October 16, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – In a Tuesday art column last month, I spoke of the meaning and purpose of traditional Byzantine icons, using as my point of reference the “Christ icon” of Mount Sinai. Today, in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to whom the month of October is dedicated in the West under her title of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary, we will delve deeper into the wonder of this art form using for our example the Theotokos “Platytera” or Virgin of the Sign.
There are many types of Marian icons, each with its specific configuration and symbolism: the Virgin Orans; the Virgin Paraclesis; the Virgin Hodegetria; the Virgin Eleousa; and so forth. Here, we see the unborn Christ in a roundel—an icon within an icon, one might say. This shows that the Virgin was the “vehicle” of the Incarnation. Mary is the living house of God, she was what the Ark of the Covenant and the Temple of Solomon symbolized but could never actually be. Her womb is “wider (platytera) than the heavens.”
In this particular icon, Christ is shown with His arms outstretched in blessing. In some renditions of this type, Christ will be holding a scroll in one hand, indicative of His perfect possession of knowledge as the Wisdom of God. The broad forehead, disproportionately large, indicates the same. In general, icons always depict even an infant or young Christ with the features of an adult (including, here, a rather muscular neck) to show that He pre-exists His human flesh as the eternal Son of God. The halo around His head bears the image of a Cross, on which are written three characters: Ό ώΝ, ho on, which means: “He Who Is.” (In this image the letters are faded, but they can be seen quite clearly, for instance, in this icon by contemporary master iconographer Aidan Hart.)
Our Lady’s hands are outstretched in a gesture of suppliant prayer—intercession for us sinners with her divine Offspring. As a Western liturgical text says: “He whom the whole world cannot contain enclosed Himself within Thy womb, O Holy Mother of God.” She is confident that He will answer the prayers of His pure and righteous mother; He, for His part, rests within her, as upon a throne from which He reigns. It is striking to see how an icon perfectly conveys the spiritual theology of St. Louis Marie de Montfort, who exclaims: “As God willed to come to us through Mary, so He wills that we should come to Him through Mary!”
Icons are most properly expressive of spiritual beauty—the beauty of holiness, the inner beauty of holy persons—rather than mere physical beauty. There is external, sensible beauty as well, but there are just as often features that initially strike the modern Western viewer as peculiar, strange, even disturbing or off-putting. Whenever we see such features, we are reminded that we are not looking at everyday, ordinary folks but divine or divinized persons. Indeed, John Henry Newman pointed out that, historically speaking, countries where people stopped specially venerating the Virgin Mary ended up, over time, no longer venerating Christ as God.
Contrary to Pope Francis’s recent offensive remarks concerning the Virgin Mary as “a normal girl, a girl of today,” the Christian tradition has always known how to exalt her above the cherubim and seraphim, even as she exalts her Son in His uncreated glory. The Byzantine tradition praises in song God’s greatest creation in these stirring words: “Thou, more honorable than the cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim, who ever a virgin gavest birth to God the Word, thou the true Theotokos, we magnify thee!” For its part, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium of the Second Vatican Council repeatedly underlines the special status of the Virgin Mary all throughout her life, from the marvel of her Immaculate Conception to the majesty of her Assumption into heaven.
In this icon, the love of our tender Mother, who so well understands our natural and supernatural needs, is vividly apparent, as she earnestly seeks our good from the one and only Savior, Christ the Lord.
Her ample mantle is ready to be thrown over us in protection.
She is wearing garments akin to those of the clergy (in the Eastern rites), a reminder of her immense dignity, superior to that of all the clergy, inasmuch as the work they do in mystic symbols at the altar she did in very deed, in visible flesh and blood, when the High Priest and Bread of Life entered the world through her.
O Mary, our beloved Mother, our confidant and counselor, our intercessor and protector, you who are the firstfruits of the redemption and a foretaste of the new heavens and the new earth, pray to Christ our God for us, that He may save our souls. Amen.
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