St. Mary: Doorway to Salvation, Window toward Heaven
by Father Garabed Kochakian
In the month of August with the Feast of the Assumption of the Mother of God- one of the five major Tabernacle Feast of the Armenian Church/ Daghavar- St Mary once again finds an important place in our hearts and minds. In the universal Church on this earth, she is the first of all the saints. And, our Holy Mother in a special way is remembered and honored for her role in the History of our Salvation. She became the central objective of God’s love for humanity.
For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that everyone who believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. [ Jn 3; 16]
Go to your church and look upward above the main Altar. You will see the Icon of the Holy Mother gazing forward with her dominating presence like a doorway for us to enter Heaven. She is seated upright, and majestic in a commanding position.
Her sacred Icon immediately captures our eyes and our senses, as she presents to the faithful, the Son of God seated on her lap and with His right hand offering the world a blessing often holding a globe or a scriptural message for us to read. St. Mary herself as Queen of Heaven is seated on an embellished throne and likewise herself becomes the throne for Jesus Christ the Saviour of all humankind. The Blessed Mother of God calls to us saying, come sit at the Right hand of Christ my Son and with Him kneel before the Throne of God Our Father.
Though we see her image every time we stand in worship facing the Holy Altar table, we may wonder why her Icon specifically is placed in every Armenian Church.
Some Background about The Icon of St. Mary and why her Icon as well as those of other saints are important to honor in our praises to God.
Of all the painted images of Saints in the Armenian Orthodox Church, the Icon of the Virgin Mary is preeminent. As we venerate her as number one among all the Saints. Herstory and the tradition and history of St. Mary’s Icon, comes from Apostolic times, even before the Church in Armenia was officially established.
Two Armenian fourth century historians Agath’angelos and Movses of Khoren beautifully described how her icon became an integral part of the iconography in Armenian sanctuaries. They record in their historical writings how one of the twelve Apostles, St. Bartholomew brought her image with him to Armenia during the evangelization of our people in the first century. Also, other theological writings in Orthodox Church sources name Saint Luke the Evangelist and an himself an artist as the one who painted her icon.
However, in the received tradition of our church, it is these two Armenian historians that clearly describe the account of how her Icon- graced with miraculous powers- eventually became an important part of the visual dress of our theology and placed in the Armenian Church. They cite the monastery called Hokeyantz Vank (Monastery of the Souls) in Armenia that her Icon first came to be placed during the first century.
Subsequently it was at the third Ecumenical Council of the universal Church held at Ephesus in 431 A.D. when she was officially proclaimed by the Church, as the Mother of God, Theotokos /ASDVADZADZIN [Bearer of God] thus giving her the primary place as a mediatrix and intercessor to Christ. This proclamation not only elevated her but defined her image to be preeminently placed in church buildings.
But, throughout ensuing centuries the presence of the her Icon and its veneration- as well as images of other saints -faced stiff opposition from heretical groups particularly beginning in Armenia in the early seventh century in 604 and onward. It was sometime in 607 and thereafter that all painted icons were officially declared as a canonical part of Armenian Christian piety and worship.
An Armenian Bishop named Verth’annes Kertogh [the Grammarian /Poet], the Locum Tenens of the Holy See of the Armenian Church, authored a treatise and declared Icons bring us closer to God. A later Catholicos of the 8th c. St. John of Odzoon at the Council of Dvin in 719.A.D., also mentions that all Icon should painted in the churches are to be anointed and honored/ venerated. These two Armenian Church fathers set the stage giving the raison d’etre- the Invisible was made visible,… that which is ‘spiritual’ and is revealed in the ‘material’ clarifying why and how in the Armenian Church tradition, the Icon functioned as part of prayer, piety and our lived historical experience in our Christian tradition. They became visual reminders of God’s presence through Divine revelation, and through special people and sacred events. With her call at the Annunciation, the Holy Mother was the first of these special people named Saints.
WHY SAINT MARY?
In liturgical hymnody and as well the iconography in the Armenian tradition she is often referred to as a Doorway. First, the Revelation of the Invisible God with the birth of Christ become visible, and then herself a vessel toward Salvation. Through her powerful role in God’s mysterious Incarnation and emulating her obedience to God’s Will and observing a pious life, it becomes possible for us to find our own place in the embrace of Christ God at the heavenly throne and banquet table of our Father.
St. Mary’s Icon in Armenia
No doubt, Verthannes Kertogh’s apology and John of Odzoon’s canonical declaration about Icons in the Armenian Church certainly became a catalyst for the image of St. Mary and the Christ child’s appearance.
As the place of St. Mary and her important role and her image increasingly grew in Armenian Church piety appearing in our sanctuaries, it was not until after Iconoclasm in the Byzantine Church that her Icon became a mandate to be placed in the Church. In 867 and the victorious defeat of Iconoclasm, the Icon mosaic of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Child was officially placed in the Church of the Holy Wisdom / Aghia Sophia in Constantinople. That was named the All Holy Virgin (Panagia Gk.).
As to the Armenian Church’s requirement to include her Icon, the exact date is not certain. However, we can presume that it could very well have been even earlier than the ninth century mosaic Icon in the Church of the Holy Wisdom in Constantinople.
WHAT HER ICON TELLS US
Her Icon is not just a beautiful picture, it is a sacred message. It is an important reminder to us to live according God’s Will and call, as she did, pursuing a God pleasing life and as created human beings emulate St. Mary herself. When we do so, we too can become vessels of grace.
Many of the icons of her present the theological tropes of the Blessed Mother expressing important teachings. We as humans are created in the image of God, the Invisible God, a dogma of the universal Church, became flesh and live with us. This is the Incarnation‘ as stated by St. Athanasius, God become man visible in-the human person of Jesus the Son, so that we can become as Him.
Through by the obedience of St. Mary the Queen of Heaven- The Incarnate God in Christ, unites both Divine with human natures as One Nature in God the Son who was born and took flesh from the chosen Virgin to bring Him into the world and through Him carry us to heaven.
Thus, her image, her Icon became prescribed iconography in the Armenian Church and as well other Orthodox Churches. St Mary like a throne presented the seated Christ the Lord to the Church. as The Birth-Giver and vessel of Salvation, as the Blossoming vine for God who came to be with us [expressions about St. Mary in our hymnology]. Also, the seated The Lord Himself, the All Powerful Amenagal and the Grantor of Salvation on her right knee or seated in her lap reveals the face of God in human form. So, the Icon of the Incarnation – St. Mary and Christ- becomes a double call to us.
Interestingly, at the beginning of the Soorp Badarak/Divine Liturgy, the intercessory invocation to her acknowledges her place of honor and her role in the plan of Salvation -History.
Վասն սրբուհւոյ Աստուածածնին բաեխոսութեանն, Տէ‘ր, ընկա‘լ զաղաչանս մեր եւ կեցոյ‘ զմեզ
By the intercession of the Holy Mother-of-God, O Lord receive our supplications and save us.
…Receive O Lord, our supplications through the intercession of the Holy Mother-of-God, the Immaculate bearer of thine only-begotten Son…
Aspects to observe in the Icon; Its Colors, Adornments, Bodily Posture.
First, both the Holy Mother and Jesus are clothed in majestic robes Colors are deliberate by choice, reds, blues, or purple as they all have a significant meaning in Christian art. There are differing schools of thought used by Iconographers and Illumination artists some from Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Iconography, and some from the Iconography of the Latin West. Nonetheless their particular inclusions are allegorical.
For example, the colors of both the inner and outer garments of the Blessed Virgin describe how Divinity clothed humanity. Some icons of the Virgin’s outer mantel are red and a blue under robe that signify how Divinity clothed humanity. Red is considered a Divine marking. Often the color purple as well, worn by emperors- nobility, and royalty is used for the outer mantel of the Virgin who is herself a descendent from the royal House of David.
Other Icons of St. Mary present her attired in a blue mantel with a red undergarment showing how her humanity was used to carry God’s Divinity in her womb. Also, the color blue tells us of her heavenly role as a ‘person’ who entered beyond the limits of the sky [ God’s creation] and partaking in the transcendent mystery of the Incarnation. Both used by icon painters and are acceptable in the Armenian Church’s iconography of her sacred icon
The Virgin’s outer garment is laced with a golden fringe and tassels, also part of royal attire. Her left, and right shoulders and as well at the center of her forehead veil appears a star shape called a Diadem. Symbolically this design was even used in pre-Christian art also, indicating royalty. The star is placed on a Crown and identifies one as a monarch. The three Diadems give the same message. St. Mary, the Mother of God carried the responsibility upon her shoulders to be the bearer of the Divine within upon her as the Queen of Heaven crowned with a Diadem resting on her head.
Now we view Christ the King of Glory dressed in a tunic often gold or gold ochre. His right-hand offers a benediction to the faithful. In His left hand sometimes holding either an orb, signifying the earth which He as God has created, or other times a scroll, with an inscription “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.[ Jn. 14:6]
Also, iconographers may choose to use white the color of purity, cleanness, innocence, and the mystical “uncreated light” Christ Himself shown to Peter, James, and John at the Transfiguration. The white robe to cover His body in the like manner signifies the white swaddling bands that covered the body of Jesus at His birth. And, the white burial cloths were the same color at his death of the winding sheet at His death
Both are graced with halos. Yet note, Christ’s is unique, with an inscribed Cross behind His head. In the middle arm of the Cross in His halo appears the Armenian letter eh Է which declares His Divinity with the Godhead. This echoes the words from the Gospel of Saint John …In the beginning, was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God [John 1: 1] Also, as a sing letter it shows the answer God from the Burning Bush explains Himself to Moses ‘… ‘Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14).
From Christ God’s birth to His crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension, the Holy Mother has been and will forever remain for us who pray to her our prime intercessor to her Son. Her sanctified humanity, perfected by her obedience in accepting the will of God, becomes an important steppingstone toward the roadway to salvation.
Her Icon then is a constant reminder to live according to the will of God and to be as perfect as Jesus says to us
August 1, 2020