The Icon of the Sign: A Womb with a Window
by Frederica Mathewes-Green
I am looking at a painting of a woman with her arms upraised in prayer. But her eyes are not closed, or even lifted up; they gaze out at the viewer with steady solemnity.
The most startling thing about this image is at its center. Upon the woman’s red-robed torso rests a large circle, and this disk represents her womb. Within it we see her unborn child, clothed and haloed, surrounded by stars and radiant as the sun. His hand is lifted in blessing. This icon, The Mother of God of the Sign, recalls the familiar prophecy of Isaiah: “The Lord will give you a sign: behold, a virgin will conceive and bear a son …” (Isaiah 7:14)
This image reminds me of the comment often made in pro-life circles that “If wombs had windows, there would be no more abortion.” The Mother of God of the Sign is an ancient representation of a womb with a window; we look into that small private space and find it exploding with the stars and glory of heaven, filled with the Lord of the Universe himself. Surely, if unborn children could be seen, their right to survive would be evident; it is only the veil of flesh that makes them appear the inert, tumor-like property of their mothers.
Yet too many pro-lifers make the reverse mistake, treating the bundle of flesh surrounding the baby as a mere carrier. Sometimes she is even seen as an enemy from whom we must rescue her child. But anything which separates mother from child is a lie: they are one in the profoundest intimacy that humans can know. We each knew this silent floating communion. It filled the long dark first months of every human life, tuning us for human intimacy and trust, tuning us for prayer.
A broken world drives women to believe that they must sacrifice their children’s lives to continue their own. But when we adopt the opposite argument, fighting for the child’s life by ridiculing the mother as selfish or motivated by convenience, we adopt the same lie. The idea that mother and child are enemies, that only one can win — whether espoused in arguing for or against abortion — partakes of an ancient lie, a bid for power and dominance, bearing the faint scent of an Apple.
When we undertake to “save the babies,” whatever that work may be, let us remember the woman who surrounds the child. It is she, not us, that is appointed the protector of that child. Our job is to find ways to be her servant so that she can love her child to life.
Far from dreamy theory, this approach demands concrete and un-glamourous action. It may involve volunteer work at a local pregnancy center, finding housing and clothing for women in need. It may require some to open their own homes to pregnant women. It may call some of us to political action, not just seeking limits on abortion but also strengthened child support laws, compassionate maternity leave policies, and adequate and accessible medical care.
My copy of the Mother of God of the Sign is small, but in many Orthodox churches it is breathtakingly large, the image traditionally chosen to fill the apse. In St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Washington, DC, her image rises over the priests, over the altar, gazing from the high curved ceiling to the congregation below.
Like all icons, the image represents spiritual truths beyond number and beyond words. But the painting also shows, on its simplest level, a peasant woman who carried a difficult pregnancy. High above we see her in prayer, and see the precious life in her womb.
But her eyes are not closed, nor are they focused upward; her eyes are looking at us. We will see her again, in young women afraid and desperate, scanning the abortion clinic ads that run along the subway walls. Her eyes are looking at us. May we look back with true love and courage.
© Frederica Mathewes-Green
We are grateful to Frederica Mathewes-Green for her permission to re-print this excellent article.