The Unburnt Thornbush (Neopalimaya Kupina) icon of Mary is of particular interest because it is so very “pagan” in its notion that a painted icon of divine figures has the power to protect from fire.  In old Russia, if a house or building burst into flame, people would stand holding this icon facing the fire in the belief that it would be extinguished.  It was also hung to protect dwellings from fire.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

There is much to say about this type.  Its origins are a mixture of references to Old Testament events, to symbolic references to Mary found in the Akathist hymn and canon, and a good portion of it comes simply from apocryphal writings such as the Book of Enoch, and the Book of Jubilees, particularly those portions relating to the angels surrounding the central figure of Mary holding the child Christ (Christ Emmanuel).

(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)

The immediate reference is to the Burning Bush seen by Moses in the biblical account — a bush that burned but somehow was not consumed.  In Eastern Orthodoxy this was and is seen as a prefiguration of Mary, who dogma teaches was pregnant with God (as Jesus) but was not harmed thereby.

That is why Mary holds the central position in this rose-shaped form that is like a Jungian mandala.  She is in the center with her child; about her are numbers of angels, who are the powers in nature that control such elements as lightning, thunder, and fire.  And beyond the rosette, in the four corners of the icon, are four scenes that show noted Old Testament prefigurations of Mary that are also mentioned in the Akathist, the noted hymn to Mary in Eastern Orthodoxy.

We will begin with those, which traditionally are:

Upper left:
Moses sees the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:2), shown here with Mary visible in a circle within the flames.  Mary was considered to have contained the fire of God, yet was not harmed (this explanation applies also to the separate Ognevidnaya icon depicting Mary with a fiery red face, popular in the 19th century, for which there is no origin story).

Upper right:
Isaiah’s lips are purified by the fire of a coal taken from the altar by a seraph. (Isaiah 6:5-7); Mary was considered purified by being pregnant with the “fire of God.” An alternate image illustrates Isaiah 11:1:

“And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots.” The inscription on that image on the second icon shown on this page reads “A shoot comes forth from the root of Jesse, and the blossom thereof is Christ.” The image depicts Jessie lying down, and on the tree that grows out of him, Christ is depicted.

Russian icon of Virgin Mary
Neopalimaya Kupina

Lower left:
The prophet Ezekiel sees a closed door in the East (Ezekiel 44:1-2), which symbolizes the virginity of Mary in E. Orthodoxy, the closed door to a temple containing the glory of God — the fire of divinity.

Lower right:
The Old Testament forefather Jacob sees, in a dream, a ladder from earth to heaven.  Mary is considered a ladder uniting earth and heaven in E. Orthodoxy, through her bearing of Jesus: “Rejoice, heavenly ladder on which God descended.”

Moving inward, we next come to the points of the eight-pointed “slava” (“Glory”) representing divine light and the Eighth day of Creation, the Day of Eternity.  In the upper left segment is an angel, representing the Evangelist Matthew as a winged man.  At upper right is an eagle, representing the Evangelist Mark.  At lower left is a lion, representing the Evangelist John, and at lower right is an ox, representing the Evangelist Luke.

The most interesting parts of the icon are the angels in the “petals” of the rose, which are usually eight or more in number.  They are the forces behind the elements of nature, the hidden powers that control the weather and relate also to the apocalyptic end of the world.  Inscriptions describing them vary from icon to icon.

Also usually found on this icon type is the inscription “Who makes his angels spirits, his ministers a flame of fire.”  “Who makes his angels spirits” is in some versions “Who makes his angels winds.”

There are a number of apocryphal sources responsible for this notion of angels controlling the weather and the elements, but one of the most obvious is the Book of Jubilees, Chapter 2:

  1. And the angel of the presence spake to Moses according to the word of the Lord, saying: Write the complete history of the creation, how in six days the Lord God finished all His works and all that He created, and kept Sabbath on the seventh day and hallowed it for all ages, and appointed it as a sign for all His works.
  2. For on the first day He created the heavens which are above and the earth and the waters and all the spirits which serve before him -the angels of the presence, and the angels of sanctification, and the angels [of the spirit of fire and the angels] of the spirit of the winds, and the angels of the spirit of the clouds, and of darkness, and of snow and of hail and of hoar frost, and the angels of the voices and of the thunder and of the lightning, and the angels of the spirits of cold and of heat, and of winter and of spring and of autumn and of summer and of all the spirits of his creatures which are in the heavens and on the earth, (He created) the abysses and the darkness, eventide , and the light, dawn and day, which He hath prepared in the knowledge of his heart.
  3. And thereupon we saw His works, and praised Him, and lauded before Him on account of all His works; for seven great works did He create on the first day.

One can see that the components of this icon have a great deal to do with fire and burning and lightning, as well as with frost, ice, rain and clouds.  When one combines these with the “fire” attributes of Mary, it is not difficult to understand how the belief arose that this icon could control the elements and subdue fire.

The central image of the star set upon the angelic rosette is that of Mary holding Christ Emmanuel.  She also holds a ladder, symbolizing her position as ladder between heaven and earth, the unifier of heaven and earth through the incarnation.  Also often seen is a stone on her breast, signifying the “Stone not cut by human hands” of Daniel 2:45:  “Forasmuch as you saw that the stone was cut out of the mountain without hands, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the brass, the clay, the silver and the gold.”  This signifies the virgin birth of Jesus from Mary, born without the participation of a human male.  Additionally one often sees a small image of Christ as “Great High Priest” upon Mary’s breast, showing him wearing a bishop’s crown.

It is common to have an image of God the Father (“Lord Sabaoth” — Gospod’ Savaof)) seen on clouds just above the main rosette.  He is usually shown with hands raised in blessing.

The icon of the Unburnt Thornbush, because of its supposed ability to protect from and to ward off fire, was very popular in Old Russia, where wooden buildings and dwellings were very common and fire a constant threat.  This icon type was particularly popular among the Old Believers.


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