HAVE YOURSELF A GLOOMY LITTLE CHRISTMAS: THE TRADITIONAL NATIVITY ICON

Nativity (Novgorod late 15c Pavel Korin Museum)THE NATIVITY ICON

For those familiar with the Western European Christmas, the traditional Eastern Orthodox icon of the Nativity of Jesus is likely to seem disappointing and somewhat gloomy in appearance.

Here is an old Russian example.  The inscription in Cyrillic at the top reads transliterated:

     zh                                         s       s
ROSTvo GA          NASHEGO IS   KH A    

If you have been reading past postings on this site, you will know that the long horizontal squiggles above the letters in the original inscription indicate abbreviations, and you will also know that smaller letters written below those squiggles and above the larger letters of the inscription are letters to be inserted in the abbreviations.  So, keeping that in mind, you will be able to read the inscription in full as:

ROZHESTVO GOSPODA NASHEGO ISUSA KHRISTA

And that means literally, “THE BIRTH (Rozhestvo) OF THE LORD (Gospoda) OF US (Nashego) JESUS CHRIST (Isusa Khrista).  But of course in normal English we would translate it as “The Birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”  That is the title of this icon type, one of the major church festivals of the Eastern Orthodox year.

In this icon we find again those early and odd stylized “stepped” hills  made of forms that often look like a naked female torso topped by breasts.

The main figure is that of Mary, who has given birth and is reclining on a cloth with her back turned to the newborn Christ Child.  She looks rather unhappy about the whole affair, and that is typical of this icon type, whether Russian or Greek, though the “accepted” interpretation is that she is absorbed in pondering matters.

The baby Jesus lies in a stylized cave, wrapped up in swaddling clothes and lying in a long manger box.  Beside him are an ass and an ox, derived from Isaiah 1:3:

The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.”

In the upper part of the icon are four angels, three on the left, and one on the right, announcing the birth to the single shepherd who stands looking upward to the right of Mary.  On the left, we see the three Magi (“Wise Men”), who actually would have been astrologers.  The Slavic text of Matthew calls them Volsvi, which relates to the modern Russian word volshebstvo, meaning “magic.”

At lower left, we see the husband, Joseph, sitting in deep thought with his chin resting on his left hand.  He too looks worried, and with reason.  According to old folk tradition, the shepherd standing beside Joseph and talking to him is actually the Devil in disguise.  He is trying to talk Joseph into doubting the virgin birth.  And from the looks of this icon, Joseph seems in a mood to buy what the Devil is selling.

Icons tend to ignore chronology, mixing a number of related scenes together, and that is what we have already seen in this example, with the angelic annunciation to the shepherds      combined with the arrival of the Magi.  We see another such “out of time” incident on the lower right, where the serving woman Salome is washing the Christ Child after his birth.  Her assisant is pouring the washing water into a basin.  And who is that shepherd in the hairy garment talking to Salome?

Well, in many examples of this icon type (though not this one), it is that hairy-garmented old fellow who is shown talking to Joseph — the tempting Devil, in folk tradition.  But here he is shown talking to Salome.  We know from the apocryphal story that Salome doubted the perpetual virginity of Mary (a dogma of Eastern Orthodoxy), and even tried to physically check Mary out with her hand to determine the truth.  Salome was punished for her “scientific” research by the withering of her hand, but then, as these stories usually go, she repented and her hand was healed, as we read in the source of this tale, the Protoevangelion of James:

And the midwife went in and said unto Mary: Order thyself, for there is no small contention arisen concerning thee. And Salome made trial and cried out and said: Woe unto mine iniquity and mine unbelief, because I have tempted the living God, and lo, my hand falleth away from me in fire. And she bowed her knees unto the Lord, saying: O God of my fathers, remember that I am the seed of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob: make me not a public example unto the children of Israel, but restore me unto the poor, for thou knowest, Lord, that in thy name did I perform my cures, and did receive my hire of thee. 3 And lo, an angel of the Lord appeared, saying unto her: Salome, Salome, the Lord hath hearkened to thee: bring thine hand near unto the young child and take him up, and there shall be unto thee salvation and joy.

The unspoken moral to that story was obviously, “Don’t question what we tell you, and do not examine the evidence.”  A lot of politicians today would favor that approach.

I need only add that the “divine light” coming down from heaven in the top center of the picture represents the Star of Bethlehem that guided the Magi.

Not the cheeriest of “Christmas” images, this type was nonetheless the prevalent depiction of the birth of Christ in Greek and in Russian iconography.  Fortunately, however, later Russian icon painting began to be influenced by the Western versions of the Nativity, and so there are many “late” (18th and 19th century) Russian icons showing a far more pleasant scene of Joseph and Mary with the infant Jesus, much like scenes one finds in Italian painting.  It seems that even the Russians eventually found the traditional depiction too depressing to allow it to be the only type representing the Nativity.

As a sidelight, it is worth mentioning that the stories of the birth of Jesus found in Matthew and Luke (the other two gospels have no birth stories) differ significantly from one another, and are virtually incompatible on close examination.  Even the genealogies given in those two writings have irreconcilable differences.  Depictions of the Nativity, whether in Eastern Orthodoxy or Western Christianity, generally combine various elements of each story to make a “unified” account that is not what one actually finds in the original texts.  That artificially unified account is the common matter of traditional school and church “Christmas plays.”  And of course both Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Christianity mixed in apocryphal details as well, though that tendency faded out in groups allied with the rise of Protestantism.

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