A look into the history of the Mother of God of Saint Theodore and the perception of the icon

By Emma Buckles and Anne Marie Vines

One of Birmingham’s most prominent religious images is the icon of Jesus and Mary, his mother, outside of St. Symeon Orthodox Church.

Mosaic of Mary Mother of God and Jesus Christ on the north exterior wall of St. Symeon Orthodox Church, Birmingham Alabama: Photo: David R. Bains, 2015.

This Italian mosaic depicts Mary, known in the Orthodox Church as the Theotokos (Greek for “God-bearer” or “Mother of God”) and her son, Jesus touching cheek-to-cheek. It is a representation of them known as the Eleusa or Tenderness. It closely remembers the twelfth-century Byzantine Eleusa icon known as the Theotokos of Vladimir, but church members associate it with the similar and widely venerated thirteenth-century Russian Eleusa icon known as the Theotokos of Saint Theodore. There is a very obvious similarity between the images. The image is seen as a symbol of love and protection. The child can be seen turning inward to the mother while Mary is turning to the child giving reverence to God incarnate.

From Russia to Alabama via Italy

The Theotokos of St. Theodore is a key emblem of Russian Orthodox identity, but its origin is mysterious. The image of the Holy Mother became quite prominent in Russia in the 1200s; however, it is not known how the image made its way to the city of Kitezh. The icon received its name from “Great Prince Yaroslav Vsevolodovich, the father of Saint Alexander Nevsky, and who in holy Baptism was named Theodore in honor of Saint Theodore Stratelates” (“Icon,” 2020). The icon was found in an old wooden chapel by the brother of the great prince. A monastery was later built upon this site.  After the death of Vsevolodovich, the icon was passed down to his son, Grand Prince Alexander Nevsky (1221-63). Nevsky was often found with the icon and worshipped before it. The icon was repeatedly saved from cathedral burnings and credited with many miracles. It is currently located in the Epiphany monastery in Kostroma.

Since the origin of the Orthodox Church of America, to which St. Symeon belongs, is among Russian Americans, it is not surprising that a copy of the Theotokos of St. Theodore would be found at the church. When the mosaic was given to the church in 1991, the congregation worshiped in a building built for a Baptist congregation, and the icon a prominent sign of Orthodoxy’s presence in Birmingham. Placed on the front wall of the building, the icon of Mary and Jesus faced the oncoming traffic going northbound on 32nd Street S. When the congregation moved into its new domed temple (or church building) in 2015, the icon was moved slightly west to new building where it continued to face Clairmont Avenue.

The original placement of the icon on the old St. Symeon Orthodox Church at the end of 32nd St. S. Photo: David Bains, 2010.
The mosaic is currently on the outside of the north transept of the new building of St. Symeon Orthodox Church. Photo: David Bains, 2020.

The mosaic was commissioned from an Italian mosaic art shop in 1991 but the artist is unknown to the leadership of the church because the individual who donated the image has since passed. The image represents a great deal of history for the faith community at St. Symeon and is a great reminder of the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

Analyzing Jesus Christ within the Image

Different images of Christ portray different things about his nature. This image highlights Mary, the mother of God, but simultaneously encompasses its own idea about the humanity of Jesus. When analyzing the piece of artwork, one notices that Jesus is very close to his mother, like every child is close to their mother. Jesus’ reliance upon Mary is portrayed here. As Edward Blum and Paul Harvey discuss in The Color of Christ, the imaging of Christ and other holy figures have changed over time. Jesus has been shown throughout history as variously light, white, feminine, or masculine. In this particular image, Jesus Christ is given feminine features. In this image, Mary and Christ have similar facial features. There is no clear depiction that he is, indeed, male. Christ is also shown as a Caucasian individual with red hair. There are many other depictions of Christ that have given Christ similar characteristics. One thing that was found interesting about the image is that Jesus is the smallest figure and the focus is not on him but on Mary. Even the tiniest detail in images of Christ can change how individuals interpret the image. Icons can look very similar but have just slightly different hand placements or head angles which can change the meaning of the image. The image of the mother and child is unique because of the love it shows and the tenderness it expresses. Images of Christ are still prominent within most congregations but this specific replica of the Mother of God of St. Theodore is unique in the way that it is external to the church and seen by the public.

The Impact of the Icon on the Nearby Community

The icon of Christ and Mary is located on the northern outside wall of St. Symeon Orthodox Church. Bustling Clairmont Avenue, home to darting cars and hustling workers, as well as a well-frequented Walgreens and a small eighty-two year-old diner called Bogue’s, is the audience of this impressive image. While it might be assumed that the image stares down more frequently on the members of St. Symeon’s, it could be argued that people inhabiting the businesses located across from the church are those who view the image the most. When asked, the hostess at Bogue’s replied that she watched the entire building process of the mosaic. The eager worker reminiscenced about the surrounding community’s fervor at the coming attraction, as others agreed with her that it could be a positive beacon of hope in the neighborhood. The hostess informed us that she sees it every day, and it serves as a reminder of peace and love in her everyday life. Likewise, a Walgreens cashier said she too sees it every day on her way in to work. While the Bogue’s hostess demonstrated a deep theological connection to the image, the Walgreens cashier admitted she had not thought about the image’s religious impact on society. While she was ready to concede that there must be an impact, she was not sure it held significance in her personal life. Despite these varying interpretations, it is clear that this image of Mary holding her son, Jesus Christ, is a staple in the lives of the surrounding community, even if some give it little attention.

The Icon and How it Relates to Religion

Thomas Tweed has defined religions as “confluences of organic‐cultural flows that intensify joy and confront suffering by drawing on human and suprahuman forces to make homes and cross boundaries” (Tweed 2006, 54). One could argue that the image of Christ and his mother does well to enforce the idea of religion. Placed on the outside of the church and depicting the universal experience of mother and child, this image crosses the seemingly gaping chasm between the church and the world. It makes Jesus Christ accessible to non-churchgoers and, possibly, passing non-believers. Religion is not only about connecting with those like-minded, but it is also about reaching the unexposed and the wary. This image permits people the freedom to engage or disengage in a way that “regular” evangelicalism cannot. Here, viewers see a tenderness of Jesus that they may never have encountered.  This mosaic is an invitation, not a threat. It is a sanction, not a denunciation. Like religion, this image strives to intensify the joy of those who encounter it.

Photo: David Bains, April 1, 2020

The Mother of God of St. Theodore at St. Symeon
Medium: Mosaic
Created: 1991 in an Italian mosaic shop
Installed: 1991 in front of St. Symeon’s former church building (now parish house); 2015 moved to north wall of new temple.
Location: Northern wall of St. Symeon Orthodox Church, 3101 Clairmont Ave S Birmingham, AL 35205

Sources for Further Information:

Blum, Edward J., and Paul Harvey. 2012. The Color of Christ: the Son of God & the saga of race in America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

“Home.” Home. St. Symeon Orthodox Church. Accessed February 20, 2020. https://www.stsymeon.com/.

“Icon of the Mother of God of Saint Theodore.” Orthodox Church in America. Accessed February 20, 2020. https://www.oca.org/saints/lives/2012/08/16/102307-icon-of-the-mother-of-god-of-saint-theodore

Tweed, Thomas A. 2006. Crossing and Dwelling: a Theory of Religion. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Emma Buckles ‘22 and Anne Marie Vines ‘22 were students in The Craft of Religious Studies in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in Spring 2020.

Posted April 1, 2020.

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