Icons are "paintings of significant Christian subjects and events, which are created in a canonically defined style. Through their innate qualities of composition, subject matter, and color scheme, for nearly two thousand years icons have served as portals to a higher domain" (Zelensky, 2005, p. 13). The two dimensional paintings of Jesus, Mary and Child, and various other saints that adorn the walls of churches and cathedrals are often simply looked at as decoration by some church attendees. But what is the purpose of these stoic depictions?
Eastern Orthodox Christians have used icons as a window to heaven. Icons are intended to lead the viewer into a contemplative worship experience. Many modern worshippers would argue that the visual representations scattered throughout the church serve as a distraction to the message. Imagine sitting in a church service. As the pastor gives his message, your mind is overcome with thoughts about what the up and coming week has to offer. You let your eyes drift to the space just above where the pastor stands. Your gaze is met by the icon, The Vladimir Theotokos (the image used at the beginning of this post). The soft features of Mary holding her Jesus wash over all your anxieties as you are reminded of Christ's supreme sacrifice that began as a baby in the arms of his mother. You begin to ponder how this soft love between Christ and His mother beckons your heart to rest assured and that in His embrace of his mother's face, He too embraces all that you could possible have to hold. Suddenly you have entered into a worship experience. The very act of being distracted was met in the iconographic capture towards a worshipful moment.
As mother's day quickly approaches, let the following words about the icon depicting Mary and Son guide you to remember your mother in a way that is honoring and worshipful:
Battered and beautiful, the Theotokus of Vladimir is...a portrait of ambiguity. It is so familiar, so ancient, so historic that at first glance it speaks of myth and tradition. The powerful neck of the Christ child breathes His life giving Spirit into the Mother Church...Christ's tender embrace of humanity, beginning with His mother, Mary...the sorrow of humanity, looking upon "him who you have pierced," and Mary as she foresees the sword that will most certainly pierce her heart. The gold of the Christ child's robe bespeaks his divinity, while Mary's somber, earth-hued clothing recalls the weeds of mourning. She supports the child's weight, but her left hand seems hardly to touch Him, as if she is about to present Him to all the world.
Maybe she says, "Look at Jesus! Has any child ever been so perfect?"
Maybe she whispers the words that St. John the Baptist later proclaims: "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!"
Or maybe she is silent, simply preparing herself to hand her Son over, struggling to release Him to do His work.
Jesus' eyes are fixed upon His mother, but her gaze looks beyond the viewer, perhaps transfixed by some inner vision. Although her Son's embrace is whole hearted, her response is more ambiguous. She seems torn; He does not.
For a moment, in one's imagination Mary becomes Martha, and Jesus says, "You are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed." We are to be reminded that we will be most blessed by the presence of God if we focus our attention fully on Him. As the prophet said of Him centuries ago, "You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you." (Zelensky, 2005, pp. 56-57)
Happy Mother's Day.
Excerpts from: Zelensky, Elizabeth. Windows to Heaven. Brazos Press: Grand Rapids, 2005.