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Eleousa: Origin and Meaning

Our Lady of Tenderness

Eleousa: Origin and Meaning

– Answered by Father Johann Roten, S.M.

Q: What is the origin and meaning of the icon type entitled Eleousa?

A: Eleousa (or Madonna of Tenderness) is one of the foundational Marian representations known in East and West to the present. It stresses the intimacy between mother and son, a telling symbol of the intimate relationship between God and humanity actualized in the incarnation. The origin of this type can be found in Constantinople; in all likelihood we are dealing here with a combination of two other types, the Blachernitissa and the Dexiokratousa. The Eleousa was most probably one of several marian representations located at the famous Blacherne Church in Constantinople. Earliest extant examples are a tiny ivory statue (7-9c), today in Baltimore, and the fresco fragment (7c) in Santa Maria Antica. One of the most famous examples of this type is the Byzantine icon of Vladimir (early 12c). Famous later examples in the West include Cranach's "Help of Christians" (1537) and the Genazzano Madonna of "Good Counsel" as well as Our Lady of Grace (Cathedral of Cambrai). In the Russian tradition, the Eleousa becomes Our Lady of Mercy or Umiljene (for example, Korsunskaja Madonna). Some authors make a distinction between the Eleousa, where the child's cheek touches the mother's, and his arms (at least one of them) are wrapped around her neck or shoulders, and the Glykophilousa where one hand of the child caresses his mother's chin.

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