All icons of Mary the Theotokos (the “Birth-giver to God”) are a profound statement about humanity’s relationship with God. Mary, a teenage girl embodies the beauty of faith—saying yes to the angel’s promised miracle despite its unfathomable reality nine months earlier. Christ Emmanuel, the baby boy, is truly God with us. In this icon we meet a young mother who has given birth to the creator of the world. The God who is glorious in holiness, fearful in praises and does wonders, is now a child, presented to us by His mother. Together we are witnesses to the eternity of an eighth day of creation that has been accomplished, and we see divinity now knit to us and our world. Painting such an icon is a marvelous experience.
Images of a mother and child go back into mankind’s earliest history—a representation of the profound blessing of mothers, and a promise of what was to come. It’s possible that seeing the fulfillment of this primal experience in the incarnation of Christ is one of the reasons that this icon is one of the most reproduced the world over. Icons of Mary embody that simple tenderness of motherhood, but they also have a great deal of complexity.
There are many iconographic prototypes of Mary (I don’t think any other icon has more variations of depiction and meaning). From the Orthodox perspective, the three main forms for portrait icons are “The Guide” (Hodegetria), “Tenderness” (Eleusa) and “Praying” (Orans), each of which has a particular beauty and layers of meaning and history. Beyond these three, there are an almost endless variety of depictions that include prototypes of every shape and size. Mary the All Merciful (Panakranta), Mary the Intercessor,(Agiosortissa), Mary and Christ Playing (Pelagonitissa), Mary with Three Hands (Trojeručica), Mary the Milk Giver (Galaktotrophousa), … just to name a few.
All of these different prototypes are significant, but I’ve always had a special regard for the form that is the origin of them all—The Guide. This form is traditionally credited to Luke himself and appears in the historical record around the fourth century AD. It is the prototype that the patron and I chose for this icon. The prototype of The Guide is one that focuses less on personal feelings and more on the dignity of its figures. In it, Mary presents Jesus to us by holding him in one hand and gesturing to him with her other. She holds him not as a newborn infant, carefully cradling him, but with a queen’s certainty and nobility. Her other hand is poised not in supplication or praise, but in presentation. She is the guide showing us the Way. Jesus is shown as the pre-eternal God, full of wisdom and power. He sits upright and offers a blessing with his right hand while holding a scroll in his left. The scroll is closed and complete, indicating that he is the living Word of God. Seated with Mary, Jesus also has his left heel upturned, prophetically showing that it will both be bruised by, and crush the head of, Satan.
Drawing the cartoon of this icon was full of challenges and choices. It took four iterations to complete. Working out a proper sacred geometry for this icon was especially a blessing, and I was shown a new understanding about placing the figure within the icons border and about its proportions. The stylization of Mary’s robes forced a real commitment to the simplicity that the studio’s style embodies. This was especially difficult given the complexity of folds and drapery with which this her robe is usually rendered. But, in the end, I think the result is convincing and resonates with the whole.
No single detail turned out to be more of a challenge than deciding on the sign with which Christ blesses. This is usually based on the gesture that a priest uses to offer God’s blessing. Within the different Christian apostolic traditions there are many variations of this, all originating in different times and places. Today, the most common and recognizable form is one where the fingers are arranged to look like the Greek letters of I C X C, or “Jesus”, when seen from the side. Other variations on this sign of blessing are used in some churches to this day, but these tend to be forms with specific cultural significance and don’t fit the studio’s mission to have its work be a blessing broadly in North America. So, the blessing Christ offers in this icon is made with that gesture which forms his name, and I hope many people will receive it.
The icon itself was made in the way things are commonly done here in the studio. Everything being prepared in a very traditional way, with the time and care taken to do it well. The panel is battened basswood, the 24kt gold water-gilded and partially burnished, and the whole icon painted with egg tempera in local earth pigments. The exception in this icon is found in its red colour, which was collected during a pilgrimage I took to British Columbia a few years ago. It is a red of real beauty and historic significance. Such red ochres have a long history in this country of being held in special regard, and travelling long distances.It was a joy to include it and use in painting.
With the completion of an icon, it’s traditional for the iconographer to give thanks. Part of that prayer goes like this,
“I thank you, O Lord my God, that with your help I have completed this work without sparing any effort. And, that with utmost diligence and care, I have been permitted to perform this art masterfully and completely. This is a heavenly task, given by your hand. May your most-chaste mother pray for me as she prayed for the apostle and evangelist Luke, and blessed him because of this vocation.”
I am very grateful for the blessing of finishing this icon. The result is something that I believe will be a blessing to those who will pray before it.
To purchase a print of this icon, please visit the studio’s shop.
The original icon was creating in 2019 for the Icons at Home project by a private commission.
* In working out many of the details of this icon, I was blessed to have an old relationship renewed and others strengthened through historic research and discussion about modern practices across Christendom. While the mistakes in what has been done remain my own, much of the good is owed to them. Many thanks to Jonathan and the monk Nicholas for their help.