Virgin and child icon

Tucked away in the Lady Chapel and facing outwards from her corner by the small altar is a painting on wood of a grave young Virgin and her little son. This is not a picture from Western Christianity: our Western tradition usually emphasises emotion. It is an icon, created in the mystical Eastern tradition, which emphasises stillness and presence. So this is no sweet child playing at the breast, like our late 14th century Gothic statue of the Virgin and Child. We are not being guided to delight in affection or vulnerability. This little man is, and always was, the fully-present Son of God who ‘diminished himself by taking on human form’ as Orthodox Christianity puts it. That is why the child is portrayed as a small adult rather than as a baby. The Virgin points to the future saviour because she shows the way (the proper term for this is Hodigitria, which is Greek).

Sometimes, in icons, the child looks straight at the viewer. Ours focuses on us but his head is inclined towards his mother; and hers is slightly tilted towards him. This suggests that our icon is Greek rather than Russian, where both figures usually look straight ahead. We don’t know the date. In one sense, the date is irrelevant because the truth and the picture that it conveys are eternal. However, it is likely to be 19th century, if only because HT wouldn’t have had the funds for an earlier one.

Our icon was paid for, in part, by an anonymous donation of £60 that arrived in a brown paper envelope in 1994. It was purchased by Fr Charles Smith of Corpus Christi Church, when he was in Athens in May 1994 for the Greek Orthodox Easter. There, said Fr Christopher Hewetson who was HT’s vicar at the time, he chose “the one we have as being appropriate and yet enriching for our Chapel”. It was added to the new Lady Chapel along with a new altar and chairs, both designed by the curate Elias Polomsky and made by Hugh Croft, Christopher Hewetson’s brother in law.

Don’t be afraid of images of Mary. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,” the pregnant Mary cries out in Luke (1.46-56) when visiting her cousin Elizabeth. Her outburst of praise and joy became the Magnificat that is part of the Anglican Evensong. An icon of Mary does not imply any undue adoration or Mariolatry.

Icons are there to be absorbed and pondered like the themes and variations of a piece of music. For example, the tilting of the head between mother and child draws us into the relationship between the two figures. The mother points to the child because he is the Way, and he points back to his mother, without whom he could not have taken human form. The child is not balanced on the mother’s hip but held up, the better to display the Christ to the watcher. The child’s right thumb touches the tip of his fourth finger in blessing because the fourth finger is traditionally connected to the heart. The gleam of the two halos is blended into the same space. Every stroke of paint has significance: icon painters speak of ‘writing’ an icon.

The mother wears the rust-coloured veil that is traditional in Eastern Christianity while the child is in a brighter red that matches the mother’s bodice: red is the colour of divinity in Eastern Christianity and the two figures share the same shade because, to quote an Orthodox source, “no human being resembles Jesus Christ more than His Mother. We can certainly look to her as an example of what it means to be ‘Christ-like’.” Her face is darkened with the sorrow that awaits when her son dies.

There are letters cut into the gold background. On the left are: MP. Actually, the lettering is Cyrillic, which is another alphabet, but we won’t go into that. MP means: Mother of God. Lower on the right is IC, meaning: Jesus Christ. The Greek lettering above the IC means: I am that I am, God the Creator’s famous retort to Moses (Exodus 3.14).

Our icon is encased in a princely gold frame topped by the twin-headed Byzantine eagle. Those who takes Communion in the Lady Chapel can see it clearly above the flowers or candles that stand below it. May the figures, like music, speak directly to your hearts.