A View from the Sacristy: Icon of Our Lady

March 22, 2017 Comments Off on A View from the Sacristy: Icon of Our Lady

I know we were going to look at St Luke as a painter this week, but first I want to explore another icon in the church. I want to look at our icon of Our Lady that hangs on the wall to the north of the High Altar and behind the votive candle rack. The author of our icon is Sister Dr. Ellen Francis, a life-professed sister of the (Episcopal) Order of St. Helena in Augusta, GA (founded in 1945 in Kentucky), and a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina.

What is an icon? To our Western eyes, an icon is a painting done in a somewhat archaic traditional style. The colors are bright, space is non-existent, movement is stilted, and forms are rigid. To the eyes of faith, an icon is the revelation of the Kingdom of God. It is a window in to creation as transfigured, renewed, and deified by the saving acts of Christ. So an icon is not just a painting, it is, as St. John of Damascus said, a “channel of divine grace,” the place where heaven and earth meet, so that we can have a glimpse of heaven. The icon which hangs behind the pulpit, above the rack of votive candles, is called Our Lady of the Sign. The image is based on the two quotes from scripture we see above.

The first is a prophesy from Isaiah where God promises to send a savior born of a young woman. “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14) The original Hebrew text of the word for the young woman has traditionally been translated as virgin although modern scholarship has challenged that translation and it is now usually translated as you see it above. The icon portrays the Virgin opening herself up in prayer to reveal the Christ within. For the Virgin this is true in both a physical sense and a spiritual sense. The Virgin is often looked upon as a type for the Church and the individual Christian; in this icon she is the Church who reveal’s Christ to the world through its liturgy and sacraments and the individual who lives their life.

The second is Mary’s “yes” to the message of the angel Gabriel that she would be the mother of Jesus as recorded in Luke’s Gospel. Luke, actually, is all around…. “Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38). The icon shows the Virgin at the moment she has conceived the Christ in her womb by the power of the Holy Spirit. In the stylized work of the iconographer we can see a fully formed Christ Child in the mandorola of his mother’s womb. A mandorola is an aureola or aureole, which depicts the radiance of a luminous cloud which, in paintings of sacred personages, surrounds the whole figure. The term mandorola is the Italian name for the “almond” nut, and refers to its usual shape of a vesica piscis, the intersection of two disks with the same radius, intersecting in such a way that the center of each disk lies on the perimeter of the other in the shape of an almond. The mandorola generally surround the figures of Christ and the Virgin Mary in traditional Christian art. It is distinguished from a halo in that it encircles the entire body, and not just the head. It is commonly used to frame the figure of Christ in Majesty in early medieval and Romanesque art, as well as Byzantine art of the same periods. The mandorola is blue as a symbol of the earth where God, as Christ, has come down from heaven to dwell on earth. Yet, even while being in human form Christ is still supported by a seraph, the highest order of angel, who stand forever before the throne of God crying, “Holy, holy, holy!”

Jesus is most often shown as a miniature adult and not a child except in icons of the Nativity. This has to do with the Church’s understanding of the human and divine natures of Christ as defined at the Council of Nicaea and the iconographer’s attempts to portray that truth. Jesus is always shown with the clothing of an adult or dressed as a priest. He is usually shown with his hand raised in a blessing or teaching gesture.

Sacred tradition says that when the angel appeared to Mary she was in the midst of saying her daily prayers. Our icon continues in that tradition by showing the Virgin in the Orans position. The Virgin stands with her arms folded up at the elbow and her hands facing out. The Orans is an ancient attitude of prayer much older then the more recent folding of the hands in front of your chest that is so common today. We still see this gesture at the Holy Eucharist. See if you can notice it!

The Virgin Mary is dressed in a red mantle that covers her from head to toe; she is also wearing a blue inner garment since we can see the blue sleeves from her up turned arms.  The red is a symbol of divinity that overshadowed the Virgin and the blue is a symbol of her humanity. The mantle has three gold stars, one on the forehead and one on either shoulder, theses stars are a symbol of the Virgin’s continued virginity before, during and after the birth of Christ.

(This is an update to an earlier article from the St Luke’s Gazette.)

– Sean Scheller

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