“In an icon with different figures the overall composition is based on geometric shapes: the triangle, square, circle (corresponding to the numbers 3, 4, 1). The ideas of Pythagoras and Plato on shapes and numbers were reinterpreted in the Christian tradition, where is the one that the others had symbolic meanings. The square represents the earth, the triangle, the Trinity, and the circle the Divine Unity.” (Guillem Ramos-Poquì, Come si dipinge un’icona, Piemme 1992, 60)
Using these simple guidelines, I have tried to trace (limiting myself to simple geometrical shapes) the “sacred geometry” of the Damaxxena icon. At a first glance, what strikes a lot, is the prominence of the circle and the way each intersects with the other connecting the figures together whilst opening up spaces for connection with both the cosmos and the spiritual world.
After the 1963-1966 restoration, in a letter to Papas Vito Borgia, dated May 13th, 1968, Prof. Dr Talbot Rice (1903-1972), could judge the Damaxxena icon as “a thing of great beauty and historical importance in addition to being what it was before, an expression of faith”. According to Dr Rice, Our Lady of Damascus “is of earlier date than Our Lady of Vladimir”. Though both are if the Eleusa type of Virgin, the Vladimirskaya originates from Constantinople, while the Damaxxena reflects the Cappadocian monastic art. Infact, among the churches in the rock of Göreme, in the Church (9th-10th cent.) known as Tokali Kilise, there is, in the section known as the ‘New Church’ a fresco painting showing an Eleusa type Theotokos which is very similar to the Damaxxena.
Another characteristic which of the Damaxxena are the two archangels in full profile at the top corners of the icon. The only other known icon with similar angels is the Most Holy Theotokos of Tolog, depicted in 1314 in the Tolgsky Monastery in Yaroslavl. The icon shows and enthroned Eleusa type Virgin. This icon was frequently reproduced in Yaroslavl. Striking also the similarity of the position of the Virgin and Child, in both the Tolga and Damascus icons.
Comparing the Damaxxena with the Tolga icon of the Most Holy Theotokos, one will be able to better understand that “the child seems to have just finished climbing or rather clambering, perhaps squirrel-like, up his mother’s body, from nourishing breast up to supporting arm, over to shoulder, as from branch to branch of a tree (I say ‘tree’ meaning a structure realted to genes and genealogy, highlighting the joyful/painful mysteries of biological process, of grafting and symbiosis, of kinship, of descent/ascent). Now the outer contours of his body seem to fit as if in a jigsaw into hers, tremulously as if he were thrilled at the perception that he had just grown out of her, but in the outward relation between the two bodies, traces seem to be still visible of their precious intra-bodily communion.” (Peter Serracino Inglott, Perichoresis. A Meditation on the Icon of Our Lady of Damascus, Malta: Preca, 2010, 8).
The Mystery of the Incarnation is celebrated in the icon through the way Mother and Child are connected to each other, one beholding the divinity, the other humanity; one making possible the humanization of the divine, the other enabling the divinization of humanity. The geometrical structure of the icon leads us to this proper understanding of the mystery portrayed, that initiated the new Creation with the New Adam and the New Eve. Thus the effect of the Incarnation mystery is portrayed here as bearing a “cosmic dimension” (Serracino Inglott, Perichoresis, 25). The whole of creation becomes the seat of God’s presence while the former is now enabled to transcend towards the supernatural order. The lower and upper circle, extended beyond the rectangular parameters of the icon seem to be pointing to this mirabile commercium. The intersection of the circular geometrical shapes in the upper part, especially those encircling the faces of the Mother and the Child point to the humanization-divinization process. The Incarnation mytery marks the start of this wonderful exchange while its completion is the Paschal Mystery.
Various symbols in the icon remind us of the Cross. Mary’s penetrative look is one of sadness, she pierces us through her eyes, whilst the Child clings to her, staring at her, as if frightened. Her deep glance invites us to behold the mystery, while at the same time she points to us with her hand Jesus “the Way, Truth and Life”. This gesture usually we find the Hodigithria icon type, portraying Our Lady as “She who shows the Way”.