As I have written previously, icons of Mary form a large segment of Russian icon painting. In fact there are far more icon types of Mary than of Jesus. Many of them have hagiographical stories, frequently dubious, detailing their supposed origins and date, but for some very little information has been passed down.
Today I will discuss such an icon. It is known under three different names, but all for the same icon type. It is called:
Both of those names mean essentially “Arabian.” It is not known why that title became attached to the image, and in any case, the earliest known example of the icon is actually a page from the 17th-century Siya Pictorial Icon Painter’s Manual. So even though there are suggestions made in religious icon literature that the missing prototype dates to the beginning of the 300s c.e., or even may have something to do with the evangelization of India by the Apostle Thomas, there is no support for such colorful suppositions. So the icon’s prototype can at present not be dated earlier than the 17th century.
3. O Vsepetaya Mati
That third title, which means, “O All-Hymned Mother,” is the title I prefer for this image because it relates directly and obviously to one of the characteristics of this icon type: In the border of Mary’s garment is written in Church Slavic the words of the 13th Kontakion of the Akathist prayer/hymn to Mary, the most popular Marian prayer in Eastern Orthodoxy:
О всепетая Мати, рождшая всех святых Святейшее Слово, нынешнее приношение приемши, от всяких напасти избави всех, и грядущия изми муки, вопиющия Ти: Аллилуиа
“O all-hymned Mother worthy of all praise, who brought forth the Word, holiest of all Saints, as you receive this our offering, rescue us all from every calamity, and deliver from future torment those who cry with one voice, Alleluia”
The beginning of the Akathist may also sometimes be found as border ornamentation in her garments:
Взбранной воеводе победительная,яко избавльшеся от злых,благодарственная восписуем Ти раби Твои, Богородице; но яко имущая державу непобедимую,
от всяких нас бед свободи,да зовем Ти: радуйся, невесто неневестная.
“Invincible Champion, as deliverance from evil, in thanksgiving your servants ascribe the victory to you. And as you have might unassailable, free us from all distress, so that we may cry to you: Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride.”
The “O All-Hymned Mother” is only one of several Marian icons utilizing or based upon lines from the Akathist.
Let’s look at a detail:
We see in the border of her head covering (Greek maphorion) the words …[п]риемши, от всяких напасти избави всех, и грядущия и[изми] … “From every calamity rescue all, and deliver from future…”
Note also another characteristic of this particular icon type. Usually Mary is depicted with three stars on her garment, one on her head and one near each shoulder; these traditionally represent her perpetual virginity before, during, and after the birth of Jesus. But on the “All-Hymned Mother” type, we find instead of stars three circles in which we see the heads of angels. The precise significance of this has been obscured by time, but there are two interpretations: 1. The angels are the “spirits” that manifest as stars, as we find in the apocryphal Book of Enoch. 2. They represent the Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — shown as angels, as in the “Hospitality of Abraham” icon type.
A third distinguishing feature of this type is that the garments of Mary are customarily ornamented with stylized clouds, representing not only her existence in Heaven but also her traditional liturgical description as “Wider than the Heavens.”
This particular example is painted very much in the traditional stylized manner. We can see that her face is depicted with a base of sankir, dark brown base paint, over which is placed first a layer of lighter brown to form the face, then a third layer of even lighter brown highlights added primarily as linear strokes. Dark detailing completes the formation of the facial features.
On this example as a whole, notice the golden highlighting on the garments of the child Jesus; such highlighting with gold of garments, angels’ wings, etc. in icons is termed асист — asist, usually spelled “assist” in English usage.
It is customary in this type for Mary to have a painted crown of precisely the style shown in this example.