New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
An exhibition at The National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) in Washington, DC, titled “Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea” (on view through April 12) and presented in association with the Catholic University of America, is part of an ongoing program of major historical loan exhibitions that examine humanist themes related to womankind.
“Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea” brings together masterworks by well-known Renaissance and Baroque artists from major museums, churches and private collections in Europe and the United States.
An illustrated lecture on January 16, ”Mary as Woman, Mother, and Idea in the Byzantine Tradition”, presented by Rev. Stefanos Alexopoulos, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Liturgical Studies and Sacramental Theology at The Catholic University of America School of Theology and Religious Studies in Washington, DC so enlightened and enriched the exhibition that we asked Father Stephanos some questions about his lecture, especially about the Theotokos, and found his answers especially moving as Pascha draws near.
GN: What was the context of your lecture, ”Mary as Woman, Mother, and Idea in the Byzantine Tradition”?
RSA: The School of Theology of the Catholic University of America runs a lecture series that explores the themes and artworks of this wonderful exhibit, “Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea” In my lecture I tried to offer a theological interpretation of the Puccio Capanna “Madonna and Child” icon (ca. 1330), part of the Vatican collection, using the Akathist Hymn as my primary Byzantine theological text.
GN: Why did this particular icon attract your attention?
RSA: This beautiful icon painted by Puccio Capanna, one of Giotto’s students, attracted my attention because it is one of the few items of the exhibition that preserves artistic and thematic links to Byzantine Art. It is in the 14th century that Western art gradually moves away from early Christian and Byzantine models and towards a more realistic depiction of features. So to me, this icon functioned as a sort of bridge between Byzantine and Western art.
GN: In the Greek Orthodox Tradition we usually call the Virgin Mary “Theotokos”. Why is that, and what is its significance?
RSA: The term “Theotokos” defines the manner in which the Orthodox Tradition understands the Virgin Mary and as a consequence the manner in which it honors her. It provides the key to the understanding of Mary in the Orthodox Tradition and demonstrates the strong interrelation between devotion to the Virgin Mary and the doctrine of the Incarnation.
GN: When was this term first used?
RSA: Although the term “Theotokos” as the proper way to speak of the Virgin Mary becomes dogmatically invested at the Third Ecumenical Council in Ephesus in 431, there is documented evidence of the use of the term in worship and prayer from at least the third century where the term “Theotokos” appears in the context of a hymn addressed to her. This term is more than just an expression of piety; it’s a theological statement and commentary, directly connected to the whole question of who Christ is.
GN: Please explain this.
RSA: The term “Theotokos” points to the faith that the one whom the Virgin Mary bore is the Word of God, God made incarnate for our salvation, that Christ is fully human AND fully God. In other words, the term “Theotokos” is not really a statement about Mary, but a statement about Christ.
GN: In both Western and Byzantine art the Virgin Mary seems to be very popular, particularly icons of the Virgin Mary holding Christ. Why is that?
RSA: The term “Theotokos” is visually expressed in the Byzantine Tradition in the manner of iconography of the Virgin Mary, where she is almost always depicted with Christ, as in the center image of the Puccio Capanna icon. All icons of the Virgin Mary with Christ, are primarily icons not of the Virgin Mary, but of Christ, a representation of the mystery and the reality of the Incarnation: God himself becoming one of us for our salvation.
GN: I notice that in addition to the Theotokos with Christ in the middle, there is the scene of the Annunciation on the top of the icon. What is its significance?
RSA: The coming of Christ was dependent upon the Virgin Mary’s willingness to become the vehicle for His Incarnation. Mary is often times portrayed as the paradigm of obedience to God. But I would like to pose the question: what kind of obedience does God ask of us? What kind of obedience did the Theotokos demonstrate? In the image of the Annunciation on the top of the Puccio Capanna icon the Virgin Mary looks startled and surprised. That surprise and startle is unpacked in both the iconography of the Annunciation and the hymnody related to it. They reveal what I would call a critical or inquisitive obedience, reflected in the first three stanzas of the Akathist hymn. The Theotokos’ obedience to the will of God could not be total, real, and honest if it had not gone through a process of critical inquisitiveness.
GN: And what about the figures of 8 women that frame the icon? How do they relate to the Theotokos with Christ in the middle and the Annunciation on top?
RSA: The Virgin Mary is seen not only as a model of virginity but also as a model of virtue, a model of wisdom, a model for the philosophical life for all Christians. These eight saintly women are examples of women who lived the Christian life to the fullest. But in order to understand their placement we need to look into the other panel of the Puccio Capanna icon.
GN: What do you mean?
RSA: The Puccio Capanna icon at the exhibition is only one half of an original diptych. The central portion of the second half, preserved in the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, depicts the scene of the Crucifixion with Christ on the Cross, flanked by two angels. On the one side of the Cross the Virgin Mary collapses and his supported by Mary Magdalene while on the other side of the Cross St. John the Evangelist is standing in a mournful posture. All the protagonists, with the exception of St. John, are also present in the Vatican panel. We can thus interpret the rather melancholic expression of the enthroned Virgin Mary in the Vatican panel. A characteristic of many such icons, it signifies her foresight as to what will happen to her Son. Christ is the Son of God, but he is also her son.
GN: Were these two icons meant to be seen side-by-side?
RSA: Yes, they were part of an original diptych. Now, if we put the two images side by side, as one would see them originally, we see a narrative of the Divine Economy and its effects. In other words, what is depicted is the beginning of the Divine Economy, the Annunciation on the top part of the Vatican panel and the Incarnation visualized by the enthroned Mary holding the infant Christ, and the fulfillment of the Divine Economy, depicted in the Crucifixion of Christ, the ultimate sacrifice of love for our salvation. And that salvation is rendered
real and true through the examples of the saints that surround the image of the Annunciation and the enthroned Virgin with Christ.
What lies before us then is not just a picture, made of wood and colors, but an icon, a theology in painting, teaching and proclaiming that the Word of God indeed became one of us, born of the Virgin Mary, that he indeed died on the Cross for our salvation, with Mary standing at the foot of the Cross.
Fr. Stefanos Alexopoulos was born in Zimbabwe, raised in South Africa and Greece, and received his higher education in the United States, earning a B.A. in Religious Studies from Hellenic College, a M.Div. from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, both in Brookline, MA., and a Ph.D. in Liturgical Studies from the University of Notre Dame.