There are multiple representations and titles of Mary, the mother of Christ. Such representations include the Hodegetria (i.e., the one who shows the way), the Regina angelorum (i.e., a regal Virgin Mary accompanied by angels), and the Virgin Eleousa (i.e., tenderness or mercy), in which she is shown holding the Christ child and pressing her cheek against his. While drawing attention to her son, the two become cocooned in a reciprocal, cherished bond of love between mother and son.
The title of Eleousa uniquely describes Mary’s qualities rather than merely stating an action or an event. While this title differs from the others, people interpreted the meaning of this icon in various ways during the Byzantine era. Some of these meanings included the Virgin Eleousa icon as the mother of God; as the mother to all humanity; as a figure foreshadowing the sacrifice of Christ; as a sorrowful mother at Christ’s death; and as an advocate or intercessor. Additionally, Eleousa with St. Stephen represented the triumph over iconoclasm, and Eleousa with symbolic stars represented Mary’s virginity and relation to the Trinity. This paper focuses on the importance of the Virgin Eleousa in Byzantine society; even though Mary was viewed politically as a protector of the capital, the Virgin Eleousa was venerated by religious leaders and citizens of the empire because the icon represented her tender, merciful side with which people connected.
Eleousa as spiritual protector of Constantinople
Constantinople, also known as “Queen of Cities,” was the religious and political center of the Byzantine empire. The state regulated the production of art rather than art being controlled by artistic guilds, suggesting that art could work for nationalistic purposes. Additionally, Christian images were even considered powerful because, according to various accounts, art could supposedly heal viewers who were sick, protect those in need, and even hurt those who mocked it. Therefore, Byzantine art, most often being controlled by the state or wealthy patrons in the capital, influenced how the viewer perceived the power of Christianity as well as the empire.
The leaders of Constantinople adopted a woman, Mary, as the protector of the city, and military leaders devoted themselves to her for protection from intruding armies. Alexios I Comnenos, who was devoted to the Virgin, is told to have waited to fight against the Norman invaders because he wanted to see Mary appear at the Church of the Virgin Blachernai before going into battle. Coming from the same iconographic tradition, Virgin Glykophilousa is similar with the Eleousa type, just with different names that mean “sweet-loving” or “merciful” Mary, in that order (Fig. 1).
 The inscription on the icon Virgin Glykophilousa reads ΜΗ(ΤΗ)Ρ Θ(ΕΟ)Υ Η ΕΠΙCΚΕΨΙC, which essentially stresses Mary’s role as protector of the people. Hence, the Virgin was not only a political protector of Constantinople but also an important religious figure.
Eleousa as Mother of God and mother of humanity
Even before the Council of Ephesus in AD 431, people were significantly devoted to the Virgin. As Theotokos, which is Greek for “Christ-bearer,” Mary was the considered the person who bore Christ, but the term avoided anything about who she was as as person and did not imply any other relationship between the two. During the sixth century, there were only a few images of Christ being held by Mary. It was not until after iconoclasm that the motherhood of Mary was promoted and became explicit in texts and images. In the Church of the Buckle (Tokali Kilise), there is an early example of the Eleousa icon that is also commonly called Mary, the Mother of God (Fig. 2).
This church, a cave that was carved into the soft, volcanic stone, was a sanctuary and a large monastic center in the Byzantine Cappadocia, which is now central Turkey. Surprisingly, this icon is one of the few that actually survives from the early tenth century, and this image would become standard, appearing more often during the Byzantine empire. In the niche in the sanctuary corridor, the fresco icon of the Virgin Eleousa is shown. The Virgin holding Christ closely against here, and both of their checks touch affectionately. We see Christ’s arms around Mary’s neck. The image is tender and is supposed to evoke an empathetic reaction. While this image is emotionally charged, it is clearly an iconic type, meaning the image was meant for private and communal prayer and devotion.
Second, the Virgin Elousa has also been seen as a mother to humanity, which places less emphasis on the divine characteristic of Mary. Using the same example as in the previous paragraph, the fresco icon of the Virgin Eleousa has been seen as representing motherhood in general because she is eye-to-eye with the viewer (Fig. 2). She was called the mother of all because she was considered the skenoma, or the abode, for Christ. As a mother to all humans, she possessed a rare quality of affection and devotion—connected to her maternal feelings and character. The Virgin Eleousa could be seen as an Eve figure since she becomes the mother of all those who enter the Christian Church and are born again.
Eleousa as a figure foreshadowing Christ’s sacrifice
This section will analyze the Eleousa as a figure foreshadowing Christ’s sacrifice by comparing the large icon of Our Lady of Tolga, which is called Tolga I or Tolgysky I, and the small icon of Our Lady of Tolga, which is also known as Tolga II or Tolgsky II (Fig. 3 and Fig. 4).
While these icons were created in Russia, it is believed that the icons were influenced by the Theotokos of Vladimir (Fig. 5). Both icons were created in the Tolga convent near Yaroslavl, which is how both received their nicknames. The large icon shows the Virgin Eleousa seated on a throne with the Christ child, grabbing his mother’s neck, on her left knee. Above the throne, two angels are shown with hidden hands. The Virgin Eleousa shows a sophisticated, direct expression and is considered to be one of the most emotional Russian icons from the thirteenth century.
In contrast to the large icon of Our Lady Tolga, the small icon has significant changes that emphasize the Eleousa as a figure foreshadowing Christ’s sacrifice. Legend has it that the Virgin miraculously appeared to the Bishop Prokhor during the same time as the creation date of this icon, 1314. Here no throne is depicted, and the Christ child is sitting instead of standing, as in the large icon. Mary’s face has a much more mournful expression, which is seen with strong lines. The texture becomes more lush, while white coloring on the figures, such as on the forehead, neck, eyes, nose, and chin, emphasize the connection between mother and child. The smaller icon is considered to be more intense and dynamic than the larger icon because we see a pitiable Virgin Eleousa lamenting the fact that her innocent baby will one day die and sacrifice his life for all humanity.
Additionally, Mary’s hands are in a different position, which are seen as holding the Christ Child even closer to her than as seen in the larger icon. Therefore, the later, smaller version of the Our Lady Tolga seems to present a more powerful image of the Virgin Eleousa, who clearly loves her son and suffers at the thought of his sacrifice that will one day occur.
Eleousa as sorrowful mother at Christ’s death
After the iconoclastic period, Byzantine artists added a new subject, the Lamentation of the Virgin. The earliest Lamentation scenes come from the eleventh century where we see Mary lamenting over the body of Christ, which occurs after the deposition of the cross but before the placement in the tomb.
The Lamentation scene is not described in the canonical Gospel texts, but it is described in Byzantine hymns and sermons as well as in the Apocrypha. In the ninth century, George of Nicomedia wrote what he imagined the Virgin to say: “I am now holding him without breath whom lately I took in my arms as my own dearest one.” In the fresco of Lamentations over Christ’s Body from the St. Panteleimon, Mary is shown in a kind of kneeling or sitting position with her son in her lap (Fig. 6).
Byzantine artists and citizens would have connected the lamenting Mary with the Eleousa type, since both depict Mary with Christ in a loving embracing and touching cheek-to-cheek. The connection between both is even more apparent in the literary writings of the time of what Mary said: “I raised you in a mother’s arms . . . . Now I raise you up in the same arms, but lying as the dead.” Therefore, even though the Christ is no longer a child but an adult man, Mary is still seen as the Virgin Eleousa in the Lamentation portrayals.
Eleousa as intercessor
During the Byzantine period, the Virgin Eleousa was often seen as an intercessor or advocate. Mary’s role was an important one on behalf of humanity, which probably even furthered the popularity of icons depicting the Virgin with Christ child. Additionally, this cult of the Virgin could have created more depictions of an affectionate relationship between Mary, as the intercessor, and Christ, as the judge. In connection to the depictions of Mary being joyful over the birth of Christ and being sorrowful as foreshadowing the death of Christ, the emotional element of the icons would enhance the role of Virgin as intercessor.
Byzantine people would feel connected to the Virgin in her role as intercessor because they would probably hope that her sensibility would have her advocate on their behalf. Liz James describes the icon of Mary in the Church of Pangia Arakiotissa in Cyprus as a Virgin Eleousa, even though there is only Mary and no Christ depicted in the same area (Fig 7).
However, Mary’s head is tilted, as we have seen so often with the Virgin Eleousa, and Christ is shown on the other side (Fig. 8). Most importantly, the depiction reveals a tender and merciful Mary advocating on behalf of humanity.
In this icon of Virgin Eleousa as intercessor, the text written describes the conversation between Mary and Christ. While Mary’s left hand rests on her chest, her left hand, which is covered, presents the scroll with the petition to her son. The words of Mary are in black, while Christ’s are in red. Additionally, the names of neither Christ nor Mary are explicitly mentioned, but context reveals who says which lines:
- [Christ] What do you ask, Mother?
- [Mary] The salvation of mortals.
- [Christ] They have provoked me to anger.
- [Mary] Be compassionate, my Son.
- [Christ] But they have not repented.
- [Mary] And preserve for them your grace.
- [Christ] Atonement is possible.
- [Mary] I give you thanks, O Logos.
Here we see a dialogue with a vengeful, angry Christ and a benevolent, sympathetic Mary. Her pleas appear to convince Christ that his suffering and grace is sufficient to save imperfect souls. Icons were believed to be performative because of the rituals associated with them and because of the miracles that occurred through the icons themselves. With this depiction of the Virgin, the icon is performative, since the Virgin Eleousa performs as an advocate on behalf of humanity by speaking with her son.
Eleousa with symbolic stars, representing Mary’s virginity and connection to the trinity
Icons sometimes depicted three crosses, whether on icons showing Mary or saints. While depicting only one cross would represent Christ’s sacrifice, three crosses would be symbolic of the Trinity. This correlation could be why Catholics cross themselves in order to show their faith in the Trinity as well as draw strength from the cross of Christ. During the middle Byzantine period, sometimes the crosses were replaced with stars and could continue to be symbols of the Trinity, which would become even more popular in the late and post-Byzantine periods. Many variations in how the stars were depicted developed during this later time (Fig. 9).
However, these stars have been also associated as symbols of Mary’s virginity—before, during, and after the birth of Christ. This symbolism could be connected to how Byzantine hymns and chants described Mary’s virginity as luminous and how “she is exalted in astral symbolism as the star that heralds the sun.” Therefore, the stars could be symbolic of Mary’s virginity, which would be emphasized by showing the Christ Child on Mary’s lap.
Unfortunately, there is no longer an icon of Mary and the Christ Child with the stars that survives. However, George Galavaris uses the example of Our Lady of the Don, which shows Eleousa and Christ Child, that may have been created by Theophanes the Greek during the fourteenth century. Galavaris uses this Eleousa icon to show a comparison of an ekphrasis, or literary description, that John Eugenikos published in the fifteenth century of a similar-looking icon that had the stars shown (Fig. 10).
It is possible that this ekphrasis could be describing an Hodgetrai type or a Glykophilousa type actually, since it is difficult to tell based on the description. Nonetheless, Eugenikos writes that “the three shining stars appearing on the forehead and the shoulders should not be considered as having a secondary significance. They are symbols of the Grace of the luminous Trinity which as soon as it dwelt in her caused the One to be revealed from here.” Thus, these stars could be symbolic of not only Mary’s virginity but also Mary’s relation to the Trinity.
Eleousa icon with St. Stephen the Younger, representing triumph over iconclasm
The monastery of St. Neophytos, or Enkleistra meaning “place of reclusion,” is located in Cyprus, and on its west wall, a frieze shows twelve saints, including St. Stephen the Younger as the twelfth saint depicted (Fig. 11).
His name is inscribed on both sides of his halo, and he is painted at a lower level than the other saints because of how the cave bulges. This St. Stephen the Younger has brown hair and a pointed beard, a halo with rows of pearls, an ochre tunic, a scapular with strips, crosslets, and rosettes, a mantle with cords that hangs down around his knees, and a black belt with rosettes.
Here we see St. Stephen holding a depiction of an Eleousa icon as well as a scroll both in his left hand. The inscription on the scroll says the following: “If a man does not reverence our Lord Jesus Christ and his spotless Mother depicted on an icon, let him be anathema.” The Christ child grabs his mother’s neck and extends his right foot while the left foot’s sole is seen. Both halos on Christ and Mary are gilded, while Christ’s halo has a cross. In comparison to the other saints, St. Stephen the Younger was a martyr during the Byzantine Iconclastic period and is the only one shown holding an icon. It is possible that this portrayal of the Eleousa icon was meant to represent another icon also in this monastery. However, choosing an iconophile saint implies that the artists, who would mostly likely also be inconphiles, used the Eleousa and St. Stephen the Younger together to represent the triumph of venerated, religious icons over the destruction of iconoclasm.
The Virgin Mary was venerated by citizens, no matter their socioeconomic status, and was believed to be able to protect the great Byzantine empire and the city of Constantinople. However, that was not her only purpose, and the Virgin Eleousa was revered by many because viewers saw the mother of Christ as the mother of humanity and an advocate on their behalf. While showing her incredible selflessness and love towards the Christ child, the face of the Virgin Eleousa portrays a knowing mother who knows the trials her perfect son would one day face for the salvation of the world.
When this icon was presented with St. Stephen the Younger, it represented the triumph over iconoclasm. Additionally, seeing stars and this icon together represented not only Mary’s virginity but also the trinity. Although the mother of Christ was seen as a political protector, especially in Constantinople, people also revered the Virgin Eleousa as an icon of reverence and sincere religious belief, representing beauty and spiritual truth.
 Robert P. Bergman, “The Earliest Eleousa: A Coptic Ivory in the Walters Art Gallery,” The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery 48 (1990): 46–47.
 Cecily Hennessy, Images of Children in Byzantium (Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Co., 2008), 202.
 Annabel Jane Wharton, “Tenderness and hegemony: exporting the Virgin Eleousa,” World art: Themes of unity in diversity, edited by Irving Lavin (University Park: Pennsylvania Stat University Press, 1989), 71.
 Hennessy, Images of Children . . ., 72.
 Although never officially declared as the spiritual protector of the city of Rome, the Virgin Mary played a significant role for Romans, as well. (See John Osborne, “Images of the Mother of God in Early Medieval Rome,” Icon and Word: The Power of Images in Byzantium, ed. by Antony Eastmond and Liz James [Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Co., 2003]: 135–136.)
 Wharton, “Tenderness . . .,” 73.
 Pamela Z. Blum, “A Madonna and Four Saints from Angers: An Archeological Approach to an Iconographical Problem,” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin, 34, no. 3 (Winter 1973): 48.
 “Virgin Glykophilousa (‘The Visit’),” Byzantine Museum, accessed November 30, 2015, http://www.ebyzantinemuseum.gr/?i=bxm.el.exhibit&id=44.
 Bergman, “The Earliest Eleousa . . .,” 46.
 Ioli Kalavrezou, “The maternal side of the Virgin.” Mother of God: Representations of the Virgin in Byzantine art (New York City: Abbeville Publishing Group, 2000), 41.
 Ibid., 42.
 Wharton, “Tenderness . . .,” 74.
 Bergman, “The Earliest Eleousa . . .,” 48.
 Kalavrezou, “The maternal side of the Virgin . . .,” 43.
 Ibid., 42.
 Ibid., 102–103.
 Images of the Virgin Paraklesis, or the Virgin as Intercessor, are sometimes also labeled as the Virgin Eleousa. (See Nancy Patterson Ševčenko, The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, s.v. “Virgin Paraklesis,” [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005], accessed November 29, 2015, http://www.oxfordreference.com.erl.lib.byu.edu/view /10.1093/acref/ 9780195046526.001.0001/acref-9780195046526-e-5759?rskey=u60AVV&result=7.)
 Bergman, “The Earliest Eleousa . . .,” 52.
 Henry Maguire, “The Depiction of Sorrow in Middle Byzantine Art,” Dumbarton Oaks 31 (1997): 166.
 Robert S. Nelson, “Image and Inscription: Please for Salvation in Spaces of Devotion,” Art and Text in Byzantine Culture, ed. Liz James (Cambridge: Cambridge Un. Press, 2007), 112.
 Ibid., 112.
 Dialogues were considered to be “a well-established rhetorical device of Byzantine homilies” (See Robert S. Nelson, “Image and Inscription: Please for Salvation in Spaces of Devotion,” Art and Text in Byzantine Culture, ed. Liz James [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007], 112.)
 Averil Cameron, Byzantine Matters (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 84.
 George Galvararis, Colours, Symbols, Worship: The Mission of the Byzantine Artist (London: The Pindar Press, 2012), 136.
 Ibid., 139.
 Cyril Mango and Ernest J. W. Hawkins, “The Hermitage of St. Neophytos and its Wall Paintings” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 20 (1966): 121.
 Alexander Kazhdan and Nancy Patterson Ševčenko, The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, edited by Alexander P. Kazhdan, s.v. “Stephen the Younger” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), accessed November 29, 2015, http://www.oxfordreference.com.erl.lib.byu.edu/view/10.1093/acref /9780195046526.001.0001/acref-9780195046526-e-5135?rskey=u60AVV&result=16.
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