rest of the Orthodox world with as much enthusiasm. The types discussed in this essay are the most common and ancient of themes.

Sources

At Transfiguration Monastery, Ellwood City, PA

DeYoung, Stephen, https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/wholecounsel/2018/09/21/queen-and-mother/

Kimball, Virginia, Discovering the Way of Joy in Icons of the Mother of Christ, Joy in God Press, Westford, MA, Rev 2.031719

Maximovitch, John (Rose, Seraphim, Translator), The Orthodox Veneration of Mary, The Birthgiver of God, St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1978

Matthews-Green, Frederica, The Open Door, Paraclete Press, Brewster, MA, 2004

Matthews-Green, Frederica, Mary As the Early Christians Knew Her, Paraclete Press, Brewster, MA, Fourth Printing, 2017

Nouwen, Henri, Behold the Beauty o the Lord: Praying with Icons, Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame, IN, 2007

Vassilaki, Maria (editor), Images of the Mother of God, Ashgate Publishing, Burlington, VT, 2005

The Lockman Foundation. Holy Bible: New American Standard Bible (NASB), Kindle Edition

At Museum of Russian Icons

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hodegetria

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theotokos

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catacomb_of_Priscilla

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blachernitissa

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Our_Lady_of_the_Sign

https://orthodoxwiki.org/Panagia_Hodegetria

https://sttikhonsmonastery.org/stm11.html

https://orthodoxwiki.org/Theotokos_the_Unburnt_Bush_icon

https://orthodoxwiki.org/Protection_of_the_Mother_of_God

http://www.ec-patr.org/afieroma/churches/show.php?lang=en&id=02

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intercession_of_the_Theotokos

http://www.saintsophiadc.com/2013/10/agia-skepi-ohi-day-and-the-people-of-greece/

A woman praying, in the Pricilla Catacombs, 2nd or 3rd century

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There are 16 comments.

  1. SkipSul Moderator
    SkipSul Post author

    An 18th century icon from Syria

    • #1
    • June 22, 2019, at 8:18 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  2. SkipSul Moderator
    SkipSul Post author

    A 21st century icon at Transfiguration Monastery in Ellwood City, PA.

    • #2
    • June 22, 2019, at 8:18 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  3. SkipSul Moderator
    SkipSul Post author

    This is an interesting piece on one of the oldest icons to have survived.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blachernitissa

    • #3
    • June 22, 2019, at 8:19 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  4. SkipSul Moderator
    SkipSul Post author

    This type is called Pierced by 7 Sorrows, and is a type that emerged in Russia in the 17th or 18th centuries. Quite popular there.

    https://psalterstudies.wordpress.com/2010/01/29/seven-sorrows-chaplet/

    • #4
    • June 22, 2019, at 8:22 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  5. SkipSul Moderator
    SkipSul Post author

    I’ll note that I’m several weeks behind here, and am currently working on both The Ascension and Pentecost essays. But for the last 3 weeks I’ve been horribly busy, and so those are going to be really really late (Pentecost was a week ago now). But they are coming.

    • #5
    • June 22, 2019, at 8:23 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  6. SkipSul Moderator
    SkipSul Post author

    This is a really spectacular mosaic Platytera in Annunciation Cathedral, in downtown Columbus, Ohio. All of the icons in this church are either mosaic or stained glass.

    • #6
    • June 22, 2019, at 8:31 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  7. Front Seat Cat Member

    Outstanding presentation – !!

    • #7
    • July 9, 2019, at 4:35 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  8. Michael Brehm Member

    Skip, have you’ve heard of Jonathan Pageau before? He’s an Orthodox Icon carver who has a Youtube channel called The Symbolic World. He discussed the three stars or flowers on the Theotokos in one of his recent Q&A videos.

    If anyone has an interest in Christian Mysticism I highly recommend checking out his videos.

    • #8
    • July 10, 2019, at 6:19 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  9. SkipSul Moderator
    SkipSul Post author

    Michael Brehm (View Comment):

    Skip, have you’ve heard of Jonathan Pageau before? He’s an Orthodox Icon carver who has a Youtube channel called The Symbolic World. He discussed the three stars or flowers on the Theotokos in one of his recent Q&A videos.

    If anyone has an interest in Christian Mysticism I highly recommend checking out his videos.

    Oh definitely, yes. Pageau is great to watch (when I have time to watch anything). I haven’t watched that particular video yet though.

    Another good series is Bible Illustrated. They’re shorter (and sometimes a bit silly), but also quite pointed at times.

    • #9
    • July 10, 2019, at 6:44 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  10. Lucy Kline Member

    Michael Brehm (View Comment):

    Skip, have you’ve heard of Jonathan Pageau before? He’s an Orthodox Icon carver who has a Youtube channel called The Symbolic World. He discussed the three stars or flowers on the Theotokos in one of his recent Q&A videos.

    If anyone has an interest in Christian Mysticism I highly recommend checking out his videos.

    Jonathan Pageau and his family’s home and workshop were flooded out during a recent storm. A GFM page has been set up to help them rebuild: https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-the-pageau-family-rebuild?fbclid=IwAR0k0Cx5ohl3yzy1xiv34RBk2qLcOSYNsDm5UiCSgop9f8LSrVUJExKQfc8

    • #10
    • July 10, 2019, at 7:55 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  11. Lucy Kline Member

    Once again, thank you for your post! My baptismal name is Eleousa and I am always tickled to see any icons depicting Panagia Eleousa. Eleousa is a rather unusual name but some Greeks in the Peloponnese region are fond of it.

    Lucy

    • #11
    • July 10, 2019, at 8:01 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  12. Front Seat Cat Member

    In the biography of Michael O’Brien, Christian writer and painter, it was written that O’Brien was commissioned to paint some large panels that would go at the alter in a large church in Canada, where he’s from. They requested a modern Jesus – they wanted to take the redesign of their church and altar into modern times. He was appalled and refused, but his conscience kept nagging him, so he said ok after much prayer and reflection, but he painted in the above style, not modern – in the Orthodox style he likes. The congregation said they hated it!! But they installed them at the altar and after a few weeks, the congregation fell in love with them, and said they could not imagine anything else. They depict such peace. Amazing story.

    Which prompts the question, is sacred art literally a deterrent to evil?

    • #12
    • July 10, 2019, at 11:15 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  13. SkipSul Moderator
    SkipSul Post author

    Front Seat Cat (View Comment):

    In the biography of Michael O’Brien, Christian writer and painter, it was written that O’Brien was commissioned to paint some large panels that would go at the alter in a large church in Canada, where he’s from. They requested a modern Jesus – they wanted to take the redesign of their church and altar into modern times. He was appalled and refused, but his conscience kept nagging him, so he said ok after much prayer and reflection, but he painted in the above style, not modern – in the Orthodox style he likes. The congregation said they hated it!! But they installed them at the altar and after a few weeks, the congregation fell in love with them, and said they could not imagine anything else. They depict such peace. Amazing story.

    Which prompts the question, is sacred art literally a deterrent to evil?

    Wow. I could rabbit-trail a lot here. This is fodder for its own post, but I’ve not wanted to assay such an essay because of the difficulties. I can objectively describe what an icon is, the styles involved, the theological underpinnings, the techniques, the liturgical uses, the histories, and the beliefs surrounding them.

    What I cannot objectively get into is what they are, or what they may be. Here we leave the realm of the purely descriptive and enter into the transcendent. How far out are you willing to stretch your beliefs? Do you believe in miracles? And if you do, how do you even define the term “miracle”?

    In here I can only illustrate by anecdote…

    Have you heard of Wonder-Working icons?

    Last autumn, one special one came through my hometown. It is known as the Iveron Icon of Hawaii. If you want to be really technical, it’s not even a “real” icon, it’s just a copy, a high quality paper print laminated to a wooden board. The original of the type, the Iveron Icon of Montreal, was the real deal, painted (or “written” as they say) by a monk on Mount Athos in the 1970s, and given to a Canadian deacon there on pilgrimage. That prototype was also a miracle worker (though it vanished in the 1990s under very mysterious circumstances). But the one in Hawaii was just a printed photocopy of the by-then vanished original from Montreal.

    What was so unusual about both of them? The Montreal one, before it vanished, regularly exuded a highly fragrant oil that smelled very strongly of roses. The Hawaii copy started doing the same about a decade ago. It was just in the prayer corner of a police-officer’s home, and it still does so today. It now travels the world, and it continues to exude this fragrant oil (called myrrh). The myrrh is gathered and used to anoint the faithful, for blessing and healing. Actual miraculous healings are associated with these annointings – I saw one myself, and I’ve heard of others.

    While not in the way of overt miracles, Father “Bill” of Wisconsin tells here the way an icon of St. Nicholas brought him from Anglicanism into Orthodoxy.

    https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/frbill/124-how-saint-nicholas-founded-saint-nicholas-church-cedarburg/

    • #13
    • July 10, 2019, at 12:38 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  14. SkipSul Moderator
    SkipSul Post author

    Front Seat Cat (View Comment):

    In the biography of Michael O’Brien, Christian writer and painter, it was written that O’Brien was commissioned to paint some large panels that would go at the alter in a large church in Canada, where he’s from. They requested a modern Jesus – they wanted to take the redesign of their church and altar into modern times. He was appalled and refused, but his conscience kept nagging him, so he said ok after much prayer and reflection, but he painted in the above style, not modern – in the Orthodox style he likes. The congregation said they hated it!! But they installed them at the altar and after a few weeks, the congregation fell in love with them, and said they could not imagine anything else. They depict such peace. Amazing story.

    Which prompts the question, is sacred art literally a deterrent to evil?

    There’s a flip side to this too, now that I think about it. In the Caribbean there are some highly syncretic cults – generally called “voodoo”, but there are distinctions. A lot of them borrow Christian imagery, particularly of Mary, but use her in horrid ways.

    My wife was in Bermuda at a street market a few months ago, and she saw for sale what looked like an Orthodox icon of Mary, of one of the types listed above. But on looking at it more closely she said it was off, and very wrong somehow.

    Can sacred art deter evil? Can very un-sacred art carry evil? I know where I stand on the matter.

     

    • #14
    • July 10, 2019, at 2:28 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  15. Front Seat Cat Member

    Skip – go for it – it would make a profound post. It could be Part One to many parts.

    • #15
    • July 10, 2019, at 2:59 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  16. colleenb Member

    Great post. Thanks so much. My son (before two under 3-year olds arrived) has painted (should say written even if a lay person I suppose) some icons and taken a class too. I need to get your series to him, even if getting back to writing icons will not probably happen anytime soon. Again thanks. 

    • #16
    • July 11, 2019, at 9:51 AM PDT
    • 1 like