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The Nativity Icon Explained

In this special episode, the first of a new series (Orthodox Icons Explained), Fr. John offers us an amazing insight into the Orthodox icon of the Nativity of Christ. Which are the earliest representations? What about the manger, the wise men or the shepherds? How rich in meaning is the Nativity icon!
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

Fr. Ioan:

The events which form the history of salvation are illustrated visually in the icons of the respective Feasts. This is true as well for the Feast of the Nativity, that is, the event that Christianity celebrates on December 25th. The earliest representations of the event we celebrate at Christmas appear in Paleo-Christian art, around the first half, the second half of the 4th century. We have in front of us two images, very old, images from Paleo-Christian sarcophagi, old Christian sarcophagi. The upper one is dated sometime between the years 320-325, the other one, around 320, from the Roman region.

We notice in the two images the fact that the event we celebrate on December 25th is presented as simply as possible. Behold, in the upper one, it is easy to notice, the divine Child is wrapped in swaddling clothes, as the angels told the shepherds: “Go and find a wrapped baby lying in a manger.” [Luke 2:12] The manger has the shape of a Christian altar, from here we notice that the artist of that era had knowledge about the sacramental dimension of the body of Christ. He tells us, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven.” [John 6:51] – the bread we place on the altar. In the immediate vicinity there is a shepherd, we notice him by the fact that he has a specific outfit and leans on his staff.

Always in the images from this period, behind the divine Child lying in the manger, always wrapped, there are the two animals which we also find in our carols, the ox and the donkey. They are not mentioned in the Gospel, but they appear from the beginning in Christian iconography and in the hymns of the Feast of the Nativity of the Lord. They actually reiterate an image of the Prophet Isaiah, found at the beginning of his book, in which God, through the voice of Isaiah, says that “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.” [Isaiah 1:3]

St. Gregory of Nyssa lived during this period when these images appeared on Christian sarcophagi. St. Gregory of Nyssa applies the image of the two animals, the ox and the donkey, which are in the immediate vicinity of the newborn Child, he applies this image to the two states of mankind before the Incarnation of Christ. It is about the people of Israel who were bound by the law, the law of Moses, as the ox is tied to the manger, and it is also about the pagan world, the polytheistic nations, who were free in relation to the law of Moses but also, they wore the yoke of idolatry. This interpretation given to us by St. Gregory of Nyssa is very beautiful and profound and at the same time bright.

I put here an image from around 1130, an image from a Romanesque church in Germany, close to Switzerland. I saw it with my own eyes, it is found on a coffered ceiling, a Romanesque church ceiling. So, we are in the 12th century. Here we see the divine Infant lying wrapped in swaddling-clothes, the manger has the shape of a Christian altar, a sarcophagus, at the same time, and in the back, we see the two creatures, the ox and the donkey, which represent the Israelites and the heathen. And in the upper corner we see the representation of the sky, those concentric circles that go from brick red to blue. Of course, along the way, Christian artists reflected on the mystery of the Incarnation of Christ and developed a more complex image. This has happened over many centuries, like it is the case with the Christian thought and theology regarding the incarnation of the eternal Son of God, the pre-existing Logos.

The image we have here and which belongs to our Diocesan Museum comes from a neighboring village, the village of Osoi… It is an icon from the second half of the 17th century, it is a traditional image, a traditional icon here in Transylvania, but it helps us to understand, to discern, to contemplate the mystery of the Incarnation of Christ as illustrated in Christian art. When we look at a complete icon, that is, made by a learned iconographer, who knows well the Church’s teaching, who takes part in the sacramental life of the Church, such an icon is the one who puts before us the mystery of the Incarnation of Christ.

It seems to us that it illustrates the first stanza of the famous Kontakion of Holy Nativity that we hear on Christmas day. This kontakion, a both poetic and musical formula, was composed by Roman the Melodist, who lived in the first half of the 6th century. And it is said in the first stanza: “Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One.” This is the first stanza or the first statement of the first stanza. Therefore, in the center of the icon we will see the Most Pure Lady, in the cave, standing in front of the newborn Child, always wrapped, sitting in the manger. Behind the manger, we have, as I said, the ox and the donkey.

Now the second verse of the first stanza of the kontakion. The first was: “Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One.” Then it comes, “and the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One.” You can see the cave, here it is. Here we have a very beautiful image, one of the most beautiful images from Romanian geography, “The Nativity of Christ” from Sucevita Monastery. You see, the cave is painted in dark colors to represent the darkness and the shadow of death [Luke 1:79] in which the Son of God became incarnate in order to save the world from the punishment of sin, eternal death and hell.

Here we have a symbolism presented by our Church Fathers, and also the liturgical texts for the Nativity. That is, the newborn Infant, the eternal Son of the Heavenly Father, Who became man at “the fullness of time” [Galatians 4:4] for us and for our salvation, is the One who will sacrifice Himself for the world, and His body will be placed in the cave of the Tomb in the Garden of Gethsemane. We have the two states, the two sequences of earthly life that the eternal Son of the Heavenly Father assumes. This is a very good application, both in iconography, in the Christian images of Christmas, but also in the hymns of the Feast.

Then we have the next statement, “The wise men journey with a star.” We have here a picture of an icon a little later than the one that our museum has, it is in the patrimony of the National Art Museum here in Cluj. It is a beautiful image, a traditional icon, and we see the three wise men riding, heading for the target for which they left their region, their lands, that is, they left a world waiting for the Savior.

We also have the statement about the presence of shepherds. As I said, we find the shepherds from the very beginning, in the earliest images, we find one or more shepherds, they are always present. And they, according to the same hymn (composed by Roman the Melodist, as I said, in the second half of the 6th century), the shepherds, glorify and praise God, praise the mystery, the miracle that happened in front of them, in their presence, and they glorify Him together with the angels.

Sometimes in the icons painted by serious, good artists, who have both talent and profound understanding of the Church teachings, one of the angels is bigger, he is the angel of the Lord, which we find in ancient texts, even in prophecies, and this angel is facing the shepherds, sometimes he even talks, communicates with one of the shepherds. Here we have the Church’s teaching according to which, at the Nativity of the Lord, heaven communicates with the earth, angels communicate with men, fraternize, in order to praise the One who was born for us and for our salvation.

Therefore, here we have the three scenes or sequences of the icon of the Nativity (of course, these are icons painted, as I said, by good artists, who know the dogmatic teaching of the Church well). The first – at the top of the icon is the Virgin and the Child, the second – the wise men with the star, the third – the shepherds with the angels. These are the three juxtaposed scenes that make up the top of the icon. At the bottom we have two other scenes. One of them, in general, in this place, represents Joseph standing alone, thoughtful. The texts, the hymns from the Feast of the Nativity don’t mention him. The cave, the star, the shepherds, the hymns of the shepherds, the angels, the Virgin, of course, the Child, of course, they are all mentioned, but Joseph is not mentioned.

We must keep in mind that for this image, the icon of Christmas, the icon of the Nativity of the Lord, its artistic scheme was built at a time when the divinity of Christ was being challenged by heretics. And then, the Christian artists, when they made this icon, when they placed the Righteous Joseph there, not looking at the Child, they also wanted to affirm through the image the fact that Joseph is not the natural father of the Child. This is very important and is part of the important elements of theology, of our dogmatic teaching regarding the Incarnation of the eternal Son of the Heavenly Father.

In this section we have another scene, added later, the washing of the Child, in order to assert His humanity as well. We know that in certain periods of Christian history there were heretics who challenged the humanity of Christ, that is, they said that He had a phantom body, an apparent body. And that is why the Christian artist painted the scene of the washing of the Child to show His full humanity, in the sense that by Incarnation He became a man like us. And like any child, after birth, it needs to be washed, to be purified, to be given preliminary hygiene. We have here an image, a scene from our old frescoes in which it is very clear that the vessel in which the Baby is washed has the shape of a baptismal font. One of the women who helps the mother holds the divine Child in her arms and He Himself blesses the water and the woman with her left hand tests the water, as women always do, she tries to see whether it is suitable enough for the special delicacy of the newborn. And a younger woman, usually dressed in brick red, is seen pouring water into the vessel, which, I said, has the shape of a baptismal font.

These are some of the elements that form, that make up, one of the richest icons for the Feasts, both artistically, with a wide, complex scheme, which has crystallized over many centuries, starting with the simplest forms of expression. As I said, in the first half of the 4th century, we find it on Christian sarcophagi or in the Christian catacombs of this period, and then, going through the centuries, it continues until the 7th-8th century, where the genesis of the artistic scheme of the icon is interrupted, with the iconoclasm, for about a hundred years. After that, it is resumed in order to be crystallized, ennobled, beautified, deepened, in the Orthodox countries from this region to which we also belong.

That is why we are happy to have in front of us an icon that is part of the patrimony of memory, faith and light of our forefathers and ancestors. A village icon, a traditional icon, in which we see painted, visually expressed, the mystery that Christian communities were contemplating during the feasts of Nativity. Here we are… Should I stop here or continue?

Table of contents:
0:00 ?”Christ is born”, by the Greek Byzantine Choir MAKRIS
1:09 The earliest representations
3:20 The ox and the donkey
5:13 ?Romanian Christmas carol sung by the nuns of Durau Monastery, Romania
6:00 The manger – the Christian altar
8:11 The Kontakion of Holy Nativity
9:25 The cave
9:59 The tomb
11:00 ?Vespers (Archdeacon Claudiu Grama), The Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral from Cluj-Napoca
11:20 The wise men
12:10 The shepherds
13:48 The three scenes of the icon of the Nativity
14:42 Joseph
16:10 ?Romanian Christmas carol sung by the monks of the Monastery of St. Demetrios, Sighisoara, Romania
16:52 The washing of the Child
20:41 Credits
20:46?”Christ is born”, by Fr. Maximos of Vatopedi


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