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Icons of the Theotokos

Dr. Vivian Olender
Principal, St. Andrew’s College

1) Hodigitria:

In this icon the Theotokos is a guide or pointer of the way.

The prototype or first copy of this icon is believed to be painted from life by St. Luke the Evangelist.  This type of icon is the most common or popular icon of the Theotokos.  In the Hodigitria Icon both the Christ child and the Theotokos are represented full face and turned towards the viewer.  This austere and majestic image especially emphasizes the divinity of the Christ child.  The Mother of God holds the Christ Child on her left arm and points to him in a gesture of presentation with her right hand, considered the more honorable hand.  She shows Jesus to us, the Son of God, who by her, has come into the world to save us.  The Christ Child blesses with his right hand with a broad majestic gesture of benediction and holds a scroll in his left hand.  He is a type or typos of Christ- Emmanuel: (Isaiah 7:14) “God with Us”. He is a philosopher-king, full of Wisdom.  Note the exceptionally long forehead symbolizing his wisdom


2) Theotokos of Loving Kindness, Umileniye, Elouesa (Eleousa - compassion) Glykophilousa - Sweet Embrace.

Copies of this icon can be found in Greece butmost popular in Slavic countries. This icon shows mutual gestures of loving kindness between the Theotokos and the Christ Child.  In the Hodigitria icon the divinity of Christ is emphasized.  Now in this icon the human nature of Christ is emphasized.  The compassion of the Theotokos is transformed into a motherly compassion for all human beings, for whom her Son freely sacrificed himself on the cross.

The personal pain, the loss and the grief of the Theotokos are transformed into a universal grief for the pain that exists as a part of the present life in a fallen world.  While all these icons of “Loving Kindness are warm, they are not excessively sentimental retaining a noble quality.


Theotokos of Vyshorod:

The prototype of this icon was painted in the 12th century in Constantinople and brought to Kyiv in 1155, then moved first to Suzdal in Northern Russia, then and to the city of Vladimir, Russia in 1161 and in finally in 1395 moved to Moscow.  It is now in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.






3) Oranta:

An icon of the Theotokos with upraised hands in a gesture of prayer. This icon is a gesture of prayer and also a personification of prayer.  Frescoes of the Oranta have been found in the catacombs as early as the fourth century.







4) Theotokos of the Sign:

This is a variant of the Oranta Icon with Christ depicted in the Theotokos. The name of the icon is taken from Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore, the Lord himself shall give you a sign: behold a Virgin shall conceive in the womb, and shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Emmanuel.”

Christ is depicted in a mandorla, a circle of glory.  This reflects the words of the Akathist service to the Theotokos where the Theotokos is called: “...the brightest morning ...bearing the sun-Christ.”

In many Orthodox Churches in the apse just above the alter, there is a large fresco of the Theotokos with the Christ child in a circle. Christ is depicted in a mandorla, a circle of glory.  This reflects the words of the Akathist service to the Theotokos where the Theotokos is called: “...the brightest morning ...bearing the sun-Christ.”  The Christ child  has an adult face to denote that even in childhood He is the Wisdom of God.  This icon teaches worshippers an important lesson: that Christ may be formed in us (Galatians 4:19) as Christ was formed in the Theotokos.  The Theotokos is the prototype of the true believer.  She summons us to respond to the call of God with the same faith and obedience as she did in order that Christ be formed in us as He was formed in her.

            Mary is the typos (type) of the Church, the expression of the fulfillment of the church’s mission.  She is the example of the new people of God in whom and among whom God dwells: 2 Cor. 6:16, “I will live in them and move among them, and I will be their God.”  Christians are temples of the living God. I Cor. 3:16. The Epistles of St. Paul emphasize the indwelling Christ.  He uses the expression “in Christ” in his letters one hundred and sixty-four times! Galatians 4:19: “My little children, with whom I am again in travail until Christ be formed in you.”

            We cannot be Christians unless Christ dwells within us and we in Him in the context of His body, the Church.  The true gospel is opening the door as Mary did to let Christ be formed in us, to let Him dwell within us, to forgive us, to change us and to fill us with his light, life and love.  St. Ambrose wrote: “Every believing soul conceives and gives birth to the Word of God.   Christ, by means of our faith, is the fruit of us all, thus we are all mothers of Christ.”  Here Ambrose is saying that the same Christ comes to be born in us and to dwell in us even as he did in the Theotokos.

This icon is sometimes called “Wider than the heavens”(Platytera ton ouranion) Because the Theotokos gave birth to Christ, Who is God, the Creator of all things.  Thus, because she received and conceived in herself, He Who cannot be contained in the whole of Creation, the Theotokos is indeed wider than the heavens.”

            The icon of the Theotokos with the Christ Child in the apse of an orthodox Church reminds worshippers that that the purpose of our life is that Christ be formed in us.  The Theotokos shows us that a Christian is a person in whom Christ lives.  She invites us to receive within us by faith, by the Word of God, and by the Eucharist the Christ Who was conceived and formed in her so that we too may become Theoforoi that is God bearers.  She also stands before us on the front wall of the church with her arms raised in prayer to lead us in prayer to her Son, the Pantocrator who is depicted in the dome.   She was the first to experience theosis, to become by grace what God is by nature.  Like a ladder she unites heaven and earth, because it was through her that God in Christ came to us, and like Mary we too may ascend to Christ by faith.


5) Theotokos the Protectress (Pokrova)

The subject of this icon is based on the life of a 10th century Byzantine Saint, Andrew the Fool - for - Christ who witnessed the appearance of the Theotokos in the church at Constantinople where a little part of Her garment was kept. He had a vision of the Theotokos placing her veil over Constantinople during an attack of the Turks. Usually the iconographer here depicts the Theotokos in the posture of Oranta soaring on a cloud. The angels holding the veil and the half - length figure of the Christ giving His blessing are depicted above Her, then the Three Hierarchs. St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian and St. John Chrysostom. stand to the left of Her and the angels to the right of Her. In the lower part of the icon are the witnesses of the miracle, Andrew and his disciple Epiphany, St. John the Forerunner with the apostles, and the holy warriors. The glorification of the Theotokos as our protector and interceder is the message of this icon.

This icon was also very popular in Ukraine because of another miracle of protection, that is the miraculous protection of the Theotokos over the Pochaiv monastery in Volynia in 1675.  When the Turks laid siege, the monks had a vision of the Theotokos appearing over the monastery protecting it with her veil. This event was immortalized in the popular religious song:  “The Evening Star Appeared and Stood over Pochaiv.”


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