Testimonies on the Icon of Nativity
A study by Archimandrite Michael (Mikhail) Stanciu
(Please do not copy without referencing the original post!)
Our Lord’ Nativity
A Feast of Lights – the Day of Recreation of the World
Originally celebrated with Epiphany (Theophany) on January 6, the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was established by the early Christian church (in 354) for December 25th. According to St. Gregory of Nazianzus, “the Feast of the Nativity is the re-creation of the world” and the restoration of the human nature fallen in sin.
The Iconographic representation of the Nativity has its scriptural basis in the testimonies of the Holy Gospels of Matthew and Luke: see Mathew 1, 18-25; 2, 1-12 and Luke 2, 4-20.
Icon’ s Composition
In the icon of the Nativity, the focus is placed on three dogmatic aspects of the Incarnation and Nativity of the Son of God:
1st – God in descending motion (kenosis);
2nd – The Miracle of virginal birth (the creature gives birth to her Creator);
3rd- Human Deification.
The scenes from the iconographic image are divided into three parts:
I. The top portion of the icon – the prophetic and theophanic aspect
To the Left
|In the Center||To the Right|
|◦ the angels praising God||◦ the radius (the star)
◦ the mountains (the rocks)
◦ the angel proclaiming
the Nativity to the
shepherds on the field
II. The central part - the mysterious appearance
To the Left
|In the Center||To the Right|
|◦ the Magi bringing gifts||
◦ Christ the Child
◦ the Virgin
◦ the cave (the manger)
◦ the ox and the ass
◦ the shepherds
III. The bottom portion - the human aspect
To the Left
|In the Center||To the Right|
|◦ The Right Joseph sitting/meditating on a rock||◦ the devil disguised as a shepherd (Thyrros)||
◦ the midwives
for the child
People, edifying symbols and meanings in the icon of the Nativity
I. 1. The Ray of Light – a Revelation of the Holy Trinity
The ray descending from the single radius-circle at the top of the icon signifies The One and Unique Nature of God, the light and coming from the star is divided into three elements to describe the participation of the Three DIVINE PERSONS in the fellowship/ iconomy of our salvation. The iconographic representation of the star suggests that this is beyond just a cosmic phenomenon, the star is being sent by God to preach to the Magi the supernatural birth of the Heavenly King and also to guide them to the place where the miracle took place.
I. 2. The Mountain: an austere mountain suggests an inhospitable world, hostile, a world after the fall of our first parents Adam and Eve and their descendants.
The sharp rocks, also illustrated as steps seem to be united with the sky, indicating the descent of God to man but also the ascent of man to God, both becoming possible with the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. And the whole earth rejoices.
“Wholly present among those below, yet in no way absent from those above, was the Word that cannot be encircled by words; for thus did God condescend, and not merely descend to a different place. He was born from a God-receiving Virgin…” (the Akathist of the Annunciation – Oikos 8)
“Today, Heaven and earth joined together, today Christ is born, today God descended on earth and man rose up to heaven.” (From the Vespers of the Nativity Feast)
“Every order of angels was amazed at your mighty work when you assumed human nature; for they saw the one who is unapproachable as God become approachable to all as man, dwelling among us and hearing from all…” (The Akathist of the Annunciation; Kontakion 9)
I. 3. The Angels are represented in their dual work: doxology and proclamation (of the good news).
Some angels (the group from the left) are moving towards the Source of Light, unceasingly praising God.
The angel from the right side leans towards the shepherds, proclaiming them the Nativity of the King of Israel. The angelic presence testifies the deity of the Child.
II. 1. The Christ child is either asleep or awake, looking towards His Mother. His changing nappies are shaped like narrow strips similar to the burial shrouds, his arms are crossed over his chest in the sign of the Cross, and the crib where the child is seated resembles a shrine – the later tomb.
All these representations foreshadow Christ’s death and descent into hell. But “The Light shines into the darkness and the darkness comprehended it not.” (John 1, 5) For Christ will rise from the dead as God Almighty.
II. 2. The Virgin is pictured sitting next to the child in the manger, half resting on a bed of the kind carried by the Hebrew in their travels. Its color is red, signifying a royal bed and the honor the Mother of God deserves.
This iconographic depiction of the Mother of God affirms the truth of the supernatural Birth (of a Virgin, barring no pain) of our Savior Jesus Christ, fact that also emphasizes the deity of the Child. (1-see Fr. D. Staniloae)
The three stars from the head and the shoulders of Mary, symbolize her perpetual virginity before, during and after the birth of Christ (the Ever-Virgin Mary).
Her facial expression is one in meditation in anticipation of the suffering she will endure as a Mother of Him Who was to suffer death on the Cross for the salvation of the world. “And Mary kept all these things in her heart.” (Luke 2, 19)
Our most pure Lady was the highest gift that mankind was ever able to bring to Him, the Creator.
“What shall we offer Thee, O Christ? for Thou hast appeared on earth as man for our sakes. Of all the creatures made by Thee, each offereth Thee thanksgiving. The Angels offer Thee the hymn; the Heavens, the star; the Magi, their gifts; the shepherds, their wonder, the earth, her cave; the wilderness, the manger; and we offer Thee a Virgin Mother, O God, Who wast before the ages, have mercy on us” (Menaion for December, Stichera D, Verse #7)
II. 3. The Cave (the Manger)
The place of birth of the Son of God was not an inn, but a place with stalls where animals are kept.
The Gospels do not mention the cave, but the iconographic representation finds its grounds in the Tradition of the church and in its liturgical texts. The opening of the dark cave in the middle of sharp rocks symbolizes the fallen cosmos, the world overwhelmed by sin through the fall of man, the depths of darkness (the inferno/hell), which only Him, the Sun of Righteousness, scattered by His birth. The cave and the manger are an evidence of the profound humility of our Lord Jesus Christ.
II. 4. The ox and the ass are also mentioned in the Gospel, their presence along with Christ Child (inspired by the apocryphal Gospel of Matthew, chapter XIV) suggests the fulfilling of a prophecy (the prophet Isaiah): “The ox knows his master and of the donkey his Lord’s crib, but Israel does not know me, my people, knows me not. “ (Isaiah 1, 3)
The animals presence, appears as a symbolism of the sacrificial bull and of the donkey the the King will ride when entering Jerusalem (see Psalm Sunday). In some Russian icons, a horse is depicted instead of a donkey.
II. 5. The Shepherds are portrayed listening to the message of the angels. Often, one of them adds his (human) art of singing in the choir of angels.
In the middle of everyday activities, they are the first to receive the wondrous news of the birth of Christ, being paradoxically, through their simplicity, closer to the heavenly world.
The shepherds represent the first sons of Israel (God’s chosen people), who worship the Child; they symbolize the beginning of the Church among the Jews, while the magi represent the Church of the Gentiles.
II. 6. The Magi are represented either on horses riding towards the place indicated by the star, or by bringing the Child: threefold – gold, incense and myrrh – foreshadowing the myrrh bearing women, who came to our Lord’ tomb on Easter morning:
◦ Gold – for the King of all ages;
◦ Incense – as to the One who is the God of the Universe;
◦ Myrrh – to the One who died on the cross.
“By the mirth, they pre imagine Thy mortal state, by royal gold Thy majesty and by the incense, Thy Divine nature.” (Nativity Matins, the fifth song, voice, VI)
The Magi are portrayed as three men of different ages, proving that this revelation is given to man regardless of their physical age, but according to their spiritual level and their comprehension of the mysteries of God. The Magi represent the pagan nations that are outside the chosen people. Although they are learned men, however, they have to come a long way towards knowing the true God.
Their presence reveals that the Church receives and sanctifies human knowledge when it leads to the truth of the faith towards the knowledge of God.
III. 1. The Righteous Joseph is depicted in the corner (either left or right, to the bottom part of the icon) sitting away from the Blessed Virgin Mary; this iconographic detail is designed to highlight the truth that the Scriptures and the Church teach that Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, and Joseph was not the father of the Heavenly Child.
His appearance should suggest a man advanced in years (the Holy Tradition holds that he was 84 years old). He is surrounded by a halo to represent his place among the righteous of God (cf. Matthew 1, 19).
Joseph has a meditative expression, somewhat worried, a state of turmoil caused by the virginal birth of Jesus. Joseph illustrates every man weak in faith, whose mind can not exceed the boundaries of this reality, and the difficulty in accepting the supernatural reality of God’s mysteries.
In the person of Joseph, the icon reveals not only his personal drama, but the drama of all mankind, comprehending the mystery not through the eyes of faith, but by the limited mind/rationality.
“ A storm of doubtful thoughts roiled within the prudent Joseph, for he looked on you unwedded and he feared a stolen union, O Blameless One; but on learning that your child-bearing was of the Holy Spirit, he said: Alleluia!”(Akathist Hymn of the Annunciation; Kontakion 4)
He appeared to be listening to a figure representing the voice of the darkened mind.
III. 2. the Strange old man, clad in a letter jacket, leaning before Joseph, represents the deceiver: Satan disguised as a shepherd, and harassing Joseph, the Virgin fiancé, with treacherous questions.
The scene is inspired by the apocryphal Gospel of James which says that the wicked speaks through the Shepherd Thyrros: “As the rod [that is bent or broken= the symbol of his former powers] will not be able to give offspring, so an old man like you just can not conceive a baby and a virgin cannot bare a child “ [but the rod blossomed soon].
III. 4. The Infant bathing scene is based on passages from the apocryphal gospels of Jacob and Matthew (which speak about the presence of two women: Salome and Zelemi, called by Joseph to attend the Virgin birth).
The Infant bathing scene has sparked much controversy and discussion based on the following reasons:
- the bathing does not belong to the canonical gospels;
- the Child was totally clean and did not need washing;
- Our Lady had a supernatural birth (with no pain), and the presence of midwives is unnecessary.
The arguments favoring the representation of a bathing scene were: – that the scene is not mentioned in the canonical Gospels is not a reason to exclude it (the entry into the temple of God of the Virgin Mary is also not mentioned in the New Testament, but the Church did not rejected). Our Lord Christ, through the custom of bathing, had voluntarily agreed to follow a human custom as He will later undergo the practice of circumcision and baptism (which He did not need);
– none of the Holy Ecumenical Councils had opposed the scene;
– during the iconoclasts period when they called into question many iconographic scenes, the bathing scene did not pose an issue;
– even after iconoclasm, when the iconographic representations became a mean to express the dogma, no objections existed to the representation of this scene.
The bathing scene suggests that the Most High God is subject to human habits and customs, this been also a true testimony to the Incarnation of the Lord, Who has become willingly “just as one of his people” (Matins of the Nativity feast, Canon of St. John of Damascus, the fourth song). The scene foreshadows that of His baptism in the Jordan River.
Western innovations in representing the Nativity
Compared to Orthodox iconographic canonical representation, in the Western religious painting several innovations were introduced distorting historical and dogmatic truth and leading to heresy:
- The star is represented as a natural phenomenon, and does not clearly indicate the Child. (St. John Chrysostom interprets that the star guiding the wise men did not remain high –up in the sky, but came down, over the head of the Child);
- The cave is replaced by a man-made construction, the popular image of the crib, giving a more picturesque and naturalist representation;
- The donkey and the ox, and the bathing scene are often removed from the composition;
- A lots of compositional elements and insignificant details: horses, camels, dogs, lots of people etc are introduced, which detract from the real center of interest: Christ the Child.
- The Child is shown naked (in the Orthodox icons, the clothes suggest the mystery that surrounds the deity of Christ);
- Joseph is depicted standing next to the Virgin Mary, kneeling with her before the Child;
- In the physiognomic details, of the western paintings, Joseph appears as a handsome young man, of an age close to the Virgin Mary, detail that brings a lot of confusion regarding the actual relationship full of purity that existed between the old Joseph as the guardian of Mary, and the young Virgin;
- The representation the Holy Family in the western iconography “greatly distorts the truth of the Gospel” (as the Creed: the symbol of our faith confesses) that the word of God came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin Mary and became man;
- The scene takes on a fantasy look through the sweet atmosphere of a fairy Bethlehem bathed by the light of a sky full of stars…, insisting more on the human aspect rather than on the mystery of the Incarnation (the man-God rather than God-Man).
In the West, the representation of the Nativity, has no edifying symbols for the soul (so consistently depicted in the Orthodox iconography), and it mostly calling upon the natural human feelings, thus remaining at the level of a superficial understanding and far from the true meaning of the Incarnation of the Son of God and His work for the salvation of the world.
It should be noted that the process of de-sanctification of the Catholic theology after the Great Schism of 1054 had gradually led to the distortion in representating God and the Saints. The revival of paganism, which began in the fourteenth century, had lead to the replacing of icons by so called religious paintings where the aura of holiness disappears under the camouflage of the sensuous realism of the fallen human nature. In the Western Europe, the devaluation of the sacred images was synchronous with the deformation concept about God, man and the world, the contemporary Western society been long poisoned by atheism and materialism.
The removal of icons and of the sacraments had depleted the Catholic and the (neo) Protestant world, of a proper understanding of the words of Christ, sinking further into interpretations subjective to human passions, slanders and evil blasphemies.
The Orthodox iconography, through the development and maintenance of certain canons (rules) in representing/revealing the holy images in accordance with the early church tradition, it maintains the true theological knowledge of the spiritual life and it avoids the promotion of artistic means of expression that emphasize emotions or other subjective and shallow interpretations.
The Nativity Icon reveals therefore, in its content two fundamental Christian doctrines:
- the essence of the event, as a visible testimony to the fundamental dogma of the Christian faith: the Incarnation of the Son of God;
- the effect of this event on all creation that had acquired a new meaning - the transfiguration through the Holy Spirit, as the final aim of her existence.
All Orthodox traditions mark the joy of Christ’s coming among us and within us by carols, hymns… and good merriment brought by God’s blessing. These are the real beauties that adorn our soul at Christmas! Amen.
Father Dumitru Staniloae, Theology of the icon;
Paul Evdokimov, The Art of the icon. A theology of beauty;
Egon Sendler, The Icon, image of the invisible,
Leonid Uspensky, Vladimir Lossky, Lead by the world of icons,
Dionysius of furnaces, The origins of the Byzantine paintings,
Cavarnos Constantine, A Guide to the Byzantine iconography,
Quenot Michel, The icon challenge,
Michel Quenot, From the icon to the nuptial banquet.
(Translation by EC)