The Virgin of the Sign

Visitors to www.cutsinger.net may be interested to know something about the Byzantine icon that can be seen in the header on the homepage. It was painted for Professor Cutsinger by Father Damian Higgins, a hieromonk and iconographer, and close personal friend.

The icon is an example of a traditional iconographical type known as “the Virgin of the Sign”. This name is an allusion to Isaiah 7:14, “Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign; behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call His name Immanuel.” This particular style of icon goes back many, many centuries; in fact one sees the orans, a figure of a praying woman with uplifted hands, in certain catacomb paintings from the earliest days of Christianity.

There are numerous ideas, images, and events in the Old Testament that the Church Fathers recognized as being linked to Mary, foreshadowings or types of which She was the fulfillment. Among those types are the Ark of the Covenant: just as it contained the scrolls of the Law, so does She contain the Giver of that Law; or again Jacob’s Ladder (see Genesis 28:11-19): Jacob dreams and sees a ladder stretching from earth to Heaven, with angels going up and down it; Mary too is a ladder, through whom God descends from Heaven to earth and through whom the spiritual traveler may ascend to God.

Another traditionally important Old Testament type is the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:2). Moses sees a bush that is on fire but is not consumed, and out of this bush comes the voice of God. In the interpretive tradition of the Christian East, the bush is a symbolic anticipation of Mary, who is also “on fire” with the radiant energy of God the Son, whom she uncontainedly contained in Her womb, but She too is not consumed or injured by that fire, remaining a virgin even in becoming a mother.

The iconographer has taken account of this symbolism in creating a pattern around the circumference of the icon in which tongues of fire are interlaced with green leaves. One also notices that the “Name” itself is “on fire” in this icon. The Name here refers to the Greek letters MU and RHO (MP) to the left of the Virgin, which are an abbreviation for “Mater” (“Mother”), and the letters THETA and UPSILON to her right, which are an abbreviation for “Theou” (“of God”); thus Mary is the “Mother of God”.

Other symbolic details: in Byzantine iconographical symbolism red stands for Divinity and blue for humanity; hence the undergarment of Mary is blue because She is truly human, but Her outer garment is red because She is deified, sharing in the very nature of God (2 Peter 1:4). The three small gold stars—one on her head and two on her shoulders—refer to Her perpetual virginity (before, during, and after giving birth to Jesus). As for Christ, His garment is gold, signifying glory. Technically, He is not being pictured in this particular icon as a “Child”, the “Baby Jesus”. Rather the image is of Christ the eternal Son and Creator of the world: “All things were made by Him” (John 1:3).

This is further reinforced by the letters inscribed in the nimbus or halo around His head: the Greek OMICRON (the “O” over His head) is the definite article in Greek; and the letters OMEGA (which looks like a “W” to the left of his head) and NU (the “N” to the right of His head) compose the Greek word for “Being” or “Being One”. This in turn is a reference to the conversation between God and Moses in Exodus 3:14; when Moses asks what Name he should use for God when people ask him who sent him, God responds, “I AM THAT I AM. . . . Tell them I AM has sent you.” The Hebrew phrase translated here as I AM THAT I AM is expressed in the Greek Septuagint by the phrase “The One Who Is” or “The Being One”. The icon is thus reminding us that Christ is none other than God Himself in human form.

One also notes that Christ is here shown as if in the very act of creating. His hands are offering a blessing—if one looks carefully the fingers on both hands are held in such a way as to form the Greek letters IC XC, an abbreviation for “Jesus Christ”—but the blessing is itself bringing the universe into existence. This can be seen in the three concentric circles of blue radiating out from Christ: the innermost circle of darkest blue, sprinkled with tiny white stars, represents night; the next circle, a somewhat lighter blue, represents twilight (dawn); and the outermost circle of lightest blue stands for day. So what the icon is proclaiming is that the very One who said, “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3), and who thus drew the line between night and day is none other than the Son of Mary, fully present within Her.

A last point (though one could go on forever), and this concerns the disposition of the arms and hands of the Virgin. If one looks at the icon from a “naturalistic” or perspectival point of view, where proportions are expected to be “true to life”, one may think the iconographer erred, for the length of the arms seems out of proportion to the body. In fact, however—in spiritual fact, if you will—the arms and hands are actually reaching “out” of the icon toward those who are willing to look not at but along it, inviting them to enter into the Mystery: to become so fully embraced by the Virgin that they too begin to contain God Himself.

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