Theotokos

And the Not-So-Baby Jesus.

The Virgin and Child may as well be as ubiquitous to art history as the McDonalds logo is to America… it’s everywhere. It is a symbol that spans the period of ancient art all the way to 1902 when the Triumphal Arch at Marywood was built with Mary as it’s capstone… and onward to this day of course.

Lately, I’ve found myself interested in the ancient to late antiquity period, specifically with Byzantine Art and the works that extended from Eastern Orthodox Christianity. I’m fascinated by the quasi-geometric compositions of the many paintings and mosaics from this era and how space and color are used in meaningful ways that both draw the viewer into a sort of “holy space” while speaking to the narratives of the works. Perspective and naturalism are almost completely abandoned in Byzantine art in order to be replaced by an emphasis on the other-worldliness of the figures who are often depicted as lightly levitating, or proportioned in ways that make little sense in the real world but invite a feeling of divinity to accompany their mosaiced persona. For instance, fingers are often as delicate looking as twigs, and faces are grimly depicted, the figures looking like flat, gothic statue versions of themselves… a far cry from the naturalism that Hellenistic art attempted to capture.

This week I wanted to talk a little bit about Theotokos, or the Greek orthodox word meaning “Mother of God.” Theotokos can also mean “God-Bearer” and was formally declared a title by the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD, an extremely heated meeting of over 250 bishops in order to deliberate whether or not the Virgin should be titled Christotokos (Christ Bearer) or Theotokos (“Theo” being God-Bearer). While it may seem nitpicky, the nature of this deliberation was an argument around the fundamental belief that Christ was both God and Human, an assertion that Theotokos followed as opposed to the “Christ-Bearing” narrative of Christotokos. Depictions of the Theotokos version of Mary is almost always either a front-facing portrait or slight side view and is accompanied by a robed Virgin holding the Christ child with halos encircling both of their heads.

Detail of Theotokos from Byzantine Mosaic

The other absolutely bizarre thing about the Theotokos is the way the child Jesus is depicted. Usually, he doesn’t look like a child at all, rather a full-grown man of small scale in comparison to Mary. But first… look at this sculpture of Baby Jesus in Mexico next to Phil Collins… it sort of sets the scene for the rest of the examples.

However, there is a logic behind this way of portraying Jesus. For one, the emotional response a viewer would have to a baby is not the intention these pieces were built upon. Instead, they were designed with holiness in mind, capturing the divine essence of the scene and the figures that are represented within them. The intention is to portray holiness, not realism, in Byzantine Art, something that strikes a chord with me as a viewer and amateur art historian. I also love art that has mythological elements to it… most of it does in some form or another whether it stems from the myths of one’s own life or the beliefs of one’s religion. Early Byzantine art feels so esoteric and other-worldly to me and the decisions in the style are fascinating. Everything from the Halo’s to the typography/text to the way faces and bodies are composed is unique to this era of art.

Theotokos and the “Child”

Another reason for Jesus’s Man-Child appearance in Theotokos pieces has to do with the divine nature of Baby Jesus. According to Eastern Orthodox beliefs, Jesus is incarnate of both humanity and God, therefore he is divine in himself, which is why Mary is known as “God-Bearer” in the Orthodox Church. So, because he is a divine-human, Jesus was born in a fully-formed state. In fact, in many images, he actually has a receding hairline and aged facial features. He looks older than his mother! It is interesting to watch how these depictions have changed over time, too. Take a look at Raphael’s Renaissance Madonna and Child as compared to the Theotokos of Kazan. Raphael’s Christ Child looks much more like a… child, at least proportionately. Heck, even works from the Early/Pre-Renaissance still shared elements of the man-bodied Christ child. Check out the Madonna done by Giotto below.

Giotto, Madonna and Child, 1320-1330

Before closing, I wanted to share one more picture of the Baby Jesus, and probably one of the most unsettling ones I’ve found. It’s (likely) DaVinci’s Madonna Litta (c1490). It could be me, but something about the flat expression of the baby, as well as the hollow look from the Madonna, combined with the dark setting, make for one eerie Virgin and Child. Also… fun fact, I researched the meaning of the bird Jesus is grasping and it turns out that it was a symbol of his humanity. Many children kept birds as pets, so the inclusion of Christ holding a bird was meant to signal the humanity in him, allowing parents to recognize him in a way that is familiar.

Featured image is Enthroned Madonna and Child, c. 1250/1275

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