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The Virgin is shown in half length, turning towards her left - indicating the panel is originally from a deesis. Her head is tilted downwards, a gesture that corresponds to her mournful and pensive expression. In her left hand she holds a mappa (see below), raised to her breast. Her right hand is held just beneath.
The iconography develops from icons associated with Christ's passion, especially the Crucifixion. The Mother of God is sometimes shown in these images in an expressive state of deep lamentation over the crucified Christ, holding the white mappa up to her eyes (e.g. see fig. a).
The white mappa is a part of the Virgin's iconic vestments and appears in early Byzantine mosaics - either hanging from her girdle (e.g. fig. b), in her hands as she holds Christ (e.g. fig. c), or, as in the current example, to wipe the tears from her eyes.
This domestic object is the ancient equivalent of the napkin and was used in an adapted form in the liturgy (known here as a maniple) by priests or sub-deacons at the Eucharist when holding sacred objects to cover their hands as a gesture of reverence to holy things. Thus, when the Virgin is shown in icons holding the white mappa as she holds Christ, there is a liturgical – and Eucharistic - resonance. This is sometimes underlined in icons by ecclesial embroidery on the cloth that is clearly taken from the embroidery on the actual liturgical objects (compare with the photo of a maniple below, fig. d)
In many versions of the Lamenting Virgin, however, Mary isn't holding anything, but her hands are in the same position as if she's still caressing Jesus' dead body (fig. e).
Compare, for example, her gestures in icons of the Deposition and the Entombment (fig's f & g), where she is caressing the head of Christ.
We may also see an echo of the virgin's raised arm and tilted head in ancient Greek funerary stele, such as one in Dion (fig. h) - which is, incidentally, also very similar in theme and design to icons of the Virgin Kardiotissa - as well as other depictions of mourning in ancient Greek stele (e.g. i fig's j).
As with other deesis types the iconography expresses themes of prayer and intercession, but here we also have a more accentuated suffering - a theme commonly associated with Mary that can be traced back to the gospels, as we find in Luke:
[A]nd Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.” (2:34-35)
Yet this angle on devotion to the Virgin became emphasised to a much higher degree in Byzantine art after the iconoclasm crisis to highlight the humanity of the Virgin, as a response by the iconophiles to their opponents. The Virgin's suffering is also discussed in several works from this period. Before this Mary had been depicted as a more detached, angelic figure, showing little or no emotion; there is something matriarchal about Byzantine depictions of the Virgin before the 9th century. However, the theme is evident from the early period in both liturgical and poetic texts, as Averil Cameron points out:
An important element in this development is the parallel increase, especially during the sixth century, in the liturgical and poetic celebration of the Mother of God. The kontakia or hymns of Romanos, written under Justinian (527-565) mark an important stage; among them we should mention in particular his kontakion on Mary at the Cross, written for Good Friday, on the reading John 19: 25, and incorporating a dramatic dialogue between Christ and his Mother as she laments his suffering. Romanos's vivid treatment of the Virgin’s lament, a theme already found in Ephraim, drew on deep sources of emotion and poetic imagination, and was to prove a model for later homilists in their recreation of Mary’s anguish.
Interestingly, we find in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (c. 5th c.) a passage concerning an ecstatic vision by Abba Poemen that thematically correlates to what the icon is attempting to express:
Abba Joseph related that Abba Isaac said, ‘I was sitting with Abba Poemen one day and I saw him in ecstasy, and since I was on terms of great freedom of speech with him, I prostrated myself before him and begged him,’ saying, ‘Tell me where you were.’ He was forced to answer and he said, ‘My thought was there with Saint Mary, the Mother of God, as she stood and wept by the cross of the Saviour. I wish I could always weep like that.’
The icon also attempts to transpose the viewer into the space of the Virgin's suffering, her lament over Christ. Such piety towards the Mother of God has a ritualised, performative function that while having a major influence on later western medieval art, drama, and music, initially originated in Byzantium, as Constas points out:
The historical development of the Virgin’s lament is intertwined with evolving forms of Greek Christian liturgical piety, which scholars, using terminology imported from the study of medieval literature, describe as ‘affective piety’ or ‘affective spirituality,’ that is, highly emotional forms of devotion often associated with the Mother of God standing at the cross at the time of the Passion. Though emblematic of the later medieval Stabat Mater tradition, and popularized through the musical settings of Palestrina and Vivaldi, so-called affective Marian piety has its roots in the Byzantine world, and is a potentially promising subject for the comparative study of Byzantine and Medieval liturgy and spirituality.
The inclusion of the liturgical cloth in the current iconography also adds to this sense performance and ritual.
Finally, the style of the current icon points to the late 16th century and possibly Moscow, or a well-established monastic icon workshop. Other icons of the Virgin from this time and place share comparable elements with ours, such as the very delicate brushstrokes that delineate the facial features, the solemn and contemplative atmosphere, and a muted palette. Compare, for instance, examples previously at the Temple Gallery (fig's k & l). The work also has similarities with two 16th century icons in the Solovki Monastery (fig. m & n).
A later version of the Lamenting Virgin typology (c. 1650) is in a private collection in Sydney (fig. p), while an 18th century version can be seen in the State Museum of Palekh Art in Russia (fig. q).