In the 12th episode of the “Orthodox Icons Explained” series, Fr. John explains the icon of the Nativity of Our Most Holy Lady Theotokos and Ever Virgin Mary. The Feast of the Nativity of the Mother of God is celebrated on September 8 each year.
Fr. Ioan Bizau is a senior lecturer of Iconography and Christian Art at the Faculty of Orthodox Theology in Cluj-Napoca, Romania.
Location: Diocesan Museum of the Orthodox Metropolis of Cluj (Muzeul Mitropoliei Clujului) Camera: Darius Echim
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Table of contents:
00:00 ♫ Hymn for the Nativity of the Theotokos, Radu Voda Monastery, Romania ♫
01:03 The Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos in history
02:24 The Troparion – the liturgical definition
03:44 ♫ Troparion for the Nativity of the Theotokos, St. Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral choir led by Fr. Gregory Ealy, Minneapolis ♫
04:15 The three Paremias readings
06:20 St. John of Damascus and the “sterility of the world”
08:46 Jesse and Aaron and their descendents, Joachim and Anna
10:15 ♫ Hymn to the Theotokos, “More honorable than the Cherubim”, Church of St. Tikhon, Yaroslavl, Russia ♫
10:56 The role of the icons
12:13 The three icons of the Nativity of the Theotokos
12:40 The icon of the Mother of God painted by David from Curtea de Arges
15:39 The scene takes place inside
17:33 Women carrying dishes with food
18:34 ♫ Stichera for the Vespers of the Nativity of the Theotokos, Choir of St. John of Damascus led by Hierodeacon Mikhei (Sorret), France ♫
19:31 Joachim does not appear in some icons
20:29 The newborn is wrapped swaddling clothes
22:52 The first rules of hygiene
25:53 The image of the Christian family
26:21 On Feminism
27:15 The art in Transylvania
28:29 ♫ Troparion for the Nativity of the Theotokos, Archon Protopsaltis Grigorios Papaemmanuel, Greece ♫
Fr. Ioan Bizau:
Originally, the Feast that Eastern Christianity celebrates on September 8th, was the annual commemoration of the consecration of a church built in Jerusalem between 430-480, according to the documents, a church built on the site where, according to the tradition, there was the house of the righteous Joachim and Anna. We have from the beginning of the 6th century some hymns for the Feast of the Nativity of the Mother of God composed by Roman the Melodist, one of the most brilliant poets of the Christian East, liturgical poet, of course. And at the beginning of the 7th century, Andrew of Crete, another prestigious composer of hymns, songs, liturgical elements, composed an entire canon used to this day for the Matins of the Feast. Also, something which is worth remembering, he left us four homilies or sermons, as we would say today, dedicated to the event we celebrate on September 8th. Of course, the troparion helps us a lot to understand the meaning, the theological depth of the Feast of September 8th. The troparion is, to make it easy for us to understand, the doxological or hymnographic or poetic definition of the respective Feast, of the respective event. If we celebrate a single person then it is the doxological, poetic and liturgical definition of the character of that person.
Thus, the Troparion of the Feast of September 8, Saint Mary the Little, as it is called among the people, says: “Your Nativity, O Virgin, has proclaimed joy to the whole universe! The Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God, has shone from You, O Theotokos! By annulling the curse…” – of course, it is the curse that entered the world, the destiny of the world, together with the fall of Adam, I resume – “By annulling the curse He bestowed a blessing. By destroying death, He has granted us eternal Life.” I was saying that the troparion of the Feast is the doxological definition, the poetic, liturgical definition of the respective event or of the person we celebrate on that day. The troparion was saying that the birth of the Theotokos, the birth of the Blessed Virgin, brought joy to the whole world and this in the sense that through her birth the old curse was annulled.
Now, from the composition of the services of the Feast of September 8, I would like to stop for a second on one of the three paremias. Paremias are fragments, passages, from the books of the Old Testament, from the prophets, from the books of Wisdom with application to that Feast, or rather to the event or person we celebrate on one day or another, in this case, of course, the Nativity of the Theotokos. The third paremia is taken from the book of Proverbs, chapter 9, first verse. And that verse says, “Wisdom has built her house” – that is she prepared her house. Our Fathers in faith and I think for example of the Proclus of Constantinople, disciple of St. John Chrysostom, beginning of the 5th century, who said that Wisdom, that divine reason, built, prepared her house, the house being the most pure body of the Virgin Mary from which the eternal Son of the heavenly Father was to be born, to become man, to become incarnate. The creative Logos, the One through whom all things were made and Who in the fullness of time comes into the world to restore it, as the Troparion said, to annul the old curse, to replace eternal death with life, to replace corruption with resurrection, “to stop”, as St. John of Damascus said, “the sterility of the world “. To stop it so that humankind, that is the Cosmos, the Universe, can give birth to good things, as it was in the initial project of the Creator. That is why we say at this beautiful, delicate Feast, a Feast of the family, a Feast of many hopes, of very many hopes, we say that the Mother of God, the Virgin Mary is the fruit of divine promises, on the one hand, and on the other hand, she is the fruit of the expectations and of the prayers of her biological parents: Joachim and Anna. They were both part of what the prophets called “the faithful remnant of Israel.” That is, that gathering, that community of righteous people who obeyed God’s law, who waited for the fulfillment of the messianic prophecies, people who, we would say today, lived by the natural order of the world, and who formed the faithful remnant. From generation to generation, no matter how low the chosen people would have fallen, these successive falls corresponded to successive elections, that is, elevations, as St. John of Damascus said: at the nativity of the Mother of God the sterility of the world ceased. And this sterility which produces nothing or produces evil, is restored from generation to generation, by the messianic hopes, by the observance of the divine Law, by following the good order.
Finally, according to the ancient tradition, Joachim descended from the root of Jesse. Jesse, we all know, was the father of David, the king, the psalmist. In this tribe David was born, Solomon was born. Anna, the mother of the Theotokos, was a member of Aaron’s priestly family. So here we have a happy meeting between two very important branches of Old Israel, the so-called branch of Jesse, from which the great kings of Israel will be born, and the priestly branch. And these branches, gathered in them a whole genetic, cultural, and spiritual heritage of faith, of right order, a whole genetic and spiritual heritage that had the purpose of stopping the sterility of the world, a sterility that brings death, which meant, between others, the continued alienation from God as the sole source of life.
As for the icon, surely the icon helps us, as well as the services, we have already taken from the services of September 8th the important piece, which is as I said the musical definition of the event, namely the troparion. As for the icons of the Feast, they help us better understand what happened there and especially why it happened that way. That is why, following successive choices that the divine providence, the divine pedagogy has activated throughout the generations of the Old Testament, at a certain moment, the culmination is reached when the Blessed Virgin is born. That is, what the paremia of the Feast, from the Great Vespers, says: “Wisdom” – the Divine Wisdom, Divine Reason – “has built her house”, that is, she found the right time when a human being had, so to speak, the inner, spiritual competence to become the living temple of the Most High.
We have in front of us 3 old reproductions. They belong to the Russian school. Unfortunately, our museum does not have a suitable icon for the Nativity of the Theotokos, this is why we brought these three reproductions, the two are from the 14th century, and the one on the top is from the 15th century. But we are in front of one of the most beautiful icons of the Mother of God. Our Diocesan Museum has many old, beautiful, good quality icons of the Most Pure Lady, in this case it is painted by an important representative of the great pleiad of artists who came from beyond the Carpathians, from the south of the Carpathians, came in Transylvania in the post-Brancoveanu period. And they animated, they enlivened the local art that was, so to speak, of peasant origin. This impressive group of painters came from beyond the mountains, from the Oltenia area, the area of Wallachia, and met here with the realities of Transylvania which they ennobled with their presence and participation. In this case it is David from Curtea de Argeș. The icon is from 1748, it is dated, has an inscription, is in good condition and belonged to a modest parish. Today, very few still know where the Moldovenești parish is, somewhere in the Turda Gorge area, so to speak, to make it easier to locate, I put it in relation with a well-known natural monument.
So, let’s take the images, the three reproductions that we have in front of us and which visualize the event that Eastern Christianity celebrates on September 8th, Saint Mary the Little, as it is called among the people. First of all I would like to note that the artistic scheme of the icon appears early, we find it already in the 7th century. Over time it will be amplified, it will be improved, because an icon is the creation of generations of iconographers. The icon of the Church, regardless of whether we are talking about the icon of the Nativity of the Theotokos, the icon of the Resurrection, the icon of the Nativity of the Lord, are acts, are artistic events created or generated by a whole succession of iconographers, artists, the same happens in this case. I said, the ones at the bottom are from the 14th century Russian school, the top one is from the 15th century.
What do we see? Here, we look at this one as it is more visible, so to speak. First of all we notice that the scene takes place inside, we see architectural compositions, we see this red veil on top, this means that the scene takes place inside. The icon never presents us with a room with four walls, as we see in the western painting starting with the Renaissance. The space where an event that we celebrate takes place, in this case the Nativity of the Mother of God, is always open. So it happens inside. Of course, the presence of Anna, the mother of the Blessed Virgin, draws our attention. It is an imposing presence. She sits on her bed, the bed of a postpartum woman. At that time, of course, the births took place at home, in the family. She sits on her bed, we see her in the three hypostases, in the three images. Around her there are several female presences, in general they are young, let’s say maids, let’s say neighbors, let’s say relatives. In my childhood I encountered this situation. Women were still giving birth at home, neighbors were coming, relatives were coming, nieces were coming, cousins were coming, they were bringing food, encouraging her, helping her, because she could not participate in the hard work of a family from that time, from my childhood. We see some of them carrying platters or dishes, dishes with food. More delicate things should be brought to the new mothers, things that will gladden them, will make them happy. And we see this very well. Up here we see that they communicate with each other, they make some gestures. The one in the middle holds a fan, for, as we would say today, air conditioning, to make her happy, to make a good climate for the delicate state in which the new mother is, in this case – what a new mother… what a personality… what a personality… the result of successive choices that have taken place over generations during the Old Testament’s history.
Sometimes the righteous Joachim also appears. We don’t see him here. We see him in the two images, he is sitting in a separate room. At that time and until late in the traditional Romanian village, men did not participate in these events, as it happens today. It’s not the time for me to say if it’s good or not, but the women have their own intimacy, the ladies have their own intimacy and the other women around come to help her, to stand by her side. Here he is, he sits discreetly, he looks from there, for sure, being a house of wealthy people, they might have had an upper room, as it happens in those parts. Here we see him, in this part. He is not, so to speak, a main actor in the icon.
We move to the bottom part. The child always appears wrapped up, the newborn, in this case the Virgin Mary. We see her in the arms of a midwife, here and here and here. This midwife is usually older than the other female presences. It means she has experience. In ancient times and until late, these old women helped young women who were giving birth at 16, at 15, at 17 years old. Like it happened when the Blessed Virgin gave birth. Of course, her parents were old, Anna and Joachim were old people, and I said at the beginning of the meeting that she, the child, was born as the fruit of prayer and promise. Returning to the icon, the midwife holds the child in her arms, the child is usually wrapped in swaddling clothes, as happened until recently in the traditional Romanian village and in all parts of the world, since the beginning of the world, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and they are in front, sometimes another person helps her, here are the two of them, just everything to be in good order, to be in good order, and they have a water container in the middle. The container resembles a baptismal font. It is about the fact that the midwife holds the newborn baby in her arms and is ready to bathe her. This image of the bathing of the newborn child is found in the icon of the Nativity of the Mother of God, in the icon of the Nativity of John the Baptist and of course in the icon of the Nativity of the Lord, that is, the icon of Christmas. And this iconographic element or rather this moment of bathing the infant is taken over in Christian iconography from ancient art, Roman art, pre-Christian art. That is, among other things, civilization also means the difference between the birth of a human and of a quadruped, it also consists in the fact that the first rules of hygiene are applied to the newborn, she is washed, she is bathed. It comes into the world and enters a special universe in which, among other things, she must respect hygiene measures. And this icon has done a lot of education and the service has done a lot of education as well, over the generations. Today, of course, it is easy for us, with a huge hygiene industry, it is very easy for us. And for mothers, for today’s new mothers, everything is written in books, everything is systematized. In ancient times, in archaic societies, icons and services were used to educate people. This moment is impressive. Here is the child in the arms of the midwife, in front of the vessel prepared to make her first bath, because this is how it is done to the child after it is born. And from there begins the adventure of her humanity on this earth. And this first bath is paired with the last bath, the one after he or she departs from this world, and before being taken to the grave, the person’s body is washed.
Well, what more could be said… I think that I managed somewhat to formulate and express the important things. We should remember the following: this image, this icon of the Nativity of the Theotokos is the image of a family. A family consists of a father and a mother with their children. In this case, of course, they were two elderly people who had reached the period of sterility. Hence the fact that St. John of Damascus says that through the Birth of the Theotokos the sterility of the world ceased. He says: “the sterility of the world incapable of producing values has ceased”. This is what the sterility of the world meant in the vision of St. John of Damascus: the inability to produce values, things or deeds or spiritual states that come to fulfill the world in its beautiful destiny.
Of course, this image expresses warmth, human warmth and protection. The family is the nest in which man feels protected since birth and also expresses a good order. The new mother is sitting on the bed, she has a noble outfit, around her are the neighbors, the acquaintances, the relatives, who all come to be with her, to be in solidarity with her. It is a feminine universe before this ideology of feminism was born. Before our generation invented this ideology and sometimes activated it in an impudent, at least impudent way, here we see a feminine universe, that is, the normal, natural universe, from which the world is born, and through which this world, how long it will last knows only the Good and Merciful God, fulfills its purpose.
How many beautiful things there are… but I would like to end with the image of the Most Pure Lady painted by one of the great artists who came from beyond the mountains in the 18th century, especially in the second half of the 18th century. A whole pleiad of iconographers, church painters, icon painters, who came from beyond the Carpathians, from the south of the Carpathians, settled in Transylvania, and wandered from one village to another, painting churches, up to the north part, in the lands of Beiuș, Bihor, in the Apuseni Mountains. They “reinvented”, as we say today, the local art schools by their abilities, by their endowments, especially by the fact that they came with an accumulation of theology and spiritual culture that the Transylvanian Romanians did not have access to. We should end with him, David, from Curtea de Argeș, who painted this icon, I don’t know how it ended up in the Moldovenești parish, one of the most modest parishes today, in the Turda Gorges area, around 1748, let this icon remain in our visual memory…