A Modern Icon – the Solemn Madonna

1 February 2019



As if long expected, tears did not fall.

Instead, on distant dreams eyes so focused,

and memories conjured up an angel’s song.


Like you would a wayward child,

so stubborn, yet full of care,

a tender hand caressed some splintered wood.

And what was, what might have been,

and what may yet become,

in art and story, rhyme and verse,

a narrative of grief, like none before.

Yet forever, your sorrow is our own;

it speaks of life’s dark shadows

and deepest of deepest joys:

the unknown, the unseen,

all that become plain for all to be.

Thanks then be to you, O Madonna,

oh yes, oh yes, hail

O Mother of God, sorrow’s great sister.


The Eastern churches have a tradition that Mary’s conception was a great surprise for Anna and Joachim. They were elderly and childless until Mary came along. Joachim was a priest in the temple and, as a thanksgiving for his and Anna’s unexpected gift, Mary was dedicated at the Temple and served there as a Temple virgin. Legend has it that she could have worked with the other young women on embroidery, the priests’ vestments or even the Temple curtain. This would have been in exchange for lessons in the Torah.

St. Anne’s Church in Jerusalem is said to have been built over the childhood home of Mary. It is situated in an area of the Temple precincts, next to the Pool of Bethesda. This, of course, is where later Jesus is said to have cured a man of a long illness. Whether all this is historically accurate or not it has stood the test of time for the Christian Orthodox communities.

It is recorded that the Temple curtain tore in two at the death of Jesus as a sign of the barrier between us and God being finally broken so that we can all enter God’s presence. Previously it had only been the High Priest could enter. It is fascinating to think that the curtain Mary worked on years before being destroyed may also indicate her torn heart at the death of her son. The child she had nurtured and the man she had worried over was to be brought down from a cross and placed in a hastily arranged stranger’s tomb.

The woman in the icon, the Solemn Madonna, is an Ethiopian woman I encountered at the end of the Via Dolorosa. Just next to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional sites of Golgotha and the resurrection tomb, the woman rested and caressed the cross that had been carried along the ancient paths. Her eyes were cast down for much of the time; but then she lifted them up and her gaze seemed far off, it was as if she had been transported to a different time. Whether she was at a different place, or the same, I could not tell. Was she contemplating the final walk of Jesus to Calvary? Or was it some experience in her life at home that she was seeking to drink in the last strength of Christ in all his weakness? Either way, how she held and lent on the cross indicated a woman of an immensely resilient faith.


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