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August 23, 2022

The Most Holy Theotokos in the Iconography of the Byzantine Temple

By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou

In the "Symbol of Faith", or what we call "The Creed", we confess that the Church is "One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic", because it is connected to Christ. The Church is "One", because one is its head, Christ, and one is His Body; it is "Holy" because its head is holy; it is "Catholic", because Christ assumed from the Panagia the entirety of human nature and came to save all people; and it is "Apostolic", because Christ sent the Apostles to the whole world, to spread the message of the Kingdom of God and eternal life.

The Church, while it is "One", at the same time has two "aspects", the earthly and the heavenly. To the earthly aspect of the Church belong all of us Orthodox Christians who strive to be living members of the Church, and to the heavenly aspect of the Church belong all the saints who have left this world, and the holy angels, as the Book of Revelation of Saint John the Theologian wonderfully describes.

However, this does not mean there are two Churches, but there is one Church, one part of which has already entered into the glory of God and the other part of which is us who still live in the desert, and are on our way from Egypt to the Promised Land. We all have Christ as our head and we live and breathe from Him.

An important position in the Church is held by the Most Holy Theotokos, the Mother of Christ, who after the Ascension of Christ to heaven and Pentecost did not have any position in the administration and pastoral care of the Church, but was above all others, as the Mother of Christ.

Since the Church is the Body of Christ and Christ is the head of the Church, the Most Holy Theotokos, as Metropolitan Theophanes of Nicaea (14th century) writes, occupies the place of the neck, through which the gifts and commandments of the Church come to the body from the head and through whom the pains and prayers of the members of the Church rise to the head.

From the Most Holy Theotokos, the Son and Word of God assumed His flesh, which He divinized from the moment of conception, from her He drank milk and received food, and for this reason Christ gave her the grace to become "food for all invisible and rational natures."

Christ is the Bridegroom of the Church and the Most Holy Theotokos is the "Unwedded Bride" of the Bridegroom of Christ.

This is expressed in the best way by the composer of the Salutations of the Theotokos, when he says: "Rejoice the ladder of heaven through which God descended, rejoice the bridge that brings people from earth to heaven." This salutation is based on the vision that the Patriarch Jacob saw in the Old Testament, according to which there was a large ladder resting on the ground and its top reached heaven and the Angels of God were ascending and descending on it while "the Lord stood above it" (Genesis 28:12-13).

The Church wondrously painted in the Holy Temples this important position of the Most Holy Theotokos with many representations and in many expressions.

We know that the icon, as painted by the iconographers, expresses the glory of God, that is, it captures the transformation of man by the uncreated Grace of God. This is especially done with the depiction of the Most Holy Theotokos, since the Most Holy Theotokos is called Theotokos not only "for the nature of the Word, but also for the deification of man", as Saint John of Damascus writes, and constitutes the entire mystery of the Divine Economy.

Also, the iconography of the Theotokos holding Christ in Her arms expresses the entire Church. And this is not just a conception of the iconographers, but is an expression of the tradition of the Church. The Seventh Ecumenical Synod has decided that the icon is not "an invention of the painters", "but an eminent ordinance and tradition of the Catholic Church". In a statement from this Synod we read: "The construction of Icons is not an invention of painters, but an eminent ordinance and tradition of the Catholic Church... This invention and tradition belong to the Spirit-bearing Fathers and not to the painters. Moreover, only the art style is owed to the painters, while the Holy Fathers are responsible for the art theme."

Therefore, the Church through the Holy Fathers determined the theology of the holy icons, how they will be painted to show the glory of the Church, while the iconographers express this theology of the Church with their art.

Also, the depiction of the holy icons also shows the relationship between the icons and the Divine Liturgy. This can be seen in the way the icons are painted inside the Church, where the Divine Liturgy takes place and also shows the heavenly Divine Liturgy.

Inside the Church with the iconography is this iconographic circle that depicts the Divine Liturgy, earthly and heavenly. That is, the form of the Byzantine Temple reveals the Church of Christ.

This can be seen from the fact that the entire Holy Temple is, in some way, an extension of the human body. The dome is the head, the spherical triangles are the shoulders and the walls are the body. Apart from this, the dome indicates heaven, the walls indicate the space and time in which Christians live and the alcove of the Holy Bema unites the earth with heaven.

The iconography of the Holy Temple follows this tradition of the Church. On the dome is painted the Pantocrator, the God-man Christ, whom the angels of God praise; the Prophets spoke of the pre-incarnate Word and the sacred Evangelists wrote about the incarnate Word, the God-man Christ.

In the Holy Bema, in the so-called liturgical circle, the holy Hierarchs are depicted and on the walls of the Sacred Temple the Saints of the Church, Martyrs and Venerables, men and women are depicted.

Between the Church and the dome there is the alcove of the Holy Bema, which connects the dome with the main church and there is depicted the Platytera, the Most Holy Theotokos, the Mother of Christ, because she conveys the entreaties of the faithful to the God-man Christ, and the God-man Christ therefore gives His gifts to people.

According to the iconographer Photios Kontoglou, the Platytera, namely Wider Than The Heavens, is depicted in the alcove of the Holy Bema sitting on the throne, supporting Christ as a child on her knees, being between the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, who are standing in a prayer position.

The scroll held by the Archangel Michael reads: "Παρίστανται δουλοπρεπῶς τῷ τόκῳ σου αἱ τάξεις αἱ οὐράνιαι ἐκπληττόμεναι ἀξίως τό τῆς σῆς ἀσπόρου λοχείας, ἀειπάρθενε" ("The heavenly hosts stand as servants of your child, Ever-Virgin, whose seedless childbirth is worthy of marvel"). And the scroll that the Archangel Gabriel is holding has written: "Τῇ ἀειπαρθένῳ καί μητρί τοῦ βασιλέως τῶν ἄνω δυνάμεων καί καθαρωτάτῃ καί ἁγίᾳ, πιστοί, πνευματικῶς βοήσωμεν" ("Let us spiritually cry out, O faithful, to the ever-virgin and mother of the King of the powers of above who is most pure and holy"). These two passages show what the Most Holy Theotokos is and what her work is.

And we, at the prompting of the Archangels, let us cry out to the Most Holy Theotokos during today's feast of her glorious Dormition:

Most Holy Theotokos, the Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, more honorable than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim, the true Theotokos, who is Wider Than The Heavens, and the Heavenly Ladder from which God descended to earth and we ascended to heaven, intercede for us. Amen.

Many Years and may the Most Holy Theotokos be our help.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.