The Greek term Eleousa indicates in fact the loving relationship between Mother and Son, intending to suggest mercy (from the Greek eleos) and the compassion of the Son towards the faithful. The model therefore shows the affection that unites Mother and Son in the light of goodness to bestow on the faithful. Compared to Odighitria model, more centred on the divinity of Jesus, the Tenderness icon emphasises the Son’s humanity.
Divine motherhood, the intermediary role of Mary, the love between mother and son emerges in this icon through a small intimate space, where the light of gold and pale lapislazuli blue shines from Mary’s mantle and tunic.
The Virgin’s mantle, called Maphorio, is the colour purple, symbol of royalty and is edged in gold as She is part of the divine Grace.
The colour green of the background and lining of the mantel is associated with the Holy Spirit.
The Infant’s himation (mantle) however, is orange and richly decorated in gold to remind us that God in becoming Man, brought his light into the world; in fact golden rays, called assist, are the divine Wisdom which has been embodied through the Virgin, who becomes the Temple, the House chosen as a highly pure receptacle. Thus Christ is often represented inside the figure of the Mother, who recalls the form of the Temple cupola and is also the throne on which the Son of God sits.
Under the orange mantle we can see the white chiton (tunic), symbol of purity and representation of the sepulchre; the blue sash shining with gold is also worn by the Apostles, indicating the importance of their role.
The position of the Infant’s foot recalls the prophesy in Genesis 3,15: the sandal slipping away shows the heel of the foot as He descended from the woman that crushed the tempter’s head. Christ was crucified, but as the King of Glory knocked down the doors to Hell, He rose again and defeated death.
In the Mariana iconography the Hymn Akatistos (not seated) has been the source of many Mariana iconographic symbols, which represents the prophesies from the Old Testament, creating a continuity with the New Testament.
Hail, because you are the throne of the king,
Hail, because you carry he who upholds everything,
…We see the holy Virgin
Like a lamp that gives a light,
appearing to those in darkness.
…Hail, Queen of heavens,
Hail Lady of Angels,
door and root of salvation, bring light into the world,
…hail, mother of the star that never sets
(Hymn Akatistos in honour of the Mother of God, hymn sung standing the fifth Saturday of Lent).
Reading the Hymn we see the role of Mary as the King’s throne, rendered in the icon as a stable and imposing figure, able to withhold and contain Emanuel. He is adorned with rays of golden light and his robe is orange, like the never-setting star.
The Virgin’s hands are cup-shaped as is the Sacrifice cup. It contains the Eucharist and becomes the Church’s image on earth.
In the Mariana Tenderness icons there is the symbolically expressed thought of the inseparable unity and love between Christ, the great Priest and victim of his own sacrifice, and the Mother-Church of God. The Mother of God icons guide us in the understanding of the Virgin’s role in the edification of salvation, thus helping us in the contemplation of the incarnated Christ-Logos.
From AA. VV Sofia, Sapienza di Dio, 1999, Electa, Milan