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.More