Sunday, November 27, 2011

Iconic Icons: Theotokos

After a rather long hiatus, I am continuing my series of Iconic Icons. Since Advent (and thus a new Liturgical Year) began today, and since this season prepares us to celebrate the Incarnation of Christ (among other things), and since the Incarnation is the doctrinal basis of iconography, I decided it is an appropriate time to revive my series. Following the post on the Pantocrator, a post on a popular icon of Christ, I decided to write a post on the second most important and popular category of icons: the icons of the Theotokos (θεοτοκος).

Theotokos is a title for Mary, the Blessed Virgin, Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The word literally means "God-Bearer," but it describes the dogma that Mary is "Mother of God." This dogma (I believe it is a dogma, though I am not absolutely certain of the difference between doctrine and dogma, though I am studying Catechetics) was proclaimed at the Council of Ephesus in 431 in response to the Nestorian heresy, which sought to separate the human and divine natures of Christ. One way of doing this was by declaring Mary "Christotokos" (Χριστοτοκος), "Christ-Bearer," which doctrinally implied that Mary was only mother of Christ in His human nature. The Council of Ephesus, in declaring that Jesus Christ was one divine person in two natures, human and divine, also declared that Mary could and should be referred to with the title of Theotokos rather than Christotokos. (One story of this Council, which showed how fervent Marian devotion was even in the early Church, states that after the Council declared that Mary was Theotokos, the faithful walked through the streets, shouting, "Theotokos! Theotokos!")

Thus, Theotokos is a title for Mary meaning "Mother of God." The Greek term is used frequently in the Eastern Church to refer to Mary, while in the Western Church the translation (in whatever language) is usually more common. The word is also used to describe icons representing the Blessed Mother. Unlike the Pantocrator, which is merely one type of icon of Christ (although a very common type), Theotokos refers to many different types of icons of Mary. Most icons of Mary show her with the Christ Child, though occasionally she is shown alone. Among the many icons of Mary (many with distinct names based on their history, and many with miracles attached to them), there are roughly five categories they can be grouped into:

  • Hodigitria (Οδηγητρια), the Guide: Mary is holding the Christ Child and is pointing toward Him, He Who is the source of salvation, and thus Mary is acting as a Guide leading us to our salvation.
  • Eleusa (Ελευσα), Tender Mercy: Mary is holding the Christ Child, and He touches His face to hers while wrapping at least one arm around her neck and shoulder. It is often used to represent the relationship between God (Christ) and the Church (Mary).
  • Panakranta (Πανακραντα), All Merciful: Mary is enthroned with the Christ Child on her lap; both are facing the viewer. This symbolizes Mary's royal glory, and it shows her part in our salvation (in a way, it reflects the doctrine of Mary as Co-Redemptrix and Mediatrix of All Graces).
  • Agiosortissa (Αγιοσορτισσα), Intercessor: Mary is shown alone, in profile, holding out her hands in prayer and supplication for us. She is facing to her left, where there is usually placed a separate icon of Christ.
  • Oranta (Οραντα), Praying (also Panagia (Παναγια), Lady of the Sign): Mary is showing facing the viewer with her arms raised in the "orante" position (the same position the priest uses often throughout the Mass when praying, during the Collect, for instance), while the Christ Child is shown enclosed in her womb.
Much could be said about each of these icons in general: I hope to feature multiple Marian icons in the future, and I will hopefully be able to delve into the details of different types as I do that (at the very least, I will discuss the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa, which is a Hodigitria icon). There are a few overall themes to mention. One is that Mary is often shown to the left of Christ, that is, on His right hand. This shows how she receives hyperdulia, that is, veneration higher than all of the other saints. [This is my interpretation of this position: it is by no means the only position shown in icons, and I do not know if others hold this position or not. Feel free to disbelieve this opinion if you so wish. The other two themes are standard in iconography, as far as I know.] Another is that in icons Mary is always wearing a veil, which usually includes three stars, one on the head and one on each shoulder: these represent the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity (sometimes, one star is covered by the Christ Child, since He is the Second Person of the Trinity). Finally, Mary is usually robed in blue in icons, since blue is the color of humanity; sometimes, she is wearing blue with red over it, signifying her deification by Christ (the deification that all men are called to partake of), since red is the color of divinity. (The symbolism of these colors is why icons of Christ often portray Him wearing red covered with blue, signifying the assumption of human nature by He Who is a Divine Person.)

There is much more I could say about icons of the Theotokos, but this is a primer on them. I hope that I will continue this series of posts with more frequency than I have done in the past. Until then, I hope you found this post helpful. God Bless.

All-holy, immaculate, most blessed and glorified Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary, pray for us!

Nota Bene: I obtained the majority of the information for this post from Orthodox wiki, specifically the page on Icons of the Theotokos. The ending title of Mary was taken from its page on Theotokos. I apologize if any of the Greek is incorrectly transliterated in this post.

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