Meta-Hodegetria, or the Saint Mirrors

There is mirrors in this picture (there will be few, below); this picture is aimed at visual introduction of one word, or term, namely, Hodigitria. I didn’t know it until today (or may be I knew, long ago, but forgot; I used to read few books about Russian icons, I should have bumped into this term).

The artist who is painting this picture (or icon, I should say) is Saint Like, one of the four Christian evangelists (= e.g., the creators of the four Gospels).

But here we see another moment of his life, when he paints Saint Mary with the Child Christ. And she happens to be sitting in a position that is called hodegetria, from the Greek oδηγήτρια, literally She Who Shows the Way. This posture is described as follows: the Christ Child in the arms of Mary / Our Lady, which points to him as the symbol of salvation of  the world. With his right hand Christ blesses us all, and in the  left he holds a scroll, rare, a book:

An interesting feature of this above image is that it allegedly depicts the very icon (or at least one of the icons) that was created by Saint Luke himself!

A few words as a matter of introduction. First, about Luke. It is believed that he was born in Antioch, then under the rule of Greeks, now on the territory of modern Turkey. But Luke could well be a Syrian, too. Worth mentioning that Luke was not Jew, like Jesus and his pupils; that’s somewhat important for the history of Christianity, but in our case it’s interesting also because he had very different background (culturally, and therefore, aesthetically).

We don’t know much about his family (that assuming that we don’t treat him, and all others in this story, as completely legendary figures). It is believed that Luke was a well-educated man of his time, who was familiar with the history, philosophy, medicine and art (which almost automatically meant a great travel experiences though various  ‘centers of expertise’); according to hypothesis, he was a ship’s doctor .

If to follow the story, he could of the same age as Christ or bit older; it is believed now that he wrote his Gospel in this 60s, being already an old man, and died at the age of 84 years. When he came to Jerusalem, he could of any age between 25 to 45 years old.  There he meets Jesus, and joins a small group of his believers , soon becoming one of the core disciples. His conversion to Christianity is one of the first examples of internationally spread of the teaching (Christ, as we remember, accepted no national boundaries or ethnic differences).

This is already a medieval icon depicting Luke (by than St.), writing his Gospel. Here he is a young and handsome man, but the following small illustration from the Arabic manuscript showing him already old and wise – but still with his books.

St. Luke later became the patron not only of physicians and students (and also butchers), but also artists, and generally speaking, entire intelligentsia.

The portrait by Tissot shows how Luke could really look like; Tissot lived in the Middle East, and made few special trips to several places, to better understand the context of all Biblical scenes; he could be trusted here more that your average artists.

James Tissot – Saint Luke (1884)

Now, speaking on the issue of painting.

According to the legend sources, after the death of Christ, when Luke already returned to his native town of Antioch (together with Saint Paul this time), and when they begun to disseminate the doctrine among the people, Luke happened to have a vision. Whether it was a dream, or a trance of some sort, it’s now clear, but he saw an image of Saint Mary, the mother of Jesus, with a little boy Jesus. Saint Luke managed to capture what he saw in his vision in form a painting (most likely he called himself εἰκών eikōn, or “image” in Greek; an icon); in some versions he even created a number of such representations. When exactly it happened is not clear, but most likely when he was older than 60 (since he doesn’t write about this event in his Gospel).

On the other hand, he could have also painted something even when he was still in Jerusalem (at least, some sort of a study, or a sketch). Again, according to some versions, he first created a rough, draft  icon, while its improved, final version was finished only much later.

Much more later, already in the fifth century the Empress Aelia Eudocia Augusta, the wife of then the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II (Flavius ​​Theodosius Junior Augustus,  sometimes called Theodosius the Calligrapher), ordered the construction of a large church in honor of St. Mary / Our Lady in Constantinople (by then Christianity became the state religion of Byzantium).

The church was built in the place called Blachernae, and accumulated a numer of relics related to Saint Mary (for example, her robe). When Eudocia learned about the existence of the first icon of the Virgin, she sent a special envoy to Jerusalem to fetch the artifact. Apparently, the mission was a success, and the icon was kept in Church of St.Mary of Blachernae all the time, till the fall of Constantinople in the 15th century.

The glory of this icon resounded through the ages, it is connected to a whole range of miracles, including the rescue the city, healing people, guiding people, etc. The short article in wikipedia (Blachernitissa) is a good place to start, but there are many more, and richer sources. Noticeably, this article shows a different version of the icon – this one: 

The one I showed before illustrates the Russian version of the article. Both are presented as the first icons, created by Saint Luke.

Interestingly, both are in Russia now! The first icon is now in the Assumption Cathedral in the Kremlin, the second used to be in the Tretyakov Gallery, but lately was apparently moved to the Kremlin too, to its Ascension Cathedral. I do not remember seing neither of them there, but that means nothing – it is usually such a mess in these places because of the tourist crowds that you don’t expect to see anything anyway.

The story of how these icons came to Russia are amazing and just beg for a book or a movie: the Byzantine Empire fell in October 1453, when Constantinople was captured by the Saracens of Sultan Mehmed. And also in October, but only 200 years later, in 1653, the icon was to Moscow, as a gift to the Russian Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich.

On October 16, met the Tsar the icon of the Virgin Our Lady Hodegertria, brought from the Greek, from the Lachern church, says the record in the chronicles.

Lachern is the Russian naming of Blacjernae, and “from the Greek” refers to the fact that the icon was kept in one of the monasteries of the Mount Athos (allegedly it was kept in a secret cell in a wall for more than hundred years.)

When looking through various sources for this posting, I have learned a lot of new things – for examples, the names of same canonical Orthodox iconic compositions. In addition to the Hodegetria there are also Eleusa (eλεούσα, tenderness), Panahranta (panachranta, Immaculate), and many more others – see the Orthodox Iconography of the Virgin [in Russian].

There are so many of them that you better have a good infoviz too to understand them all; I was a bit surprised (and also impressed) when I realized that such tools already exist, moreover, these visual aids were often also mande in form of icons! Look, for example, at this collection of the Virgin’s poses dated to 16th century:

As often happens with my stories, all the above was interesting, perhaps, but it was still only a preface, a warm-up for the story. The story itself is more about the images depicting the process of drawing of the Sait Mary by Saint Luke; the meta-hodegetrias, so to speak. In other words, I was interested to see something of that kind:

or that:

Note that in the above two examples we don’t see Saint Mary herself; we only see her image on the icons painted by St.Luke. It is also interesting that in the second image writing Saint Luke is guided an angel, perhaps a reference to this state of trance he got into when he saw the image of the Virgin in a first place (she is, by the way, not in the Hodegetria, but in the Eleusa pose).

Recently we have been to a large exhibition of El Greco in Dusseldorf (who was actually from Greece), and one of his early works, of the early, Cretan period, was an icon of St. Luke painting the Virgin:

Very much different from his works of the later, Spanish period.

This icon is severely damaged by time – and we are talking about less than 500 years (the icon was painted in 1568). What can we say about the works created almost two thousand years ago? I don’t want to immediately state that the ‘St.Luke’ icons are not authentic… but there are some questions, nevertheless.

Note that El Greco depicts canonical Hodegetria; neither himself later, nor many European artists would follow the canon strictly. Not to say that they didn’t follow it at all, but they added more and more new overtones to the main theme.

Here’s an interesting miniature from the Book of Hours of Mary of Burgundy (created about 1475):

Here Saint Luke still works alone (if not count the ox):

Besides the main theme of this posting, this miniature also contains one very interesting object, a beautiful, sophisticated… device, for the lack of better word, that hands in the bedhead:

I, of course, think it’s a mirror – or a rather a mirror like object; if it’s true, it makes this image the earliest work in Europe that would depict St. Luke painting the Madonna AND also have a mirror.

I’ve written already about one altar panel by Gabriel Mälesskircher (1578) where St. Luke is depicted with a mirror (though he does not paint St.Mary in this case)

There is another panel by the same German artist where St.Luke does paint Madonna – though it doesn’t have a mirror.


There is a very famous painting by another German master, Derick Baegert, where St. Luke paints St. Mary already, and it has a mirror in the room, although technically speaking it is not used in the process of drawing:

A striking difference between this painting and the previous one is the presence Mary herself, as a sitting model. In many senses, it is a impossible, blasphemous combination: Luke was not much older than Jesus, and met him first time when the latter was already an adult.  Plus, the ‘official’ version of the story says that St.Luke saw this Mary with a child Jesus in a dream, of a sort.  Nevertheless, this interpretation of the event became one of the most popular in the European art.

Baegert was not the first who introduced the sitting Madonna: below is a relatively new icon, but there is a large number of the really old icons, as old as 16th century, where Mary is already sitting:

Below is a very interesting work (by Jakob Beinhart), Saint Luke Paiting the Virgin, with Playing Jesus (1496). It’s only a three-dimensional work, but Jesus here is a really lively and cheerful child, not the Saviour of the World, and Mary herself is portrayed as a simple woman, a housewife doing her daily chores:

Lady Madonna, children at your feet.
Wonder how you manage to make ends meet. 

Stockings or not, but something is being mended here. There is also another interesting object here (pointed by the arrow); I obviously would like to see it as a mirror. But yes, I agree, it’s a bit of wishful thinking.

As I said, the theme of St.Luke Painting Madonna was really very popular, and I wouldn’t be able to post here hundres and hundres of the works.  Below are just a few of my “personal favorites”:Rogier van der Weyden – St Luke Drawing the Portrait of the Madonna (1450)

Giorgio Vasari – St Luke Painting the Virgin (1565)

Jan Mabuse – St Luke Painting the Madonna (1520)

I really like this one, by Italian artist Giuseppe Antonio Petrini

And this one is also nice, with its amazingly soft and tender ambiance:

Frans (Floris) de Vriendt – Saint Lukas Paiting the Virgin (c.1550)

At the end of  his life El Greco painted another St. Luke the Painter, completely different from the first icon, very original, and absolutely marvelous:

When preparing this posting, I found another interesting work,  interesting mirror-wise, so to speak.


Maarten van Heemskerck – St.Luke Painting the Virgin (c.1540)

I am pretty sure that the object standing near the window is a mirror; it even reflects something, I think!

Van Heemskerck has another famous painting depicting this subject; it doesn’t have mirrors, but it does demonstrates why this motif was so popular among the artists:

Actually, Maarten van Heemskerk predominantly painted religious works, but I doubt any religious institution would buy this particular painting: it has too many ambiguities, controversial hints and generally lacks any appropriate holiness. No wonder, the painting was originally meant for the Guild of St. Luke, it was the work for the like-minded peers.

St. Luke has been regarded the patron of artists, and it was in the interest of all professional guilds to multiply his images, and in particularly the ones depicting him depicting the Madonna. An art work, and PR.

Phew. It’s only now I have reached the moment when I can show the painting that I was actually going to describe in the first place.

During our recent visit to the National Gallery I stumbled upon an interesting piece (again, interesting mirror-wise):

It has long been considered anonymous, but lately it is often described as belonging to the student of Quentin Masseys (the master who created The Banker and His Mirror). Or may be it is even by Quinten Massys himself? And – a very fantastic, but plausible option – may be it depicts Masseys himself? That would be very interesting (and would also move him from the the category of One-Mirror-in Art-Men to… Two-and-More-Mirror-in-Art-Ones.

The mirror shown here is absolutely fantastic, even only by its gigantic size. When I saw it first, I thought it’s a basin of some sort, hanging on a wall:

This particular painting does not have the ‘real’ Madonna (although she could have been depicted in the mirror, in its shadow part. Perhaps, it was part of a diptych (as in the case of Nieuwenhove Diptych), or even a triptych, where Madonna would be in the center panel.

And in this latter case, I would very much like to see the Virgin lapping her fingers in Vitarka Mudra:

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