The Italian poet Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) wrote in the 14th century in the 166th of his Songs (Canzoniere):
Vergine bella, che di sol vestita,
coronata di stelle, al sommo Sole
piacesti sí, che ’n te Sua luce ascose,
amor mi spinge a dir di te parole:
“Beautiful Virgin,who is clothed with the sun,
Crowned with stars, on high the sun
You pleased so, that he hid his light in you;
Love moves me to speak words of you.”
This motif of the woman clothed with the sun and crowned with stars comes from Revelation (Apocalypse) 12:1:
“And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars:”
This figure became known as the “Apocalyptic Woman” or the “Woman Clothed with the Sun,” and was considered a symbol of the Church, but it also became associated with Mary, as we see in Petrarch’s song.
Though there were earlier and more complex artistic depictions of the woman in Revelation 12, in the 1400s a form of the “Apocalyptic Woman” developed that became widespread in both southern and northern Europe. It is commonly known in German as the Strahlende Madonna — the “Shining” or “Radiant” Madonna. In such images, Mary stands full-length, usually holding her child, and her body is surrounded by rays of light. Here is a Spanish example:
According to tradition, an image of this type was brought to Moscow by the Lithuanian Sofia Vitovtovna (1371–1453), wife of Grand Duke Vasiliy (Basil) the 1st. In any case, the Western Catholic image spread in Russian iconography of the 17th century.
In Russian, such images had two names, and may be called either “Blessed Heaven” or “What Shall We Call You?,” both titles taken from this text, a Marian hymn for the first hour:
Что Тя наречем, о Благодатная? Небо, яко возсияла еси Солнце Правды; рай, яко прозябла еси Цвет нетления; Деву, яко пребыла еси нетленна; Чистую Матерь, яко имела еси на святых Твоих объятиях Сына, всех Бога. Того моли спастися душам нашим
“What shall we call you, O Blessed? Heaven, for you have shone forth the Sun of righteousness? Paradise, for you have budded forth the Flower of immortality? Virgin, for you have remained undefiled? Pure Mother, for you have held in your holy embrace your Son, God of all? Pray to him that our souls be saved.”
Due to the schism in the Russian Orthodox Church in the mid-1600s, the text used by Old Believers varies slightly from the “State Church” text:
Что тя наречем обрадованная [“glad one/rejoicing one”], небо яко восияла еси, солнце правды рай, яко возрастила еси цвет нетления, деву, яко пребыла еси нетленна чистая… моли спастися душам нашим.
So when you see a “What Shall We Call You?” icon with a text reading “Chto tya narechem obradovannaya...” it is most likely an Old Believer icon.
Here is an example of the simpler form, here given the “Blessed Heaven” title:
Now that you have learned to recognize this type, be aware that there are substantial variations in the basic form. Some examples show Mary standing on the moon, either crescent (as is common in the Western Catholic versions), or full. You might find her even standing on the sun, or in other examples (particularly more recent “State Church” icons), she may stand on a cloud, or simply in the air.
In certain more complicated examples, Marian symbols are depicted at both sides — a throne, a closed door, a censer, a ladder, etc. One would hardly expect the icon shown below — which contains those symbols — to have the same title as the icon above, but it does nonetheless. It too is titled Благодатное Небо — Blagodatnoe Nebo — “Blessed Heaven”:
Let’s look more closely at the beginning of the inscription around the central image:
It is a bit difficult to see clearly in this small image, but nonetheless we can determine that it begins with these words:
ЧТО ТЯ НАРЕЧЕМ О БЛАГОДАТНАЯ НЕБО…. CHTO TYA NARECHEM O BLAGODATNAYA NEBO….
“What shall we call you O Blessed; Heaven….”
So we see it includes that phrase sometimes used as an alternate title for such images.
Let’s take a look a the beginning of the extensive inscription in the outer border:
It begins with these words:
Глаголы моя внуши, Г[о]с[по]ди, разумей звание мое.
Glagolui moya vnushi, Gospodi, razumey zvanie moe.
“Hear my words, Lord, attend to my cry.”
This is where knowledge of the Bible comes in handy. If one is a real Bible whiz (not that it is of much use in other respects), one may recognize that as the beginning of Psalm 5, which the King James version gives as:
“Give ear to my words, O Lord, consider my meditation.”
One should not be surprised by the differences in wording. The Hebrew Masoretic text was used in translating the King James version of the Old Testament, but Eastern Orthodox Bibles follow the Greek Septuagint text, which often varies from the meaning of the Hebrew text.
For icon studies, however, that does not matter much. We can identify the text in the outer border as Psalm 5, and that is sufficient for our purposes here.
There is also another very different icon type named “What Shall We Call You,” showing scenes of Mary enthroned, Mary above Jesus in Paradise (with the Repentant Thief Rakh), the Birth of Jesus, the Visit of the Magi, along with a number of other figures.
And, if you are not confused enough already, there is yet another type that should be distinguished from the basic “Blessed Heaven” image. It is called the Солнечная, the “Of the Sun” icon. Its iconography also comes from the “Apocalyptic Woman” text of Revelation 12:1:
“И явилось на небе великое знамение: жена, облеченная в солнце;”
I yavilos na nebe velikoe znamenie: zhena, oblechennaya v solntse;
“And there appeared a great wonder/sign in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars:”
In the case of the Solnechnaya type, however, the radiant mandorla (a mandorla is a full-body, almond-shaped halo) behind Mary is replaced by a very large and reddish image of the sun with two eyes.
Though it is not an Eastern Orthodox icon, the Mexican image called the “Virgin of Guadalupe” is also an “Apocalyptic Woman” image, and though it is Roman Catholic, it is very much in the tradition one finds in Eastern Orthodoxy of supposedly miraculously-appearing images and dubious stories of origin. It has the typical “Shining Madonna” mandorla that we find in European images and in many “Blessed Heaven” types, though in the Guadalupe image Mary stands on the crescent moon, hands together and head inclined, without the child Jesus:
According to its origin story, the Guadalupe image is said to have appeared miraculously on the tilma (mantle) of an Aztec convert named Juan Diego, to whom the Virgin Mary is held to have appeared on Tepeyac Hill (a site sacred to the Aztec earth goddess Tonantzin). The legend relates that at one point she told him to go to a certain place where he found Castilian roses blooming in winter. He filled his tilma with the miraculous roses, and when he opened it to show a bishop as proof of his Marian apparition, the tilma was found to have the image of the Virgin imprinted on it — not painted, but “not made by hands” as the Russians and Greeks say of certain of their supposedly “miraculous” images.
It is a colorful story, and it has led to the popular adoption of the Virgen de Guadalupe as a kind of unofficial national image for Mexicans and many Americans of Mexican background. But it is fiction, not history — just pious propaganda for a painting that was done by a native artist following the typical European models of the period, and there is nothing “miraculous” about its appearance or its materials.
We can see a distinct similarity in posture between the Guadalupe image and another “Apocalyptic Woman” type — one of the “Vilna” icons known as the Vilenskaya-Ostrobramskaya — the Vilna “Dawn Gate” icon named after the gate in the Lithuanian capitol city of Vilnius above which it was and still is kept in a chapel. Here is an illustration:
In both the Guadalupe and Ostrobramskaya images, Mary inclines her head, though the hands are in a posture of prayer in one and crossed in a sign of humility in the other. And of course the Ostrobramskaya is a half-figure image, with the crescent ordinarily beneath Mary’s feet moved up frame her waist.
While mentioning “Vilna” (Vilenskaya) types, we should also add the “standing” Vilenskaya type, depicted here:
As we see, it too is one of the “Apocalyptic Woman” types, showing Mary standing on the crescent moon (some examples merely show her on clouds). The type is rather variable. Mary may gesture toward the child Jesus on her left arm; she may also hold a scepter in her right hand, which in other examples may be held out to the side. Sometimes she is already crowned (as here), while in others, two angels place a crown upon her head. Icons of this type are commonly quite Westernized in appearance. Little is known about about the “standing” Vilenskaya type. Its origin story says it appeared in the year 1341, and was kept in a monastery on the outskirts of Vilna.
And while we are discussing “Vilna” icons, though it is not an “Apocalyptic Woman” type, to avoid confusion we should mention the Vilenskaya-Odigitriya type. We can tell from the Odigitriya part of its name that it is one of the icons in which Mary gestures with one hand toward the child Jesus on her opposite arm, as though “showing the way,” which is essentially what the Odigitriya title means, though that is the Russian phonetic form of the Greek Hodigitria. Translated rather than phoneticized into Russian, the term is Путеводительница — Putevoditel’nitsa.
The Vilenskaya-Odigitrya is another of those icons attributed (incorrectly) by legend to St. Luke. Its origin story says that it was first sent from Jerusalem to Constantinople. Next it travelled from Constantinople to the rulers of the region known as Galicia and “Red Russia” (Red Ruthenia), which was in what today is southeastern Poland and western Ukraine. When the princedom of Galicia fell, the icon came into the possession of the Prince of Moscow. A different story, however, says the icon was brought to Moscow by Princess Sophia, upon her marriage to Grand Duke Ivan III.
In 1495 the Grand Prince of Moscow, Ivan III, gave it as blessing to his daughter Elena on her marriage to the Lithuanian Prince Alexander. The icon was taken to Vilna/Vilnius in Lithuania, thus its title.
The Vilenskaya-Odigitiya type often demonstrates the flexibility with which painters treated the postures of figures in some Marian icons. In standard examples of the type, Mary holds her child on her left arm, and gestures toward him with her right hand. The legs of the child hang down side by side. In some versions, however, the position of the legs of the child is changed, with the right leg bending under the left, so that the sole of the right foot is toward the viewer. That is the Hodigitria form often seen in the Tikhvin type. Here is a Vilenskaya icon using that position variation:
It has a very elaborate silver riza (icon cover) with colorful floral cloisonné ornamentation in the halos, very typical of better-quality work during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II. The robes are done in intricate silver filigree.