Fortress Press

Mother of the Lamb: The Story of a Global Icon

Mother of the Lamb

The Story of a Global Icon

Matthew J. Milliner (Author)


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Mother of the Lamb tells the remarkable story of a Byzantine image that emerged from the losing side of the Crusades. Called the Virgin of the Passion in the East and Our Lady of Perpetual Help in the West, the icon has expanded beyond its Byzantine origins to become one of the most pervasive images of our time. It boasts multiple major shrines on nearly every continent and is reflected in every epoch of art history since its origin, even making an appearance at the Olympics in 2012.

Matthew Milliner first chronicles the story of the icon's creation and emergence in the immediate aftermath of the Third Crusade, whereupon the icon became a surprising emblem of defeat, its own fame expanding in inverse proportion to Christendom's political contraction. Originally born as a Christian response to the Christian violence of the Crusades, it marked the moment when Mary's ministry of suffering love truly began. Having traced the icon's origin and ubiquity, Milliner teases out the painting's theological depth, and continues the story of the icon's evolution and significance from its origins to the present day.

As the story of the icon moves well beyond Byzantine art history, both temporally and thematically, it engages religion, politics, contemporary art, and feminist concerns at once. Always, though, the icon exemplifies dignity in suffering, a lesson that--through this image--Byzantium bequeathed to the wider world. Encapsulating eleven centuries of development of the mourning Mary in Byzantium, the Virgin of the Passion emerges as a commendable icon of humility, a perennial watchword signaling the perils of imagined political glory. The Virgin of the Passion, emblemizing political humility, the powerful agency of women, and the value of inter-Christian and extra-Christian concord, is an exemplary Marian image for the fledgling twenty-first century.

  • Publisher Fortress Press
  • Format Hardcover
  • ISBN 9781506478753
  • eBook ISBN 9781506478760
  • Dimensions 6.25 x 9.25
  • Pages 298
  • Publication Date October 4, 2022


"Matthew Milliner's Mother of the Lamb: The Story of a Global Icon is a book of remarkable scholarship combined with deep humanity. The story of the pervasive influence of a single, poignant icon of Mary and Christ--first painted in the hills of Cyprus in the last days of the Crusades and the sad twilight of Byzantium, then copied throughout the world--opens the mind and the heart to a long-neglected chapter in the history of the Christian imagination. It challenges the reader to give thought to what its serene, sad lines and gracious posture might yet have to say to our own times."

Peter Brown, professor emeritus, department of history, Princeton University

"Byzantine icons, fruit of Byzantium's distinctive material theology, exert an unexpected claim on our attention now. Matthew Milliner explores the vast, evolving afterlife of one great icon, variously known as the Virgin of the Passion or Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Welding the events of a passionate and violent era to his own passionate response to the icon, Milliner roots the image in the circumstances of its earliest surviving rendition: a fresco of consummate artistry painted on the island of Cyprus in the immediate wake of its Crusader conquest. Wrenched forever from its parent culture of Byzantium, an empire triumphant for centuries under the aegis of a conquering Mary, Cyprus saw the birth of a new image of Mary. Here a half a millennium's ardent Marian veneration, expressed in Byzantium's radiant theology of liturgical worship and holy imagery, was distilled into a new image of Mary for a coming half-millennium of inexorable imperial decline. It is an image of sustained and compassionate sorrow. Milliner unfolds the image's many theological dimensions--Trinitarian, sacramental, ecclesiological, and emotional--and then traces the paths by which it traveled from a small Mediterranean island on the verge of an encroaching Islam to the heart first of Orthodoxy and then of Roman Catholicism, and from there into the hearts of people literally across the entire globe. The book's early chapters vivid with evocations of Byzantium's luminous and beautiful forms of worship give way by the end to earnest inquiries about this image's message for issues of contemporary faith: social justice, political violence, ecumenism, the role of women in a faith system that revolves around a figure like Mary. The book is written with energy and clear theological conviction, and it reveals how simple and yet how deeply complex a creation like the Virgin of the Passion is. Readers must not slight the endnotes. They are dense with interest."

Annemarie Weyl Carr, university distinguished professor of art history emerita, Southern Methodist University

"Abounding with vivid detail and told with unerring dramatic flair, Matt Milliner's new book traces the evolution of one of Christianity's central motifs--the Virgin and Child--as it evolved across the Eastern Mediterranean from the eleventh to the fifteenth century. We have a front-row seat as Milliner takes us through the many dramatic twists and turns in Byzantine icon theology and practice and its tangled political and ecclesial background. Mother of the Lamb is an absorbing and compelling story unfolded by an immensely gifted art-historian and storyteller."

Thomas Pfau, professor of English and professor of German, Duke Divinity School

"This captivating book invites readers on a spiritual adventure. Starting from his own first encounter as a young scholar, the author introduces us to a special icon: the Virgin of the Passion. This extraordinary image witnessed both the glory and the downfall of an empire, providing both protection and succor. As her story unfolds, we understand her unparalleled power to humble the proud, to encourage the meek, and to console the defeated."

Robin M. Jensen, Patrick O'Brien Professor of Theology, University of Notre Dame

"It is rare to find a scholar who is equally at home in history and theology. Matthew Milliner shows how the history of a devotional image in its many cultural contexts opens up new horizons of understanding about the complex relationships that connect politics, faith, and theology. Throughout Christian history, the sorrow of the Mother of God has been an expressive medium for those who find their lives overwhelmed by suffering and violence. I was deeply affected by this book and confirmed in my conviction that no understanding of history is possible without an understanding of the role played by religion in the shaping of the human story."

Tina Beattie, professor emerita of Catholic studies, University of Roehampton

"Mother of the Lamb is an extraordinary book: a scholarly detective story, a historical travelogue, a tracing of an image's persistent crossing of cultural boundaries, a spiritual meditation--and above all, an endlessly stimulating delight."

Alan Jacobs, distinguished professor of humanities, Baylor University

"In the beautifully produced and sumptuously illustrated Mother of the Lamb, Matthew Milliner shows the now global reach of the Virgin of the Passion whose icon, as he concisely puts it, 'contains the compressed theological wisdom of the Byzantine Empire.' For those who seek to understand more deeply the meanings of this Christian icon, here's your indispensable book."

Arthur Versluis, religious studies, Michigan State University