How Icons Invite us to Share in the Mysteries of Mary

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Icons are often described as “Windows into Heaven, and fittingly so, as I hope to show with a brief review of the three different types of Marian icons presented below. Guided by these visual aids, we’ll see how icons — more specifically, Marian icons — can bring peace, consolation and inspiration into our hearts and homes.

Taking first things first, it’s important to keep in mind that icons are said to be “written.” Seeing Marian icons in this way encourages us to slow down and pay attention to the details: our Holy Mother’s facial expressions, her gestures, body language, clothing, adornments and so on. Almost everything in an icon points to a deeper meaning or is symbolic of a spiritual truth. Just as we might use a passage of Scripture as the starting point for a reflection, we can sit before a Marian icon, ponder the sacred mystery represented by the image before us and reflect on our love relationship with Jesus Christ, obtained through Mary, His Mother and ours. While the icon itself is our starting point, some detail or other will capture our attention. It’s in that detail that we will find the matter which stirs our hearts in that very moment. This is the true beauty of Marian icons; they invite us to put aside worldly distractions and keep company with our Holy Mother — who always points us to her Son. It’s in this sharing of Mary’s Motherhood that we may also see icons as Windows into Heaven.

Finally, it’s important to note here that there are different types of Marian icons. While all invite us to share in the mysteries of Mary, each type stresses a certain truth, as we shall see with the three icons briefly outlined below, starting with The Annunciation and Two Saints.

"Icons" by Julie Vickery (CatholicMom.com)

Simone Martini [Public domain]

Created by Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi (around 1330), the Annunciation is a “life of Mary” icon. Originally commissioned as an altar piece for the Cathedral of Siena, Italy, this masterpiece is now housed at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. Between the lavish application of gold paint (signifying the Resurrection), the four prophets peering down from above, scrolls in hand (the fulfillment of the Old Testament) and the Holy Spirit hovering overhead (the Incarnation), this icon expresses the reality that, with Mary’s willing consent, she would conceive and bear a “Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:30-32).

This icon seems to swirl with activity. With his golden wings held upright and his plaid (!) mantle fluttering behind him, the Archangel Gabriel appears to have dropped straight to his knees the instant he materialized before Mary. For me, this immediacy represents two things: the angel’s swift obedience in carrying out God’s will and his humble devotion to the young woman “full of grace (Luke 1: 26-27). Do you see something different that you would like to share? If so, please comment below. Did you notice the olive branch (symbolic of peace) that Gabriel’s holding in his left hand and the vase of lilies, symbolic of Mary’s purity? How do you read Our Lady’s reaction to Gabriel’s sudden appearance? Do you imagine she’s afraid, or is she simply pondering the angel’s greeting, as Saint Luke tells us in Luke 1:29?

Compared to Simone Martini’s “life of Mary” the two Marian icons below seem to have little or no activity, but, when we read them carefully, we discover that they have much to tell us about our Lord’s relationship with His Mother and our relationship with them and the world.

The first image is a “Hodigitria” icon.

"Icons" by Julie Vickery (CatholicMom.com)

Dietisalvi di Speme [Public domain]

Also known as the “Virgin Hodigitria” (meaning “Virgin Guide” or “Directress“) this depiction of Mother and Child most closely resembles the classic Byzantine icon — which, according to Catholic tradition, traces back to a portrait of Mother and Child by Saint Luke.

One of the first things you likely noticed in the above representation of Mother and Son is Mary’s solemn, detached expression. It’s commonly understood that the Blessed Virgin’s distant gaze portrays her awareness of Our Lord’s suffering, as it was foretold by Simeon, the devout Jew, who spoke to Mary at the Temple entrance, on the day of her Purification and our Lord’s Presentation to His Father: “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also)” (Luke 2: 34-35).

Typically, the Hodigitria shows our Blessed Mother facing straight forward. Although she is larger in size than Jesus, it is the Divine Child who is truly the focus of this image. This is made evident by Mary’s posture: her right arm is held close to her chest as she points to her Son. This gesture is commonly considered to be one of presentation — the Mother of God presents the Son of God to the world. This gesture can also be read the other way around: the world is presented to the Christ-Child. Either way, Jesus is always shown blessing the people with his right hand while He holds a scroll in His left. Did you notice the rich garments Mother and Child are wearing and all the gold that surrounds them? This is because the Hodigitria stresses Jesus as Christ-Emmanuel (God with us) — thus, the fine clothing and the Infant’s wizened face.

Our last icon is a “Lovingkindness” (or “Eleusa“) type.

This category of Marian icon is meant to convey the natural love and tenderness shared between Mother and Son. Did you notice the two stars on Our Lady’s mantle (another is hidden under Jesus’ cuddling form)? The three stars symbolize Mary’s perpetual virginity — she was a virgin before, during and after the birth of Christ. Although Jesus and Mary wear garments that put us in mind of Christ-Emmanuel, the Lovingkindness icon emphasizes the Child’s humanity. The press of His cheek against His Mother’s; the arm encircling her neck (invisible except for the tiny hand touching the opposite side of Blessed Virgin’s face); the bare foot tucked up under her mantle (the tender sole exposed) stress the Child’s human vulnerability. The tender loving care that passes between Mother and Son calls us to share in all the human emotions represented in this icon. Even a small child, too young to read, can relate to the feelings expressed in the Lovingkindness icon — which makes this type of icon an ideal choice for any home with children about.

The different types of icons presented in this discussion are but a few of the wide variety of Marian icons that can brighten our homes with the beauty and the richness of our Catholic faith. If you have any thoughts or suggestions about displaying sacred icons in your home and would like to share them, please leave a comment below.

TAKEAWAY FOR TODAY: How can I display Marian icons in my home to encourage family members and visitors to explore the mysteries of Mary, through the beauty and deeper meanings written with paint on wood?


Copyright 2020 Julie Vickery

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About Author

Julie Vickery lives in South Carolina, where she shares her Catholic faith as a volunteer with her parish's adult education ministry and as an active member of an interfaith discussion group. When she's not busy reading, writing and talking about authentic womanhood in our current age, Julie enjoys time with her adult children and her husband of forty-nine years.

1 Comment

  1. Ursula Quintana on

    What a beautiful and informative article! Truly an invitation I am embracing to slow the sands of time and be still with my Mother. I am greatly looking forward to your future articles Julie.

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