Icons of the Theotokos
The first icons of the Birth-Giver of God, or Theotokos, were painted from life by the Holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke. When she saw these icons she said that God’s Grace would be with them. Of those that are attributed to him, we carry the following six reproductions: the Theotokos of Vladimir (T22, T23), the Theotokos of Czestochowa (T21), the Theotokos “of Three Hands” (T27), the Theotokos “Portaitissa” of Iveron (T81), the Theotokos of Tikhvin (T114), and the Theotokos of Smolensk (CT718). These icons left a mark on the pattern for all following icons of the Virgin, and have a history of being miracle-working, for the Lord most especially loves those who love Him, and His Mother’s love for God is foundational for us to understand better how to love Him. As it is written in the Holy Scripture, “All generations shall call me blessed...” for indeed all those generations of those who enter deeply the Mysteries of the Church do reverently call her blessed.
These icons just mentioned above, however, are not all of the miracle-working icons of the Virgin, but just a small part of the great intercession worked by her holy icons. Some of the other reproductions of her wonder-working icons we offer are: the “Glykophilousa” or Sweet-Kissing from Philotheou Monastery on Athos (T40), the original “Axion Esti” or “It is Truly Right” from the Protaton Church on Athos (CT712), the Theotokos of the Sign of Yaroslavl (T30, T75, T76), the original Theotokos of Kazan (CT710), the Theotokos “Byelo-Zersk” (T66), the Theotokos “Pantanassa” from Vatopedi Monastery on Athos [known for curing cancer] (T79), the original Theotokos “Donskaya” (T80), Panagia [or All-Pure] “Paramythia” from Vatopedi Monastery on Athos (T83), and the original Theotokos “Kursk Root” (T84). Known to cure physical, emotional, and spiritual ills, these original icons just mentioned have been pillars of support to the Faithful over the centuries.
There are several terms that help us understand how different icons of the Theotokos are named. For example, the term Theotokos is literally translated as Birth-Giver of God. It was given as a term of honor to the Virgin and in support of the true Incarnation in the flesh of Jesus Christ at the Third Ecumenical Counsel in 431 at Ephesus to counteract the heretic Patriarch Nestorius of Constantinople. Nestorius did not believe that Christ had both a fully human and Divine nature at the same time, therefore he would not call the Virgin Theotokos, or Birth-Giver of God, but only Christotokos, or the Christ-bearer. The ending “...skaya” in Russian icons means “of the...”, so the Theotokos “Kazanskaya” means the Birth-Giver of God of Kazan, and Theotokos “Donskaya” means the Birth-Giver of God of the Don.
Hodegetria means Directress, for she can direct our way back to her Son. Glykophilousa means Sweet-Kissing, for their relationship was especially close and expressively loving. Eleusa means Merciful, for she extends the mercy that she has received by her great love of her Divine Child. Platytera means More Spacious Than the Heavens, for her womb became greater than all space because the Creator of all (as it says in the Nicean Creed, “by whom all things were made”) was enclosed in this sealed fountain. Kardiotissa means Of the Heart, for her heart is reaching out to us to teach us how to love Christ with a pure and unselfish love. In addition, the term Panagia means All-Holy or spotless, indicating that she was always Virgin, before and after childbirth.
Icons of the Virgin also fall into many types which are the patterns by which they are known, such as the Hodegetria (many examples), the Glykophilousa (T06, T07, T19, T38, T40, T44, T45, T72, T85, T91), the Life-Giving Spring (T08, T16), Unexpected Joy (T25), Eleusa (many examples), Of the Sign (T30, T52, T75, T76), Of the Passion (T39, T43, T86, T111), Kardiotissa (T68), and Platytera (T54) to mention a few. There are also icons named after the great and ancient hymn to the Theotokos sung standing called the Akathist (T70), or verses from that hymn Stone Cut from Mountain (T107).
Besides being named after places where the icons did or do reside, such as Yaroslavl, Don, Tikhvin, Czestochowa, Vladimir, Iviron, Korsun, Greben, Byelo-Zersk, and Kursk; there are titles by which the Virgin has been called over the centuries, such as: “Life-Giving Spring” (T08, T16), the “Protector” (T12), “Unexpected Joy”(T25), “Golden Spring” (T46), “Formidable Protection” (T47), the “Healer” (T48), “Holy Protection” (T51, F127), “To Whom We All Look” (T53), “Great Grace” (T56), “Full of Grace” (T58), “Tender Mercy”(T60), “Eleutherotria” (T90), “The Refuge of All” (T92), “Unfading Rose” (T93), “Hope of the Faithful” (T94), and “O Glorified Mother” (T110). These indicate how the Faithful have prayed for her intercessions in many ways and have received them. There are many icons of the Panagia enthroned with her Son, for He sits on her lap, or is carried in her arms, and rules the Universe by His gracious and loving Will that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the Truth.
There are also pictorial representations of her position in history and in the Church, such as icons of the Tree of Jesse (T63), the Burning Bush (T64, T113), and the Abbess of Mount Athos (T17, T88). In each generation, the great iconographers have painted her icons, following the example of St. Luke. We even have an icon of St. Luke painting that first icon (S384). Let us come in and explore the moving witness of so many generations that have held her in honor and love in these beautiful and touching icons.