ICONS OF THE HOLY MOTHER :
"THE MERCIFUL" OR "THE TENDERLY KISSING"
These are the titles of the faithful's two most popular types of icons of the Theotokos. In these icons, we can see the maternal love of the Theotokos for her Son intensely depicted. She is portrayed with her cheek tenderly touching the cheek of the divine Infant, while embracing it with maternal affection. It shows the human side of the relations between the Theotokos and Jesus, without diminishing the supernatural element that every icon has. This human side is also reflected in the eyes of the Holy Mother because, as we shall see further along, in her mind is the Passion that awaits her Son in the future.
These two icons - albeit with differing titles - portray the same scene: the Holy Mother who is tenderly kissing her Child. As observed by professor Kalokyris: " in both depictions everything is the same; that is, the contact between the two persons and the embrace. The only difference is that in the icon of "The Tenderly Kissing" Holy Mother, Christ has brought one hand onto His Mother's chin, which is not usual in the style of the "Merciful" Holy Mother. However, many painters overlook this detail and often inscribe the "Merciful" depiction with the title "The Tenderly Kissing", and vice-versa. Quite often, one also is given the impression that the Theotokos is not the one who is caressing and kissing, but the one being caressed and tenderly kissed by the divine Infant ".
Icons of these two types differ from other icons of the Theotokos; for instance, in those icons that portray the Theotokos either seated on her throne or bust-size, holding Christ in her lap, the Holy Mother has a solemn expression; it is an impressive depiction of regal majesty. This is done purposely, in order to better highlight the divinity of Christ, as opposed to the "Merciful" and the "Tenderly Kissing" icons, where human sentiments such as maternal love and tenderness are highlighted.
In the case of our country, the land of Greece , it was astutely commented that: " in the case of the 'Tenderly Kissing' Holy Mother, we can safely say that it embodies the entire Hellenic nation in its hope for survival and salvation, through its mutual love and obedience towards its Creator ".
With its hymnology, our Church stresses both these characteristics of the Holy Mother: those of a Queen and of a heartbroken Mother.
The faithful praise the Holy Mother and consider her a blessed being; she is the Queen and the Lady of the entire world, grace-filled and blessed. " Let us stand in reverence in the house of our God, and cry out: Rejoice, Mistress of the world; Rejoice, Maria, the Lady of us all; Rejoice, the only immaculate and kind one among womankind; Rejoice, o vessel, who has accepted the infinite myrrh poured over it " and " I open my mouth and it is filled by the Spirit; and I utter these words to the Queenly Mother... "
In the Paraclesis Canons that are offered by our Church to the Holy Mother, the Queen of the world somehow descends from her throne, becomes the Mother who feels agony and pain for her Son's fortune, as do all the mothers of the world. The faithful do not want to her exclusively residing in heaven, wrapped in her glory; they want her fulfilling maternal duties on earth, supporting the pain of poverty, of deprivation, of injustice and of sickness. In this way, they can approach her even more, and ask her to intercede with the maternal influence that she has on her Son. They therefore justifiably ask her:
" So, where else will I find someone who understands? Who can I resort to and where will I be safe? Who is my fervent helper on the outside, when I am -alas- shaken by the sorrows of life? Only in you do I place my hopes, take courage and boast about, and to your shelter do I run: save me! " (from the Great Paraclesis Canon).
This is precisely the hope, the courage and the pride that the faithful derive from the "Tenderly Kissing" icon of the Holy Mother.
Description of the icon. Our icon of the "Tenderly Kissing" Holy Mother is found in the Holy Monastery of Ossios Filotheos on Mount Athos (14 th century). It is the monastery's guardian, its pride and its boast.
The icon portrays the Holy Mother in the familiar, tender pose. It is a bust-size portrayal, where she is holding in her right arm the young Christ. His cheek is pressed against His mother's, while His hand is cupping her chin. The Holy Mother is turned in a semi-profile pose, with anxiety very evident in her features. Her right hand holds the young Christ across His back; He is enveloped in her warm embrace. The gaze of her almond-shaped, pensive eyes with their arched brows betrays her maternal drama. Thus, according to a Russian iconologist's observation: " the meaning behind this icon centers on the distressed thoughts of the Holy Mother, after being informed of the Lord's Passions and His Death. Sensing this inner sorrow, the young Christ hugs His Mother even more ."
From within this perspective, the human aspect becomes even more charged. The common pain bonds the characters, it unites them incessantly, and they inter-embrace. The Holy Mother visualizes the drama of Golgotha , which is equally her drama; yet, she is not crushed by the pain. This is the difference between orthodox and western pictures. In orthodoxy, we do not have images of a tousle-haired, pain-racked Mother who is crushed by the injustice that her Child has suffered. She is aware that in her arms she is "holding the one who holds everything" - the Son and the Logos of God. Hence she turns to Him trustingly, and her human emotions are sanctified, by the grace of the Holy Spirit. As Leonid Ouspensky observes: " every human emotion portrayed in an icon is transformed and it acquires its overall significance during its contact with the world of divine Providence . Icons in the style of the "Merciful" and the "Tenderly Kissing" are the most characteristic examples of this fact. In the entire, vast range of human emotions, those related to maternity are the most intense, because they, more than any of the others, do not only pertain to the inner life of a person, but also to his physical life. In icons of this type, the maternal attention of the Mother of God is indelibly joined to her torturous agony for her Son. The sympathy that she feels for Him is transformed into a maternal sympathy for every creature that He is voluntarily sacrificing Himself for. And this divine sympathy transforms the most instinctive part of human nature that unites mankind with nature: maternity. Contact with divinity transforms maternal tenderness to love and pain that embrace all of creation..... This is why the Mother of God is revered as the Joy of every creation with whom she is ontologically one; a Joy that springs from knowing and believing in the maternal mediation of a "compassionate heart" that cannot bear to behold the suffering of all those creatures. This all-embracing love, which knows no other laws except sympathy and pain, finds its fullest expression in the Mother that is in pain for her crucified Son ."
In view of this, we find the praise by saint Cyril of Alexandria addressed to the Holy Maria is justified:
".... You are hailed by us Maria Theotokos, as the prudent relic of the entire universe, the undying candle flame, the wreath of virginity, the scepter of orthodoxy, the indestructible temple, the container of the uncontainable, the mother and virgin; through you was He hailed in the Gospels as the blessed one Who comes in the name of the Lord. You rejoice, being the one who contained the uncontainable in a virginal womb; through you, the Trinity is hallowed; the Cross is called precious and is worshipped throughout the universe; through you, the heavens rejoice; through you, the angels and the archangels are jubilant; through you, the demons flee; through you, the tempting devil fell from the heavens; through you, the fallen creature is re-lifted to the heavens; through you; all of creation that had fallen into idolatry has now come to the realization of the truth; through you, those who believe receive holy baptism; through you is the oil of jubilation; through you, the Church lays its foundations throughout the entire universe; through you, nations are led to repentance. And how much more must we say: through you, the only-begotten Son of God shone His light on those seated in darkness and shadow; it was you, that the prophets prophesied of; through you, did the apostles spread the gospel to all nations; through you, are the dead risen; through you, kings reign by the holy Trinity ..." (PG 77, 992 BC)