History and Meaning of an Icon
In 2011, Father Antoine Lambrechts wrote an article about a beautiful icon from the Benedictine Monastery of Chevetogne in Belgium, where he holds the post of librarian. Eikonikon has published the full Dutch text in three parts, what follows is part one.
The joy of monks and pilgrims
The Mother of God ‘The Joy of the Child’ (Vzygranie Mladentsa) is one of the most beloved and celebrated icons in the Monastery of Chevetogne. It was painted in 1703 by the Russian iconographer, Kirill Oelanov. With her tender gaze, the Mother of God welcomes pilgrims that enter the monastery and pass through the original entrance of the old building. To date, the icon hangs in the heart of the guest house, the corridor next to the refectory. The monks have always acknowledged and honored her since the first years of the founding of the abbey in 1925, this despite no one knowing exactly how the icon came to the monastery. Presumably the work was part of the valuable art collection of Otto-O’Meara, from which other icons were acquired in 1928.
The elderly priests recall that in the early years of the community, each evening they sang the traditional hymn to Mary, Sub Tuum Presidium, imploring her protection and beseeching her to intercede for new vocations to the priesthood. From a 4th century Greek papyrus, Sub Tuum Praesidium is arguably the oldest extant hymn-prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary and is still chanted every evening in Chevetogne after the Byzantine Compline in Slavonic, Pod tvoju milost. Once a year, on the fifth Saturday of Great Lent, the icon is transferred to the Byzantine church for the solemn vigil of the Akathistos hymn. In this ceremonious atmosphere, the icon ‘comes alive’; Mary and her divine Child enter our hearts and fill us with joy as we too become children of God.
In recent years the icon has also become better known outside the monastery. In 1991 the image appeared on Belgium’s annual Christmas postage stamp. In conjunction with this, a special event was organized, including a memorial temple for philatelists, with the opportunity to worship the icon in the crypt.
In 2002, Father Denis Guillaume (1933-2008), a fellow monk at Chevetogne who converted to the Orthodox Church and an assiduous translator of liturgical texts and himself a hymnographer, wrote a Byzantine prayer service and an akathistos hymn in French for the icon of Chevetogne. In 2006, the image adorned the annual calendar of our orthodox friends from the publishing house, Duch i Litera (The Spirit and the Letter) in Kiev.
The iconography of the Mother of God, both in the East and West, is very diverse and the names of the liturgical hymns and the popular devotions attributed to her are innumerable. ‘The Joy of the Child’ (Vzygranie Mladentsa) is just one of many. But where does the name come from and what does it mean? Is it simply an emotive name which moves us – after all, what is more stirring than the joy of a child in the arms of his mother? – or does it also have a deeper, theological meaning?
Iconographic types and inscriptions
The icon, ‘The Joy of the Child’, is one of many variations of what art connoisseurs refer to as the ‘Mother of God of Tenderness’ (Greek Eléousa or Glykophilousa, Russian Umilénie). The image portrays the Mother of God who cradles the Child Jesus in her right arm, inclining her head and touching her cheek to that of the Child, who, in turn, tenderly strokes the chin of his mother and gazes up lovingly at her. In his other hand, the Child Jesus holds a scroll, symbol of God’s Word.
The icon follows the traditional inscriptions; MP ΘY, Mêtêr Theou, for the Mother of God and IC XC, Iêsous Christos, for Jesus Christ, but also bears the name Vzygranie Mladentsa (often translated literally as the ‘leap of the child’). The signature of the painter is found on the bottom edge, and can be translated thus: ‘This sacred image was renewed (obnovlen) in 1703, painted by the zograf (artist or icon painter) of the tsar, Kirill Oelanov’.
Until the 1950s, the image was covered with an oklad, generally a costly silver or gilded metal encasing an icon. The oklad or riza of the Mother of God was deemed of no great value and covered only the background and borders, leaving the figures and the inscriptions exposed. An old tinted postcard from the 1930s bears this out.
An original icon or a restoration?
How can we interpret the meaning of the signature in the lower edge of the icon? The terms obnovlen (literally, renew) and obnovlenie (restoration) can, with respect to an icon, have the following meanings:
- It can be the first appearance of an icon, a miraculous ‘discovery’ in a certain place, or even a sudden mysterious and inexplicable sighting of an old, damaged icon. This ‘occurrence’ lies at the heart of its veneration locally and the toponym or ‘geographically determined name apportioned to it.
- Sometimes the term refers to the consecration of a newly painted icon, its inauguration as it were, its dedication or sanctification during a special prayer service. In the same sense, the word is used for the consecration or inauguration of a church (Greek egkainismos, egkainia).
- Finally, it comes to mean the restoration, renovation or even repainting of an older, damaged icon. In some cases, when an icon is seen as irreparable or beyond repair, the iconographer can use the original surface to create a completely new image.
As concerns The Mother of God ‘The Joy of the Child’ (Vzygranie Mladentsa), it appears to refer to a profound renovation, more than a minimal intervention or restoration as understood in the modern sense of the word. Among all the works by Kirill Oelanov that have survived – more than sixty – two were signed in the exactly the same manner as the icon from Chevetogne. In both cases, it is irrefutably the ‘reconstruction’ of an older, known icon into a new style, a ‘restoration’ that has only preserved the contours of the underlying image. At times it is a challenge to identify the actual state of the underlying work, even with the most modern sophisticated techniques at our disposal. The intensity and depth of the intervention by the ‘restorer’ is often difficult to ascertain. Moreover, we know that in that period, around the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries, an iconographer might work in diverse styles, sometimes in traditional, sometimes in modern style.
(Author: P. Antoine Lambrechts)