A portrayal of tenderness, compassion and mercy
One of the most beloved images of Mother Mary in the Roman Catholic Church originated in an Eastern Orthodox Monastery in Crete, probably around the 15th century. In the Eastern Churches, this image is known as the Virgin Theotokos (Mother of God) of the Passion. MICHELLE TAN explains why this icon leads us deep into the mysteries of our faith.
The Passion of the Christ child, whom she holds in her arms, is foretold by the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, whose initials appear alongside their images. St Michael (meaning ‘who is like God’) is on the left, holding the reed and vinegar-soaked sponge that would be offered to Christ on the cross, and the lance that would later pierce his side; St Gabriel (meaning ‘God is my strength’) is on the right, holding a three-barred Orthodox cross. Both angels are holding the sacred objects with cloths covering their hands, much like a priest holds the monstrance in a humeral veil when he gives the Benediction at the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.
The infant Jesus has high brow and an adult face, signifying the divine foreknowledge of God. He has the stature of a small child, symbolising his human nature. He wears a green tunic and a red cloak – in iconography, green represents life and red, sacrifice, so Christ’s clothing point to his inevitable death and Resurrection. The sandal hanging loosely from his little foot shows how quickly he had run into the arms of his mother, fleeing in fear from the angelic apparitions. Yet Jesus’ gaze extends beyond the Cross to the glory of Heaven and eternal life, signified by icon’s background of gold.
Mother Mary wears a blue mantle over a red dress. In iconography, blue is the colour of heaven and represents the divine, while red is the colour of the earth represents what is human. The icon, therefore, shows Our Lady as a creature clothed with the divinity of her Creator by virtue of the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit and the presence of the Word in her womb. The star on her head covering indicates that she is the Star of the Sea that guiding all to Jesus. Blue was also the colour for Byzantine empresses, and the golden fringe on the mantle also points to Our Lady as Queen of Heaven.
The heart of the art
The hands are the centrepiece of the icon. Jesus’ hands are placed in his Mother’s as a symbol of his complete entrustment to her protection. Although her head is tilted towards Jesus’ and her mouth is closed, her eyes look towards us, and her right hand directs us to Jesus as if to say, “Entrust yourself to me. And do whatever else he tells you.”
Our Lady’s expression grave and sorrowful, but she is not looking at Jesus or the Archangels – she is looking at us. This icon of Our Lady falls into a class of icons called “kardiotissa, or in Greek “heartfelt,” which means they show tenderness, compassion, and mercy in the figures’ expressions.
Filled with love and empathy for us and our circumstances, Our Blessed Mother seems to say, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life (John 3:26). So did I. So, do not be afraid, come to him, for with the LORD is kindness, with him is full redemption.” (Psalm 130:7)
The triumph of the cross
Indeed, the way in which the Archangels bear the elements of Christ’s Passion, not as tools of torture but as trophies, signify fullness of redemption in Christ and the Triumph of his Cross. The rays of gold that highlight the garments of both Jesus and Mary, and their beautiful golden halos only serve to emphasise this glorious Truth: Christ has won for us victory over sin and death once and for all.
May all believers radiate the heavenly hope and joy of this Good News to others through the intercession of Our Mother of Perpetual Help.