Muire Mathair

Marian ikon richly glows in the setting of St. Naile's Church.

Like a jewel in the crown of the Reredos, Desmond Kyne's new ikon richly glows in the setting he designed for it.

The well-known iconographer has nearly 1,000 ikons scattered widely in many countries of the world. He has made three ikons of Mary, one for the Basilica of Knock "Our lady Queen of Ireland". (sometimes called the ikons of Knock) another for the Presentations Sisters in Pensance (sometimes called "Our Lady of Cornwall") and the present one "Muire Mathair Dé in St. Naile's Church to celebrate the joy that is in the Celtic Irish Faith vision, and the mysterious motherhood of Mary. 

Kinawley is set in a smiling valley between the mountains. It is a gem of a church, Gothic in feeling, with historical links that go back to St Columcille. The people are rightly proud of their church, and it in turn, reflects their loving care. 


Symbols speak to the heart and to the spirit, their meanings cannot be exhausted; it is pointless to attempt to explain them away with words. We can talk about them, of course, and if I tell you why I chose a particular symbol, it's about as far as I should go. All ikons are symbols. They refer to a larger invisible reality beyond their concrete shapes and colours. To paraphrase Marcel Proust, "Ikons are the work of solitude and children of silence" and they speak a silent language.


The spiral is a symbol I often use, denoting the presence of the almighty father. This symbol has been used in Ireland in the primordial religion, it carried over into Christianity and was used extensively during our Golden Age of Art and spirituality. It is a powerful symbol, a true constant worldwide. All other symbols here relate to Mary, who is herself the bridge between the New Testament and the Old Testament. On the left hand side note all movement is upwards leading to Mary. At base, we have the Star of David/Seal of Salomon, comprised of two interlocking triangles, denoting the descent of God, the ascent of man - prefiguring incarnation. Above it, the Menorah, Seven branched candlestick that stood before the Ark of the Covenant in the temple. Its 7 flames here signify the Holy Spirit preparing the chosen people of God for the coming of the Messiah.

"M" for Mary has a hidden heart shape, as she is the purest heart of God's creation. The morning might suggest how Mary of the Dawn is rising towards the fulfilment of her destiny. On the right hand side the movement is descending. Mary has come to the awesome moment of incarnation. At top the Chi-ro symbol of Christ and in bird like shapes the Holy Spirit descends upon Mary. Flame symbols are now reversed as the seven gifts come upon her and the Christ seed is planted in the virgin purity of her womb. A tiny cross now replaces the star, it pre shadows what is to come, also the gladsome radiance that follows after.


Here I am using symbols in an attempt to bring us closer to the older Celtic Irish faith-vision, which had more joy than sorrow, like the ikon of "Our Lady of Perpetual Help" this one has a symbolic story that is more joyful. Jesus has been given a glimpse of the fulfilment of his destiny - namely transfiguration, redemption and salvation of the world.

It is expressed by the symbol of the cross in a circle, the Celtic cross that represents the glory of the cosmic Christ, the cross of resurrection. I show it in radiance for that was how it was, once richly coloured it stood as a joyful symbol of our faith around the monasteries of Ireland. We see it here suspended within an elongated spiral symbolising the presence of God the Father, who has revealed this vision to his son. With eyes still filled with wonder, the child turns and joyfully responds with a gesture, to share his mother's love with all the world. It would be put into words another time, in the agony of his dying moments on the cross.

As the eye goes to the faces of Mary and of Jesus, note their close resemblance. In human terms Jesus was all Mary, her flesh and blood alone. This symbol is an aid for contemplation of the Eucharist, not diminishing it, but perhaps sharpening our awareness of Mary's greatness. Mary's face is not so much a face, as a countenance. In the ikon tradition we do not draw from human models, as would be so in secular art. For us the image will grow from out of the ikon tradition itself, and from out of the living reality of the subject as it exists within the artist's interior vision, with all that that implies. I have turned a look into a gaze, look may be sharper but a gaze is deeper, a gaze 'that gentler on the spirit lies, then tired eyelids upon tired eyes' Mary's gentle gaze tells us how infinitely precious we are in the eyes of God, likewise to herself, being our spiritual mother, and even one of ourselves.

When I put this ikon to the test of prayer, I would look into those eyes, and let them search my heart. I was encouraged by their power to focus my wayward wondering mind, and by the way in which they could uplift and sustain me in my prayers. I also felt that by having the symbols of the most Holy Trinity present, I could move amongst them, which was very much in accord with our faith-vision, as I understand it.

We know that the Virgin Mother occupied a central place in Celtic Christianity, and how from the beginning this was a source of wonder to the Celtic Irish people. They were never content to call her St Mary, or to simply regard her as first amongst the Saints, as was done in other countries of Western Europe at that time. "Muire Mathair Dé" like the Greek title "Theotokos" (God bearer) went straight to the heart of Mary's greatness. I choose this title for the ikon especially that we might keep and honour that clear ancestral vision. In recent times, I hear people despising and rejecting the halo or nimbus. We should, I think, be careful to protect this symbol, which has endured the test of time and is a common constant that has never been equalled; you cannot draw grace and holiness. Besides, there is so much that can be done with it. For example, it carries the ancient title. The flames about its outer edge signify the love that God had given Mary for all her children. The dots within the boundary evoke the rosary, Choroin Mhuire, Mary's crown the people called it. Even the lettering for the title of the ikon itself is done so as to evoke a crown like shape. The leaves on either side within the halo signify the Greening Power; the seed was planted, Mary received the word of God and nurtured it to fullness of completion.

Another symbol that speaks to us of Mary's queenliness is the colour of Gold she wears. Always in my mind is the grandeur of Mary's Transhistorical role; reigns as Queen of heaven and earth, above the heavenly hosts, alongside the most Holy Trinity of God. Cardinal Newman once said "What awe and surprise must attend upon the knowledge, that a creature has been brought so close to the Divine Essence." In an effort to express all this, deep and beautiful colours fill the surrounding panels.

The fleur de Lys is embroidered into Mary's garments. The lily being a traditional symbol of purity, is often used in this way in the ikons. Notice I have revised the flames for the Jesus Halo. They are within it because it is God alone who generates power and love. The pattern of the folds of the garment of Jesus signify spiritual energy, in the best ikon tradition, also in that same tradition, eight Greek letters are used, with which you will be familiar because they appear in so many ikons. The first and last letters for "mother" (top left) likewise "of God" top right.

The same applies for "Jesus and for "Christ" in the lower right hand corner. I have left the two top symbols till last. The Star of David acknowledges our spiritual inheritance. The Holy Spirit, flowing into the ikon from the other side, pervades all that's in it, with 'that aged and ageless light in which we live and move and have our being.'