The Virgin of Vladimir

The Theotokos of Vladimir is among the best-known of all icons, partly for its quality and partly for its history. It is of the type called the Theotokos Eleousa, the Mother of God of Tender Mercy, from the same root word as the Kyrie Eleison we intone in the litany. In contrast to the more regal Hodegetria (She Who Points the Way) model, here the Virgin holds her child in a tender embrace while he presses his cheek against hers. According to tradition, this pose echoes a prototype painted by St. Luke from life, and was therefore sanctioned as a true and holy image. Because of its theme of maternal compassion, this particular icon was invoked in times of peril throughout its history, with consequences (not all good) for itself.

Compassionate Image

In this image, the Virgin holds her child closely with her right arm, so that his contour, except for his head, is completely enclosed within her own. With her left hand, she points toward him, but also touches him gently beneath his outstretched arm. She wears the traditional dark blue garment, edged and fringed in gold like the clothing of the Byzantine court. Two gold stars adorn her head and shoulder, with a third implicitly hidden by the child. These are variously interpreted as representing the perfection of Mary’s virginity, either past, present, and future, or in body, soul, and spirit. Or they might represent the Trinity, the one star being concealed by the real presence of the Second Person. Or all of the above, simultaneously.

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Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Baltimore, Maryland.

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