The Icon of the Nativity of Our Lord And Saviour Jesus Christ
icon of the Nativity is one that many of us have venerated since our
early childhood in the Eastern
Church. Yet for many of us, born and raised in the Western world, this icon may at times seem strange and different from the depiction of the Nativity as seen in the secular press, books, television, websites and other forms of media communication. Hopefully this short article will contribute to a grea
ter appreciation of our Eastern
teaching of the meaning and significance of the feast of the Nativity as witnessed by the icon of the holy day.
The first major difference between the
icon and the Western art depiction of the Nativity is that the main event, the birth in the flesh of Our Lord, is not depicted in the setting of a stable but in a cave immersed in a mountain. The “cave of Bethlehem”, is mentioned as early as the second century in the writings of St. Justin and by the fourth century, the site had become the place of a beautiful basilica in Bethlehem which was and is still today an important pilgrimage site for Christians. The cave itself in the icon
is always depicted in dark colo
rs or in black to indicate that the world that had plunged into the darkness of sin, through man’s fall, would soon be illuminated by the Nativity of Christ - “the light of the world” .
The new-born infant Christ is found always in the centre of the icon and cave, and as such is the true enlightener of mankind, through Whom a new era begins in the history of mankind. This same cave, also foreshadows the cave of “life giving tomb” that is found in the icon of the Resurrection. Christ thus begins and ends His earthly mission in a cave. The cave in the icon of the Nativity is situated in a mountain, symbolic of the wilderness, which gives a place of refuge to the Son of Justice and Truth in fulfilment of the Old Testament pre-figuration. The Prophet Habakkuk states in a prayer: “God comes from Teman, the Holy One from Mount Paran. Covered are the heavens with His glory, and with His praise the earth is filled” (Hab. 3:3). Christ, the fulfilment of this and other prophesies found in the Old Testament, is represented with His Virgin Mother – the Theotokos on a mountain, which emphasises their mutual unity. True manhood and the human nature in Christ is received from His Mother, the Ever-Virgin, and thus she figures prominently in the central scene of the icon. The Mother of God is depicted always in a reclining position on a childbed with a tranquil and peaceful expression on Her face, and showing an absence of the usual suffering of child bearing. She is usually turned away from Christ, looking at the outside world, contemplating whether mankind will accept or reject the great mystery in which she plays such an important role. She as such has completed her unique role in God’s mysterious plan as the Birth-giver of God. The Eve of the Old Testament was the mother of all living beings; in the New Eve, the Theotokos, we now have the Mother of all those that are redeemed. Thus she is the best example of the thanksgiving offering that mankind could make to the Creator, and serves us as an example of perfect obedience to the will of the Father.
Christ is depicted in a manger or fodder bin, wrapped up in swaddling clothes. The manger symbolizes the altar upon which the supreme gift is brought to mankind, the infant Christ who is to redeem mankind. The swaddling clothes in which He is wrapped points to the winding sheet of another cave, the sepulchre, as depicted in the icon of the Descent of Christ from the Cross and His subsequent burial in the tomb.
To be continued...
The Icon of the Nativity of Our Lord And Saviour Jesus Christ
The Gospels do not mention any attendants at the birth of Christ; however, the icon of the Nativity shows an ox and an ass either on the right or left side of Christ. These domestic animals are symbolic of faithfulness and devotion, as well as innocence in their relation to the Master. These animals are not important for their physical bulk, but their importance lies in the acceptance of their new Master. Thus it is not only the human world that accepts Christ but also the animal world that participates in the feast of re-creation.
The second major difference between the
icon of the Nativity and Western art is the role and place of Joseph in the events. Western art always places Joseph in the centre of the event, close to Mary, a scene that as such depicts the “holy family”. The
icon of the Nativity does indeed include the figure of Joseph (lower right or left hand corner); however, he is far removed from the centre of the main event and finds himself in fact off the mountain or at the bottom of it. . Joseph is depicted as an elderly man, sitting in a contemplative or meditating position, turned away from the main event of the icon. In our Orthodox tradition, Joseph is considered the guardian of Christ and His Mother, thus he is pictured as an aged man compared to the youthfulness of the Mother of God. In his pensive stature, Joseph seems confronted or plagued by doubts about the puzzling mystery of God’s incarnation from a Virgin. The pose of Joseph indicates that the true fatherhood of Christ is through the Virgin and the paternity of the Holy Spirit. This thus corresponds to the Nicene Creed’s verse: “Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man”.
icons show Joseph confronted by an elderly shepherd or satan like figure, always depicted in dark colours. This figure is the tempter, tempting Joseph into not accepting the miraculous birth of the Saviour from the Virgin. This same objection has been raised throughout the history of the Church during the last two thousand years, in different forms and ways, by those who do not accept this miracle. Thus Joseph is not the “father” of Christ while his struggle with the meaning of the virgin birth is symbolic of the struggle of all of mankind in accepting the “miracle of miracles”.
Between the two bottom scenes, the icon depicts a tree that runs up and points to Jesus Christ. This is the tree of the prophecy of Jesse, who was the father of King David in the Old Testament. This clearly marks the noble ancestry of Jesus who was born of “the tree of Jesse”.
The third difference between the Eastern
icon of the Nativity and Western art is that the icon depicts as a composite image six difference scenes of the Nativity narrative surrounding the Infant Christ-child and His Mother.
To be continued....