A Hodegetria (Greek: Ὁδηγήτρια, literally: “She who shows the Way”; Russian: Одигитрия), or Virgin Hodegetria, is an iconographic depiction of the Theotokos (Virgin Mary) holding the Child Jesus at her side while pointing to Him as the source of salvation for humankind. In the Western Church this type of icon is sometimes called Our Lady of the Way.
The most venerated icon of the Hodegetria type, regarded as the original, was displayed in the Monastery of the Panaghia Hodegetria in Constantinople, which was built specially to contain it. Unlike most later copies it showed the Theotokos standing full-length. It was said to have been brought back from the Holy Land by Eudocia, the wife of emperor Theodosius II (408–450), and to have been painted by Saint Luke. The icon was double-sided, with a crucifixion on the other side, and was “perhaps the most prominent cult object in Byzantium”.
The original icon has probably now been lost, although various traditions claim that it was carried to Russia or Italy. There are a great number of copies of the image, including many of the most venerated of Russian icons, which have themselves acquired their own status and tradition of copying.
There are a number of images showing the icon in its shrine and in the course of being displayed publicly, which happened every Tuesday, and was one of the great sights of Constantinople for visitors. After the Fourth Crusade, from 1204 to 1261, it was moved to the Monastery of the Pantocrator, which had become the cathedral of the Venetian see during the period of Frankish rule, and since none of the illustrations of the shrine at the Hodegetria Monastery predate this interlude, the shrine may have been created after its return.
There are a number of accounts of the weekly display, the two most detailed by Spaniards:
Every Tuesday twenty men come to the church of Maria Hodegetria; they wear long red linen garments, covering up their heads like stalking clothes […] there is a great procession and the men clad in red go one by one up to the icon; the one with whom the icon is pleased is able to take it up as if it weighed almost nothing. He places it on his shoulder and they go chanting out of the church to a great square, where the bearer of the icon walks with it from one side to the other, going fifty times around the square. When he sets it down then others take it up in turn.
Another account says the bearers staggered around the crowd, the icon seeming to lurch towards onlookers, who were then considered blessed by the Virgin. Clergy touched pieces of cotton-wool to the icon and handed them out to the crowd. A wall-painting in a church near Arta in Greece shows a great crowd watching such a display, whilsta street-market for unconcerned locals continues in the foreground.
The Hamilton Psalter picture of the shrine in the monastery appears to show the icon behind a golden screen of large mesh, mounted on brackets rising from a four-sided pyramidal base, like many large medieval lecterns. The heads of the red-robed attendants are level with the bottom frame of the icon.
The icon disappeared during the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 when it was deposited at the Saint Saviour in Chora. It may have been cut into four pieces.
In the 10th century, after the period of iconoclasm in Byzantine art, this image became more widely used, possibly developing from an earlier type where the Virgin’s right hand was on Christ’s knee.[ An example of this earlier type is the Salus Populi Romani icon in Rome. Many versions carry the inscription “Hodegetria” in the background and in the Byzantine context “only these named versions were understood by their medieval audience as conscious copies of the original Hodegetria in the Hodegon monastery”, according to Maria Vasilakē.
Full-length versions, both probably made by Greek artists, appear in mosaic in Torcello Cathedral (12th century) and the Cappella Palatina, Palermo (c. 1150), this last with the “Hodegetria” inscription.
From the Hodegetria developed the Panagia Eleousa (Virgin of Tender Mercy), where Mary still indicates Christ, but he is nuzzling her cheek, which she slightly inclines towards him; famous versions include the Theotokos of Vladimir and the Theotokos of St. Theodore. Usually Christ is on the left in these images.