Our Lady on the Throne
Anonymous, Mother of God on the throne with Saint Sergius of Radonež, beginning of XV century, tempered on panel, Moscow, State Historical Museum
The Council of Ephesus on the 11th October 431, solemnly declared that Mary was Θεοτόκος, the Mother of God. Soon after, to bring this truth to life ‘iconografically’, the Virgin is represented on a throne, likened to the representation of the maternal deities of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. The front view also gives this solemn representation. This is a clear reference to the Byzantine era (think of the mosaics of Ravenna at St. Vitale)
Often the Virgin on the throne is accompanied and almost ‘crowned’ by the presents of Saints – as in this case with St. Sergius, hermit and founder of the famous Trinity Monastery in what is now the city of Sergiev Posad, about 70km outside of Moscow, who seems much smaller to stress the distance the between him and the Virgin – or the Angels – as always in our icons, appearing in a celestial sphere is Gabriel, the angel of the Annunciation, who has manifested to Mary God’s will and which may be the foundation, on behalf of St. Sergius, for a Monastery of the Annunciation at Kiržač – but there is still no doubt that the focal point of the piece is still the Virgin with her Son, which seem almost to become one with the throne.
We look to the throne: it is similar to a temple, with windows and a column, while the exedra of the spine seems to recall the apse of a church. The dais on which the Virgin is resting her feet seems to slide out from under the throne like a drawer. The perspective and its semicircular shape are not front facing in this case, but orient the composition to the left, because the Virgin reaches out with the right hand towards St. Sergius, almost as if to bless his intention to found the monastery of the Annunciation.
This throne, with its rich symbolism is such a clear metaphor of the Virgin herself, who is the true temple and indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
Her hands hold the Eternal and her knees are a throne more sublime than the cherubim. Thou are the royal throne which angels surround, seeing upon it their very King and Lord. (St. John of Damascus)
For by the grace of the Holy Spirit
You purify our hearts by light
And sanctify them with your presence,
So that they become the dwelling-place of your glory.
But because of her obedience of faith
And the mystery of the Incarnation
You made the Blessed Virgin your temple without compare:
A house of gold adorned by the Spirit
With every kind of virtue,
A royal palace resplendent
With the presence of the One who is the Truth,
The holy city, rejoicing in its streams of grace,
The ark of the New Covenant
Enshrining the author of the New Law,
Jesus Christ our Lord.
(Preface of Mary, Temple of the Lord)