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Charles Barber

Early Representations of the Mother of God

From "Mother of God; Representations of the Virgin in Byzantine Art"
Edited by Maria Vassilaki.

AMONG the more intriguing problems that confront the modern audience for a Byzantine icon are those of learning how to look at and speak of this work of art (1). Conditions of display, whether in the museum, the home, the auction house or the church, affect and complicate our initial response to a given icon. This encounter becomes more complex whenever we ask if our present circumstances for reception and interaction, including the assumptions that we as beholders bring to bear on the icon, are valid as readings of a work produced in a specific time and place in the distant past. Can we call the icon a work of art? What changes as the icon moves from church to museum to sale room? What stays the same? In contemporary Orthodox practice an icon might be embraced, serve as the focus of prayer, or be the recipient of gifts. It can be assumed that these practices mark a continuation with a longstanding tradition, and indeed such an assumption underlines much of the discourse on icons. Yet, can we be certain that these were considered valid interactions at the time of our earliest Theotokos imagery? While Christian iconography is identifiable from the second century, the exact relationship between this art and its audience is unclear until the seventh century (2). Few texts or traces of physical evidence survive that address the question of the incorporation of the image into the life of the early Church (3). It is only in the last years of the sixth century and throughout the seventh that a consistent body of writings emerges to address this question. These varied writings have been used to argue for an increased cult of images in this period (4).A construction that has held wide sway for many years. Recently, however, this reading has come into question (5). Doubts have been raised about the authenticity of the narratives told, and arguments have been made that the pre-Iconoclastic cult of icons is largely a construct of iconophile writers of the period of Iconoclasm and its aftermath. The construction and deconstruction of this notion of a cult of icons has been largely based on texts. Given the strongly divergent readings of these texts it appears appropriate that in the context of an exhibition of objects we should consider the material evidence for the cult of images as it pertains to the imagery of the Theotokos (6).

The late sixth -or early- seventh century icon from Sinai of the Virgin and Child with Archangels and Saints provides a useful point of departure for this essay. It is not a straightforward image (7).The enthroned Virgin and Child occupy a central position within the work. Behind them, two archangels turn gracefully within the narrow space of this scene and direct their gaze up towards the hand of God.Light issues from this hand and descends upon the Theotokos and Child. While Christ directs his gaze at the viewer, the Mother of God turns her eyes to the side. This act distinguishes her from the two military saints who stand rather stiffly on either side of the throne. These saints are unnamed but are commonly identified as St Theodore and St George. This pair gazes directly out of the icon at the viewer.

My reading of this panel is shaped by formal cues found within the icon itself, where the lack of uniformity in figure style and the varied points of attention of those depicted make this a remarkably complex visual text. One consequence of this variety is the relative difficulty in determining the viewer's primary entry point into the icon. For example, with her eyes averted can we assume that the Mother of God is the necessary focal point of this work? Originally this image was probably supplemented by an inscription on a now lost frame. This text might have referred to the image, and might even have defined a way of viewing the work. Alas, this hypothetical opportunity is lost, and we are left to assemble comparisons that might facilitate an understanding of the viewer's relation to this icon.

The most compelling point of comparison for the Sinai icon is a fresco painted in commemoration of the widow Turtura and found in the catacomb of Commodilla in Rome (8). Dated to around 530, this image provides suggestive clues as to how one might respond to the Sinai panel. In the fresco the Virgin and Child are enthroned at the centre of the image. They are flanked by two saints, Felix and Adauctus, who were buried in this catacomb. These saints introduce the diminutive figure of the widow Turtura to the Virgin and Child. An inscription accompanies the image. This offers an account of the widow written by her son. The text praises Turtura for remaining celibate for thirty-six years following the death of her husband Obas. She is likened to a turtle-dove, who has no other love after the death of its mate. It is this chaste fidelity that 'alone brings a woman to honour' in the estimation of her son (9).

The Turtura fresco and its location can help us clarify some possibilities for reading the role of the Theotokos and Child in the Sinai icon, by helping define the function of the saints in the image. The elaborate praise of .the chaste mother and also her costume suggest a direct correlation of the Theotokos and Turtura.(10) Against this, we witness an initial mediation by the local saints. Felix rests his right hand on Turtura's right shoulder, while Adauctus makes a gesture of speech. These two acts make it clear that these saints should be understood as Turtura's advocates, presenting her to the Theotokos and Christ. Here, it is important to remember that this image is located in the catacomb of Felix and Adauctus. It is near their bodies that this woman has chosen to be buried. It is their intercession she seeks. While the Theotokos and Child are the final recipients of Turtura's devotion, it is the local saints that act as her advocates and serve as the initial objects of her devotion (11).

In turning back to the Sinai icon it is now possible to argue that the first point of attention within the image lies with the two military saints who flank the Mother of God and her Child. It is these saints who directly address the viewer with their gaze, providing the primary access to the economy of intercession represented here in the icon. This reading of the Sinai icon and the Turtura fresco implies a privileged role for the local saint. It should not, however, be understood to claim a diminished level of importance for the Theotokos. Rather, we should understand a hierarchical structure in the process of intercession.

Such a hierarchy can be found in one of the decorations found in the church of St Demetrios in Thessaloniki (12). In the now lost late sixth-century Maria cycle, located in the north inner aisle of the basilica, Maria is shown in four scenes from her early life. These portray the young Maria presented before two intercessors, the Theotokos (her namesake) and St Demetrios. In the first scene the infant Maria is shown before the saint's ciborium located in this basilica. Demetrios sits before the open doors of this structure. He touches the child with his right hand and gestures with his left towards Christ, who is shown in a medallion above. The success of this act of intercession is marked by the fact that Christ reaches out of his medallion towards the saint in answer to his mediation. This image of intercession is complete in itself, yet we notice that the Theotokos is shown standing next to Christ's medallion. The position of her arms indicates that she is also engaged in an act of intercession, even though she does not share the immediate contact with the child that is Demetrios's privilege. As if to develop this role, the second scene is focused upon the Theotokos alone as an intercessor. An older, but still very young Maria is held up to the standing Mother of God, who offers a prayer towards a now lost medallion of Christ. The third scene shows a standing Demetrios in a position of prayer. A still older Maria together with her female companions present candles to the saint. Demetrios's prayer is directed at a medallion of Christ. Two points complicate this third scene. First, the prayer inscribed beneath the saint reads: 'And the Lady, the Holy Theotokos'. The Mother of God is thus verbally incorporated into the panel (13).Second, a medallion containing the Theotokos is placed to the left of the Christ medallion, thus including her as a mediating figure in this image of intercession. The fourth scene is significantly damaged. It appears to show Maria with her family standing before Demetrios. It is probable that Demetrios was again shown as an intercessor with Christ. There is no evidence to suggest that the Theotokos was represented here. Beneath this last scene is the following text: 'And you, my lord St Demetrios, help your servants and your servant Maria, whom you gave to us'. Read as a complete visual text, this short cycle undoubtedly places great importance upon the role of Demetrios. He is the local saint, whose relics in this church make him the most immediate intercessor on behalf of Maria. Having said this, the prominence given to the Mother of God in both text and image demonstrates that she is tightly woven into the fabric of intercession. While the first scene shows Demetrios in a close relation with Christ, the presence of the Mother of God here and her role in the next two panels reiterate the privileged relationship between the Theotokos and Christ within this economy of intercession (14).

The Turtura fresco and the Maria cycle both make use of the presence of their local saints’ bodies to mark a point of departure for the acts of intercession shown. In the case of the Theotokos, this physical presence, did so much to localize the holy, was compromised by the fact that she left no body and few other relics. This relative lack of relics does give rise to an important consideration. By the seventh century dedications of churches to the saints were normally marked by a mass and by the deposition of primary or secondary relics (15). Since relics of the Mother of God were not plentiful, it appears that icons of the Theotokos could fill this lacuna (16). Our primary evidence regarding this point derives from Rome. Bertelli has argued that the Hodegetria icon in the Pantheon functioned as a relic in the conversion of this pagan temple into the church of Santa Maria ad Martyres in 609 (17). A second example is offered by the transfer of the sixth-century icon of the Theotokos from Santa Maria Antiqua to Santa Maria Nova in 847. This transfer marked the replacement of the Antiqua church, which had been largely destroyed in an earthquake in 847, by the Nova church. The transfer of the icon, the primary relic of Santa Maria Antiqua, marked this change (18). Similarly, we first hear of the Theotokos icon found in the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome in the period following the rededication of this church from the titulus of Juli et Callisti to that of a church dedicated to Mary (19). These examples suggest a link between the dedications of these churches and the icons that they contain, and consequently enable us to consider the icon in terms that normally apply to the relic alone. We need, however, to strengthen the notion of the icon-as-relic in order to develop this point.

The icon in Santa Maria in Trastevere is a problematic work, but it also allows us to bridge the gap between an icon and a relic. The panel shows the Theotokos and Child enthroned. The Mother of God is a Maria Regina type, probably adapted from a standing figure. She holds a staff cross in her right hand. Archangels stand to either side. At the foot of the enthroned Theotokos is the fragmentary image of a pope at prayer. A partial inscription survives on the frame. The first part of this refers to the archangels and comments on their witness of the Incarnation (+ ASTANT STYPENTES ANGELORUM PRINCIPES GESTARE NATYM ... A ...). The second part appears to develop this notion by referring to the divinity as made by itself (DS QYOD IPSE FACTYS EST). Read on its own terms the first of the two texts could be considered a commentary on the Incarnation itself, and upon the possibility of our witnessing this (20).

The second part of the inscription can, however, be read in a different manner. Pilgrimage texts of the 640s speak of an acheiropoietos image in the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome (21). The image is described as being 'per se facta est', thus recalling, if not repeating, the phrase written onto our icon. The existence and fame of a miraculous Theotokos icon in Santa Maria in Trastevere is underlined by a Greek text, perhaps composed in Rome in the eighth century, which includes an icon of the Theotokos in this church in its list of acheiropoietoi images (22). The continuing significance of this particular icon throughout the Middle Ages indicates that we should accept that the texts indeed refer to the icon that remains in the church (23). Given this, it is now possible to confirm the existence of an icon of the Theotokos that can be considered a relic.

Having made this point, the complex imagery of the Santa Maria in Trastevere icon raises further issues concerning the relationship of depiction and devotion in the imagery of the Theotokos. Brubaker has recently defined devotional imagery in these terms: “the ‘icon’ was a devotional image that served as an intermediary between the viewer and the person represented ... the sacred portrait is best understood as a transparent window that the viewer looks through (to the ‘prototype’, the actual person represented) rather than at: the gaze does not stop at the surface of the panel, but goes on to the prototype” (24). The origins of this definition are to be found in texts from the last decades of the seventh century, its codification can be considered completed by 800. In arriving at this formulation, Brubaker rejects the existence of a cult of images prior to the end of the seventh century. In the rest of this paper, I shall suggest that both the definition and this chronology can be altered.

The Santa Maria in Trastevere panel raises a number of concerns regarding the definition of the icon as a transparent window. In the first place, the miraculous nature of this icon (defined above) calls attention to the object itself as a relic. At this point it is also necessary to contend with a second feature of the depiction that nuances our own understanding of a miraculous icon, namely the presence of the papal portrayal. An obvious sign of manufacture such as this historical portrait would seem to undermine the claims to a miraculous origin for the work. Yet, this modern distinction was unnecessary for an Early Medieval audience, for whom this icon could be a copy of a miraculous original and still claim the same status as the original (25). Given this, we must understand this painted icon to be both a depiction and a relic. This dual nature implicates the object in the representation of its prototype, to such an extent that it is necessary both to engage in the 'surface of the panel' and to contemplate its prototype.

The value of the object itself is underlined by a second feature of the icon. The cross that the Mother of God holds is not painted in the encaustic found on the rest of the icon, instead its medium is tempera painted directly onto the blue encaustic ground of the panel (26). This is later painting, replacing an original use of a metal cross that was held in the Theotokos's right hand. This original cross fits into a pattern of gift-giving to icons in Rome. Most notably, the church of Santa Maria Antiqua in Rome offers a number of examples of such devotion. St Demetrios and St Barbara received golden lips. Salome, the mother of the Maccabees had a brooch placed at her throat. A standing Virgin perhaps held a rosary in her hands (27). These instances muddy the transparency that separates the viewer from the viewed, raising questions about the very nature of representation in the Early Middle Ages (28). The practice has been characterized by Nordhagen as a form of 'transgressive' illusionism in which 'a synthesis between the real and the unreal became feasible'. Furthermore, these examples suggest that the image itself becomes the site for exchange. These gifts add to and rewrite the pictorial surface, acting not just as memorializations, but as the continuing site of an exchange. It is this marking of the image that turns the icon from a transparent doorway between viewer and viewed and into the specific site of their mediation. Above all else, this act calls attention to the icon's surface.

From the discussion of the cross, it is now possible to return to the figure of the pope. The presence of the pope not only raises questions concerning the miraculous nature of the object, but it should also force us to consider the notion of transparency proposed by Brubaker. Such a model negates the surface of the icon itself, but it is precisely here where an intended viewer, the pope, and the object of his devotion, the Theotokos, can meet. Rather than overlooking the surface of the icon, it can be suggested that it is a space of primary importance for the imaginary encounter with the holy (29). The icon of the Virgin in Santa Maria in Trastevere, therefore, not only offers evidence for the correlation of the icon and relic in the representation of the Theotokos, but also raises important points concerning our understanding of representation in this period. It is apparent that the icon itself as an object mediates the relationship between the viewer and the viewed. Rather than simply looking through the icon, one is asked to imagine oneself in the icon, and to understand this space as a site for imaginary encounter.


1. My essay will not directly address the important Christological implications of the representation of the Theotokos. For discussion of this subject one can refer to the following surveys, Wellen 1961 and Freytag 1985. A recent essay on the implications of the representation of the Theotokos on the eve of Iconoclasm is Barber 1991, 43-60.

2. Here one might compare the readings of Early Christian Art in Kitzinger 1954, 83-150 and Murray 1977, 303-345.

3. A notable exception is the much-discussed text of Hypatios of Ephesus, Diekam 1938, 127-129. One should compare the discussions of Alexander 1952, 177-184 and Gero 1975, 208-216.

4. The classic statement on this subject is Kitzinger 1954. To which should be added, Cameron 1979a, 3-25.

5. The textual criticism of this issue has been vigorously pursued by Paul Speck. E.g. Speck 1989, 114-17; Speck 1990; Speck 1991, 163-247; Speck 1994, 293-309; Speck 1997, 131-176.

6. Grabar 1984(2) offers the most fundamental survey of this material More recently the question of the material evidence for the cult of icons has been most consistently addressed by Gary Vikan: especially, Vikan 1982; Vikan 1984, 65-86.

7. The fundamental studies on this icon are offered by Sotiriou 1958, 21-22 and Weitzmann 1976a, 18-21.

8. Osborne 1985, 278-328; Russo 1979, 35-85; Russo 1980-1981, 71-150.

9. The transcription of this text is from Bagatti 1936, 42.

10. This possibility has led to the muse of this icon as an example of a specifically female devotion to icons, Herrin 1982, 56-83. Note the critique of his reading in Cormack 1997a, 24-51.

11. For consideration of these questionsof the value of the saints and their accessibility, Brown 1981.

12. Cormack 1969, 17-52; Cormack 1985a, 88-89; Cormack 1985b, 70-71; Grabar 1978, 64-77

13. It can be suggested that this inscription is part of a single prayer that was inscribed beneath the four scenes.

14. One might note the 7th or 8th- century seal of an Archbishop Peter of Thessaloniki, which shows on its obverse a portrait of St Demetrios framed by a prayer to the Theotokos. The seal is discussed in Oikonomides 1986, 46-47. Oikonomides attributes the se4al to a mid-8th-century archbishop. It is possible that the seal can also be ascribed to a late 7th-century metropolitan.

15. For overviews of this topic, Ruggieri 1988, 79-118; Willis 1968, 135-173.

16. Ampullae with oil from sites associated with the Theotokos and clothes that had been in contact with her relics might have fulfi8lled a si milar function.

17. Bertelli 1961a, 24-32, esp. 28-29.

18. This icon perhaps provided the name for the church of Santa Maria Antiqua. In the life of Gregory III (731-741) from the Liber Pontificalis we have an uncertain reference to his having ‘silvered the ancient image of God’s Holy Mother’ (imaginem antiquam Sancte Dei Genitricis deargentavit) (Lib. Pont. L385). It is probable that the icon referred to is the one that stii survives in the church of San Francesco Romano (formerly Santa Maria Nova) in Rome, Weiss 1958, 17-61.

19. Andaloro 1972-1973, 167. This renaming took place between 595 and around 640.

20. Bertelli 1964, 57.

21. Istae vero ecclesiae, CChr, ser. lat. 175,321, II 177-178: ‘The Basilica called Santa aria Trastevere; an image of St Mary which was made by itself is there’.

22. The complete text is published in Alexakis 1996, 348-350.

23. Nilgen 1981, 3-33.

24. Brubaker 1998, 1216.

25. A point most tellingly made by Vikan 1989, 47-59. For further thoughts on the implication of the copy, Babić 1988,61-78 and Babić 1984, 189-222.

26. Bertelli 1961b, 71.

27. These examples and their bibliography arte well discussed in Nordhagen 1988, 453-460.

28. While these frescoes are products of the 7th century, the date of the gift-giving might be held to be in question. Santa Maria Antiqua was largely buried by an earthquake in 847, so we can assume that these gifts must predate this event. One piece of evidence to support an early date is suggested by an image of the Theotokos in a niche on the northwest pillar of this church. The frescoed image in this niche is probably not the earliest image at this location. The version that we now see dates to the papacy of John VII (705-707). In this final repainting the top right corner of the niche includes an extended frame. It appears to have been intended to encompass an existing ex voto at this location, whose presence was marked by nail holes (Nordhagen 1968, 75-76 and Tea 1961, 292). That these gifts might belong to the 7th century can be suggested from the evidence of two mosaics that are datable to the later 6th or early 7th century. The first of these is found high on the west wall of the south inner aisle of St Demetrios in Thessaloniki. The image shows the saint receiving a young supplicant at his ciborium.The saint has his hands portrayed in gold and in a gesture of prayer. Similarly, a mosaic of St Stephen in the amphitheatre at Dürres shows the saint in the act of praying, his now blackened hands were once gilded, Nikolajević 1980, 59-70 and Corm ack 1985a, 50-94.On the possible significance of the hand as a sign of help, Zalesskaja 1967, 84-89.

29. The Santa Maria in Trastevere icon is not an isolated example. From the same period, we can cite numerous mosaics in St Demetrios in Thessaloniki, in which the distinction between the sacred and the secular is overcome within the image itself. For example, in the representation of the city’s eparch and bishop with St Demetrios on the north face of the pier to the right of the sanctuary. For some varied considerations of such imaginary encounters, Barber 1993, 7-16; Cormack 1985a, 215-251; Ševčenko 1994a, 255-285.

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