Saint Mary the Protectress

Gold-plated spires of Lavra's main church.

Cathedral at Lavra

I recently returned from a business trip to Kyiv (Kiev) Ukraine, including two days of just being a tourist. My tour guide was Olga, a well-informed host overflowing with love for her city and country. One of the most impressive places I visited with Olga was Kyiv Pechersk Lavra (Києво-Печерська лавра in Ukrainian and Киeво-Печерская лавра in Russian). More like a small city than just a church, it is a historical center of Eastern Orthodox Christianity and includes a magnificent cathedral, smaller (though still magnificent!) churches, an active seminary, monastery housing, and a historical underground cave monastery containing relics of saints. 

Touring Lavra

In contrast to Olga’s otherwise energetically worldy and cosmopolitan manner, she turned quite sober as we toured Lavra, and it became clear to me that she felt a deep emotional connection to the church and its rituals. Her frequent pauses to ask me what I thought about the sacrifices of the ancient saints that she had just described, and the expectant gleam in her eye when she asked whether I felt anything, you know, different, during our viewing of the relics, made me chuckle inside with how similar it was to touring an LDS historic site with the missionaries.

Eastern Orthodox Icons

Eastern Orthodox Churches are practically wallpapered in images of saints. Most sacred among these iconic tributes is the iconostasis or collection of icons that form a wall near the end of the chapel, separating the main part of the chapel from the sanctuary, a sort of holy-of-holies area where the priests prepare the bread and wine.

ch_iconostasis

Iconostasis of Russian Orthodox Church in Washington, DC. (Photography of the Iconostasis was prohibited in all the churches I visited in Kiev, but they looked similar.)

I am not terribly well versed in Roman Catholic Saints (I know St. Francis of Assisi, and a few others), and have next to no knowledge of those specific to Orthodox churches. So by mid-day, I was used to seeing dozens of mostly indistinguishable faces.

My Icon

As we passed a display of religious icons for sale, one immediately caught my eye, and I asked Olga who it was. (Spoiler: I ended up buying it, and a photo of it is below.)

Mary with Seven Swords

Mary with Seven Swords

“One of the most powerful of all the icons,” Olga whispered, inhaling in reverence. She seemed moved by the significance of the fact that a bumbling tourist would pluck this special one out of all the many choices. This wasn’t an obscure Orthodox saint, she said, but Mary, the Mother of Jesus. “The swords represent that she will protect your home from any who would enter to harm you or your family.” A new title for Mary: the Protectress.

It won’t surprise anyone who knows me that I absolutely loved this characterization of Mary. Not the passive vessel of a male Godliness, but a virtual ninja, ready to unleash the power of her superlative Motherhood, in the mother-bear sense, on any evil-doers who dare threaten the cubs. Olga went on to explain that the seven swords represent the seven days of the week, emphasizing the completeness of the coverage this icon provides. Yes, that’s right, she will fight people any. day. of. the. week.

SOLD.

I’ve never before found iconography to be particularly spiritually resonant, but I have to confess I was, and am, sincerely captivated by my icon and I consider it a sacred object. When I got back to the hotel, I lovingly wrapped it and packed it in my suitcase, but not before taking a photo and posting it to Facebook, along with Olga’s explanation.

Roman Catholic Images of Mary

Quickly, some Catholic friends on Facebook started expressing mild skepticism. Those swords aren’t weapons she wields, they said. Those are the seven sorrows of Maria Dolorosa (Our Lady of Sorrows), representing the seven ways we see the fulfillment of Simeon’s prophecy to Mary when she presented him the infant Jesus, “Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also.” (Luke 2:35)

It’s true, I was familiar with iconic Roman Catholic images of Mary’s sorrow in the form of a sword (or seven) piercing her heart. If you’ve seen Catholic schools or churches named “Immaculate Heart” or “Sacred Heart,” they are referring to Mary and these images of her. Here are some typical examples:

So, was Olga just wrong? The question nagged at me. And yet, there were significant differences in the depictions. Although not all Catholic versions show an explicit heart, the fact that Mary and/or her heart is being pierced is usually unmistakable. And although it’s admittedly a little odd that someone would hold swords by the sharp part (!), if they are piercing into her in my Orthodox icon, that fact is certainly not emphasized. (I choose to read it as another demonstration of her come at me, bro fierceness.)

More Detective Work

I asked a woman I’d met through my business work in Kyiv, who I happen to know is a devout Ukrainian/Russian Orthodox adherent (and possibly some sort of pagan witch, but that’s another story), about my icon. She confirmed Olga’s interpretation, and even snapped a photo of the same icon in her own house, in what Olga had told me was its traditional placement over the front door.

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Icon placed above the front door for protection.

In further online searching, I learned that there is a distinct but related Orthodox icon, Softener of Evil Hearts, which also depicts Mary with seven swords. But here the swords are grouped 3 and 3 (instead of 4 and 3), with the 7th coming up from below. In this version, she also protects the home against those who would do harm, but by using gentle persuasion to soften their hearts, not by fighting with the swords she is holding. I love this more non-violent take on the theme.

softenerofhearts

Softener of Evil Hearts icon (Note one sword coming up from below.)

East Meets West

It seems that the actual origin this iconography in the Orthodox tradition may be essentially what my Catholic friends suspected Olga and I of doing: travelers are exposed to an unfamiliar image, someone tells a story about it that is different from the traditional party line, which then spreads and takes root because of its resonance for the people who heard it. Only this change in interpretation happened not a few weeks ago between Olga and me, but a few centuries ago in Poland. Because of Poland’s location, Western European Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox traditions have long come into contact there. Historians believe some Orthodox adherents saw the Roman Catholic Maria Dolorosa in Poland, and brought the tradition back with them into Ukraine, where it took on a new meaning. (see here and here) In the new meaning, the sorrows are deemphasized in favor of  the Protectress interpretation. There is an accompanying visual deemphasis of piercing, though for historical reasons the swords retain their (now somewhat awkward and anachronistic) positioning facing inwards. Some versions further differentiate in various ways, for example, just slightly reworking the sword hilts to be arrow fletching.

Mary-Softener-of-Evil-Hearts

Mary with Seven Arrows

The Feminine Divine

In the end, I am grateful for the chance to spend so much time immersed in visual representations of the Feminine Divine, something that is under-emphasized in our own LDS tradition. I haven’t yet decided if my St. Mary the Protectress icon will go over my front door, or in another special location in the house. But I look forward to seeing Her frequently and being reminded of Divine love, and of my own capacities and responsibilities for the protection of those around me.

Comments

  1. Nice detective work.

  2. Lorelai Kilmore says:

    So interesting!! Thanks!

  3. J. Stapley says:

    This is really great, Cynthia. I love the local vernacular of this icon. I’m guessing that your tour guide didn’t give you the hard sell at the end of the tour though. Perhaps with the historic sites missionaries now under the direction of the History Department, we’ll have less of that, as well.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    I followed this on FB and when references were made to Maria Dolorosa I thought that must be right because the swords are pointed to her heart, but then you confirmed the Eastern Protectoress interpretation, so I wasn’t sure what to make of all that. The theory you give here of an historical reinterpretation cogently explains all the evidence. I love the great detective work!

  5. This would make a great Mother’s Day talk.

  6. I think “Mama Bear” may have just been forever replaced in my lexicon with “Mary the Mama Ninja.” I love everything about this!!!

  7. Meredith says:

    As I read your post I could not help but remember a talk given by Sister Beck at the 2010 BYU Women’s Conference. She spoke of having the power to be a “Lioness at the gate” and how important it is for women to safeguard their homes.
    Sister Beck also stated it would “be the sisters who know and understand their covenants” that would also be a significant force in the world.
    It would be interesting to see how the same idea found in both churches would be depicted in a painting within the LDS church.

  8. Nice connection, Meredith!

  9. I love this.

  10. This is a cool post, Cynthia. I love seeing the evolution and recontextualizing of traditions.

  11. This is awesome, Cynthia! Thanks so much for putting it together and sharing it.

  12. very fun — thanks!

  13. Years ago when I was 16 I went down in those caves by candle light. Saw the old revered dead monks held within glass caskets. Several with shrivel green hands, a highlight for a young boy. The churches and icons extremely beautiful. Showing the diversity of colors and images that reveal the divine to us. Thanks for the entertaining ideas you shared.

  14. LeeRailLookout says:

    Reading some Roman Catholic apologetics, I note that only RC and Eastern Orthodox Christians come close to fulfilling one prophecy of the Magnificat: “for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.” We Mormons and most Protestants offer scant, if any, consideration of Mary; perhaps as a supposed antidote to Catholics’ (over-)veneration of her (as judged by New-England Protestants?—the milieu out of which the Restoration arose).

  15. James, ha! My thought when I was in the caves was this is definitely on the list of things to do if I come back with the kids next year (my son is 13)! It’s so different from the Mormon aesthetic, and it was hard for me to relate to the idea that spending one’s entire adult life never seeing sunlight just praying in a cave and eating a bare minimum diet was what God would want or was a good service to fellow humans or the world. And yet, I did still find it very moving to get a real sense of the longevity of Christianity in a way that you don’t get in Mormonism or even longevity of *anything* living in America. To see firsthand that this has meant so much to people across so many generations and around so much of the globe was an interesting change in point of view for me.

  16. @Cynthia — I remember on my first-ever trip to Europe, walking into a Church, and realizing it was 4x older than my COUNTRY. It was a feeling of immense awe.

  17. Yep, exactly.

  18. I loved this, Cynthia. I’ve long struggled to appreciate Mary; for me, she’s so tied up in idealized motherhood and women being valued for their roles, not themselves, that I just haven’t wanted to go there. But reading this, I felt like I briefly glimpsed why some people find thinking about her to be so meaningful. Thanks for sharing.

  19. Yep, I think I know what you mean, Lynette. Although I feel sad that we don’t have more female representation in LDS tradition, I never felt much better about the extensive Mary imagery in the RC tradition (something folks would often point to as an example of doing it better). As I suggested in the post, I had a hard time feeling strengthened by a figure known primarily for her “behold the Handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy [a male’s] word” passivity. I realize that’s a reductive view and I’m greatly simplifying here, but suffice to say that, all things considered, it didn’t have a very strong emotional pull for me.

  20. MDearest says:

    This post is in the venn diagram sweet spot of several of my comfort zones. I love to visit venerable old cathedrals, old art, obscure notable women, old images of obscure notable women, and depictions of feminine holiness. Also relics, especially on display for the reverence and/or fascination of the viewer. Most of the depictions of female divinity that have caught my interest are Roman Catholic versions in museums and churches. I know very little about Eastern Orthodox iconography, except that it is a devotional art form separate from other artistic pursuits, that requires special training and the liberal use of gold leaf. Now I know more.

    The only time I’ve ever been to Notre Dame in Paris, I was surveying the west facade trying to take it all in and was drawn to the sculpture of the Virgin wearing a crown and holding her Child, flanked by two winged angels; that small group standing in front of the enormous rose window that formed her halo, and supported below by a row of male figures in niches that ran across the entire width of the building above the portals. She was smack in the middle of a lot of devotional imagery, most of which I didn’t understand, and more than I could register. But She was the element you couldn’t miss, and I thought that something similar to this would be how mortal people would depict Heavenly Mother if they knew enough about Her.

  21. This is a very interesting blog :)
    As a Catholic, I feel that most of you (Mormons & Protestants) are missing out on the extraordinarily beautiful teachings on Mary (like the typologies of Mary as the new Ark of the Covenant, and Mary as the new Eve), and on having a relationship with her – we Catholics & Orthodox believe in the Communion of Saints, and that the saints in heaven are alive and can intercede for us (like prayer partners), and Mary is our spiritual Mother in the faith.

    I encourage you all to learn more about the Catholic teachings on Mary, and I’d like to recommend a couple of very good books on the subject:

    “Behold Your Mother: A Biblical and Historical Defense of the Marian Doctrines” by Tim Staples

    “Hail Holy Queen: Mother of God in the Word of God” by Scott Hahn