The traditional Orthodox icon of the Nativity is one that many of us have venerated since our early childhood in the Orthodox 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 greater appreciation of the Orthodox 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 Orthodox 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 colours 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.
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 Orthodox 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 Orthodox 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”.
Often Orthodox 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 (as recorded in the Protoevangelium). 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. These arguments, which ultimately did not cause Joseph to stumble, have constantly returned to trouble the Church, and are the basis of many heresies regarding Who Christ was and is. In the person of Joseph, the icon discloses not only his personal drama, but the drama of all mankind, the difficulty of accepting that which is beyond reason, the Incarnation of God. 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 Orthodox 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. Western art usually depicts these scenes separately or in smaller groupings of two or three. Here are the six scenes:
- At the top of the icon, on both sides of the mountain, are found two groupings of angels who often are looking downwards, sometimes to the side or upwards. They serve a two-fold role. First, they are the messengers of the spiritual world bringing glad tidings to mankind and secondly, they are the true adorers of Christ’s birth, the “marvel of marvels”. The angelic hosts as such unite heaven and earth and together glorify the “new born King”. The angel of the Lord, found on the top extreme right-hand side of the icon, is depicted looking down upon an amazed shepherd, announcing to him the good news of great joy.
- A single shepherd or sometimes several are found on the right-hand middle side of the icon. These are the first of the Israelite people – the Jewish people, to accept and worship the Lord. These shepherds are simple, unsophisticated and ordinary citizens who hear the divine message in the course of their labours and fully accept the Virgin birth. In fact the shepherds are akin to the simple fishermen that Christ will call in the Gospels “to follow Him”.
- On the opposite side, the left-hand side of the icon are found three figures of the Magi or wise men. They are depicted following the star, shining above the cave, and bringing their royal gifts to a Babe in a poor cave. The wise men represent the humanity that has not been exposed to the Old Testament – often referred to as the Gentiles. Yet they have a mission to find the “King of Kings” and have travelled far for this event. Their search reaches an end, “following the star of Bethlehem”, and they accept of the Son of Righteousness without hesitation. The three wise men are usually depicted in three different age brackets. The one of the extreme left is very young, the middle one is middle-aged and the one on the right is an elderly person. Thus all ages of humanity are called to accept Christ. The wise men were the first fruits of the Gentile world to venerate and worship Christ. In so doing they show that the ultimate sense of human knowledge is in the contemplation and worship of a Living God, “born unto us as a young Child”.
- Below, on the left-hand side, is the scene of Joseph and the tempter (already discussed earlier).
- On the lower right-hand side is depicted an important bathing scene. The origin of this scene is not Scriptural or apocryphal. The first mention of the bathing of Christ was made in the travelogue of a late seventh century pilgrim to Palestine, a certain bishop Arnulf. He relates that close to the Nativity cave in Bethlehem, he was shown a stone water basin which was believed to be the one in which the Divine Child had been washed after birth. Early art depictions of the bathing scene are found from as early as the fifth century. This bathing scene illustrates that Christ was truly a human being and had the fullness of human nature while at the same time he also had a divine nature and was the second person of the Trinity. Every young child has to be bathed, washed and cleaned, upon entrance into this world and Jesus was no different. This scene also serves as an argument against those heretics that did not want to acknowledge Christ’s full humanity and placed only emphasis on his divinity (At the IV Ecumenical Council this heresy, know as Monophysitism, was defeated). Thus the two bottom scenes complement each other, showing both the theological teaching of Christ’s full divinity (the pondering of Joseph of the miracle birth-incarnation of God, the second person of the Trinity – Jesus Christ) and His full humanity (the important bathing scene). Christ as such is truly GODMAN – in Ukrainian Bohocholovik, a term coined at the IV Ecumenical Council in 451.
- The scene at the top center of the icon depicts the three divine rays of the triune God. In so showing this, the icon depicts that the Trinity – Father, the pre-eternal Son and Holy Spirit are at the heart of the event. The Incarnation is not only about the birth of the Son, but also involves the other two members of the Trinity because all three are of one and the same essence (the Greek word for this is “Homoousios”). In another way the rays are referred to also as the divine star of Bethlehem that shone and provided the direction for all the players of the Incarnation event. The divine light thus provides a canopy for the infant birth of the Saviour and lightens the universe for the proper understanding of the truth – that God became man so that man can become potentially God-like.
The icon of the Nativity thereby harmonizes six separate scenes of the festal narrative. Their depiction produces a balanced and well organized theology of the Nativity feast. This icon, except for the bottom part, is truly a pictorial illustration of the KONTAKION (liturgical hymn) of the feast written by St. Romanos the Melodist which proclaims:
“Today the Virgin gives birth to Him Who is above
all being and the earth offers a cave to Him whom
no man can approach. Angels with shepherds give
glory and Magi journey with a star. For unto us
is born a young Child, the pre-eternal God.”
In conclusion, the icon of the Nativity, with its richness and theological content, relates the various scenes of the Incarnation narrative, overcoming both time and space limitations. Just as in the Orthodox liturgy we overcome linear time and space, so also the Nativity icon, as an integral part of the festal cycle, overcomes these limitations. In turn, the various scenes in the icon form an integrated and holistic unity to be contemplated and venerated in the ever present.
Jesus Christ as the Lord of Creation, entered the life of His creation and the life of human history as a newborn babe. He submits himself to the physical conditions and laws that govern the human race yet in his humbleness he continues to be the Saviour and the second person of the Trinity. (1)
The very fact that in a single icon different scenes of the Nativity narrative coexist, although their historic, real time differs, such as Christ in the manger and at the same time in the stone water basin, or the Magi following the star, shining above the cave, and simultaneously offering their royal gifts to a Babe in a poor cave highlights the fact that time and space limitations are transcended when the Saviour and Lord of Creation enters the life of His creation and the life of human history, kairos in other words supplants chronos. (2) And this is the real, mystical meaning of the kontakion “Today the Virgin gives birth to Him …” because the faithful may indeed literally participate in the Mystery of Incarnation in the liturgical “Now” and that very moment, in Church, Christ may be born in their hearts. (3)