The Icon of the Nativity – St. John the Baptist
Ukrainian Catholic Church, Ottawa, ON

Icons of the Theotokos (Bohoroditsia)

The third ecumenical council, held in 431 AD, declared the Blessed Virgin Mary is the Theotokos (from Greek meaning “bearer of God”). The Theotokos (in Slavonic, Bohoroditsia — Богородица) is the mother of Christ and thus the mother of the church. The significance of this title is that God was born. St. Mary did not some how give birth to a human attached to the divine world. She gave birth to God who assumed our human nature.

The Church venerates St. Mary more than any other saint and this explains the prominent place given to her icon on the iconostasis. The icon of the Theotokos reminds us, “At your right hand stands the queen” (Psalm 45: 9). When icons of St. Mary and Jesus are placed side by side, the icon of the Virgin is properly placed on the right hand side of Christ (i.e. our left side when we face them).

The Theotokos and Pantocrator from the iconostas of St. Sophie Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Montréal, QC

There are many styles of the icons of the Theotokos. Most portray the Virgin Mary holding Jesus in her arms and the image usually depicts Christ as an infant or a small boy; however, there are exceptions to this. The Church recognises four basic types of icons of the Virgin; although, within these types there are over 230 identifiable varieties. The four basic groups are the Theotokos enthroned, the Theotokos praying with outstretched arms (Orans), “She Who Shows the Way” (Hodegetria), and the “Mother of God Merciful” (Eleousa) also known as the “Virgin of Tenderness”.

In Eastern Rite iconography, the Virgin wears a cape-like veil called a maphorion that covers her upper forehead and all of her hair. This is in contrast to western religious art in which her hair frequently shows beneath the veil or is sometimes completely uncovered. Usually, there are three stars on the Virgin’s maphorion — one on the forehead and one on each of her two shoulders. They symbolize Mary’s virginity before, during, and after Christ’s birth. The face in this in this type of icon is typically sensitively rendered, paradoxically seeming both highly noble and yet humble. The image of the Birth Giver of God is sweet, gentle, and placid.

Frequently, the colour of the Virgin’s robe is blue and her maphorion is red, which respectively represent humanity and divinity as previously described for icons of the Pantocrator. However, these colours s are inverted in icons of the Theotokos because the Holy Spirit (divinity) at the Annunciation overshadowed the Virgin’s humanity. Often the Virgin’s outer garment is a shade of red with a bit of purple in it, perhaps closer to a cherry red. The purple red of the Virgin’s clothing reflects her royalty and the deep red of the Pantocrator illustrates His passion and death.

The Theotokos from the iconostas of St. Andrew
Ukrainian Catholic Church, Winnipeg, MB

In icons of the Virgin Mary, we see the acronym for her name (MP ΘY) in Greek letters placed next to her. When the icon includes the Christ Child, His halo usually contains a cross with the Greek letters omicron, omega, and nu (ό ώ ν) as well as His acronym, “IC XC”. Icons of the Theotokos are too numerable to review all the various types here but the following describes of some of the ones commonly found in Ukrainian churches.

Hodegetria — She Who Shows the Way

The Hodegetria is an icon illustrating St. Mary holding the Christ child on her side while gesturing to Him as our source of salvation. The original icon of this style was kept in the Monastery of the Panaghia Hodegetria in Constantinople. Empress Eudocia, the wife of Theodosius II (408-450) obtained it from the Holy Land, and this was one of the icons attributed to Saint Luke. Since the prototype originates from St. Luke the Evangelist, it is not surprising that this is one of the most popular images of the Theotokos.

The Hodegetria icon from the iconostas of St. George
Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, Saskatoon, SK

The “Black Madonna of Częstochowa” is an example of the Hodegetria style. This icon is said to be of Ukrainian origin and was called Our Lady of Belz, after the city from which it came. However, as the iconologist Sviatoslav Hordynsky points out, no one really knows what the original looked like because it was almost completely destroyed and repainted in Cracow in 1430. It is now a great symbol of Polish Roman Catholicism. As well having dark skin, St. Mary has scars on her face in this icon. A Hussite invader desecrated the original icon and the marks from his sword were painted over as scars when the canvas was restored. Pioneer Ukrainian churches sometimes have variations of this icon since Polish religious art would have sometimes substituted for more traditional Eastern Rite iconography. Such an icon was located in St. Elias Orthodox Church (OCA) north of Rheine, Saskatchewan.

Polish style icon of the Virgin – St. Elias
Orthodox Church (OCA) north of Rhein, SK

Eleusa — Virgin of Tenderness

Eleusa is a Greek word meaning tenderness or showing mercy and icons of this type show the Theotokos with the infant Jesus Christ in a more personal or affectionate manner. This type of icon denotes the sacrifice of Christ as the utmost sign of our Lord’s love for us. The Virgin and Child are undeniably human in this style of icon and often their cheeks touch poignantly.

Detail from the iconostas of St. John the
Baptist Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Oshawa, ON

One of the most popular icons found in Ukrainian churches and homes falls into the Eleusa category. It is known by several names, including the “Virgin of Passion”, the “Virgin of Perpetual Help” or Pammakaristos in Greek. Some Ukrainians may know it as the Dostoino icon because the icon commemorates the Hymn to the Theotokos: “It is truly meet to bless you, Theotokos, ever blessed and most pure and Mother of our God.” The first word of this hymn in Slavonic is Dostoino (Достóйно).

The Virgin of Passion – Sts. Vladimir and Olha
Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, Winnipeg, MB

One must study the details of the icon to appreciate why it is called the “Virgin of Passion”. The theological interpretation of this icon is that the angel who greeted the Virgin at the Annunciation now reveals the instruments of the Passion to her and her child. Christ, being a human child, is frightened by this revelation. The two angels in the upper corners bear the implements of Christ’s torture and death. Note that one of the sandals is loose and dangles freely from Jesus’ foot. Tradition has it that the sandal came off when Christ was frightened by the vision presented by the angels and he leapt into his mother’s arms. (In some versions of this icon the Virgin and Child wear crowns and in others they do not.)

In Dormition of St. Mary Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Mamornitz, Saskatchewan, there is a particularly poignant icon placed on the Royal Doors in the form of a sort of medallion. This image shows the Virgin bringing the Christ child’s little hand to her lips. It is an unusual and utterly charming depiction of the Birth Giver of God.

The Tender Virgin – Dormition of St. Mary
Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Mamornitz, SK

The Virgin of the Sign

The Virgin of the Sign is an image of the Theotokos in the Orans style. She holds her arms outward in prayer and Christ Immanuel is shown in an aureole over the Virgin’s breast. This symbolizes Christ in the womb. The name for this icon comes from the prophet Isaiah: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: A virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7: 14).

The Virgin of the Sign from the apse of Christ the Saviour Orthodox Church, Ottawa, ON

The Virgin of the Sign was very popular in ancient Kievan-Rus and it is still very popular in modern-day Ukraine. The earliest depiction of the Virgin of the Sign known to us is in the fourth century Roman catacomb called the Cimitero Majore. The Virgin of the Sign is also sometimes poetically called Platytera — “She whose womb is more spacious than the heavens”.

Protection of the Theotokos

The Protection of the Theotokos is both an icon and a feast of the Virgin celebrated in Eastern Rite Churches. In Slavonic it is known as Pokrov (Покровъ). The feast commemorates the protection given to Christians when the Theotokos intercedes on our behalf. In Ukraine it is almost as important as the twelve major feasts and there are a great many churches dedicated to the Protection of the Theotokos. One of the best-known churches in Canada named for this feast is St. Mary the Protectoress Ukrainian Orthodox Sobor in Winnipeg. The church has a magnificent icon of the Protection of the Theotokos rendered by Sviatoslav Hordynsky on the ceiling of the nave.

The Patron Icon from the ceiling of St. Mary the Protectoress Ukrainian Orthodox Sobor in Winnipeg, MB

The icon illustrates the Theotokos in prayer and she is bearing a veil in her outstretched arms, signifying protection by her intercession. She may be depicted alone or possibly with a number of saints and angels. This is also an icon in the Orans style. This image comes under many names such as St. Mary the Protectress, Our Lady of Intercession, or the Patronage of the Blessed Virgin Mary. A great many Ukrainian churches are named in honour of this feast in Canada.

The Immaculate Heart of Mary

Devotion to The Immaculate Heart of Mary originated in the Roman Catholic Church but it gained popularity in the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Canada, particularly during the period when a significant percentage of Canadian Greek Catholic priests were trained in Roman Catholic seminaries. The origin of this practice comes from a French Roman Catholic nun, Marguerite Marie Alacoque, who spoke of learning this devotion from Christ, Himself, in visions. This image of the Blessed Virgin Mary is related to the “Sacred Heart of Jesus”.

Immaculate Heart of Mary from Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Ukrainian Catholic Church, Star Peno, AB

It is rare to see the Immaculate Heart of Mary in an Orthodox church because Orthodox theologians find this image to be a peculiarity of Western Rite art. The image does not fit in well with traditional Eastern Rite iconography. However, one might see such an image in some of the older Ukrainian Orthodox parishes of the pioneer period.

Other Icons of St. Mary

The Mother of our Lord appears in a great many other icons, in particular some of the icons dedicated to the Twelve Major Feasts such as the Nativity, the Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, the Dormition (Assumption), etc. She also is frequently portrayed as principle figure in icons of the Crucifixion, the enshroudment (Plashchanytsia), the wedding at Cana, etc. In icons of St. Anne, the Virgin is frequently included and depicted as a small girl.

The Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary -
Sts. Peter and Paul Orthodox Church (OCA), Dickiebush, AB

On a large iconostas, one can see the image of Christ’s mother in several places such as on the Royal Doors, in the festal icon tier, at the top of the iconostas in the portrayal of the crucifixion, etc.