Today we will look at the icon type called the “Only-Begotten Son.”
It is based upon a hymn found in the liturgy of John Chrysostom, as well as in that of Basil the Great and elsewhere; it is found at the end of the Second Antiphon:
Единородный Сыне и Слове Божий, безсмертен Сый,
и изволивый спасения нашего ради воплотитися от Святыя Богородицы и Приснодевы Марии,
распныйся же Христе Боже,
смертию смерть поправый,
Един Сый Святыя Троицы,
спрославляемый Отцу и Святому Духу, спаси нас.
Only-Begotten Son and Word of God immortal,
And the one willingly for our salvation incarnate of the Holy Birthgiver of God and Ever-virgin Mary,
Who without change became man,
And was crucified — Christ God,
Trampling down death by death,
Who are one of the Holy Trinity,
Glorified with the Father and Holy Spirit, save us.
The “Only-Begotten Son” type is frustrating for icon students because, though it is easily recognizable, it varies considerably from icon to icon in the elements included.
Let’s begin by looking at an example that gives us the basic image:
In the center is a New Testament Trinity variant. You will recall that the New Testament Trinity shows God the Father as an old man called “Lord Sabaoth,” as well as the Holy Spirit as a dove, and Jesus. The difference in this version is that Jesus is depicted as Christ Immanuel, Christ shown as a child or boy (in this it is akin to the Otechestvo, the “Fatherhood” type). He is in a ring of cherubim (in general cherubim are blue) and seated on seraphim (usually red). In one hand he holds an open scroll with the inscription “Only-Begotten Son and Word of God.”
Sometimes the scroll contains a different text, one of which is based on the Gifts of the Spirit in Isaiah 11:2-3:
“And the Spirit of God shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of knowledge and godliness shall fill him; the spirit of the fear of God” — (И почиет на немъ духъ божий, духъ премудрости и разума, духъ совета и крепости, духъ ведения и благочестия: исполнитъ его духъ страха божия… — I pochiet na nem dukh bozhiy, dukh preudrosti i razuma, dukh soveta i kreposti, dukh vedeniya i blagochestiya: ispolnit ego dukh strakha bozhiya…).
But sometimes Christ simply holds a rolled scroll without a text.
In the other hand he holds a disk with the symbols of the Four Evangelists: an eagle for John, a lion for Mark, an ox for Luke, and a winged man for Matthew:
At left and right are flying angels. Below, we see the icon type of Mary and Jesus that is called “Weep Not For Me, Mother,” based upon Irmos, Ode 9 for the Canon of Holy Saturday:
Не рыдай Мене, Мати, зрящи во гробе, Его же во чреве без семене зачала еси Сына: востану бо и прославлюся, и вознесу со славою непрестанно, яко Бог, верою и любовию Тя величающия
“Weep not for me, Mother, seeing in the tomb the son conceived in the womb without seed. For I shall arise and be glorified and shall exalt with eternal glory, as God, those who magnifiy you in praise and love.”
It depicts the Eastern Orthodox version of the Pietà, in this case Mary holding the body of her son, shown waist-length and upright in the tomb.
So that is the main image in “Only-Begotten Son” icons, making it easily recognized.
Now let’s move on to a more complex version:
Here we have the usual central image of Lord Sabaoth, Holy Spirit, and Son, but the two upper angels at left and right are now holding disks aloft; that on the left contains a seraph, that on the right a cherub. In some examples the angels instead hold up the sun at left and the moon at right, both with faces.
At far left and right we see buildings. In that on the left, an “Angel of the Lord” (sometimes identified as the Archangel Gabriel) stands with a golden chalice in hand. This is said by some to represent the Heavenly Jerusalem, though it generally simply represents the “Church”:
The building at right and its angel (sometimes identified as Michael) is said to represent the Temple of Wisdom, the house that Wisdom (Christ) built as mentioned in the book of Proverbs.:
That is more obvious in examples showing Mary seated within it, with Christ Immanuel (“Wisdom”) in a mandorla on her breast (compare with the “Kiev Sophia” variant of the “Sophia, Wisdom of God” image). In some examples we see Mary standing in the building instead of seated, and in others we see the Znamenie (“Sign”) image of Mary, depicting her only to the waist, with the child Christ on her breast. The angel may hold a disk with the IC abbreviation for “Jesus” on it.
Some examples reverse the buildings, putting the “Temple of Wisdom” at left, and the “Church” at right.
At lower left is a cross, and atop it sits Jesus clothed as a warrior with a sword, symbolizing his victory over death:
Just below him is an angel subduing and binding Satan; other demons, some looking at the victorious Christ, flee into Hell, often depicted as the open jaws of a huge monster. Some examples also include an image of the standard crucifixion just above Christ on the cross as warrior.
On the lower right side, we see a winged seraph holding a sword (sometimes identified as a cherub), symbolizing the angel with a sword who guarded the entrance to the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve fell, bringing death into the world. Just below him a pale figure identified as Death rides a lion out of a dark cave, trampling human bodies beneath him:
Sometimes they are clothed in white shrouds. Death wears a quiver at times filled with arrows, sometimes with other weapons of death, as in this example. Death is depicted as a corpse, sometimes as a skeleton, and he holds a scythe. Carrion birds (like the black raven flying above) and animals feed on the fallen bodies.
So that is the “Only-Begotten Son.” Keep in mind the great variation from image to image.
Here is a particularly fine example, with some interesting differences. Note that it has not only the usual New Testament Trinity – Immanuel representation, but above it also the Old Testament Trinity, showing the three persons as the angels that appeared to the Patriarch Abraham at the Oak of Mamre in Genesis:
Also, the character of the building at left as the “Church” is made more obvious by showing it with an interior altar on which, in a diskos, lies Christ depicted as “Agnets Bozhiy,” “The Lamb of God,” a symbol of the Eucharist. And to the left of it stand the “Three Hierarchs” — Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, and Gregory the Theologian.
The building at right is the “Temple of Wisdom,” in which we see Mary seated with Christ Immanuel on her breast.
Do not be surprised to find additional variations and changes from icon to icon of this “Only-Begotten Son” type. But now you know the basics and main variations to be found, so that should make it less frustrating and intimidating in the future.