The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


An iconographer explains

The Virgin of the Don
in the style of Pavel Tikhomirov

Icons aren’t easy to understand and look peculiar or strange at first to viewers because the iconographer isn’t trying to show a photo but to image or represent the individual being portrayed. There are also many symbolic elements in each icon that point the viewer to God.

In the Virgin of Don, Mary wears a red cloak, a symbol of divinity. Mary wasn’t divine but she was a handmaiden of the Spirit and, therefore, could wear red. Under the red cloak is a garment of blue that represents her humanity—covered by the divine.

On Mary’s cloak there are always three stars, one on the head and on each shoulder, symbolizing her virginity.

Icon figures have exaggerated foreheads symbolizing wisdom. An enlarged neck symbolizes the Spirit’s indwelling. Subjects have enlarged eyes because they have seen the wisdom of God. Nostrils are long and flared because the subject has smelled the spiritual fragrance of God. Elongated fingers indicate that Mary (and others) has touched the Holy.

Baby Jesus is holding a small scroll, symbolizing that he is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. In Jesus’ halo are Greek letters meaning “I am who I am.”

The last work of the iconographer is the giving of the name. In the case of this icon, the name given is Mary, Bearer of God, which in Greek is Theotokos. Mary’s name is in the two corners above her halo and Jesus’ name is to the left of his halo in the Greek IC (Jesus) XC (Christ).

Mary is never seen alone in an icon except when she is sorrowing over Jesus. This is because of her importance as the means whereby Jesus the Christ was born into the world.

Gary L. Safrit, 1997


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February issue


Embracing diversity