Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Iconic Icons: The Nativity

On December 25, Christians everywhere (and non-Christians as well, to an extent) celebrated the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ.  Being one of the greatest feasts of the Church and one of the greatest events in the history of mankind, icons have been written to celebrate this glorious Birth.  The traditional style of the icon is attributed to the iconographer Andrei Rublev (who wrote the most famous form of the icon of the Trinity).

In the center of the icon is the center of history: Jesus Christ, as a Child, just as He was on the day of His Nativity.  The Son of God, Lord of the Universe, is just a small baby wrapped in swaddling clothes inside a manger (represented by the cave).  Next to Him is His Mother, the Theotokos, Mary, in her traditional coloring of blue robed in red, humanity robed in divinity through her Son's gift and grace.  In the cave with the Virgin and her Son are an ox and ass, representing the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah:

"The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib" (Is 1:3).

These two figures and the animals, inside a cave, are the essentials of the Nativity icon.  There are many other details that may be present in the icon, although their presence varies from icon to icon, due to the individual iconographer.  I will explain as many as I can find, though there may be other details in other copies of the icon.

Above the cave (or sometimes in a corner) is a star, the star that led the three Magi to Bethlehem.  Below the cave is a tree, representing the "Jesse Tree" (cf. Is 11).  Sometimes there are midwives, indicating that Christ's Birth was truly a human birth.  St. Joseph is often shown being tempted by an old man (or woman), which represents the devil tempting him with doubts about Christ's divinity and Mary's virginity.  (The copy of this icon that I have instead includes St. Joseph slightly away from the cave, worshipping the Child, with no devil in sight.)  The three Magi are often shown carrying their gifts of myrrh, frankincense, and gold, to Jesus in the cave.  Angels are shown, glorifying God for His great gift of His Son and for the Son's humbling of Himself to become a man.  Sometimes the angels are shown announcing the Good News of the Incarnation to shepherds.  Another figure sometimes includes is a boy sitting in a field, playing a pipe with numerous sheep around him: this symbolizes the joy the whole world experiences with the Incarnation of the Lord.

The many figures and details in this icon can have more symbolic interpretations, such as the cave representing Earth and its darkness representing the world's slavery to sin, which Jesus, the Light of the World, came to save us from.  Mary's posture, which is often reclining, looking concernedly towards St. Joseph, shows her trying to free her spouse from his doubts and temptations regarding the Incarnation.  In some copies of the icon, Mary is shown kneeling before her Son (as in my copy): I interpret this as worship of her Lord, though some say she still looks concerned about others' faith in the Incarnation.

All in all, the icon of the Nativity is very detailed (like those of many, if not most, feasts of the Church), and the amount of detail varies from copy to copy.  Despite all the many details, the icon's goal is to portray one key event: the Incarnation of the Son of God, His taking flesh in order to save us from sin and bring us to everlasting life.  As the Christmas Season, especially the Octave of Christmas, continues, let us continued to meditate on this glorious event, and let us continually thank the Lord for His most glorious salvation.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God Incarnate, have mercy on us!
Theotokos, Ever-Virgin Mary, Mother of the Word Incarnate, save us!

[Due to the large variety of differences in this icon, below is a small gallery of various copies of it.]

The copy attributed to Andrei Rublev

Similar to the copy I own
Ethiopian icon

Coptic icon

Icon from St. Catherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai

Nota Bene: The information for this post comes primarily from Orthodox Wiki and a page of the website of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America.  The Scripture quote comes from the Douay-Rheims translation.

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