Sister Mary Grace, O.C.D.
The Origins of this Image
This icon is a modem composition, written especially for the Jubilee of the Incarnation and the beginning of the third Christian millennium, but its theme is timeless. It looks back and gives thanks for the surpassing gift of God taking flesh in our midst and looks forward to His coming in glory. The composition incorporates themes from traditional iconography such as Christ Emmanuel, the Virgin of the Sign, and a pair of mandorlas. The surrounding saints are in prayerful poses as might be seen in a traditional Orthodox Iconostasis, heads inclined toward Jesus.
Theology and Symbolism
In the center of the icon stands Mary, her hands lifted in the "orant" posture of prayer. In this pose, she is known as the Virgin of the Sign, recalling Isaiah's prophecy (Isaiah 7:14): "The Lord himself will give you a sign..." Thus the icon celebrates the great Jubilee of the Lord's Incarnation. Yet Mary's feet rest on the moon, and the sun envelops her. She is also the Woman of the Great Sign spoken of in Revelation 12:1. She wears a dark red hooded cloak or omophorion, marked with stars at her head and shoulders symbolic of her perpetual virginity before, during, and after the birth of her Son. Jesus is enveloped in a mandorla, a symbol of Divine Revelation that represents a window into heaven. This symbol is used in icons of Transfiguration, Resurrection, and Last Judgment. He is shown as Christ Emmanuel, the Child of the First Coming, but placed amid majestic signs of His glorious second coming. He wears a brilliant robe symbolic of royalty and the open book proclaims that He is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. The saints surrounding the central image are especially relevant in Carmelite history. Beginning at top left and continuing clockwise: Imitation of the prophet Elijah who worked miracles on Mount Carmel [1 Kings 18: 17-46] has been an important component of Carmelite spirituality from its beginning. St. Teresa of Avila, founder of the Discalced Carmelites, holds a scroll bearing words from her book, The Way of Perfection, wherein she explains why she began her reform movement. St. John of the Cross, a great poet and mystic, founded the male branch of the Discalced Carmelites. Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity entered the Carmelites in 1901 at age twenty and died just six years later, inspiring many by her letters and the example of her faith. Saint Edith Stein was born a Jew, became a professor of Philosophy, converted to Catholicism in 1922 through study of the works of St. Teresa of Avila and became a Carmelite sister in 1933. The Nazis executed her at Auschwitz in 1942. Therese of Lisieux, also known as "The Little Flower," became a Carmelite at the age of fifteen, dying of tuberculosis nine years later in 1897. Her book, Story of a Soul, helped many to rediscover God's unconditional love. She was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1997, joining St. Teresa of Avila in that rare distinction. These surrounding saints hold up their hands in a posture of intercession. Their petition is written on the Virgin's red mandorla: "Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus." It is the first prayer of the early Church and the prayer that will always rise in the souls of those who love the Lord.
About the Iconographer
Sister Mary Grace, O.C.D. is a member of a Carmelite monastery in Terre Haute, Indiana. She came from a family rich in faith and artistic gifts, which she developed in her growing years as much as her opportunities permitted. She followed a vocation to the Order of Discalced Carmelites in 1981. Her community designed and printed novena announcements and holy cards, and she was called upon to channel her talents into artwork. She is largely self-taught, having read on the subject and consulted with knowledgeable friends over many years. She sees the writing of icons as an outflow of her life of prayer. St. Teresa of Avila founded the Discalced Carmelite Order in 1562. The order takes its name from Mount Carmel in Israel, a site occupied by many early Christian hermits. The term "discalced," literally "shoeless," indicates that they are a reformed order. Carmelites follow a strict life of enclosure, prayer, abstinence, and work.
Caring for Icons
These fine quality printed reproductions are available as matted prints or mounted on solid walnut, a renewable resource grown in the USA. The walnut icons are protected by a thin film of lacquer, similar to the finish on fine furniture. These icons will last for a very long time, but can be scratched by excessive handling. Sunlight or other strong sources of ultra-violet rays can fade the wood and yellow the image and should be avoided. These are images of the sacred, and reverence paid to them shows respect for the persons portrayed. They should receive veneration similar to that shown Holy Scripture or the Cross, though never the adoration reserved for God alone.
Permission to publish icon kindly given by the artist, Sister Mary Grace, O.C.D.
Permission to publish article kindly given by Gerald Nelson of The Printery House.
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