On today’s memorial feast of the Immaculate Heart, I want to honor Mary with a reflection on her virtues, which we are all called to imitate, all of which center on the one true thing — love for Christ. I selected 5 icons of the Blessed Virgin to aid me in this reflection, and I hope they will help you reflect and ponder more deeply the mysteries of Mary and Jesus in your life.
Every icon is an icon of Christ. For some people, it may be hard to relate to this Orthodox teaching on sacred icons, because Jesus isn’t visually depicted in all icons of saints and the Blessed Virgin — yet he truly is! As we are made in the image and likeness of God (the Greek word icon means image), and as Christians, called to imitate Christ, the saints and most especially Mary point us toward Christ through their lives of grace and virtue. When we look to icons, we are looking to follow Christ, and Christ’s closest followers show us the way. As Saint Paul said:
“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” — 1 Cor 11:1, see also 1 Cor 4:15-16.
When we compare different icons of Mary, we can perceive this notion more clearly.
I specifically chose the icons in this post for their similarities and their differences. The most notable similarity in all these examples is Mary’s red outer garment and blue inner garment, following the Eastern Orthodox tradition (in the Catholic tradition, the colors are reversed: her outer garment is blue, her inner garment red). If you’d like to know more about the red and blue depictions of Mary in sacred icons, I invite you to read Reinkat’s post on Red Mary, Blue Mary. In summary, the red, the blue, and the gold background are meant to draw our mind to the heavenly reality, with images of the dawn, the morning star, the rising sun, the sky, and the brilliant majesty of the beatific vision.
In all of these icons, Mary’s robe is adorned with 3 stars, on her head and each shoulder. In the images where she is facing us squarely, we clearly see all three stars; in the ones where she is slightly counterpoised, we only see 2. The viewer of icons knows all 3 stars must be present, because they represent Mary’s perpetual virginity — before, during, and after she gave birth to her first born son, Jesus Christ. Hence, the stars on Mary’s garment hearken, also, to the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation and Nativity.
In contrast to the icon of the Immaculate Heart, at the top of this post, and the icon of the Mother of Sorrows, below, the 3 icons above present Mary with her hands in the Orans (praying) position. Let’s note some more of their similarities. In the first and third of these examples, Jesus is at the center. The first is called Panagia (all holy), for she presents us with the Holy of Holies, the Incarnate Son of God, as through a window into heaven, living in her womb. The third is called the Eternal Chalice, where Mary presents us with the Eucharistic Christ. How do these two icons relate to the image of the Immaculate Heart in the center?
Just as there is one Lord and Savior of all mankind, Jesus Christ, there is one Holy Mother of God. She is the same Mary in all icons, always presenting Jesus Christ to us in different ways. Jesus is always at the center of every icon even if we don’t see him with our eyes. The point of the icon is a visual aid to help us ponder the Gospel truths in prayer and reflect on them more deeply in our heart. Mary’s Immaculate Heart points us to Christ more than any other heart, because she always kept Jesus in her heart (Luke 2:19). Her Immaculate Heart invites us to do the same.
And that’s why we have this feast of her Immaculate Heart today.
We also recall that today’s feast follows the feast of Christ’s Sacred Heart — a feast of sorrows and a feast of reparation. This reflection thus reminds us of the heart pierced with a sword (Luke 2:23) and Our Lady of Sorrows (whose feast is September 14). The image of the Mother of Sorrows, above, resembles the icon of the Immaculate Heart at the top of this post very closely. Unlike the other icons presented here, this one appears vacant at the center.
Yes, and No. On Holy Saturday, Mary suffered her darkest day of grieving (observe the darkness of her inner garment) — a full day bereft of Christ. Her hands and the 7 arrows, representing her 7 sorrows, all point into her pieced heart at the center. Though not visible, her broken heart where she always kept Jesus is present in this icon.
Icons are meant for us to fathom heavenly realities and deepen our devotion and love for Christ. There are more details we could ponder in any one of these icons than I can go on to enumerate in this post. These are left for you to consider and contemplate, if you like. Earlier in this post, I mentioned the Catholic iconographer and blogger, Reinkat, and linked to one of her posts. She has written many articles on icons of Jesus, Mary, and the Saints, and often goes into these details, which we’d like to cover, but must leave aside here, today. If you are interested in learning more about praying with icons, you may want to visit her blog and give it a search.