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The Virgin of Vladimir

The icon before you is known as the ‘Virgin of Vladimir’, or ‘Our Lady of Tenderness’.  It is one of the most venerated of all Russian icons, and was painted – or rather ‘written’ – by an anonymous Greek artist at the beginning of the twelfth century.  Around the year 1183 it was brought from Constantinople to Kiev, until twenty years or so later it was moved to the newly completed Cathedral of the Dormition in Vladimir.  The icon – regarded as a sacred national treasure – remained in Vladimir until the fourteenth century, when it was again moved to a newly completed Cathedral, this time in Moscow.  It remained there until the Bolshevik insurrection in 1917.  In its long life, this icon has escaped many fires and plunderers, and has undergone many restorations (to which the mottled gold and orange background testifies), but through it all the faces of the virgin and child are still those of the original Byzantine masterpiece.

Yet there is also in this icon, a cyclical motion: as we gaze, we are arrested by the dark, attentive eyes of the virgin, the gentle direction of her left hand, and the Christ-child – whose loving gaze returns our eyes to the face of his mother.  We are invited to draw closer to this image of close, tender love and union – to draw closer to the Christ-child enthroned in the arms of his mother.

In Russian iconography, there are a number of different ways of portraying the Virgin, and two classic styles are apparent here.  The first is the understanding of Mary as the one who points the way to Christ – the Hodegetria.  As she addresses us with her eyes, her left hand directs our attention from her, to her Son, in a gentle action echoing the words in John chapter 2 when Mary simply tells the servants at the wedding to look to Christ, and ‘Do whatever he tells you.’

But what makes this icon more than the Hodegetria, the one who points the way, is the tenderness of the embrace between mother and child – cheek to cheek, soul to soul.  This style of depiction is called the Eleousa, and more than just pointing the way to Christ, it speaks of the depth of tenderness, love and compassion between Christ and Mary, between God and humanity.  This is the divine embrace with which our redemption, forgiveness and salvation is sealed.  This is the divine embrace which is pure joy.  Creator and Creation.

But let us return to the eyes of the Virgin.  Dark, deep and heavy.  Somehow, they seem to look outward and inward in the same moment.  Despite the ‘joy-full’ embrace, they are sorrowful, mournful eyes, because as she looks at us, she knows and we also know what this child must bear; and with Mary we hear again the woeful words of aged Simeon: this child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed, so that the inner thoughts of many shall be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too. And with the sorrowing eyes, the mother’s small, linear mouth is turned down in sadness.  The lips of mother and child are close enough to touch – and as it is a kiss that seals their love, so it will be a kiss that seals his fate.  No wonder she sorrows.  No wonder she holds him to herself.

A little know fact about this icon is that in its original form, it is double sided.  One side of the panel bears the image of the Virgin of Vladimir, and the reverse an image commonly known as ‘the instruments of the passion’: nails, whip, ladder and spear.  As we gaze into the eyes of the Virgin, the cross is indeed very near.

We need, though, to spend some time reflecting on the child to whom we are directed.  He clings to the Virgin – his right hand pulling on her veil – his left hand barely visible, but emerging around her neck as he pulls her closer to himself – close enough, maybe to kiss.  There is, possible in the spirit of this icon, a quotation from the love poetry of the Song of Songs: his left hand is beneath my head, and with his right hand, he embraces me.  From earliest times the Song of Songs has been understood as an allegory of the love between Christ and his Church – and Mary also is the representation of all God’s people: those through the ages who have said ‘yes’, and accepted the will of the Most High.

The child is no baby – and the features of the face are as adult as those of the Virgin – and his clothes and face shimmer with and uncreated light.  The light of the glory of God.  The Christ-light is in sharp contrast to the darkened hue of the Virgin’s robe, and yet it is reflected in the ornate trimmings and the stars upon her head and breast.  In her obedience to God, and as she directs us to Christ, Mary is drawn close and reflects the brightness of the glory of God.  And if that same glory, that joy, is to be reflected by us, and in us, as indeed it ought to be, then we must respond to the invitation to be drawn into this tender embrace, and receive the gentle kiss of our Lord.  And with the kiss, the gentle power of the life-giving Spirit – a strength symbolised in iconography by the enlarged neck of the infant.

As he clings to his mother, we see in Christ God’s unashamed identification with our humanity.  The child’s feet give the impression of a wriggling, eager child enthusiastically pulling himself closer to his mother’s face.  You and I may know times when we are conscious of clinging to God.  But are you aware of God clinging to you, not out of necessity, but in an exuberant outpouring of tenderness and love – the love that will not let us go, the love that is the source of all our joy.

I think that wriggling – that struggling- can open for us another path of reflection, it seems to me.  One that affirms that this is God’s love for us – for you and me.  That struggle between Virgin and child mirrors the struggle with God as Jacob wrestled with him.  A struggle that ended with God’s blessing, and the knowledge that this was not only the God of Abraham, but the God of Isaac and Jacob.  The same God who was unashamed to identify himself with their humanity, is unashamed to identify himself with ours.  He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the God of Susan, Andrew and Jan; of Jane, Diane and Lucie – and so on ……

As I’ve spent time with this icon, I imagined entering that picture as a third person – responding to the gentle invitation to draw closer to Christ.  Imagine yourself walking towards the Virgin and excitable, wriggling child.  What occurs?  What is said?  What do you do?

In my mind’s eye, as I approached, the Virgin held Christ out to me.  For me to hold, for me to embrace.  For me to enjoy.

In this icon, we encounter the God whose tender love will not, cannot let us go.  The tender love which unashamedly identifies with the reality of our humanity.  The tender love which calls us to receive the breath of God and the kiss of the Spirit.  In the Virgin of Vladimir, we see the words of the gospel in flesh and blood:

“For God so loved the world, that he have his only  Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Jesus said: “I have come that you may have life in all its fullness.”

Richard Watson

with information drawn from Ponder these Things: Praying with Icons of the Virgin by Rowan Williams

and Behold the Beauty of the Lord by Henri Nouwen