A TRADITIONAL MIXTURE: THE BIRTH OF CHRIST IN RUSSIAN ICONOGRAPHY

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:

(All images in this posting courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(All images in this posting courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

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:

rozhdeta

Just below Mary a midwife washes the newborn Christ. below the angels an old shepherd, traditionally considered to be the Devil in disguise, tempts Joseph to doubt the virgin birth.

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:

vol

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:

inn

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:

voegip

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.

ouzakh

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.

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