At the council of Ephesus, in 431 C.E., the Church confirmed that Mary, the mother of Jesus, could bear the title Theotokos, meaning "Bearer of God." In doing this, the Church encouraged the emergence of a public cult of the Virgin. In the course of the fifth century a number of churches dedicated to the Virgin were built in Rome, Constantinople, and Jerusalem. During the sixth and seventh centuries the feasts of the Annunciation, Purification, and the Nativity and Dormition (or "falling asleep") of Mary were established. In the seventh century the Virgin came to be perceived as the supernatural protector of the city and its head: the emperor in Constantinople, the pope in Rome.
The political power vested in the figure of the Virgin found a visual expression in the formation of the Maria Regina image that emerged in the second half of the sixth century and became prominent in the eighth century, especially in Rome. The Maria Regina representation shows the Virgin dressed as a Byzantine empress with a crown, pearl necklaces, and a silk sash or loros. She sits on a gem-encrusted throne and supports the child Jesus on her lap. Both figures are displayed in a directly frontal attitude, addressing the viewer with their gaze. In the Maria Regina images the imperially dressed figure of Mary functions metaphorically as a "living throne" to the divine figure of Christ. However, these hierarchic images, manifesting the presence of supernatural power on earth, do not explore the maternal and filial link between mother and child.
Only during the period of Iconoclasm (730–843) was a new emphasis placed on the relationship between the Virgin and Child; the neutral term Theotokos was gradually supplanted by the appellation Meter Theou, or "Mother of God." This new title emphasized the maternal link between Mary and Christ. The emotionally intense love between the mother and child that developed in the ninth-century texts was not immediately manifested in the visual culture, however.
Only by the late tenth century did new emotionally evocative images of the mother and child appear, such as that in Tokali Kilise, Cappadocia, Turkey. These images show the child Jesus lovingly placing his arm around his mother's neck, while the Virgin inclines her head, pressing her cheek to that of her son. With one arm she cradles Christ, while with the other she gestures towards him, addressing the prayers of the viewer to Christ (the icon of the Vladimir Virgin in Moscow is an example).
These representations place an equally strong emphasis on the unfaltering love of the child, who actively reaches out to his mother, embraces her by the neck, and brings his lips close to her face. By depicting Christ's love, these images present the source of Mary's power, for it is because Christ loves his mother beyond measure that he would grant his blessing to her pleas on behalf of humanity. The images of the playful and loving child Jesus thus explain that the salvation of humankind rests in Christ's unfaltering love for his mother.
Along with the affection of the child, these images also convey the idea of motherly sacrifice. The Virgin beseeches Christ, but she also presents and offers him to the viewer. Her raised, gesturing hand symbolizes this act of offering. Her grip is loosened, allowing the viewer into the image to be part of the mother-and-child embrace. Thus, the Byzantine icons of Mary and Christ present an image of a double sacrifice: the mother offering her son, and the Son offering his life for the salvation of humanity.
The best pictorial expression of these ideas is revealed in one of the most powerful icons in the Byzantine and Orthodox world: the Hodegetria. By the twelfth century this icon was perceived as the supernatural protector of the capital (Constantinople), the emperor, and the empire. The panel displayed the image of the Virgin and child on the front side, and the Crucifixion on the back. The obverse side presents an image of the incarnation of the Logos (word) in the form of the Christ child carried in his mother's arm. He receives the pleas of Mary on behalf of humanity and responds with a blessing. The Crucifixion on the reverse side displays the fulfillment of the promise in Christ's sacrifice. Christ's body sags lifelessly from the cross, and Mary's hands are empty, one pressed to her chest as a sign of her loss and suffering and the other still raised in a gesture of intercession. The Virgin's sacrifice is here poignantly expressed: the sacrifice of her motherly love and the death of her child is the price offered for the salvation of humanity.
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Kalavrezou, I. 1990. "Images of the Mother: When the Virgin Became Meter Theou." Dumbarton Oaks Papers 44: 165–172.
Peltomaa, L. M. 2001. Medieval Mediterranean: Peoples, Economies, and Cultures, 400–1453: Vol. 35. The Image of the Virgin Mary in the Akathistos Hymn. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill.
Pentcheva, Bissera. 2001. "Images and Icons of the Virgin and Their Public in Middle Byzantine Constantinople." Ph.D. diss., Harvard University.
Vassilaki, M., ed. 2000. Mother of God: Representations of the Virgin in Byzantine Art. Milan: Skira.
BISSERA V. PENTCHEVA