Without doubt, the most popular of the saints is the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God: the one who gave God her humanity, so that he could become human, become one of us. Mary, then, incorporates everything that the icon incorporates: she became the place where God came to dwell. For nine months, as she bore Christ, the Godman, she was the place where God was dwelling among human kind. She became, quite literally, a living Temple, and remains the one who made God present in human form. She offers us her son as the God we are to worship; when she turns to God in prayer, she is turning to the one who is her son.
It is striking how, right from the beginning, in the second-century Protevangelium of James, reflection on Mary relates her to the Temple. In the Protevangelium, this is done in narrative form: Mary is brought up in the Temple; at the moment of the annunciation she is spinning the red and purple thread for the veil of the Temple, that will be rent in two at the moment of the crucifixion – as recorded in the Gospels. The Jewish Temple itself, and many of the objects found therein – the ark of the covenant, the rod of Aaron that burst into blossom, the jar containing the ointment – are seen as prefiguring the Virgin Mother of God: the Temple and the ark of the covenant, and the jar with the ointment, contain God as she contained in her womb the divine foetus; the rod that blossomed miraculously symbolizes the virginal conception and birth – the belief that Mary conceived and gave birth while still remaining a virgin.
What we see in narrative form in the Protevangelium of James takes on more lyrical form in the later hymns and songs to the Mother of God. The most famous of these songs is the so-called Akathist Hymn – akathistos being Greek for not standing, the hymn being generally sung in procession. One section of the Akathist goes thus:
We sing your offspring
and all raise to you our hymn
and all raise to you our hymn as a living temple, Mother of God.
For having dwelt in your womb,
the Lord who holds all things in his hand
sanctified, glorified you, and taught
all to cry out to you:
Hail, tabernacle of God the Word,
Hail, greater Holy of Holies.
Hail, Ark gilded by the Spirit,
Hail, inexhaustible treasure of life.
Hail, precious diadem of Orthodox kings,
Hail, honoured boast of devout priests.
Hail, unshakeable tower of the Church,
Hail, unbreachable wall of the kingdom.
Hail, through whom trophies are raised,
Hail, through whom enemies fall.
Hail, healing of my flesh,
Hail, salvation of my soul.
Hail, Bride without bridegroom.
Icons of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, explore visually the way in which she relates to her son and also to us. Two of the earliest forms depict the Mother of God holding Christ in one arm (usually the left) and pointing to him with her hand (usually the right); this is the Mother of God Hodigitria, the one who points to the way to Christ, who is the Way (hodos in Greek), the Truth and the Life. Another early form presents the Mother of God seated on a throne holding Christ in her lap; often she is flanked by saints. Again she presents her son to the world for worship and entreaty.
In both these types of icons, the Mother of God is represented as a majestic figure. Later on in the Byzantine period different forms of icons of the Mother of God develop (though often enough there seems to be little correlation between inscriptions on icons and different iconographic types: the Virgin Hodigitria can be inscribed Pammakaristos, all-blessed, or Eleousa, merciful). These include the Virgin Galaktotrophousa (the nursing mother), Glykophilousa (kissing, or embracing, the infant Christ) and Eleousa (merciful, both, I think, looking with compassion on her son who is to die, and with an expression manifesting her mercy towards us). These developments represent the Mother of God more tenderly.
Speaking of Mary, was she really a virgin if Jesus had siblings or was John the Just a sorta step-brother?