The newly completed St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in New York City is more than a simple reconstruction of the original church, which was destroyed by the collapse of the World Trade Center’s south tower on September 11, 2001. The new church, designed by architect Santiago Calatrava, is meant to resemble a mosaic of the Virgin Mary at Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. And when the Mary-shaped church of St. Nicholas is paired with the two depressive marks of the 9/11 memorial, the angelic wings of Calatrava’s nearby World Trade Center Transportation Hub, and the famous Ground Zero cross at the National September 11 Museum, something else comes into view. The site evokes the famous Christian icon known as the Virgin of the Passion, more popularly known as Our Lady of Perpetual Help. In this icon, Mary holds her son while two angels hover above them bearing the instruments of the Passion—the cross, spear, and sponge. There is already a church dedicated to this famous icon in New York, Brooklyn’s imposing Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. But thanks to St. Nicholas Church, now an even larger, more central monument resembles the icon as well, even if the architect himself may not have realized it.
While art history is packed with images of Mary titled “Our Lady of Victory,” the Virgin of the Passion icon might more fittingly be called “Our Lady of Loss.” She emerged from the losing side of the Crusades (a story related in my book Mother of the Lamb). The first surviving example of the icon in the history of art appears on the island of Cyprus, where the Byzantine artist Theodore Apsevdis painted her in response to the occupation of the island by the Crusaders, who slaughtered the Orthodox population on Easter morning in 1192. The angels flanking Mary in this image swapped their confident scepters for the cross, spear, and sponge.
As the Byzantine Empire slowly crumbled, the Virgin of the Passion emerged as the emblem of a vanishing empire. With Byzantium’s final collapse in 1453, icons of the Virgin of the Passion were in high demand throughout Europe. Artists such as Andreas Ritzos would include inscriptions in both Latin and Greek to reach both Catholic and Orthodox clients. Everyone, it seems, wanted this token of a destroyed Christian empire.