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  • Institute of Sacred arts

Elizabeth Bouteneff: An Icon's Salvific Intimacy

The materiality of the icon as an inevitable and important conduit for its spiritual messages by Elizabeth Bouteneff .

My grandmother had an icon in every room of her apartment. When she passed away, my immediate family acquired most of her icons, and only then did I get a look at them up close. This icon, painted by Tamara Elchaninov, had hung in her bedroom.

..."The Orthodox iconography of the Theotokos is extremely varied and rich. This is partly due to her significance in the justification for the existence of icons during the iconoclast controversy: by giving birth to Christ, she circumscribed the un-circumscribable, just as icons do. But Mary is also a central figure in human salvation."

At first glance, it seems unremarkable. It’s darkened by age and relatively small, just 5.5 inches wide and 6.5 inches tall, not much larger than a greeting card. The subjects are immediately recognizable: the Mother of God and the Child Christ. Only once I took it off the wall did I realize it has a velvet backing, which makes it lovely to hold. It exudes warmth and a comforting presence through its use of color, materials, diagonals, inscription, and the gestures of the figures. With it in my hands, I took a closer look for the first time. The Theotokos and her Child embrace each other, her arms overlapping Him. She occupies most of the figural space. Mary’s halo appears three-dimensional; it expands into and spills over the squared frame surrounding both figures. Mary’s head tilts to one side while the Child’s conforms to the prominent diagonal that this tilt generates. The gentle curves throughout give a soothing effect, which paradoxically, is both moving and stable. Their hands, too, follow the same diagonal, further implying movement. The ways in which Christ’s body gently curves towards His mother is, in a way, an expression of His own devotion and love for her. The focus of the icon thus is not simply on a holy mother and child, but rather on their relationship with one another; a relationship which, as she looks out extends to the viewer. The Theotokos is the main character in the icon, primarily because of the space she occupies. She is not only the largest figure, but she also envelops her Son--and hers is the only halo that extends beyond the frame. The Virgin Mary is depicted as active and therefore corporeal, as she mediates between us and her divine Child. The icon has an extremely limited color palette: deep, rich, muted tones of burgundy, blue, gold, and a paler red. These accentuate richness in the skin tones, whose shades vary beautifully across the faces; the lips of the two figures are the same hue as Christ’s garment. The light source is from directly above, almost like a divine benediction, adding ambiguity of location. The value of the color used for the skin tones deepens around Mary’s eyes, framing them and bringing them into focus. The warmth of the tones comforts the viewer, even at a distance, and serves to establish the grounded, earthy, yet ethereal aura of the overall piece. The variety of materials employed in the icon serves a greater purpose. The metal acquires metaphysical aspects, including the halos and the inscribed prayer. Unlike some other icons with revetments, this one does not cover Mary’s and Christ’s clothing (even though riza, the Slavonic term for such metal covers, means garment). The revetment encloses the Theotokos and Child within itself as if they perfectly belong. As opposed to many gold and silver revetments which shine brilliantly, the brass of this one gives off a deep warmth, again, complementing the muted tones of the paint. The heavenly and earthly realms meet seamlessly within the icon, neither contradicting the other, and further neither more important than the other. Paint is used for the earthly aspects, namely the bodies, fabrics, and the scroll in the Child’s hand. The brushstrokes are smooth and nearly imperceptible. Only the intricate details on Mary’s garments show variances and imperfections. Likewise, the revetment is imperfect: the borders of the halos are bumpy in places. At one point in time, it seems only the halos were cleaned. This gives a marvelous effect, even if not part of the original intention; it is a reminder of the physical fact of the icon’s existence, of history, and, most importantly, of interaction. The figures’ lower halves are absent; all emphasis is on their hands and faces. I read this similarly to interpretations of Christ Pantokrator, who is often located in church domes. While, like the Pantokrator, part of the Theotokos is in a different realm, she actively desires intimacy with us and aids us on our way to salvation. In most icons Christ is portrayed as upright and confident, in control, and a teacher. Here, however, he looks intently towards His mother, pressing His cheek against hers. He appears vulnerable, even needy. His hand wrapped around her neck, almost clutching her garment, is particularly intimate. Mary’s pose is understated, yet significant. Her gaze is simultaneously compassionate and confident, extending her teaching and love for her Son to the viewer. The shape of her eyebrows and depth of her eyes create a serene expression, and again the diagonal, through the tilt of her head, shows her as an active figure, one who is strong and confident in her ability. So far we have viewed the image in isolation. Now, I would like to offer just a bit of analysis, and further explain some of this icon’s uniqueness. The Orthodox iconography of the Theotokos is extremely varied and rich. This is partly due to her significance in the justification for the existence of icons during the iconoclast controversy: by giving birth to Christ, she circumscribed the un-circumscribable, just as icons do. But Mary is also a central figure in human salvation. Our icon is a derivative of the so-called Vladimirskaya (a twelfth-century image transferred from Byzantium to Russia) and is commonly referred to as eleousa, or merciful. The eleousa type emphasizes the compassion of the Theotokos and is rooted in her lamentations at the Cross. Grieving at her Son’s death made her a co-sufferer with Christ, and by extension with humanity, turning her into the perfect mediator. Her gaze expresses emotions which range between sadness and compassion. As the one who understands humanity perfectly, she communicates with her Child on our behalf. Mary relates or even translates the human experience to Christ. Paradoxically, she anticipates the Passion while holding her young Child, becoming the ultimate paradigm for believers: indeed, she was the first to accept the divine mystery that her Son must die or, as Maria Vassilaki stated, “At the foot of the Cross the Virgin overcomes her human nature and enters into a deeper communion with God.” A distinct feature of the icon is the fact that the two figures seem to exchange a scroll. There is some purposeful ambiguity as to who is giving it to whom: He is the Logos, the Word of God, while she is the one who gave form to the Logos (in the medieval period scrolls would have been made from animal skin, hence the association with the enfleshment of Christ) and was also His teacher. The ambiguity serves to equalize them. It simultaneously reiterates the incarnation narrative and plays on their intimate relationship. The inscribed prayer at the bottom of the revetment furthers this active role of the Theotokos. Translated from Russian, it reads, “Most holy Mother of God, save us!” Straightforward and powerful, it resembles the Jesus prayer. Instead of calling on Jesus’ name, however, it calls on Mary. It recognizes her agency, as one who actively saves. The inscription is legible yet unobtrusive, enhancing what is already expressed through the image. Ivan Drpić notes that inscriptions on revetments often work harmoniously with the images. Having dedicatory words hammered ioto the frame enhances its “preciousness” by stamping it with logos, and “stage[s] the object for the spectator in a much more emphatic fashion.” The supplicant here reminds the Theotokos that Christ must honor His mother’s intercession. The essential, inextricable bond between them means that one cannot revere Christ without revering His mother. Another unique feature of the icon is the way in which Mary gestures with her left hand, with an open palm whose pinky is sharply folded. This gesture does not have a clear iconographic source. Some icons depict the last two fingers pointing down to represent Christ’s divine and human natures, while she makes the Trinitarian blessing with her other three fingers, normally done with the right hand, not the left. Interestingly enough, in some icons of hymnographer saints, odd hand gestures are displayed to imply performance of music. I consulted Harrison Russin, St Vladimir’s Director of Music, who hypothesized that such a gesture might derive from medieval musical iconography intended to indicate switching to another part or solfege.

Supporting that hypothesis is the unusual existence of punctuation in the revetment’s inscription: the comma in the middle suggests rhythm, the exclamation point at the end conveys emphasis and emotion. These rhythmic and oral aspects invite the viewer to sing the prayer, or at the very least to come into a close relationship with the text. The inscribed intercessory prayer, the diagonality of the Theotokos, and her outward gaze not only encourage close interaction, but also suggest that Mary will respond on behalf of the praying viewer. The icon is intimate in what it portrays and in how it is meant to be experienced. To me this icon epitomizes a strong bond, a link, between us and God. It touches me greatly knowing that this icon was in my grandmother’s bedroom. “Sense perception is a means of reaching the spiritual,” as St Gregory of Nyssa preached. Especially in an era like ours, when attending church can be difficult, I urge everyone to take another, deeper look at the icons you have in your home. Pick them up. Examine them from different angles. Look for what you have never seen before even if you just acquired it or have known it for years.

May 14, 2021

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