An Icon for Advent
I saw an icon my novitiate year before seminary formation. It was a strong image of Mary the Mother of God, an image of spiritual depth and beauty. The icon revealed something more profound and inspiring than many of the more sentimental religious images I remembered from my childhood. Oh, I had seen icons before. During my undergraduate years I studied them in Art History. Still, my instructors presented them from an art perspective, mostly, not from a liturgical or theological viewpoint. Yes, when I saw this icon years ago I perceived something different, something that spoke to my faith. I purchased a reproduction of the icon and placed it on the wall of my novitiate room. To this day, I recall how during the long and cold winter months, I experienced warmth through this image, like the warmth of a mother comforting her child with a cloak of protection and hope.
At the present time I work as a professional artist and iconographer and have had the opportunity to create many icons. Among these have been several variants of the icon I first saw in the novitiate. This icon of a strong and beautiful Mary and Christ child over her heart and womb is known by several titles. Each one seems to reveal something distinct about this ancient image. It is a worthy icon to reflect upon during the time we call Advent, a word that means coming.
First depicted in the catacombs of the early church, this particular icon is known as Oranta, which in Latin means prayer. It is not a natural depiction and in so many ways different than the religious art we see so often of Mary and Jesus. This icon reveals a spiritual relationship that not only informs us of the special character of the love between the Lord and His mother, but one that calls us to better know and live the faith of Him who lives in the lives of all who call Him Lord.
Her decorative cuffs are appropriate for a Queen, and resemble the cuffs worn by a priest of the Eastern Christian tradition. Thus, it is natural to view Mary as one who offers prayers on behalf of others.
The origins of the icon can be found in the ancient church, when East and West shared a common faith. Thus, it is an icon that reminds us of unity and shared belief, in a world in need of a merciful savior.
Through the Oranta icon,
we are reminded that Advent is a time of prayer and unity.
Our priority is that of Mary, who waited in anticipation and prayer. God is our salvation. God is our source of unity. We can make room in our hearts for the Lord, who found no room in the inn.
theotokos of the sign
Years after the Oranta icon appeared in its first manifestation on the walls of the catacombs, a discussion over the role of Mary was addressed in the early Church. In 431 AD, the Council of Ephesus declared Mary Theotokos, which translates as Birth Giver of God, or Mother of God. This title primarily was intended to affirm the divinity of Christ, and has become a special title of Mary even to this day, abbreviated with the Greek letters MP and OV. Likewise, the name Jesus Christ is often abbreviated IC XC, indicating He is the anointed one of God.
The Oranta icon impressed on the minds of Christians during a battle that took place in Novgorod in November of 1165. Church historians tell us that the frightened believers of the town, while under attack from a neighboring army, turned to the Oranta icon, and through it and the intercession of the Theotokos, Christ interceded to save the people. During the battle, an arrow pierced the icon, which in turn led to the Mother of God turning her face towards the town with tears. They fell on the garments of the local bishop who proclaimed:
“O wonder of wonders! How can tears be streaming from dry wood! O Queen! You are giving us a sign that you are entreating your Son that the city be spared.”
The victory was perceived as a "sign" of God’s protection.
Through the Theotokos of the Sign icon,
we are reminded that Advent is a time of intervention.
We not only ask the Lord to come to us again in a special way, but to protect us through the intercession of His Mother and ours.
virgin of the sign
Over the centuries, because of the events in Novgorod, the icon has come to be know as Virgin of the Sign, and thus associated with the Advent prophesy written in Isaiah 7:14 and 9:5-6 (NAB).
Therefore, the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child, and shall name him Immanuel.
For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace. His dominion is vast and forever peaceful, From David's throne, and over his kingdom, which he confirms and sustains by judgment and justice, both now and forever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this!
She bears three stars, on her forehead, right and left shoulders, signifying she was a virgin before, during, and after the birth of Christ, and that she is a temple of the Holy Spirit. She remained a virgin, while also being a mother.
Our Lord is imaged in her womb, not as a fetus, but as the Son of God and Son of Man, fully human and fully divine from the moment of conception.
He is imaged as King of the Universe, pure and robed in the color of the Sun, as divine ruler of all creation. His right hand is set in blessing, while He holds a scroll, indicating that He is the New Law, the living Law, fulfilling the Law of Moses.
This icon gives witness to the reality that God, in the incarnation of Jesus, came into the world some 2000 years ago. This speaks to the believer of the Nativity of Christ, the arrival of God as human in a stable, in the small town of Bethlehem. In this sense, the icon is recognition of history, the amazing birth of Jesus through Mary.
We prepare during Advent for the Christmas celebration that God entered human history in a unique and profound way that changed life forever.
Through the Virgin of the Sign icon,
we are reminded that Advent is a time of miracles.
While still a virgin, Mary conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit. When Advent is a struggle, and darkness, sadness and despair knocks at our door, we are made aware that our God is a God of the miraculous.
When you enter an Eastern Christian church, it is likely you would see an image of the Virgin of the Sign in the upper apse behind the iconostasis. The Theotokos is seen as the one through whom God communes with believers. This image is known as Platitera, translated from Greek as Greater than the Heavens.
This image challenges us to ponder the reality that Christ, who has come in history, comes to us this very season, this very year, with hope and joy. As we look upon the icon of Platitera, the composition reminds us that Mary was chosen to give birth to Christ is an utterly unique way. She gave Him his humanity. She is a pure temple of the Holy Trinity. And through the Mass, God dwells among us, and as believers, we receive the real presence of Christ every time we partake in the Eucharistic Liturgy, communing with the Lord.
Through the Platitera icon,
we are reminded that Advent is a time of God in the present moment.
Christ has come into the world, through the Virgin Mary in history. Yet, He comes to us now, offering Himself to us as the bread of life, born in us anew. In the liturgy, we enter into God’s world now, He comes to us in the liturgy, in the present moment, in this season, in this community gathered.
In each of the titles under which we have explored the mystery of this icon, something distinct has been revealed. Each title also points to the reality that Christ will come again. Icons are known as windows to heaven precisely because they offer us a glimpse of the spiritual world, which is outside of time. They offer us a mystical vision of what will someday be fulfilled.
Through the many titles of this icon,
we are reminded that Advent is a time of mystical hope.
During Advent, we await in the midst of darkness. The long winter nights remind us of longing. The deep colors of purple remind us of repentance and anticipation. We wait in joyful hope for the coming of the True Sun, the Christ who will fill our darkness with light and our cold world with the warmth of hope and joy.
May this icon I saw so many years ago, give you warmth, like a mother comforting her child with a cloak of protection and love.
Nicholas Markell is a liturgical artist who is dedicated to iconic imagery in glass, pigment and graphics. He believes liturgy and worship are among the most important of the Church's works, and a revival of iconic images is meant to lead to the renewal of hearts, minds and lives. Nicholas explores the mysteries of faith creating Christian art with great meaning and beauty.
The icon featured in this article was created by Nick Markell for Mary University in Bismarck, ND, installed in the chapel of Our Lady of the Word.