In an earlier posting, I discussed the Pokrov image of Mary — the “Protection” image, which shows her appearing in the air above congregants in the Church of the Vlakhernae at Constantinople, holding her veil above them as a sign of protection.
There is, however, another related but visually quite different icon type of Mary related to protection. Not surprisingly, it is called the Pokrovitelnitsa, “The Protectress.”
For the origins of this concept, we may look to the earliest-known Marian hymn/prayer, found written in Greek on a Coptic papyrus from Egypt — Rylands Papyrus #470. It is generally known by its first words in Latin translation, Sub Tuum Praesidium — “Under Your Protection.” Though it is fragmentary, the missing parts may be supplied to read:
Ὑπὸ τὴν σὴν εὐσπλαγχνίαν………..”Under your compassion
καταφεύγομεν, Θεοτόκε………………We flee for refuge, God-birther
Τὰς ἡμῶν ἱκεσίας……………………….Our petitions
μὴ παρίδῃς ἐν περιστάσει…………….Do not disregard in affliction
ἀλλ᾽ ἐκ κινδύνων λύτρωσαι ἡμᾶς….But rescue us from danger
μόνη Ἁγνή, μόνη εὐλογημένη………Only Pure, only Blessed.”
We can paraphrase it as:
“We flee under your compassion for refuge, Birthgiver of God; do not despise our prayers when troubles surround us, but deliver us from danger, only pure one, only blessed one.”
It is noteworthy that in this prayer, Mary is not approached as an intercessor or intermediary, but rather approached directly for her powers of deliverance.
It is not surprising that we find this earliest-known prayer to Mary in Egypt. Egypt was the land of the goddess Isis, the mother of the god Horus, and one of her titles was Mut Netjer,” “Mother of the God,” which we may liken to Theotokos –– “Birth-Giver of God” in Greek. As I have said before, as Christianity spread in the Greco-Roman world (which included Egypt at that time), the worship of the old gods was first discouraged, then persecuted, so their places and functions in the hearts of the populace were gradually replaced by Christian saints, the most prominent of which was Mary, who took on the role of the new Mother Goddess.
I have said that the Sub Tuum is the earliest-known Marian prayer, but just how early is it? How long did it take early Christians to begin calling upon Mary? Well, this is disputed. One scholar, based on handwriting style, dates the papyrus fragment as early as the 200s c.e., but others, taking handwriting and other evidence into account, place it in the 300s to 400s c.e. The later period is generally favored because there is no other evidence of prayer to Mary in the 200s, nor was the term Theotokos then in common use. The use of Theotokos as a title of Mary was only officially authorized at the Council of Ephesus, in 431 c.e., after a controversy over whether Mary should be called “Birthgiver of Christ” or “Birthgiver of God.” The latter won out.
Gregory Nazianzen, who died about 390 c.e., tells in his account of the sufferings of St. Justina that “she prayed earnestly to the Virgin for help.” So we know that people were praying to Mary in the latter part of the 4th century.
So just how old then, is the Sub Tuum Praesidium fragment? C. H. Roberts, who published papyrus #470, wrote in his catalog:
“Lobel would be unwilling to place 470 later than the third century. But such individual hands are hard to date, and it is almost incredible that a prayer addressed directly to the Virgin in these terms could be written in the third century. The Virgin was spoken of as Θεοτόκος [Theotokos] by Athanasius ; but there is no evidence even for private prayer addressed to her (cf. Greg. Naz. Orat. xxiv. II) before the latter part of the fourth century, and I find it difficult to think that our text was written earlier than that.”
So the date of the fragment remains imprecise, with the latter half of the 4th century seeming most likely to me, from present evidence.
But what does all this have to do with icons? It is the notion of the “protection” of Mary, of supplicants going to her for security in times of trouble.
In the standard Pokrov type, Mary holds her veil over congregants for protection. That is the icon type popular in the East, in Tsarist Russia. This form of the “Protection” icon was not generally found in Greek Orthodoxy.
In the Roman Catholic West, however, the protection of Mary was visualized somewhat differently, as Mary spreading wide her mantle, and people gathering under it on both sides for protection, as in this early Tuscan example from the Cenacolo di Santo Spirito in Florence. It is called the Madonna della Misericordia, or more commonly in English, “Our Lady of Mercy”:
In the later years of Russian Orthodox iconography, the Western Madonna della Misericordia image was borrowed as an icon type, though it was not common. Here is an example. The title inscription reads “The ‘Protectress’ Most Holy Mother of God.”
As we see, it depicts the basic Madonna della Misericordia image of Mary standing, holding her mantle out to take in and protect supplicants beneath it. But certain changes are found when this image is used in Russian iconography. It is, for example, standard in Russian Orthodox versions of the type to give Mary wings, reflecting Revelation 12:14:
“And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent.”
This so-called “Apocalyptic Woman” is considered a symbol of the Church in Eastern Orthodoxy, but Mary is also considered to represent the Church. Mary is also found with wings, for example, in certain Deisis representations.
Another element added to this particular example, though not found in all icons of the type, is the wall in the background. That connects this example with the icon type known as the Nerushimaya Stena — “The Unshakeable Wall,” as well as the “Wall to Virgins” type (see my earlier posting on that icon). And to emphasize that, this example has a banner at its base with a heavily abbreviated Slavic inscription, a slight variation on a line from the Canon to the Most Holy Mother of God:
“Save from harm your servants, O Mother of God, Virgin, for we all flee to you after God, as an unshakeable wall and defense.”
In Western European examples of the Madonna della Misericordia, various types and numbers of supplicants are shown kneeling for protection under Mary’s mantle. In the Russian icon versions, it is common to show bishops, monks, and others, along with kings. And symbols of authority such as bishop’s staffs and kingly scepters and orbs are placed upon the ground before Mary, showing that they submit to her authority. Some examples of the type bear an inscription saying that Mary protects those who call upon her name.
The two angels on clouds beside Mary in this example are the Archangels Michael at left, and Gabriel at right. They hold disks with the Greek letters MP ΘΥ, abbreviating Meter Theou, “Mother of God.” The border saints are at left Venerable Paraskoviya (Paraskeva) and Bishop Sylvester, Pope of Rome; at right Akilina and Venerable Matrona. Jesus blesses from the clouds at top center.
As an aside, some of you may remember the “Singing Nun,” (Sister Smile, Soeur Sourire, Sister Luc-Gabrielle, Jeanine Deckers) from the 1960s, whose life ended in tragedy. Her then-popular song was Dominique, about St. Dominic (not saintly in my view, due to his connection with the persecution of the Cathars). In that paradoxically cheerful and bouncy song about converting the Albigensians (though Dominic was largely a failure at that) one stanza was:
Dominique vit en rêve
Les prêcheurs du monde entier
Sous le manteau de la Vierge
En grand nombre rassemblés
“Dominic saw in a dream
The preachers of the entire world
Under the mantle of the Virgin
In great number assembled.”
Most Americans had not the slightest idea what the song was about. They just liked the voice and the tune. But the “great number assembled” in the story of Dominic’s dream were Dominican monks, who are also known as Les Frères Prêcheurs — “The Preaching Brothers.” In any case, the song contains the same notion of protection and help under the mantle of Mary that we find expressed somewhat differently in various Western paintings of the Madonna della Misericordia and in Tsarist Russian icons of the Pokrovitelnitsa — “The Protectress.”