The St Mary's icon (part one)

The Icon of the Virgin of Tenderness of Yaroslavl from St Mary's Church Swanage


The icon the is on the wall of the vestry in St Mary’s Church and is brought out into the Church for festivals of the Blessed Virgin Mary and at Christmas, was looked at by us all last Sunday during the Family Communion. It is twelve years since it was produced by the well-known iconographer John Coleman, who has painted, or, ‘written’, many icons for churches and cathedrals across England, and, probably, further afield.

There are two types of Eastern Orthodox icon of the Virgin Mary and Jesus: the commonest is that where Jesus his held up against the face of Mary and is enveloped by her (our icon is of this type); the other is where Jesus is being held out to us by Mary - she is presenting him to the world. The icon in St Mary’s is a copy of/inspired by The Virgin of Tenderness of Yaroslavl, a sixteenth century Russian icon.

There is some history to the production of the St Mary’s Swanage icon recorded on the back:

The blank panel of Sapele wood was taken to Exeter Cathedral and signed by Archbishop Rowan Williams and Bishop Michael Languish of Exeter on 13th December 2005, on the occasion of the consecration of John Ford, Bishop of Plymouth. The panel has been signed on the back by a number of other senior clerics including a Coptic priest.

John Coleman started at his home in Cornwall, working on the icon in the Church of St Endillion. On 3rd February 2006 he had drawn the image and two days later, on Sunday 5th February the wooden panel was brought to Swanage and the painting began during the Parish Eucharist. A month later John Coleman was back again to continue the work in St Mary’s. Many parishioners remember seeing him here at work.

On 11th March the partially completed panel was taken to Glastonbury Abbey, and on 19th March to St Endillion’s Cornwall and the iconographer mentions that on 11th April “the faces were painted and some gilding done.” For Easter 2006 it was in Glastonbury Abbey. Then over the days of the (later) Orthodox Church Easter the haloes were gilded and some detail of Mary’s mantle was completed.

On 26th April it was back down in Cornwall and further work done, before being taken to Buckfast Abbey on 2nd May, then back to Swanage for more progress in situ over the late May bank holiday weekend. It is probably this time particularly that people remember him at work in St Mary’s. On 7th and 8th of June the background gilding - in 24 carat gold leaf - was completed, before going back to Glastonbury Abbey for the final inscription, the last of the work being done in Swanage over 8th and 9th July, before and during the Parish Eucharist on 9th July 2006.

This icon, like all others, is from the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church tradition that today embraces the church from Ethiopia, through the Coptic Church of Egypt, and the other ancient eastern churches: the Syrian, Antiochene and, of course, the Greek Orthodox Church. Moving then, up through Eastern Europe, there are large Orthodox Churches in Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and, of course, in Russia. Orthodox Churches in other parts of the world have been established from the movement of peoples to those countries.

In a future blog I will look at the “Virgin of Tenderness” in St Mary’s in detail, and try and understand what the tradition of gazing on God, through the devotional use of an icon, can mean to Westerners, who are more used to being told to ‘listen’. The Eastern Church teaches how to discern with our eyes as well as with our ears.

John Mann