Symbols of Holy Virgin in an icon

10-12-2016 09:09 AM

Donia Wagdy








Today, Saturday 10 December, marked the beginning of the Coptic month of Kiahk (Kyahk) on the 29th of which is Coptic Christmas (7 January). The Coptic Orthodox Church spends Kiahk evenings singing praises for the Holy Virgin in what is famously known as the Kiahk Praise or Sabaa w Arbaa, literally Seven and Four. The term denotes four hymns sung daily in anticipation of the Salvation that came through the Christ whose birth is celebrated by month-end, and seven praises sung one each day for the Holy Virgin, the Mother of Salvation. The Kiahk Praise is among the most-loved rituals of the Church and, even though it extends into a good part of the night or even lasts all night long, is usually well attended.  Its joyful melodies and simple lyrics focus on the wonder-like virgin birth of the Saviour, and work to create a climate of happy spirituality that, once captured, is never to be missed.

Watani welcomes Kiahk with a story on a contemporary icon that depicts all the symbols of the Holy Virgin included in the Kiahk Praise.



“Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” The verse was mentioned in Hebrews 13:7 just to remind us that we have a ‘Cloud of Saints’ as role model, who pray for us before the Lord. 

In the Orthodox concept, icons carry the feeling and teaching of orthodoxy. They are not to be worshipped, but serve as points of connection with Christ and the community of saints.

Thomas Merton, (1915–1968), a Trappist monk who is among the most well-known Catholic writers of the 20th century, wrote in his book The Meaning of Icons:

“It is the task of the iconographer to open our eyes to the actual presence of the Kingdom of God in the world, and to remind us that although we see nothing of its splendid liturgy, we are if we believe in Christ the Redeemer in fact living and worshipping as ‘fellow citizens of the angels and saints, built upon the chief cornerstone with Christ’.”

Icons in the Orthodox tradition are not to be taken as art for art’s sake, but rather, they are to be used as windows into the spiritual world.

Relying on the readings of the Holy Bible, using symbols in both the old and new testaments, the iconographer Mary Mansour Francis created an icon of the Holy Virgin Mary, which depicted the titles and symbols that denote her and are chanted in her praise. 


This icon is considered the first to use a panorama of symbols of the Holy Virgin in modern times. These symbols are:

  • The Queen Who is by the Right Side of the King. This title comes from David the Psalmist, as he said, “At your hand stands the queen in gold from Ophir” (Psalm 45:9).
  • The Ladder of Jacob. The ladder which “was set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven” (Genesis 28:12) is the symbol of the Virgin who, by giving birth to Christ, made the dwellers of earth reach heaven.
  • The Golden Censer. We call her “Ti Shori” which in the Coptic language means the Golden Censer, and is one of the Coptic hymns sung by the deacons in the Divine Liturgy. The Golden Censer is sometimes referred to as the “Censer of Aaron” (Numbers 16:46). The coal in the Censer symbolises the human nature of Christ, and fire symbolises His divine nature. Saint Paul says, “Our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29).
  • The Second Heaven. The Holy Virgin is called ‘the Second Heaven’ because, just as heaven is the home of God, St Mary was the home of God during her pregnancy.
  • The City of God. The prophecy of the following Psalm is realised in her: “Glorious things are spoken of you, O city of God” (Psalm 87:3). It is also said of her, “the city of the Great King.”
  • The Vine where was Found the Cluster of Life. The Cluster of Life is Christ. The Church asks for her intercession with that title in the prayer of the third hour in the Agpeya, saying: “O mother of God, you are the true vine who bears the cluster of life…”
  • The Mother of the True Light. Christ is “the true light which gives light to every man coming into the world” (John 1: 9).
  • The Golden Lamp. The Holy Virgin is called the Golden Lamp because she bears the Light, Christ.
  • The Burning Bush. The burning bush appeared to Moses in (Exodus 3:2). In the song of The Burning Bush that we sing during the month of Kiahk, we say, “The burning bush seen by Moses the prophet in the wilderness…The fire inside it was aflame but never consumed or injured it.”
  • The Ark of the Testimony – This title refers to the sanctuary that God told Moses and the Israelites to build for Him in Exodus, Chapter 25. The ark was made of acacia wood that cannot be moth-eaten, and was covered with gold from inside and outside (Exodus 25:10, 22), which is a symbol of the purity and greatness of the Virgin.
  • The Golden Pot of Manna. The manna is a symbol of Christ, who is the live bread who came down from heaven. Everybody who eats from Him lives by Him, and He is also the bread of life (John 6:32, 48, 49). Since Christ is compared to the manna, Saint Mary is compared to the pot of manna that carried this celestial bread inside her.
  • The Rod of Aaron that Budded. The Virgin miraculously “sprouted and carried the buds of life” (Numbers 17:6-8), as did Aaron’s rod. A rod, of course, has no life that can produce blossoms or yield fruit, except by a miracle. This symbolises the Virgin, who could not sprout or produce fruit, except through a miracle.
  • The Gate in the East. This is the gate which Ezekiel saw, in which the Lord said, “This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall enter by it, because the Lord God of Israel has entered by it therefore it shall be shut (Ezekiel 44:1-2). The gate symbolises the virginity of Saint Mary who was from the countries of the East (Nazareth); and how this virginity remained sealed.
  • The Beautiful Dove. The title is in remembrance of the beautiful dove that carried to our father Noah a branch of an olive tree, as a symbol of peace, bringing to him the good news of the deliverance from the waters of the flood (Genesis 8:11).


Editor’s note: the text explaining the symbols of the Holy Virgin in the Coptic tradition was taken courtesy of


Watani International

10 December 2016

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