St Mary Icon

THE ICON OF THE MOTHER OF GOD  (by Fr John Baggley 2007).

The Moscow icon painter Alexander Gormatiuk has created a remarkable icon in accordance with the ancient traditions of Christian iconography. The "model" from which this style of icon is derived is known as the Hodegitria Mother of God. It is one of the oldest styles of icon, and examples survive from the sixth century onwards. An Orthodox tradition states that original icon was painted by St Luke, and was blessed by the Mother of God herself. Hodegitria means "She who points the way": the Mother of God points us to Christ who is the Way, the Truth and the Life; she moves us on to her Son, just as the icon leads us to the reality represented in the icon.

Icons should not be regarded as an ancient substitute for a family photograph! We are not meant to judge them by the photographic images with which we are familiar; nor should they be assessed in the light of Western painting since the Renaissance. They are part of an ancient Christian artistic tradition which goes back to the early years of Christianity in which the icon is intended to bring us into the presence of the person or mystery portrayed, and lead us into the truth of God's revelation which is set before us. These artistic traditions were developed in the Byzantine Empire which flourished between the 4th and the 15th centuries, with its capital at Constantinople (the present day Istanbul); they spread beyond Byzantium into Russia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. In Russia the Smolensk Mother of God icon faithfully preserved the Byzantine tradition of the Hodegitira image, and it is the Smolensk type that Alexander Gormatiuk has followed. There has been a widespread revival of icon painting during in the last hundred years.

This icon leads us to the presence of Mary the Mother of God, and of the Incarnate Son of God who took his humanity from her; and it sets before us the truth of the Church's teaching that Jesus is the Incarnate Son of God, the Word made flesh, and that divine Wisdom is to be found in the Person of Jesus Christ. Mary is not portrayed as the young woman of Nazareth and Bethlehem; there are many representations of Mary in connection with the events of the Gospel, but they are not the concern of this icon. Here Mary is represented in her abiding role as the Mother of God Incarnate, whose vocation was to allow the Incarnation to take place, and who now shares the glory of heaven and wants to lead us to her Son. Her right hand points very definitely to Christ: the icon shows her as the one who guides us and leads us to Christ, to a deeper awareness of the mystery of Who her Son is, and of the salvation he has accomplished for us.

The figure of Christ is not the "babe in arms" so often seen in both statues and icons of Mary and Jesus. He is deliberately shown as the Christ-Emmanuel, the "pre-Eternal God" who for our salvation has taken our humanity and raised it into glory. He is shown with an unusually large cranium, which in the Byzantine tradition symbolizes the presence of wisdom; the scroll he holds in his left hand is another symbol of the divine Wisdom that is present in Christ and made available to us through him. His right hand is raised in blessing. The One who is "transcendent God" and "above all being" has humbled himself to enrich our human poverty, and he continues to give us his blessing.

The Mother of God wears emerald green undergarments, and is wrapped in a rich brown maphorion (outer garment). In contrast Christ's robes are radiant with gold and silver, symbolizing the divinity which is revealed through him. Both figures look straight out from the icon, engaging our attention. The eyes of the Mother of God seem to be looking at us, whatever the position from which we look at the icon. As with many icons, the person beholding the icon is drawn in to a relationship with the persons depicted. There is a great quality of stillness in this icon; the monumental figure of the Mother of God seems to welcome us, and invite our devotion – and at the same time moves our attention towards Christ. The strong gesture of her right hand reminds us of her words to the servants at the Marriage Feast at Cana, "Do whatever he tells you" (John 2:5).

The inscriptions on the icon (mainly in Greek) indicate the identity of those depicted: at the top right and left are the stylized letters which signify "Mother of God"; on the right, above Christ the letters IC XC stand for "Jesus Christ"; the letters within the halo of Christ stand for "The One who Is" (cf Exodus 3:14, "I am Who I am"), indicating the divinity of Christ. The Cross marked in the halo of Christ reminds us of his suffering for our salvation. On the left of the Mother of God is a very stylized Russian inscription stating that this is an icon of The Hodegitira

In the upper section of the icon the Archangels Michael (left) and Gabriel (right) hold the instruments of the Passion: the Cross, the lance and the spear. This detail appears in icons of the Mother of God from the 12th century onwards, and is conspicuous in the image of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour.

People often respond in different ways to icons: different details seem attractive, various overall impressions are created, and some things may just seem odd; some people find icons difficult to appreciate. Yet in spite of our different responses, they are the fruit of a long Christian tradition of prayer and devotion, as well as the artistic tradition. They are created in order to help us to pray, to draw us into the mystery of the presence of God and his saints. Perhaps we have to learn to relax, and let our eyes do some of our praying, allow our eyes receive for our hearts whatever it is that God wants to bestow upon us.

The icon was installed in the Church in December 2000, and has been a powerful focal point for devotion ever since. It was a privilege to welcome Alexander Gormatiuk and his wife Alla to the parish in November 2005 when they were both in the UK for an exhibition of Russian painting and sculpture. They were delighted to see the icon where it is so obviously an aid to our prayers.

If you want to know more about icons, you might find the following books useful:

  • John Baggley: Doors of Perception – Icons and their spiritual significance. Mowbray, London (1987) and St Vladimir's Seminary Press, New York (1995)
  • John Baggley: Festival Icons for the Christian Year. Mowbray (Continuum), London (2000)
  • Lilia Evseyeva and others: A History of Icon Painting – Sources, Traditions, Present Day. Translated by Kate Cook. Moscow 2005
  • Kondrad Onasch and Annemarie Schnieper: Icons – The fascination and the reality. Translated by Daniel G. Conklin, Riverside BookmCo, Inc, New York 
  • Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky: The Meaning of Icons. St Vladimir's Seminary Press, New York (1982)
  • Michel Quenot: The Icon: Window on the Kingdom. St Vladimir's Seminary Press, New York (1991)
  • Guillen Ramos-Poqui: The Technique of Icon Paintin. Burns & IOates / Search Press (1990)
  • John Stuart: Ikons. Faber and Faber, London (1975)
  • Richard Temple: Icons: Divine Beauty. SAQI in association with the Temple Gallery (2004)