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Vladimirskaya / Vladimir Mother of God icon | by jimforest
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Vladimirskaya / Vladimir Mother of God icon

An extract from Praying with Icons


The Vladimir Mother of God


One of the most frequently painted of all icons reminds us of the love that binds Mary and Jesus to each other, and also of the connection between Mary and ourselves, for we too are her children. There are numerous variations, but all of them show Christ in his mother's arms with their faces pressed together. One of her hands holds him, the other draws our attention to him, a motion reinforced by the gentle tilt of her head. There is a subdued sense of apprehension in Mary's face, as if she can already see her son bearing the cross, while Christ seems to be silently reassuring his mother of the resurrection.


This is one of the icons attributed to the Gospel author Luke. While we know of no surviving icon painted by his hand with certainty, according to tradition the original of this icon was his.


The most famous version of the icon, the Vladimir Mother of God, was given by the Church in Constantinople to the Russian Church in 1131. Every movement and use of the Vladimir icon has been chronicled ever since. It was in Kiev until that city was destroyed by the Golden Horde. From there, in 1155, it went to the city of Vladimir in the north. In 1395 the icon moved once again, this time to Moscow, a river town that had grown to be the chief city of Russia.


At present the icon is in a church adjacent to Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery, where it was housed through the Soviet period. On one occasion, during an attempted coup in 1993, it was taken out of the museum by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexei, and used to bless the city -- the kind of action long associated with this icon. Even when it was housed in the museum, it was not unusual to see people in fervent prayer as they stand before this battered image. (There are many good printed reproductions of the Vladimir icon, but nothing I have seen does justice to the original. Partly this is because the surface of the icon, having suffered much damage, reveals level upon level of the overpainting of those who restored the icon over the centuries. We see portions of earlier painting in one area, later retouching in others. The rough terrain of the icon's surface is lost in prints.)


In some versions of the icon -- the Vladimir prototype is one -- Mary appears to be looking toward the person praying before the icon, in others her gaze is slightly off to the side, but in either case her eyes have an inward, contemplative quality. "The Virgin's eyes," Henri Nouwen comments, "are not curious, investigating or even understanding, but eyes which reveal to us our true selves." [Henri Nouwen, Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1987), p 36.]


Invariably, Christ's attention is directed to his mother. Always there is the detail of Christ's bare feet, a vivid symbol of his physical reality: he walked among us, leaving his footprints on the earth.


In some versions of the icon there is an additional detail of love, the arm of Christ around his mother's neck. This too is in the Vladimir prototype.


In contrast to Renaissance religious paintings with a similar subject, we notice in the icon that while Christ is an infant in size, his body's proportions are those of a man; a baby's head would be much larger. This is intentional. The noble face we see pressed against Mary's cheek is the Lord of Creation and the Glory of God. He wears adult clothing, a tunic and coat woven from gold, the color iconography uses for the imperishable and all that is associated with the Kingdom of God. In these details the icon reveals the real identity of the son of Mary.


Over her dress, Mary wears a dark shawl which circles her head, has a golden border, and is ornamented with three stars (one is hidden by Christ's body) symbolizing her virginity before and after her son's birth. At the same time they suggest that heaven has found a place in her.


The icon's triangular composition not only emphasizes the stillness of the two figures and gives the icon an immovable solidity but is a reminder of the presence of the Holy Trinity in all things.


The center of the composition is at the level of Mary's heart. A much used Orthodox prayer declares, "Beneath your tenderness of heart do we take refuge, O Mother of God." As anyone discovers in coming to know the Mother of God, her heart is as spacious as heaven.


In any version of the icon of the Mother of God of Tenderness, the Vladimir icon being only the most famous example, we see Mary's perfect devotion, a devotion so absolute that God finds in her the person who can both give birth to himself and who will ever after serve as the primary model of Christ-centered wholeness -- the woman whom all generations will regard as blessed. In her assent to the angelic invitation, Mary said not only on behalf of herself and all her righteous ancestors but for all generations, "Yes, Lord, come!" Through her all humanity gives birth to Jesus Christ, and through Christ she becomes our mother.


Because the icon portrays the profound oneness uniting Mary and Jesus, it is a eucharistic icon: in receiving the Body of Christ, we too hold Christ, and are held by Christ.


In the Gospel, we hear Mary praised for having given birth to Jesus and having nursed him. Christ responds by remarking on what is still more important about his mother and all who follow him wholeheartedly: "Rather blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it." [Luke 11:28] She who gave birth to the Word of God also keeps it eternally.


It was at Mary's appeal that Christ performed his first miracle, changing water into wine at the marriage feast at Cana, and at Cana that we hear her simple appeal to each person who would follow her son: "Do whatever he tells you." [John 2:5] These few words would serve well as another name for this icon.


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Uploaded on August 12, 2005