Icon of love #1

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Icon of love

Greetings from our monastery in Tuchów. This year it is one hundred and fifty-five years since Pope Pius IX gave the Redemptorists the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, also known as the icon of the Mother of God of the Passion. Therefore, we feel obliged to promote the cult of this wonderful image on the one hand and to conduct scientific research on the other. That is why, on this special anniversary, I invite you to an interesting journey in time, in the footsteps of the icon of Our Lady of Passion.

You probably know this image. It presents the torso of the Mother of God and the entire figure of the Lord Jesus. A characteristic feature of this passion icon are the angels on the right and left of the Mother of God, holding the tools of the Passion of Christ. Before me I have an interesting guide, published by one of the Orthodox parishes in Crete. This one is in Russian. Amid the mountains on this island, we can see the temple of the Mother of God Kardiotissa. The authors indicate this church as the place from which a certain merchant was to take the icon. I will not refer to this information at the moment, but I will return to this   in the next episodes.

This type of icon was created in the Venetian-Cretan school at the turn of the XIV and XV centuries.

Andreas Ritzos (or simply his school) is indicated as the author of this image of The Mother of God The question arises whether Ritzos and his students composed this icon as something an artistically unprecedented or whether they referred to already existing motives.

This issue is extremely important – over the last fifty years, research on this subject has changed enormously.

In 2011, Dr. Matthew John Milliner published a very interesting scientific dissertation entitled The Virgin of the Passion. I have a printout of this work in front of me because it is available online and anyone can read it. This is probably the first such comprehensive and complete work on the subject of the passion icon. The doctor arrived at the church of Panagia tou Araka in the village of Lagoudera in Cyprus. This place is located in the Troodos mountain range. These are not high mountains – among them we find several very valued churches, among others the mentioned Panagia tou Araka. In this temple, on the right, very close to the tsar’s gate (main, central door of the iconostasis – editor’s note) there is a large fresco of the Mother of God under the name Arakiotissa. This painting is several square meters and dates from 1192.

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a small sensation before us – this is probably the first icon in Europe from that fresco – yes, this is the icon whose copy is in our monastery in Tuchów. Dear Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the first case (as the doctor writes) when angels with tools of torture appear on the icon. Let’s compare it: here we have a Roman icon from the Redemptorist church, and here we have an icon from Cyprus from the town of Lagoudera. There is of course, a difference between these images. It is characteristic that on the icon of Arakiotissa (I will add that the name comes either from food peas or from the name of the flower that grows in those mountains, we will not be looking at it now) we see the whole figure on the throne. This throne is special – dear Ladies and Gentlemen. We have probably come across different thrones more than once, but for the first time, we have before us a throne like this one. The question arises: did the 12th century author of the icon base his work on any other patterns, or is it simply his own original interpretation, without reference to other images? At this time, we do not know of any older passion icon containing the passion elements that were later included in the Roman icon.

In our search for a pre-existing version of the icon of Arakiotissa, we found Coptic icons, which is undoubtedly a great surprise. I will show you an image from the turn of the VI and VII centuries. This is of course only a photo of the icon, which comes from the monastery of Apollo. The icon is currently in the Coptic Museum in Cairo. Notice that this is from the turn of the VI and VII centuries, and that is from 1192. Pay attention to one thing, the characteristic oval part of the throne on the Coptic icon and the one from Lagoudera. I will show you a photo of another icon from the IX century. Notice the deceptive similarity between the thrones on this icon from the IXth century and on that of the one from 1192! We have no doubt that the author of the Lagoudera painting knew the motifs from Coptic icons.

Let’s move on to Rome. This icon (the original in the picture is quite badly damaged) is in the Roman Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere. It is from the turn of the VII and VIII centuries. Look at these fragments of the throne on the three icons: there is no doubt that at the root of the style of the icon from Cyprus are Coptic images. Yes, dear ladies and gentlemen, we can do some reasoning. The icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help from our sanctuary has it’s mother in Rome and it is the icon from Lagoudera, but now you can also see that it has grandmothers – and they are Coptic icons. Dear ladies and gentlemen, at the beginning of the XX century none of the scientists (or at least I do not know of any) mentioned the existence of either Coptic icons or the Lagoudera icon. At this time, the development of science has gone so far as to know these influences. The question arises: is the icon from Cyprus really the first icon of the Mother of God with the angels who have these symbols of passion, or is there another one that we do not know? I think that a the difficult work of examining the Coptic icons still awaits us. What’s more, I came across some Coptic paintings that actually have angels. However, they do not hold passion attributes, as on the Roman and Cypriot icons. In the Egyptian images, the angels have swords, referring to the words that Our Lady heard from Simeon. So, one element of the passion symbolism is present, but it refers more to the Mother of God than to Jesus; in this case we have some change. I encourage you to do some research: do we have an older passion icon than the icon in Lagouder? Thank You.


Author: fr. Kazimierz Piotrowski CSsR
Translator: fr. Krzysztof Wąsiewicz CSsR

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