Theotokos and child today and yesterday...

Last night I went on a search for my favorite icon of all time - but I couldn't recall where I had first seen it. Was it in then Leningrad or Minsk? Odessa or Kiev? In the monasteries near Moscow or... Somewhere I have a photograph of this treasure, but I wasn't going to start a basement crawl at 1:00 am. So, with my trusty new iPhone, the search was on.

What inspired me, you see, was a wonderful candid picture taken the last time we were skyping with my grandson. Towards the end of the conversation, he wondered, "Where's poppa?" Apparently he uses his hands to communicate like many of the rest of his family. When I saw the still shot, two thoughts came to me:  First, I thought of the Eucharistic prayer posture, orans, that includes the liturgical invitation: "The Lord is with you... And also with you."
But my second thought took me back to that icon: where in God's name can I find it? After putzing about for 45 minutes - without luck - Di suggested I stop looking for "theotokos" and try "madonna and child" and start with Kiev. And sure as shooting, when I did my favorite image of the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared. It isn't really an icon - it is a fresco adorning a massive wall in the St. Vladimir Cathedral in Kiev, Ukraine - which is how I began to remember it. I know that I was knocked on my butt by both the size and the majesty of this painting when I first visited Kiev in about 1984.
If you look closely, you can see the fresco of the Virgin in the background. It was painted by the non-traditional Russian artist, Victor Vasnetsov, who was not appreciated by the Orthodox faithful because he had not studied iconography. Vasnetsov was a revivalist of Russian mythology and while his works evoke deep responses, they were not painted in the typical bathed in prayers style of Orthodox monks. This cathedral was completed in 1882 (just 20 years after our own Pittsfield church was rebuilt) and the art work finished by 1896. (For more information: Volodymyr%27s_Cathedral)

I was delighted to find a copy of this painting last night - and I dreamt about it all night long - for two reasons. One, my daughter and grandson have always reminded me of a 21st century take on this masterpiece. I know this is overly sentimental, but I can't help but see parts of the Holy Family in their holy family. Isn't that what incarnational spirituality is all about? It didn't just happen once with Jesus, but perpetually as our flesh is made whole and holy by God's grace.
Two, I love the Palestinian look on momma's face. She is a fierce and loving woman - not sitting but standing in power - as she embraces her holy child. There is tenderness and authority to her gaze. She is young, sensual and not lost to the traditional flat features of so many other icons. Her eyes speak of hope and enormous sorrow, too. And that little Jesus is already offering the world his blessings - not unlike another little man at the top of the page.

In his book on icons, Henri Nouwen turned me on to the Theotokos I have on my prayer stand at church: the Virgin of Vladimir. She, too, comes from Kiev but in the 12th century and in a highly traditional style. Nouwen notes that her eyes express the sorrow she knows her son will endure as he matures, a sorrow that many experience every day. It is a sadness born of solidarity. At the same time, the baby Jesus - in his stylized shape - embraces his mother and comforts her with his tiny hand. He, too, already embodies his healing role in creation: in this icon we have the intimacy of our Mother of Sorrows and the Healer of the World.

There is one other icon that really speaks to me: Mikhail Vrubel's work from 1884 at St. Cyril's Monastery in Kiev. He, too, was not a traditional iconographer so his first sketches
to replace 12th century icons at St. Cyril's Church in Kiev were not accepted. His take on the Virgin and Child was influenced by his study in Venice and his unique understanding of medieval Christian art. Vrubel's paintings were preserved, however, when the Czarist government of Catherine the Great converted the monastery into a hospital and insane asylum. The Soviet regime maintained this unconsecrated use until 1929 when St. Cyril's was proclaimed a national monument of historic significance. Worship was still prohibited as St. Cyril's was now a museum and remained so until the 1990's when it was returned to the Orthodox Church and reconsecrated for worship.

What intrigues me about this Madonna and Child is similar to what touches me in the Vasnetsov fresco:  Mary is sensual - alive and vibrant - young and engaged in life. Her facial expression - and eyes - look very Palestinian. And her small child offers a subtle and gentle blessing as he rests in her lap. My tradition literally threw the baby out with the bath water back in the days of our iconoclastic fervor. Like adolescents of every generation we were certain we had a monopoly upon the truth. We smashed everything that didn't fit into our oh so limited understanding of God's love - and lost so much beauty and wisdom in the process. 

Dianne and I joked before going to sleep last night that after retirement we'll have to find a Russian Orthodox choir for me to sing in. I'll still need to hand with my jazz mates, but spending time with the icons, chants and incense would do my soul good. Let's see what we discover of this world in Montreal...


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