A View from the Sacristy: Icon of St. Luke

March 29, 2017 Comments Off on A View from the Sacristy: Icon of St. Luke

In our Lady Chapel there is an icon of St Luke. It is the only image of our patron saint that we have. It is a traditional style icon that replicates an actual 16th century Greek icon and was gifted to the parish by the Formation Class of Easter 2013. This icon shows Luke sitting on a bench, surrounded with tools of the painter’s trade (brushes, mixing bowls, and a storage box), and holding a small palette and paintbrush. He is in the process of painting a panel with the image of the Virgin and Child. This image is called Hodighitria (“She who points the way”) where both the Virgin and Child face the viewer and the Virgin points or gestures towards the Christ. The panel rests on an elaborate easel that features notches that allow the artist to adjust the easel to hold larger and smaller panels. Luke also seems to use the notches to hold brushes.

Paul calls Luke “the beloved physician” in his letter to the Colossians, so Luke has always been identified as a physician.  The tradition of Luke as a painter began in the Byzantine East during the iconoclastic controversy in the 8th century. In the ancient world and right into the Renaissance, a medical doctor was often also an artist. One of the reasons for this connection is that both the physician and the painter would rely on minerals and plants to create medical treatments and pigments as well. Whether doctor or painter, must time was spent searching nature or the local markets for these minerals and plants, and then even more time grinding and mixing them to concoct their own treatments or their own paints.

The icons that St Luke originally painted are always agreed to be three in number; in some traditions the three icons are all of the Virgin. The first is called Hodighitria as in our icon; the second is Umilenie (“Our Lady of Tenderness”) where the Virgin and Child are cheek to cheek, often reaching out for each other; and the third is of the Virgin without the Christ but by herself and similar to the Virgin from a traditional iconic representation Christ in Majesty flanked by the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist called Deësis or Deisis meaning “prayer” or “supplication.” Exhausted yet? There’s more! Another tradition holds that the three icons are said to be of the Virgin and Child (Hodighitria), the second is of the Christ, and third is of Saints Peter and Paul.

 

The Virgin of Vladimir

Modern Deisis, detail of Virgin

 

                                     

Regardless of what’s on the panels, there are also differing legends of the panels on which they were painted. One tradition tells that after Christ’s Ascension, when the Virgin went to Ephesus to live with Saint John, she took all of her household furniture with her from Nazareth that included a table made by her Son, the Carpenter. When Luke came for a visit, he offered to paint her portrait. Mary suggested that the tabletop be made into three panels so that Luke could paint three paintings. The tabletop was cut into three 5×3 panels. Still another tradition says that the Angel Gabriel appeared to Saint Luke, offering three heavenly panels to use to paint the three paintings.

Some people say Luke sent the three icons to Theophilus, the person to whom Luke dedicates his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. Another tradition say that Luke kept the icons, the icons were lost, and then discovered by Saint Helen of Constantinople, title for Helena (empress) (c. 250 – c. 330), mother of Constantine the Great. In Constantinople there was a church and monastery built in the 5th century to house the Virgin Hodighitria that survived until the fall of the city to the Turks in 1453.

Wherever the panels come from or whatever they’re painting on, most traditions tell that, as Luke paints the Virgin’s portrait, they talk and she tells him the story of her life and, most importantly, the stories that we find only in the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel which do not appear in the synoptic gospels. Luke not only paints a portrait of the Virgin in paint, but also with words in his Gospel. When Luke has finished his work and presented the icon to the Virgin, it is reported that she said, “Let the grace of Him Who was born of me, and my mercy, be with these Icons.”

St Luke Presenting the icon of the Hodighitria to the Virgin Mary, St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai

– Sean Scheller

 

 

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