The Eastern Orthodox (and consequently Russian) iconography related to the Birth of Jesus is a mixture of the discrepant birth stories found in the Matthew and Luke Gospels with apocryphal sources, primarily the Protoevangelion of James.
These stories, as we have seen, tell us of the parentage and birth of Mary, of the parentage and birth of John the Forerunner (the Baptist), and of the birth of Jesus and subsequent events.
Here is a Russian icon showing this mixture:
The title of the image is Rozhestvo Gospoda Nashego Isusa Khrista — “the Birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”
All of the relevant scenes are set in a framework of stylized “hills and palaces,” as the typical background elements of Russian icons are called.
The main central image is the Birth of Christ, showing a modification of the old iconography in that Mary is seated upright and facing the Christ Child, instead of lying down and facing away as in earlier usage. Three attendant angels stand at right, their hands covered with cloths to signify reverence:
Just below Mary a midwife washes the newborn Christ. Below the angels an old shepherd — identified as such by the title above his head — пастырь/pastuir’ — speaks with Joseph. In popular Russian belief, he is traditionally considered to be the Devil in disguise, tempting Joseph to doubt the virgin birth, but in this example he is simply a shepherd.
Turning then to top left, we see the three Magi arriving on their horses, with the Star of Bethlehem shining in the sky just before and above them:
Going down from that, we see Mary seated in a house, the Christ Child on her lap, receiving the Magi.
Below that an angel appears to the sleeping Joseph, warning him to take Mary and the newborn Christ child to Egypt.
The bottom scene depicts Herod the King asking the priests and scribes where the Christ is to be born.
To the right of that is the Slaughter of the Innocents:
Going up to top right, se see the three Magi departing on their horses, as a result of the scene just below, which is an angel warning them in their sleep not to return to Herod.
The middle right scene is the Flight to Egypt of Joseph and Mary, to save the Christ Child from the soldiers of Herod:
Below that, and slightly to the left, we see an apocryphal scene with the child John the Forerunner (Baptist) and his mother Elisaveta (Elizabeth) escaping from the soldiers of Herod, as recorded in 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 cleft, and received her. And a light shone about them, for an angel of the Lord was with them, watching over them.”
The final scene at lower right is also from the Protoevangelion of James. It is the killing of Zakharias/Zacharias, called a prophet in Eastern Orthodoxy, the father of John the Forerunner (Baptist):
“And Herod searched for John, and sent officers to Zakharias, saying: Where have you hidden your son? And he, answering, said to them: I am the servant of God in holy things, and I sit constantly in the temple of the Lord: I do not know where my son is. And the officers went away, and reported all these things to Herod. And Herod was enraged, and said: His son is destined to be king over Israel. And he sent to him again, saying: Tell the truth; where is your son? for you know that your life is in my hand. And Zakharias said: I am God’s martyr, if you shed my blood; for the Lord will receive my spirit, because you shed innocent blood at the vestibule of the temple of the Lord. And Zakharias was murdered about daybreak. And the sons of Israel did not know that he had been murdered.”
As the detail shows, we see a soldier killing Zakharias, and in the background is the altar with the Ten Commandments lying upon it, and above it a red angel of the Cherubim rank.
Just to the left of the soldier we see the child John in the arms of his mother Elizabeth, as they enter the cleft in the mountain.
As we saw in a previous posting, the story of the parentage of Mary and of her birth, as found in icons, comes largely from the non-biblical Protoevangelion of James. We found it presents Joachim and Anna as childless, but both prayed and their prayers were granted. Anna gave birth to Mary. You will recall also that Anna had promised that if her prayers for a child were answered, she would give the child to God:
“As the Lord my God lives, if I give birth to either male or female, I will bring it as a gift to the Lord my God; and it shall minister to Him in holy things all the days of its life.”
We have already discussed, in a previous posting, the icon type “The Birth of the Most Holy Mother of God,” a formulaic “birth” image (see posting on “The Four Births” icon). So the next significant icon type in this apocryphal cycle is that which shows Anna keeping her promise.
According to the Protoevangelion, at the age of three Mary was brought by her parents to live in the Temple in Jerusalem:
“…and Joachim said: Invite the daughters of the Hebrews that are undefiled, and let them each take a lamp, and let them stand with the lamps burning, that the child may not turn back, and her heart may be captivated from the temple of the Lord. And they did so until they went up into the temple of the Lord. And the priest received her, and kissed her, and blessed her, saying: The Lord has magnified your name in all generations. In you, on the last of the days, the Lord will manifest His redemption to the sons of Israel. And he set her down upon the third step of the altar, and the Lord God sent grace upon her; and she danced with her feet, and all the house of Israel loved her.”
So that is the first of today’s icon types: The “Entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple.” In Slavic it is titled Vvedenie vo Khram Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui — “The Entrance of the Most Holy Mother of God into the Temple” — and in Greek often simply Τα Εισόδια της Θεοτόκου/Ta Eisodia tes Theotokou — “The Entrance of the Birthgiver of God.”
Here is a 14th century fresco example from the Khilandari Monastery on Mount Athos in Greece:
In some Russian examples, as in this one, the word Tserkov (“Church”) is found instead of Khram (“Temple”)
We see Joachim and Anna at left, and a group of girls accompanying the child Mary into the Temple. The painter has even thrown in a couple of angels. Often these handmaidens carry long candles, but here the painter has omitted them.
At right is the priest Zakharias, receiving Mary.
If we look closely at the upper right corner, we see the painter has added a very small image of the angel Gabriel flying down to announce to the young woman Mary that she is to bear a child.
That leads us on to the next major icon type, which in this case combines elements from the Protoevangelion and from the New Testament. It is the “Annunciation to the Most Holy Mother of God” (Blagoveshchenie Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui).
According to the Protoevangelion, when Mary had grown older, the high priest Zakharias asked that all of the widowers be brought to the Temple, each bringing a rod. Among those who came was the old man Joseph. The priest took all the rods and prayed over them, and when he gave them back, a dove flew out of Joseph’s rod and settled on his head. That was the sign that Joseph was to take Mary into his house, which he did. So now the Joseph of the story of the birth of Jesus has entered the picture.
After she moved into Joseph’s keeping, Mary was chosen by lot to spin the royal purple and scarlet yarn from which, combined with other (lesser) colors spun by other pure young women, the veil of the Temple was to be woven. And that sets the scene for the Annunciation:
Here is an example of the Annunciation that combines both the stylized manner preserved by the Old Believers as well as considerable Western influence, which we see in the more realistic, expansive, and rather baroque interior, as well as in the painting of the clouds.
At the top we see Gospod Savaof, “Lord Sabaoth,” who is God the Father, sending the angel Gabriel as messenger to Mary.
Just below that is a small image of Mary standing at a well, with Gabriel in the air above her. This, again, is an event from the Protoevangelion. Mary was engaged in spinning the purple yarn when she decided to go to the well:
“And she took the pitcher, and went out to fill it with water. And, behold, a voice saying: Hail, you who have received grace; the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women! And she looked round, on the right hand and on the left, to see whence this voice came. And she went away, trembling, to her house, and put down the pitcher; and taking the purple, she sat down on her seat, and drew it out.”
So that is what we see in the small image: Mary standing at the well, hearing a voice, but looking around and seeing no one. This event is the lead-in to the actual appearance of Gabriel to Mary, which makes up the primary image in this large icon. One also, however, finds separate icons of the Благовещение у колодца/Blagoveshchenie u kolodtsa — “The Annunciation at the Well.”
According to the Protoevangelion, here is what happened (of course this combines with the Gospel story of the annunciation):
“And, behold, an angel of the Lord stood before her, saying: Fear not, Mary; for you have found grace before the Lord of all, and you shall conceive, according to His word. And she hearing, reasoned with herself, saying: Shall I conceive by the Lord, the living God? and shall I bring forth as every woman brings forth? And the angel of the Lord said: Not so, Mary; for the power of the Lord shall overshadow you: wherefore also that holy thing which shall be born of you shall be called the Son of the Most High. And you shall call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins. And Mary said: Behold, the servant of the Lord before His face: let it be to me according to your word.”
So we see that Eastern Orthodox iconography really has two annunciations: a “Proto-annunciation” (Предблаговещение/Predblagoveshchenie) taken from the apocrypha (also called the “Annunciation at the Well), then the standard biblical annunciation, with of course various details added here and there from the Protoevangelion.
Looking at the main image in the icon shown above, we see the Archangel Gabriel depicted twice. This is very common in Russian icons of the Annunciation. Why is he shown twice? Because the first time represents him entering, and the second time shows him actually standing before Mary. Because his face is usually turned away in the first “entrance” depiction, some interpret this as his speaking invisibly to Mary in the Proto-Annunciation. So now, at last, we have Gabriel, blooming flower in hand, announcing to Mary that she will give birth to Jesus.
On the table is a book, an element we often see in Western European Annunciation iconography, in which Mary is shown reading a holy book as Gabriel enters her room. Later Russian iconography (beginning in the 17th century) borrowed this from the West, whereas according to the earlier tradition, Mary was spinning the royal purple rather than reading a book when Gabriel appeared to her. In some Western examples the book is a Psalter; in others, as borrowed by Russia, it is the prophecy of a virgin giving birth as found in Isaiah 7:14. The presence of a book in the Annunciation is a Western element that developed during the Carolingian period (9th century c.e.), and was intended to represent Mary’s pious learning.
In older depictions, of course, we would not see an actual interior; we would just see buildings in the background, and a red cloth hanging across supports to show that we are to understand it as being an interior scene. This old manner of depicting interiors was sometimes used in the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly by Old Believer painters, but often the “new” Western manner of actually depicting an interior was used, as in this “mixed” example.
One also often sees, in the older forms, the Holy Spirit coming down in the form of a dove in a beam of light from heaven. Often the beam touches Mary’s head rather than her womb. There was a school of thought that held Mary conceived through her ear. The thinking behind this was that Jesus is the “Word” (Logos), and a word is spoken and heard. It was held that Eve caused the Fall through her ears by listening to the words of the serpent in Eden, and Mary reversed that by conceiving Jesus through her ear.
Here is a fresco of the “Proto-Annunciation” from Vysokie Dechani, in Serbia, though the inscription identifies it merely as the Blagovyeshchenie — “Annunciation” to the “Mother of God.”
Here is an icon of the Zachatie, the “Meeting of Joachim and Anna the Righteous.” It is a noted scene from a kind of backstory to the Christmas account. You will not find Joachim or Anna mentioned anywhere in the Bible. They appear in the cycle of legends recorded in the Protoevangelion (Protoevangelium) of James, originally written in Greek, but later translated into Slavonic. It had a strong influence on the iconography of the parentage and birth of Mary and of Jesus.
According to the story, in biblical times Joachim was very wealthy, and like other “Israelites” he brought a significant offering to the Temple. There a fellow named Rubim saw him, and reproachfully remarked that Joachim was not worthy to bring an offering because he had no child.
That depressed Joachim so much that instead of going home to his wife Anna, he went off into the wilderness and lived in a tent there and fasted (went without food) for forty days and nights, spending all his time in prayer.
Now right away we know that we are in the land of “fairy tale,” because first there is the motif of the unhappy parents who have no child, a common fairy tale motif. And of course the ending is always that they somehow get an unusual child. Second, there is the symbolic “forty days and forty nights.” In the story of Noah and the ark, it rained forty days and forty nights; when Moses went up onto the mountain, he was there forty days and forty nights; when Jesus went out into the wilderness, he fasted forty days and forty nights.
Meanwhile, Anna was lamenting the absence of her husband and the lack of a child from their marriage. But eventually she dressed herself well and went into a garden, sat under a laurel tree, and prayed for a child.
Suddenly an angel appeared and said, “Anna, Anna, the Lord has heard your prayer, and you shall conceive and shall bring forth; and your child shall be spoken of in all the world.”
Anna remarked that were that to happen, she would bring the child as a gift to the Lord.
And then there were two angels, telling Anna that her husband Joachim was on the way back with his flocks.
Joachim was coming back because an angel had appeared to him too, saying “Joachim, Joachim, the Lord God has heard your prayer. Go down away; for behold, your wife Anna shall conceive.”
If you look at the icon above, at upper right we see the angel appearing to Anna, and at upper left the angel appearing to Joachim.
The story continues that Joachim came back bringing quite a number of lambs and calves and goats, some as an offering to God (read “sacrifice” — this was in the days of animal sacrifice) and others for the priests, elders, and people.
And now we get to the main scene on the icon:
“And, behold, Joachim came with his flocks; and Anna stood by the gate, and saw Joachim coming, and she ran and hung upon his neck, saying: Now I know that the Lord God has blessed me exceedingly; for, behold the widow [is] no longer a widow, and I the [one who is] childless shall conceive.”
So that is the story behind the Zachatie, the Meeting of Joachim and Anna. In the Western version known as The Golden Legend (of Jacobus Voragine) the angel tells Anna to go and meet the returning Joachim at the “Gate called Golden” in Jerusalem.
All of this material is leading, of course, up to the story of the birth and childhood of Mary, mother of Jesus, and daughter of Joachim and Anna according to the Protoevangelion, but that is represented in other icons.
For today I will just add that if the title of Mary in icons –“Birthgiver of God” or “Mother of God” strikes you as a bit strange, her mother Anna (St. Anne in the West) is given one that sounds even stranger — “Grandmother of God.” There was controversy over giving Mary the “Mother of God” title in early Christianity, but those in favor of it won out in the 5th century (431), and those against it suddenly became “heretics” as a result.
The scene as depicted in this particular icon always strikes me as unintentionally amusing, because if you look closely, you will notice that the painter has placed Joachim so that he appears to be standing on Anna’s right foot.
Many people, on taking up the study of icons, quickly encounter a problem. They find that today there are often two dates used for the commemoration of each saint, and even two dates listed for the celebration of Christmas. If we look into the history of Christmas, we soon find the reason for this.
The celebration of the Nativity of Jesus — Christmas — came rather late in the history of early Christianity. In fact it seems to have begun just about the time Christianity became legalized in the Roman Empire and adopted as the State religion. So we can say that according to available evidence, the celebration of Christmas seems to have begun during or shortly after the life of the Roman Emperor Constantine, in the 4th century c.e.
It also appears that the reason the date for the celebration of Christmas was placed on December 25th is that it was already a very popular non-Christian celebration, the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. That occurred on the Winter Solstice, which in those days was intended to be on December 25th. So that gives us our marker. Originally Christmas was celebrated on (or close to) the Winter Solstice in the Roman Empire, taking over an already existing non-Christian festival.
In those days there was no formal split between the Greek Eastern branch of the church and the Latin western branch. Both celebrated Christmas on the same day, December 25th. And even after the Great Schism that divided the two branches in 1054, both churches, Eastern Greek and Western Latin, continued to celebrate the Nativity on December 25th. That is because both still used the old Roman Julian Calendar.
There was, however, a serious flaw in the Julian Calendar. Every year it would inaccurately be off by another eleven minutes. That did not matter much at the beginning of its use, but after the passage of 134 years, all those accumulations of 11-minute error added up to the Julian Calendar being a full day off. Every 134 years, it was off by yet another day. So the celebration of Christmas gradually moved farther and farther from the Winter Solstice.
in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII ordered Roman Catholics to use a new and more accurate calendar, generally called the Gregorian Calendar. This was after the Protestant Reformation, so for a while the Gregorian Calendar was only used by Roman Catholics. Eastern Orthodox continued to use the more inaccurate Julian Calendar.
The Gregorian Calendar, unlike the Julian, more closely reflected the natural cycles of the solar year, the spring and autumn equinoxes and the summer and winter solstices. It was not perfect, but compared to the 11 minute inaccuracy per year of the Julian Calendar, the Gregorian inaccuracy was only about 30 seconds per year.
Over time the use of the Gregorian Calendar began to spread even into predominantly Protestant countries.
England adopted the Gregorian Calendar only in 1752. That was some 24 years before America declared its independence, so that meant America went on the Gregorian Calendar as well and has remained on it ever since.
The situation was very different in Russia. It adopted the Gregorian Calendar only after the Revolution, in 1918.
Now, how does all this relate to the date of Christmas? Because in spite of the civil change to the Gregorian Calendar in Russia in 1918, the Russian Orthodox Church continued to use the Julian Calendar for fixed days such as the commemoration of saints and the date of Christmas.
By the year 1900 the Julian Calendar had become off by 13 days through the inherent flaw in that calendar system. That meant that when the Western churches were celebrating Christmas on December 25th, The Russian Orthodox church was celebrating it on what by the modern Gregorian Calendar would be January 7th. Now (and until March of 2100) the Russian Orthodox date of Christmas is thus 13 days behind, meaning 13 days after, the date on which Christmas is celebrated in Europe and America.
Now which is the more accurate date? Well, given that the marker is the Winter Solstice, both are off, because as we have seen, Christmas, in Roman times, was intended to be on the Winter Solstice. Today by the Gregorian Calendar, the Winter Solstice actually happens about four days before Christmas. But the Russian Orthodox Christmas on January 7th is much farther off the mark, being thirteen days beyond the “Western” December 25th date, and even more beyond by the actual Winter Solstice. That is because Russian Orthodoxy still uses the Julian Calendar for the date of Christmas and other fixed festivals.
So that is the answer to why the Russians celebrate Christmas “too late.” But there is another related little mystery associated with the study of icons, and that is the difference in the day on which any given saint is commemorated.
When one looks up such a saint, one often finds a listing like this:
December 4/17 Barbara, Great Martyr
The first date, December 4, is called “New Style” or “New Calendar,” and it follows a 20th-century revision in the Julian Calendar that, at least for now, accords in general with Gregorian calendar dating. The second date, December 17th, is “Old Style,” and follows the old Julian Calendar dating. So when one is looking up an icon saint in the list of daily commemorations and cross-referencing it to the description of the saint in the old podlinniki, the painter’s manuals, one must be careful to use the “Old Style” (old Julian Calendar) date and not the “New Style” (Revised Julian Calendar) date.
To confuse matters even more, now some segments of Eastern Orthodoxy use the “New Calendar” for saints and fixed festivals, while others continue to use the “Old Calendar.” That is why many Eastern Orthodox churches now print their yearly church calendars giving the commemoration days in both “Old Style” and “New Style.”
This is only one of the confusing matters relating to dates that a student of icons will encounter. I will save the others for future postings.