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,” (Vvedenie vo Khram Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui)). In some examples, as in this one, the word Tserkov (“Church”) is found instead of Khram (“Temple”)

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

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:

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

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.

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” taken from the apocrypha, 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.



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