Given that I discuss a Nativity icon every year about this time, you should all now be quite familiar with the iconography. Nonetheless, it seems that from icon to icon of this type there is always something new to discuss. That is why today I am going to bore you incredibly, not only repeating elements I have already talked about in past years, but by adding some new bits of information to drive your patience to its ultimate limits, or if you happen to be of a pedantic turn of mind, you can use them to push your friends and relations to near insanity this holiday season as you grasp them firmly by the sleeve and insist on telling them everything you now will learn about the iconography of Russian Nativity icons.
Let’s use this example from about the end of the 17th century. The title reads “Image of the Birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”
It omits the beginning images such as the Annunciation, and goes directly the the birth of Jesus:
We see Mary and the child Jesus in the middle, an angel at each side, and looking on are Joseph and the serving woman. The usual ox and ass are just below the manger, and a couple of shepherds observe. At the very top, a flying angel holds the Star of Bethlehem.
At top left we see the Magi following the star, and just below that is the Adoration of the Magi:
At right we see the Magi being told by an angel in a dream not to return to Herod (lower) and above that the departure of the Magi:
At middle left, we see an angel appearing to Joseph in a dream, telling him to take Mary and the child Jesus and flee to Egypt:
At center right Joseph and Mary are on the Flight to Egypt with the child Jesus, and with them walks a young man who is identified in some icons as Jacob (James), the son of Joseph by a previous marriage. Of course there is a long story to that “previous marriage” notion, but it is intended to preserve the concept of the virginity of Mary until the birth of Jesus. Just above the head of Joseph is a falling white figure — one of the idols that supposedly fell when the child Jesus entered Egypt:
At lower left we see Herod conversing with the scribes to find out where the new “King of the Jews” is to be born:
At bottom center is the Slaughter of the Innocents:
Above and between the Herod scene and the Slaughter of the Innocents, we see the mothers of the region weeping for their slaughtered sons:
At lower right is the killing of Zechariah/Zachariah, the Priest and father of John the Forerunner (the Baptist):
Now if you have not fallen asleep already, or gone off to the kitchen to find a snack, you perhaps noticed that there are three elements of the icon I have not yet discussed. I will do so now, because they are of particular interest to those who find such things interesting (strange people like myself, in other words).
The first is Joseph and an old man who seems to be talking to him, actually part of the main Nativity scene:
Though in most icons he is not named, we often say that in tradition, this old man is the Devil tempting Joseph to doubt the virgin birth. That tradition had become known by the end of the 19th century. But originally, this old fellow in woolly garments was merely an old shepherd, and he was not always placed near Joseph. Sometimes he was one of three, a young shepherd, a middle-aged shepherd, and this old man — so it is the same age distribution that we find in icons of the Magi. The old shepherd sometimes had a staff, either broken, or whole as we see in this example. Though he is often dressed in woolly animal skins, sometimes he wears cloth.
When the old shepherd was eventually placed near Joseph, that began all kinds of speculation as to why he was in that position, and why he seemed to be talking to Joseph, and if so, what was he saying?
Now if you look carefully, you will see that in this example the old fellow does have a name inscription just above his head: “Anen.” This seems to come from Annas, the scribe in the Protoevangelion of James, who goes to visit Joseph and finds Mary pregnant, and reports it to the priest. Others have speculated that the name may have come from the apocryphal Passion of Christ, which spread from western Europe to Russia in the 17th century. In it the High Priest Annas is killed under Emperor Tiberias by being sewn up in animal skins. To confuse matters even more, in some examples the old man is called Jacob, and in others even Isaiah. Some icon painters thought his name was Khlyust or Gryukh. So what we have here is a confused tradition that developed out of the presence of an unnamed old shepherd in Nativity icons — a tradition that never became stabilized until as mentioned, in the 19th and 20th centuries the notion that the old man is the Devil began to appear in books, and that explanation became so widespread that today it is the most often repeated description in icon literature. A more detailed account of the evolution of the “old shepherd as Devil” notion is found in the article Shepherd, sinner, demon: a quasi-demonological motif in
the iconography of the Nativity of Christ by D.I. Antonov in Demonology as a Semiotic System (Демонология как сеиотическая система) Moscow, 2020.
The second image is Elizabeth and the infant John the Forerunner (Baptist). It is a scene taken from the Protoevangelion of James:
And Elizabeth, having heard that they were searching for John, took him and went up into the hill-country, and kept looking where to conceal him. And there was no place of concealment. And Elizabeth, groaning with a loud voice, says: O mountain of God, receive mother and child. And immediately the mountain was split, and received her.
So here we see Elizabeth with the child John pursued by a soldier and entering the cave that has “miraculously” appeared.
And finally, there is the mysterious woman with a child lying beside her, found just above the scene of Zechariah/Zachariah:
This mother and child come from the apocryphal tradition that during the Slaughter of the Innocents, the mother of Nathanael hid her infant son under a fig tree. There she kept him until the slaughter was over, saving his life. That is supposedly why, in the Gospel called “of John,” we find this in the first chapter, which describes the calling of the disciples of Jesus:
45 Philip finds Nathanael, and says to him, We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.
46 And Nathanael said to him, Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? Philip says unto him, Come and see.
47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and says of him, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!
48 Nathanael says to him, How do you know me? Jesus answered and said to him, Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.
The tale even made its way into the Coptic Synaxarium:
“It was said that when he [Nathaniel] was a young man, he quarreled with a man, killed him, and buried him under the fig tree, and no one knew about it. It was also said that at the time of the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem by Herod, his mother hid him under a fig tree that was at her house. She nursed him during the night and hid him during the day, and continued to do so until the persecution of Herod died down. His mother did not tell him about this until he was fully grown and he never told anyone about this. When Jesus revealed that to him, he realized that He was the omniscient God, bowed before him, and was obedient to Him. He believed, followed Him, and became one of His twelve disciples.“
So now (are you still awake?) if you have read this article and my previous postings on Nativity icons, you know how to identify everything in detailed icons of the birth of Jesus. If you need a refresher course on other aspects of such icons, you will find previous postings on Nativity icons in the site archives here, which you may read by using the search box at the right of every page.
If you want to put everything you have just learned to quick use, you can practice identifying every scene in this very similar Nevyansk icon from the first half of the 19th century. You will note that it adds the washing of the newborn infant Jesus to the upper central scene of the birth of Jesus.