Images of holy silence

The message of silence portrayed in silent images

How much do you value silence?

Our Lady of Silence

Pope Francis keeps a copy of a modern icon-like painting of Mary near the elevators in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace. It is an image of Our Lady of Silence. In it, Mary holds her right index finger poised in front of her closed lips.

Image of Our Lady of Silence. A copy of this image hangs in the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican. (CNS photo | courtesy Fr. Emiliano Antenucci)

The icon was commissioned by Capuchin Fr. Emiliano Antenucci in 2010, and completed by the Benedictine nuns of San Giulio d’Orta in the Italian province of Novara.

Fr. Antenucci has written books on the topic of silence — such as “Between Silence and Strength” (2005) — and even offered retreats on silence.

“Silence is a revolution,” he told Catholic News Service. Silence “is the womb where words that are true are born.” He added that when he brought the original image of Our Lady of Silence to be blessed by Pope Francis in 2016, Francis wrote on the back in gold pen, in Italian, “Do not bad-mouth others!”

While Our Lady of Silence is new, other images representing “holy silence” date back to 14th-century Eastern Europe and, a bit later, in Russia. And they do so with images of angels and Christ.

Christ as an angel

While most icon angels represent — well, angels — there are two Russian icons that seem to show angels that, in fact, really represent Christ. One, the better known, shows Christ as Holy Wisdom (Sophia in Greek). This icon has a lot of figures around the central image: heaven’s throne, angels, Mary (with the child Jesus in her womb) and St. John the Baptist. The central image is a fiery-faced angel that is really not an angel, but an image of Christ in his divinity. (In icons, red represents both humanity and the power of the resurrection.)

A second icon of Christ as an angel also depicts has a red face and wings, with an eight-pointed crown. In some images, his crown is a bishop’s miter, showing he is the great High Priest. He also often holds a scroll. This is the icon of “Blessed Silence” or “Holy Silence.”

Holy Silence icon

Usually, the image bears the Russian words Spas Blagoe Molchanie (literally “Savior Blessed Silence”). Various words from Scripture are found on these silence icons, often in a scroll held by Christ. Sometimes they are words from the prophet Isaiah and refer to the Suffering Servant of God, who remains silent under duress. One of these quotes is Isaiah 53:6: “Though harshly treated, he submitted and did not open his mouth; Like a lamb led to slaughter or a sheep silent before shearers, he did not open his mouth.”

This is why some of the images of Holy Silence show the angel holding a cross and other instruments of the Passion. This explains why the image, with or without the instruments of the Passion, holds its arms crossed. The one depicted is meek, humble and silent.

If the icon holds scroll, that scroll can have various scriptural references. A common on is the start of the reading we heard at Christmas Mass During the Night (Is 9:5): “For a child is born to us, a son is given to us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.”

This doesn’t speak about angels at all. However, in the Greek translation of this passage “wonder-counselor” appears as “messenger of great counsel.” In Greek, the word for “messenger” is “angelos,” which has become our word “angel.” So we can see how “wonder-counselor” could be depicted as an angel, since he is the messenger of good counsel.

Red features

The red, fiery color of the winged Christ in Holy Silence and Holy Wisdom icons depicts two other things — one is that this angel is a seraphim, the highest of all the choirs of angels. If Christ is depicted anywhere as an angel — in Eastern or Western art — he is shown as a seraphim, or as carried on the wings of seraphim. (Showing Christ as an angel reminds us that he is King of the Angels.)

The seraphim are the highest choir in the angelic hierarchy and they are called “the fiery ones.” They share their name with seraph serpents, whose bite killed many Hebrews when Moses took them from Egypt. (The bronze serpent Moses fashioned was a pre-figurement of Christ on the cross.)

Eight-point halo

Icons usually depict Christ with a halo bearing a cross in it. However, Holy Silence and Holy Wisdom icons have halos of eight points. These depict the six days of creation, the Sabbath and the eighth day of eternity. They also show that this is not an ordinary angel, but the Lord of Heaven and Earth. Even if the icon letters we see as “IC” and “XC” (meaning “Jesus Christ,” and “Son of God” in Greek) did not tell us who this is, the eight-point crown would.

So whether we are drawn to an image of Mary with a finger at her lips, or one of the silent messenger Christ, the value of silence is something to contemplate as we near the end of the Christmas season. Soon we will hear the active ministry of Christ proclaimed in our Gospels of the church’s Ordinary Time. Now, however, we remember the silence of the manger and the flight into Egypt, as well as the silent glory of the Star of Epiphany. Christ, the Word of God, can also teach us in silence.


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