By Photis Kontoglou
The All-Holy Virgin: the spiritual adornment of Orthodoxy
The Virgin Mary is the spiritual adornment of Orthodoxy. For us Greeks she is the pained mother, the comforter and the protector, who stands by us in every circumstance. In every part of Greece countless churches and monasteries are built, palaces of this humble queen, and a large number of small country-churches are scattered on the mountains, the plains and the islands, sweet-scented by the fragrance of her virginity and spirituality. Within each of these shrines, one finds the old and venerable icon with the dark and golden-waxed face, which is constantly wet from the tears of our tortured people, because we have no other to help us, except the All-Holy Virgin Mary, "for as sinners we have no other constant mediator before God in times of trouble and affliction as we bend beneath our multiple faults." The beauty of Mary is not carnal, but spiritual, because where there is pain and holiness, there is only spiritual beauty. Carnal beauty brings carnal excitement, whereas spiritual beauty brings devotion, respect and pure love. This is the beauty that the All-Holy Virgin has. And this beauty is imprinted on her Greek icons which were made by pious people who were fasting, chanting and clad in broken-heartednesss and spiritual purity. It is this mystical beauty, depicted on the face of the Virgin, that draws like a magnet pious souls, quietening and comforting them. And this spiritual fragrance is the so-called Joyful Mourning (1), which is granted to us by the religion of Christ, an herb unknown to people who do not go near Him who is the good shepherd. This joyful sorrow is depicted in every creation of Orthodox art, and sheds a fragrance like myrrh and aloe, whether this creation is an icon, or hymnody, or chanting, or manuscript, or vestments, or words, or actions, or blessings, or greetings, or monastery, or monastic cell, or carved wood, or embroidery, or candel, or lectern, or candelabra, or whatever is a vehicle for sanctification.
The Orthodox names of the All-Holy Virgin
From the names alone that Orthodoxy gave to the All-Holy Virgin, they fully adorned Her person – not as a theatrical spectacle, as is done elsewhere, namely, depicting Her as a doll that was loaded with rings and earrings and a whole cluster of other profane and senseless things – from these alone, I say, it becomes obvious how truly spiritual is the veneration of the All-Holy Virgin in Greek Orthodoxy. First of all is Her holiest name: Panagia (All-Holy One). Then, the other names: the Superbly-Blessed, the Theotokos (God-bearer), the All-pure One, More Honorable than the Cherubim and More Glorious than the Seraphim, the Living and Plentiful One, the Fountain, the Ensouled Ark, the Undefiled One, the Immaculate One, the Fully-Graced One, the Ever-Blessed and All-Blameless One, the Protection, the Listening One, the Speedily-Acting One, the Quick-Responding One, the Sanctified Temple, the Rational Paradise, the Unwithering Rose, the Golden Censer, the Golden Light, the Mana-Receiving Jar, the Heavenly Ladder, the Fervent Intercessor, the Unconquerable Fortress, the Source of Mercy, the World’s Shelter, the King’s Throne, the Gold-Claded Tower and Twelve-fold Walled City, the Sun-Illumined Throne, the Protective-Shelter of the World, the Fine-Fruit-Bearing Tree, the Good-Shading Tree of Rich Foliage, the Ray of the Spiritual Sun, Holy Zion, God's Habitation, the Heavenly Gate, the Patron of the aggrieved, the Staff of the Blind, the Joy of the Afflicted, and a thousand others, which are recorded in the books of the Church. Close to them are the names that hagiographers inscribe upon Her holy icons: the Guide, the Sweet-Kissing One, the One that is Wider than Heaven, the Hope of the hopeless, the Speedy Visitation, the Spotless One, the Hope of the Christians, the Consolation, the Merciful One, and many others, which are written under the abbreviation: ΜΡ ΘΥ, which means Mary Mother of God. How much love, how much reverence and how many tears of devotion these names alone reveal, which were not pronounced as easily as the words that exit from the mouth, but as names that were engraved in souls with pain and humility and faith.
The Orthodox hymns to the All-Holy Virgin
The same is the case with the hymns to the All-Holy Virgin, which are innumerable like the stars of heaven and are exquisite in beauty, and which were composed by saintly hymnographers who “constituted a spiritual chorus!” In this fragrant orchard are placed all the unfading flowers and sweet herbs of speech. Indeed, it was the All-Holy Virgin herself that prophesied of herself, when she went to the house of Zachariah and Elizabeth embraced Her, that all generations will call Her blessed: "In those days, Mary arose and went to the mountainous region in the region of Judah and entered the house of Zachariah and greeted Elizabeth. And as Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary the child jumped inside her womb (2).
And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and cried with a loud voice and said: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And from where did this good come to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? Because, as soon as the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the child jumped in my womb, and blessed is she who believed in what the Lord said of her (3).” And Mariam said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, because He condescended to look upon His humble servant. Henceforth, all generations will call me blessed, because the Mighty One has made great things in me, and sanctified is His name, and His mercy goes on from generation to generation to those who have the fear of Him.”
The Orthodox Icons of the All-Holy Virgin
Just as there are countless hymns of the Virgin Mary, so there are countless icons of Her in unobtrusive colors, which embellish our churches and are painted on plank or wall. In every Orthodox church there stands her icon on the iconostasis at the right side of the Holy Gate. In other icons she is painted as a nun, but in the icons of the iconostasis she is always depicted holding Christ in her arms on her left side, but rarely on her right (then she is called Dexiokratousa=Right-holder). Her head is covered modestly and solemnly with a maphorion, a loosely fitting and priestly dress, of dark crimson color, falling on her shoulder in a spacious setting, leaving uncovered only her elongated face and her hands. Inside the cover is shown a narrow strip from the bonding of her head which tightens her forehead and allows only the edges of the ears to appear. Her forehead is like dark ivory, pure, simple and crystal clear. The eyebrows are arched, vibrant and long, reaching near her ears, her eyes almond-like, with shadowy, brown, deep, serious but luscious, as egg whites clean but shaded. Her look is melancholic, simple, direct, quiet, nice, dear, but sorrowful and joyous together, strict but also compassionate, most holy, spiritual, innocent, thoughtful, unblemished, hopeful, patient, meek, most unassuming, distant from all carnal consideration, a mystical mirroring of paradise, royal and humble, human and divine, harmless, brotherly, courteous, examining, alert, serene, philanthropist, motherly, maiden, cool, caustic for those who have evil thoughts, tender, piercing, searching, unpretentious, pedominant, condescending, supplicatory, unshakable. Her nose is long and narrow, moderate, Jewish, fleshless, with thin nostrils, slightly overturned, modest. Her mouth small, shy, prudent, closed, clean, shaded in the cheek, as if smiling slightly. Her chin is flared, respectable, unpretentious, humble. Her cheek, virginal, clean, soft, fragrant, shy, pale with very slight redness. Her neck, bent humbly, joins the chin with a gentle shade which was called sweetness by the older icon-painters. Her whole face is priestly and religious, and reveals an ancient tribe. Her immaculate hands are small, narrow with long fingers and thin nails. With the left hand she holds Christ, while her right hand is leaning modestly on her chest, in a supplicatory position, with the index finger away from the others. In more ancient icons this hand is more upright and higher, near the neck.
The most severe type of the All-Holy Virgin is the so called Odegetria=The Guide, which has her head erect, her expression more impassive and her whole posture more priestly. On the other hand the Glykofilousa=Sweet-kissing Virgin has her head reversely curved towards her Child, whom she embraces more tightly, and her expression is more emotional. The Platytera=Wider than the Heavens Virgin is depicted seated on the throne, rigorous and unbending, and holding Christ on her knees, leaning one of her hands on his shoulder and with the other holding his foot or a cloth.
The Orthodox Churches of the All-Holy Virgin
In Greece, most of the churches of the All-Holy Virgin hold their Feast on the Dormition of the Theotokos, i.e. on the 15th of August. The hymns chanted on this Feast are the most exquisite. The Doxastikon of Vespers is the only hymn that is chanted in the eight tones, each phrase has a different tone. It starts with the first tone and ends again with the first. But the whole of Greece praises the All-Holy Virgin not only with the chanters and the priests in the churches, but also with everything it has, with the villages, the mountains, the islands, which bear Her holy name. The boats sail in the cool sea, passing by the headlands where Her monasteries are built, having carved on their stern Her much loved and venerated name. Anyone sailing in Greek waters, in whatever place may find himself on the Feast Day of the All-Holy Virgin, will hear bells ringing from the sea. Some come from the Holy Mount Athos which is known as the Garden of the All-Holy Virgin, others from Tinos, where one of Her most famous palaces is located, others from Salamis where the Monastery of the Phaneromeni=The Revealed One keeps Her Feast, others from Mytilene, from the All-Holy Virgin of Agiassos and Petra, others from the Monastery of Siphnos, others from Skiathos, others from Naxos - from every island, from every headland, from every dry land.
1. - See “Joyous Mourning” issue 61 vol 6, Hellenike Demiourgia, pp. 247-251.
2. - The child was the Forerunner.
3. – I.e. what was said to the Virgin Mary by the Archangel Gabriel at the Annunciation.
From The Forerunner, August 2013. Translated by the Rev. Dr. George Dion Dragas.