Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Windows to Heaven

Elizabeth Zelensky and Lela Gilbert

The Vladimir Theotokos, which represents the Hodigitria type of icon, was painted in Byzantium – probably in Constantinople- at the end of the eleventh century. It has spent, however, most of its thousand years of existence in Russia. It is currently housed in the Tretiakov National Art Gallery in Moscow. A few words about images of the Theotokos in Byzantium and medieval Russia will help place this particular icon in its historical context.

The Vladimir Theotokos is an excellent example of painting from the golden age of Byzantium, whose art is characterised by ‘dignity and graciousness, restraint and balance, an undisturbed refinement and harmony with religious emotion,’ according to Byzantologist A A Vasiliev. This particular icon is the product of the last full-fledged flowering of a civilisation that was precariously balanced on its pinnacle of artistic and political power. By the end of the eleventh century, the fortunes of the Byzantines were on the wane. The devastating defeat of the Byzantine army by the Seljuk Turks in 1076 at Manzikert, compounded by the rape of Constantinople in 1204 by Western crusaders, fatally weakened the empire. Its final fall in 1453 to the forces of the Ottoman Sultan Muhammed II was something of an anticlimax, long expected by all.

The particular compositional type upon which the Vladimir Theotokos icon is based is known as the icon of Lovingkindness (in Russian Umileniie), a translation of the Greek Eleousa, which carries connotations of mercy, compassion, pity and tenderness. In the words of St Isaac of Syria, these emotions flow ‘when a man’s heart burns for all creation - men, birds, demons and all creatures. At their memory and sight his eyes shed tears. This is why he prays hourly, for dumb creation, for the enemies of truth, for those who harm him, [that] they should be preserved and shown mercy; he prays also for the reptiles with a great compassion which wells up in his heart without measure until he becomes likened in this to God.’

The Vladimir Theotokos is the physical image of motherhood transformed into compassion for all creation. In her we see a woman transfigured and magnified into her full spiritual potential. And this, of course, is the task of all true icons: to reveal human beings in their full eschatological meaning through contact with divine grace.

From Chapter 3 of Windows to Heaven – introducing icons to Protestants and Catholics, published by SaltRiver (Tyndale House) 2005
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