Virgin Odigitria

May 2015


Dionisi, Virgin Odigitria, 1482, temper on canvas, cm 135x111, Moscow, Tretyakov Gallery


The image of Odigitria takes a privileged place in the iconography of the Mother of God because it is known to both the East and the West, and is among one of the most famous icons of the images of the Mother of God.

The name derives from the Greek οδηγός (odegós) which can be translated as ‘guide, leader,’, hence the contemporary meaning of “She who leads the way”; and the way is indeed Christ, indicated by the right hand of Mary.

The name comes from the sanctuary of Constantinople where the image was kept, known as “odigoi” or “the guides”, named after the monks who looked after the sanctuary and who were guides to those persons, the majority of which were blind, who visited the shrine seeking the healing of the Virgin. According to tradition, the Mother of God appeared before two blind people, led them to her sanctuary and restored their sight to them. Since then, the blind and those who suffer from eye conditions, went to the spring that flowed by the Church to wash their eyes in the hope of being healed.

Overtime the name was given to the same Mother of God and her icon which, in the feminine form ‘Odigitria’, became its proper name.

What added luster to the image was that it was rumoured to have been a portrait done in Jerusalem by the evangelist Luke while Mary was still alive.

The original icon was completely destroyed in a fire in 1482 and, according to legend, Dionisi was called on to repaint it identically on the same surface and in the same measurements.

In the image, Mary is in the foreground, facing us with her eyes fixed on us. The Child is not sitting on His mother’s lap and is therefore at the same height as His Mother’s shoulder. He is supported by the left arm of the Virgin which, according to tradition, is almost completely covered by the red maphorian, her hair is completely unseen, hidden by a kind of cap (mitella) under the tight veil. The Child is sitting on the arm, also facing us, with the right hand slightly raised in a blessing to the Greek, whilst the left is holding a scroll, a symbol of wisdom and knowledge, traditionally attributes of the prophets. He is both child and adult, He is Emmanuel with the attributes of divinity. The Virgin turns her hand towards the Child in a gesture to indicate him. It is this very gesture that calls to mind two passages from the scriptures, one referring to Mary when at Cana of Galilee where she says to the servants: “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2,5).    

The second, still from the Gospel of John, is instead a reply from Jesus. Thomas who asks him: “ Lord, we don’t where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Jesus replies: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14, 5-6)


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