Introduction Symbolism
  Theology of Icons Kinds of Marian Icons
Veneration of Images
  Technique Bibliography

Kinds of Marian Icons

The most common types of Marian icons are:

HODIGITRIA means "Pointer of the Way" or "Guide of the Church."  This style is associated with Mary's words at the wedding feast of Cana, "Do whatever He tells you."  The mother points to her child as if to say, look at Him, not me. Wearing a veil with three stars, on her forehead and each shoulder to signify that she is ever-Virgin, Mary's attitude is one of majesty. Christ is pictured as a small but mature person who looks straight at us and blesses us.  This is an icon which portrays the dogma of the Theotokos, the one who bears God.  The Greek letters are an abbreviation referring to the Mother of God and Jesus Christ.  According to legend, the first Hodigitria was painted by St. Luke.
The ELEOUSA (tender touch) is a variation of the Hodigitria. Mary bends her head toward Jesus but looks at us, at the world to whom she presents her Son. The faces of mother and child touch. Jesus focuses His attention on His mother, embracing her with one arm, sometimes holding a scroll with the other hand. This icon demonstrates the reality of the physical motherhood of Mary and thus her power to evoke her Son's tenderness.

A variant of the "Virgin of Tenderness" above is the Galactotrophousa or "Holy Milk-Giver" shown to the far right.

The BLACHERNITISSA, "Mother of God of the Sign," is named after an ancient, important shrine of Mary in Constantinople. The Mother of God faces outward with her hands raised in an attitude of prayer, an image that developed out of the pieta, a praying figure with hands raised toward heaven. This prayer position is also known as the Orante.

On her breast is the Christ Child enclosed in a circle, variously interpreted as her womb, or an embroidered medallion such as an empress would have worn as a sign of the emperor's authority. This is THE icon of the Incarnation and is connected with the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, "The virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel."

A variation of this type is the PLATYTERA, "greater than the heavens," portraying the Virgin in the orante position with arms raised in prayer. It is the icon used behind the main altar in the Orthodox church.



The KYRIOTISSA is the enthroned Mother of God. Mary is seated with the holy child on her lap, appearing solemn and majestic. Often archangels are pictured, either as bodyguards or in positions of veneration.

The NIKOPEIA shows Mary either standing or sitting, stern and regal, holding the Child before her with both hands. he image below, a variant of the Platytera, served as the mascot for the armed forces of the Byzantine empire.  Sometimes a Galactotrophousa [Milk-Giver] style was used instead to represent this theme of the 'one who brings victory.'

GENESIUS portrays the event of the birth of Christ. Mary is shown reclining in such a way as to emphasize that she suffered no pain in childbirth. Her Child lies in the manger beside her. Encircling this main focal point are smaller scenes of the early life of Jesus.

The CRUCIFIXION scene shows a divine Christ on the cross, with Mary standing quietly and with self-possession at his right side, one arm slightly raised toward her Son. Sometimes the other hand is hidden in her veil and held up to her face in grief. Remaining dignified, she is sad but not hopeless.

The ASCENSION shows Mary in the center of the apostles, set apart by a halo and two angels in white behind her. She looks straight forward in an attitude of prayer while the apostles gaze upward at the ascending Christ or to Mary.

Ascension, Moscow School, 15C.
The scene of PENTECOST sometimes shows Mary with the apostles as the Holy Spirit descends on them.

The KOIMESIS (or Kemesis) is the icon of the Dormition or falling asleep of Mary.  It shows her lying on a couch which is covered with the same red material as at the nativity, surrounded by the apostles.  Standing just behind her is Christ holding a small child clothed in white, symbolizing Mary's soul.

Other icons related to Mary are those that portray her four great feasts: her Nativity on September 8, her Presentation in the Temple as a child on November 21, the Annunciation on March 25 and the Dormition on August 15. She is also shown in icons of the two feasts she shares with Jesus: His Nativity on December 25 and His Presentation in the Temple, known in the Orthodox Church as the Meeting, which is celebrated on February 2. On the day of a feast, the appropriate icon is solemnly enthroned and venerated.

Anniversaries of miracles associated with icons are also celebrated in liturgy.

CALENDAR ICONS are calendars that picture a saint for every day of the year.

The ICONOSTASIS, a screen of icons separating the sanctuary from the nave, is one of the most important parts of an Eastern-Christian church. In Byzantium it had two rows of icons. Since it arrived at its classic form in the sixteenth century in Russia, it consists of five rows of icons that summarize the history of humankind and of salvation.

Legend for the Iconostasis Schema

1) Christ. 2) Virgin Mary. 3) St. John the Baptist. 4) Angels. 5) Saints. 6) Series of feasts. 7) Apostles. 8) Prophets. A) Annunciation. E) Evangelists. C) Christ Jesus. M) Virgin Mary.  Row 1 centers on an icon of the Trinity flanked by twelve patriarchs, the earthly ancestors of Christ.  Row 2 depicts Our Lady of the Sign revealing the incarnation, with twelve prophets who announced his coming.  Row 3 are icons of feasts which celebrate the mystery to which the above rows witness.  Row 4 has the Deisis, an icon of the glorious Christ in the center with Mary on His right side, pointing to Him, and John the Baptizer on His left.  Behind each one is a train of angels and saints, their hands raised in a gesture of prayer to intercede for all people.  Row 5 is called the local.  In the center is the holy or royal door, the central door to the sanctuary of the church, with icons of Jesus and the Theotokos.  To the side are icons of the saint or event to which the church is dedicated.  This bottom row is the object of veneration through kisses, touch, candles or incense.  The iconostasis gives a sense of history and links the liturgy on earth with the eternal liturgy in heaven.  One has the sense of being united with the Communion of Saints.

A TRIPTYCH is a sort of miniature iconostasis for the home, giving the same effect as opening the holy doors to reveal the sacred mysteries.

This article was written by Sister Marcia Vinje for a Mariology course at IMRI.
Return to Top


This page, maintained by The Marian Library/International Marian Research Institute, Dayton, Ohio 45469-1390, and created by Ann Zlotnik , was last modified Friday, 02/21/2014 13:56:52 EST by Michael Duricy . Please send any comments to jroten1@udayton.edu.

URL for this page is http://campus.udayton.edu