Tag: theotokos

Icon, Part 11a: The Theotokos

 

During this long break of the Paschal season, which ends with the Ascension, I thought I would turn to another iconographic theme post, similar to my essay on why we have icons in the first place, and specifically of Christ, and discuss what may be the most popular icon type (in terms of numbers of icons): The Theotokos, Mary, the mother of Jesus. Next to Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, no other person is so highly venerated within Orthodox or Catholic churches. Due to the length of this subject, this essay will be in two parts. In the first part, I discuss why she is so highly esteemed, from both historical / traditional reasons, and from experiential reasons. In the second part I will present a sampling of the major forms her icons take, and by what names they are called.

At the outset it bears noting that, outside of Orthodoxy and Catholicism, Mary is rather a controversial figure. Within the Protestant churches, aside from the more liturgical Lutherans and Anglican / Episcopalians, Mary is rarely mentioned aside from Christmas, and traditional understandings of Mary (that she had herself no further children, that she was far younger than Joseph, and that she was taken up bodily like Enoch) are disputed. This is somewhat surprising as both Martin Luther and John Calvin esteemed her greatly, and for all else over which they broke with Rome, on these they remained in agreement. For inquirers into either Orthodoxy or Catholicism, the veneration of Mary remains stumbling block – not just for the imagery all over the churches, but for the liturgical prayers and entire feast days dedicated to Mary. For anyone coming from a church where In Christ Alone is a popular praise song, encountering Mary face to face is jarring, and may feel heretical or bordering on pagan. This need not be the case.

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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.

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Ave Maria: Venerating the Brave Virgin, and her Consent

 

Warning: Including some crass humor in the description of a Great Christian Mystery is intended to drive home just how extraordinary a woman Mary must have been, as well as the extraordinary — indeed quite odd — nature of the mystery involved.

Ave Maria, gratia plena… Hail Mary, full of grace… These words, whether set to the sumptuous music of Biebl’s much-beloved one-hit wonder, sung to another tune, or simply spoken, will ring out through many a church today, the last Sunday of Advent, the last caravanserai parishioners pause at before reaching Bethlehem itself, and the Word Made Flesh.

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Icon, Part 3: The Presentation of the Theotokos

 

“And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” Luke 1: 30, ESV

November 21 (New Calendar) marks the Great Feast of The Presentation of the Theotokos, the third in the annual liturgical calendar of the Orthodox Church. The Feast occurs one week into the Advent season, which starts on November 15, and runs until Christmas Eve Vespers, and commemorates the presentation of Mary, still a young child, to the Temple in Jerusalem, where she will live a life consecrated to God. Like the first feast of the liturgical year, The Nativity of the Theotokos, this Feast both parallels and foreshadows other narratives, and like the earlier Nativity, it is an expression both of how special Mary had to have been to have borne the Incarnation, and of how venerated she has been since the very early days of Christianity.

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Icon, Part 1: The Nativity of the Theotokos

 

September 1 marks the start of the liturgical year of the Orthodox Church. This goes back both to the Romans, who assessed a tax called the Indiction on this date, and to the Jewish calendar, with Rosh Hashanna marking the new year at about this same time. As this is the start of the liturgical cycle of great feasts and great fasts, I’ve decided to put out a series of posts on one of the most recognizable features of Orthodoxy: The Icon.

There are 12 Great Feasts in the Orthodox liturgical year, plus Pascha (Easter), which is the Feast of Feasts (there are also 12 in Catholicism, but with differences). In this series, each part to be posted close to the feast, I’ll be looking both at the event commemorated, and at its iconographic depiction. Through this series I will also try to lay out the functions of icons, their liturgical use, and their accepted proper forms both historically, and as they have developed throughout time (and have both departed from, and returned to their older roots in the process). Here and there I’ll fill in with some additional posts on related topics, certain saints, and the major other icons. Our first selection, corresponding with the first of the Great Feasts, is the Nativity of the Theotokos, which occurs on the eighth of September, just a few days hence.  (Nota Bene: any errors in this series are my own fault.)

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