The Virgin with the Playing Child
Anonymous, The Virgin with the Playing Child or “Pelagonitissa”, early 15th century, tempered on panel, Mt. Sinai, St. Catherine Monastery.
The expressiveness of this icon is surprising as it is far from the typical solemnity of the Byzantine Virgins. The Child is not enthroned in the arms of the Virgin but is instead facing her, caressing her with his left hand, whilst his head is back and in such a way it seems even his eyes, like those of the Mother, are watching us.
The Russian iconographers call this kind of icon “the playing child” and they developed from the end of the 12th century. This Virgin is also called “Pelagonitissa” most likely making reference to the Pelagonia region in today’s Macedonia where it saw a notable diffusion.
The baby Jesus, portrayed just like any other child playing, wears a chiton, a short and light tunic which leaves his arms and legs uncovered and which was the most common tunic to be found in Ancient Greece. However, we do not find ourselves in looking at any other child and this evidenced by the himation – the cloak rolled up and held in the Virgin’s left hand – woven with gold assits.
The left hand of the Virgin is beautiful, well defined and with long, elegant fingers. It seems to be a banister that stops the child from falling and holds him securely which allows him to move erratically: perhaps this is why the right hand of the baby Jesus is looking for his mother’s hand.
Another striking aspect is the Mary’s gaze. Although the subject is in some ways almost playful, the Mother’s eyes seem to express an infinite sadness. In every moment there is the premonition of the Passion and the Death of the Son, the Mother seems to constantly bear in mind the prediction of the aged Simeon who, on the day Jesus is Presented in the Temple, reminded Mary that a sword would pierce her soul (cf. Luke 2, 35).
Wishing to save the world,
to this end did the Ruler of all come of His own will;
and, though as God He is the Shepherd,
for us He appeared as a Man like us;
for by this likeness He called those of like kind,
yet as God He hears:
You are a fortress protecting all virgins,
O Theotokos and Virgin;
for the Master of heaven and earth prepared you,
O Immaculate One,
and dwelt in your womb,
and taught all to cry out to you,
Akathistos Hymn (stanzas 18 and 19)