The “What Shall We Call Thee” iconography first appeared in the 16th century. It is based on a hymn to the Mother of God sung in the first hour: “What shall we call thee, O thou who art full of grace? Heaven, for from thee shone forth the Sun of righteousness? Paradise, for thou hast budded forth the Flower of immortality? Virgin, for thou hast remained undefiled? Pure Mother, for thou hast held in thy holy embrace thy Son, Who is God of all? Beseech him that our souls be saved.” The composition is based on a combination of iconographic formulas – every epithet of the hymn corresponds to a specific image.

In the lower part of the composition is the hierarchy of the righteous glorifying the Mother of God – the apostles, martyrs (left), holy hierarchs, the virtuous men and women (right). In the hymn the Mother of God is called “heaven” because she gave birth to Christ – “the sun of righteousness”, therefore in the upper part are pictured seven heavenly spheres with stars, the sun and the moon. She is “paradise” as “budded forth the Flower of immortality” – Christ who saved people from the deadly decay, therefore in the central part of the composition, against the beackground of Edem are the figures of Christ, Adam and Eva, the Wise Thief and John the Baptist. In the hymn the Theotokos is praised as the “Virgin” who remained virgin after the birth of Christ and the Mother of God (on the icon these words correspond to the compositions in the medallion “The Nativity of Christ” and “The Adoriation of the Magis.” In the center of the composition is the enthroned Mother of God in a shining mandorla; beneath her is the blessing Savior. Above is the mandorla with the Mother of God the Incarnation, flanked by the Angel and the prophet Isaiah pointing to the Virgin. The composition culminates in the figure of the Lord Sabaoth in a mandorla.

The earliest example of this iconography is an icon dated to the first half of the 17th century from the Andrei Rublev Museum collection. During Nikon’s reform the hymn text was changed, causing the word “blessed” be replaced with the word “rejoiced”. Over time the iconographic program became less complex.

Zhanna G. Belik,

Ph.D. in Art history, senior research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum, custodian of the tempera painting collection.

Olga E. Savchenko,

research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum.


  1. «О Тебе разуется». Русские иконы Богоматери XVI – начала ХХ веков. Каталог выставки из фондов Музея имени Андрея Рублева. М., 1995.
  2. София. Премудрость Божия. Каталог выставки русской иконописи XIII – XIX веков из собраний музеев России. М., 2000. С. 346–347.
  3. Уральская икона. Живописная, резная и литая икона XVIII – начала XX в. Екатеринбург: Изд-во Уральского университета, 1998. Кат. № 255, с. 188, цв. ил. с. 56.