Icon Mary Mother of Evangelization Guide to reading


Sr. Miriam Tamiano, O.Carm – Cerreto


Every Carmelite Marian icon recalls the relationship of Mary with her Son and seeks to visualize it. Since the fourth century, the form of these images has tried to reflect the principle aspects of Marian theology, above all the theological aspect of Mary as Theotokos; a title indicating her role in the history of salvation and the spiritual aspect that evokes her role of intercession[1].

In this icon Mary appears also as Virgo purissima: a true sign of her being full of grace: her virginity[2] and the beauty of her soul. She shows us the way, Jesus - the Word of God, and with a gesture she evangelizes. As Mother of evangelization she touches intimately human hearts with the imperishable adornment of a gentle and serene spirit (see 1 Pet 3:4), the true ornament of the humanity that shines through the whole person. Resplendent in her gaze, she pours out a smile also reflected in her gestures. The postures of the four saints are in harmony facing us like Mary and Jesus and they are surrounded by a bright halo[3] visibly outlined in white.

In this icon we find represented “transfigured” people: the saints. The images that fill out the icon, symbols of a luminous presence, are not placed as they usually are at the feet of Mary, under her mantle. Their full figures are placed symmetrically at the four corners, inserted into niches giving a different effect like polished gold, the same as we find around Mary, the diffusion of a light filled presence. The location of St. Albert of Jerusalem, St. Teresa of Avila, Blessed Titus Brandsma and St. Mary Magdalene de' Pazzi around Mary are not specific to any place or time. We can contemplate their presence among us right here and now. They are not outside of time but "trans-temporal", that is, throughout all of history but now present in our time.

The clear figures, radiant and uplifting, symbols of truth and transparency, are surrounded by a golden light that arises from within and seem to want to convey the saints in light of the reality of God, the Sun of Justice, who reveals His presence. The figures of Blessed Titus and St. Madeleine are situated at the base of the icon, while St Albert and Teresa seem almost suspended, as if the stylization changes the human features yet still respecting their human aspect. The figures have a certain sobriety about them, as if to highlight their movement towards the eternal, silent, and as if with a flame shining in their eyes. The figure of Mary stands on the flat ground, clothed in the most regal of the garments, which becomes iridescent with light from her white mantle. Mary retains the Carmelite colours although the tunic and mantle, through the lines and shadows of blue and purple are faithful to the traditional canon associated with the garments of the Hodighitria. The language is simple and universal.

The transfigured and stylized human figure expresses the experience of an inner light that comes through the person physically. The person of light, above all, is seen in the face[4].
Only St. Teresa looks directly at the Mother of God, the eyes of the others are turned towards the observer, the one who prays, namely towards us. The icon allows the encounter with the gazers on many levels. It is no longer us who observe the images, but like every other icon, we have the experience of being watched. Their eyes look to us but unlike some paintings in which the eyes follow every movement of the space in which they are placed, the icon gaze always leaves us free to wander, to respond to the one observing. The icon does not force a response from us. The figures are right before our eyes and not located in some other place.

The figures of the Carmelites have a simple stylization of the hood, as well as highlighted clothes that cover the earthy colours of the vesture of St. Albert so as to enlighten, brighten, enliven and reflect the transparent robes of the Mother of God. Reverberating in her are the colours of the sky and also the furthest depths. While in the white of the hood, in the transparent white, there emerges the fire of the red mantle, which enriches the one who gazes like on a cloud, enveloping them in the embrace of hope and salvation.

In any icon where the Mother of God points the way to Christ (Hodighitria), you have two light sources from within the representation: the face of Mary, her eyes darkly veiled in tension with is highlighted from the forehead and the nose, making the figure more melancholy but still at ease, and the figure of the child sitting in a royal position[5] on her left arm slightly turned towards the Mother: he is the source of divinity and light; he is the evangelist per excellence, as well as the Good News. Although presented by Mary, she is enlightened by him and in turn becomes the source of light and hope. It is Christ who speaks to the posture of adoration from St. Mary Magdalene and Blessed Titus. The position of the right hand of the Virgin, respectfully points to her Son, and at the same time, makes intercession. The fixed right hand on the white background marks the central visual of our attention inviting prayerful listening to the white scroll held tightly in the left hand of the Son and is lifted slightly upwards.

The absence of any horizon situates the Mother of God at the centre surrounded by these Witnesses in a circular pattern. In iconographic art there is no real horizon, but draws our attention to overlaid positions leaving the scene suspended in air, because the place and time of the event is the present moment. Mary is now among us and accompanies us on our journey as Carmelites. The circular aspect emphasizes that which is central to the icon Mary's womb and the child raised slightly to her left. He is the Lord of life, our “East” to whom we turn. And it is in the fine quality of the faces that our encounter takes place.

In the tradition of the early church, Origen speaks of God who becomes incarnate, revealing himself through his “icon”, through what is visible, limited – yet, the Unseen, the Unlimited one. In such a perspective, every Marian icon is related to the true icon that is every human being, the prototype of which is Jesus Christ, the glory of the Father. Contemplating the theophany in Jesus, or seeing in this life, is the experience of our forebears near the spring on Mount Carmel and continues to encourage others to follow their example up until our day – that is to learn the art of “looking inwards” thus reflecting the source of the true light[6]. Even today in the image of His Mother, through the gracious gesture of the evangelizer, she points the way to Jesus. We are also invited to describe in our own icon of encounter and friendship as Carmelites transfigured in the glow of light that envelopes all immaterial things, seeing differently all that is ordinary and natural[7]. 

[1] Hence, there are aspects of the presence of Mary in Marian icons relating to the life of Carmel. She is contemplated as the Mother of God (theological aspect) and is the foundation of our drawing near to her, experiencing her as Sister and Mother: due to her proximity to her Son we are guaranteed a sure hope of her intercession (spiritual aspect) as well as accomplishing in life the project of personal holiness (anthropological). Her depiction is linked to the role she plays (Epiphanic appearance), manifesting the essence of the bond with Christ.

[2] The three crosses of light (only two are visible) usually refer to the symbol of virginity before, during and after childbirth and also interesting as a way to the Trinity, of which they become a sign. Mary is the place of His presence, the ark for nine months of the Triune God.

[3] By the nimbus "cloud" the glory of God is clear evidence of a holy person. The difference with the halo from “aures” recalls the crown of victory that the saint receives at the end of the good fight. In essence, the halo emphasizes the aspect of the gift of grace, while that of the halo is merit. Graphically the nimbus is three-dimensional, it remains the same even if the figure of the saint is rotated, thus, the halo soon becomes a circle, oval, and sometimes even a flat disk.

[4] The light emerging from the inner face; recalls Ecclesiastes: "Wisdom makes one’s face shine." (Eccl. 8:1).

[5] For enthroned, see Akatistos I "Glory to you, because you are the king's throne! Glory to you, because you hold the one who sustains all things".

[6] See M. G. Muzj, ​​Visione e presenza, iconograpfia e teofania nel pensiero by André Gabar, Ed. Casa di Matriona, Milano 1995 p. 214.

[7] The purpose of the icon is not to evoke or to enhance natural human feelings. While not denying anything of our humanity, it points us towards a "transfiguration" of all our feelings. Every manifestation of human nature achieves its true meaning in the ordinary harmony of life, which gradually widens the limit of our vision of space and beauty, in the Mystery of transfigured humanity.