Gallery Icon of Our Lady of the Sign “Oranta”

4. january 2021

Oranta, from latin "The one who prays" is one of Russia's most revered icons primarily because of the numerous miraculous workings of the icon associated with the city of Novgorod. Its oldest depiction can be found in Roman catacombs in the 3rd century. The raised hands of the Virgin resemble the worshipping pose of the first Christians. This gesture became an expression of the fervent relationship between man and the Creator.

Mary, who bears on her breast a circular aureole with the image of the Christ Emanuel who is giving his blessing, is sometimes called Theotokos Platytera, i.e. "with her womb broader than the heavens". The epithet is anchored in the liturgy of St. Basil, where it follows the dogma of the Incarnation, derived from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah: "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel." (Isaiah 7:14). Mary is the "heavenly ladder", she stands between heaven and the earth as the intercessor of humankind and the divine Child in her arms. That is why the name "Sign" (Знамение) was adopted in Russia.

The name refers to the icons where Mary is not shown in the whole figure, but only from the waist. The very face of the Mother of God and her open hands tell the story of redemption. This depiction is usually located above the Altar in the Eastern Temples to be the first image seen after the entry to the temple.

It became especially famous in the 12th century when the Novgorod city was threatened by the army of Andrei Bogolubsky, Prince of Suzdal. According to the legend, the miraculous image of the Mother of God saved the city from invasion. Mary blinded the enemies and they began to fight among themselves.

The eastern orthodox icon from the beginning of the 19th century is characterized by delicate lines and consonantly harmonizing colours. Both Christ Emanuel’s and Mary’s gestures and facial expressions create a perfect unity. They are marked by peace, mildness, and love. There are innocence and devotion reflected in the young face of the Heavenly Mother. Despite that, her eyes are marked by the grief of Simeon’s prophecy: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34-35).

However, Mary’s golden maphorion (outer garment covering the head and shoulders) emphasizes the glory of the Kingdom of God. The white background resembles a clear celestial vault of a pleasing sunny day. The halo of Christ Emanuel is the sun of hope that gives light to mankind. The scroll in Jesus’s left hand is the gospel. Highly decorative initials MP OY mean "Mater Theos", i.e. Mother of God. The letters IC XC are Jesus Christ’s abbreviation derived from Greek "Iesous Christos". The inscription in Christ’s aureole “Omega - Omicron – Nu” refers to Yahweh’s Old Testament name "I am who I am" (Ex 3, 14).

Spiritual heritage

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[a] the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.” “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.