People often make the mistake of considering icons to be an art enclosed and carefully guarded from any outside influence. That is not at all true. Icons were influenced by “outside” art from their very origins, whether the art of non-Christian Rome early on, or the art of “Latin” or Protestant western Europe in later years.
Today’s icon of the Nativity includes the usual elements common to the most rigid of Eastern Orthodox iconography, but this particular example is noticeably softened and “humanized” by the influence of Italian art that became so strong after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, when some Greek iconographers moved not only to Crete, which was for a time under Venetian control, but also beyond to the Italian mainland.
The trade in icons which Crete carried on with Italy not only influenced early Italian religious painting, but also brought increasing Italian influence into “Orthodox” icons, making them less severe and less hieratic.
If we look at this 17th century image, we find the standard elements of the Eastern Orthodox Nativity icon: The arrival of the Magi, the angelic annunciation of the birth to the shepherds, The infant Jesus lying in the manger, the mother reclining on her cushion, the bathing of the newborn infant, Joseph and the shepherd, and this example has an additional scene not always included, the adoration by the Magi.
Of course including all of these scenes in one image makes no logical sense, because they happened at different times according to the old tale. But iconographers like to put them all together, so that the eye can move from one to another, making of them a continuous story. In fact this joining of events that took place separately in time or space is often called the “continuous” method for that reason. Some prefer the Greek-derived word panoptic to describe the method, meaning loosely “all” (pan) “seen” (optic), everything seen at once in the same image.
Benaki Museum, Athens
First, let’s look at the title:
It is a little faint, so let’s enhance it for a closer look. Here is the left portion:
Don’t let it confuse you. If you have been reading this site, it will actually be quite easy to translate, once you realize that the writer has pushed everything together. So let’s take it apart to clarify it.
The first Greek letter is Η, which you may recall is the feminine form of the definite article, usually transliterated as He in the old form of Greek, and pronounced “ee” in modern Greek. Though it is shoved up against the following letters, it is not a part of them, but a separate word, “the.” The next word consists of a small letter τ written above a v (representing the Greek Υ placed atop the letter ο. The little τ has been slightly damaged, but it is there nonetheless. If we combine those three letters, we get the word tou, meaning “of.” The next two letters are XV, which are the Greek letters X and Υ. These are the first and last letters of the word Khristou, meaning “Christ.” And the next word joins the letter α with Γ, followed by ια. That makes the word Agia, which in its old form is Hagia, meaning “Holy.”
So far we have He tou Khristou Agia... meaning “The of-Christ Holy…” So now we can go on to the right portion of the inscription:
It is not abbreviated, and not difficult to read. We see the letters ΓΕΝΝΗCΙC. The two Ns are joined to each other, and the second N is also joined to the H. The last C has a little squiggle at its base, but that does not change it. We transliterate it as GENNESIS, meaning “Birth.” So all together, the title inscription reads:
He tou Khristou Agia Gennesis, meaning “The of-Christ Holy Birth,” or as we would say in normal English, “The Holy Birth of Christ.” So that is the title of the icon.
There are only two narratives of the birth of Jesus in the New Testament (in Matthew and Luke), and the two do not agree with one another and are not mutually compatible. Both seem to have been added in those books to edited versions of what was originally the beginning of the Gospel story in Mark, which the writers known later as Matthew and Luke both used as their main source, each adding his own version of a birth narrative before it. So icons take parts of one and parts of the other and mix them together. They also add elements from the apocryphal writings (those not traditionally considered part of the Bible) and from tradition. So Nativity icons are a composite of elements drawn from all these different, and in reality contradictory sources.
The central image is Mary lying on her “mattress” after the birth of Jesus, who is seen tightly wrapped in bands of cloth — “swaddling clothes” — as was once the custom, and lying in a manger. Some like to see this as a foretelling of the wrapping of his body at death and its placing in the tomb. Above the child are an ass and an ox, and the painter has added a couple of women at the right.
The whole of it takes place within a stylized cave in a stylized mountain, but in the biblical accounts there is no cave. Where did it come from?
In early Christian times, there was a rival religion — Mithraism. The chief deity Mithras was a light deity said to have been born from a rock. So it is possible that the “cave” tradition was a borrowing of Mithraic concepts, intended to make Jesus seem like the “new” deity of light.
The tradition was given literary form in the non-biblical Protoevangelion of James. In that account, Joseph and Mary do not quite make it to Bethlehem when Mary is about to give birth and asks to be taken down from the ass:
“And he took her down from off the ass, and said to her: Where shall I lead you to, and cover your disgrace? For this place is desert. And he found a cave there, and led her into it; and leaving his two sons beside her, he went out to seek a midwife in the district of Bethlehem.”
So in this version, Joseph and Mary do not quite make it to Bethlehem. Jesus is born in a cave somewhere outside the town. That is the cave depicted in the icon. In keeping with the Mithraic “light deity” motif, here is how the Protoevangelion describes the birth. Joseph finds a midwife conveniently wandering in the vicinity:
“And the midwife went away with him. And they stood in the place of the cave, and behold a luminous cloud overshadowed the cave. And the midwife said: My soul has been magnified this day, because my eyes have seen strange things— because salvation has been brought forth to Israel. And immediately the cloud disappeared out of the cave, and a great light shone in the cave, so that the eyes could not bear it. And in a little that light gradually decreased, until the infant appeared, and went and took the breast from His mother Mary. And the midwife cried out, and said: This is a great day to me, because I have seen this strange sight.”
And then we have the explanation for the two other women in the central image of the icon:
“And the midwife went forth out of the cave, and Salome met her. And she said to her: Salome, Salome, I have a strange sight to relate to you: a virgin has brought forth— a thing which her nature does not allow.”
There is often some confusion of these two women in icons. One, as in the Protoevangelion, is called Salome, and the other is sometimes called Zelomi, which seems to be merely a slightly distorted version of Salome.
Also in the Protoevangelion is the account of the doubting of the midwife, who will not believe the virgin birth until she has personally given Mary a “gynecological examination”:
“Then said Salome: As the Lord my God lives, unless I thrust in my finger, and search the parts, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth.
And the midwife went in, and said to Mary: Show yourself; for no small controversy has arisen about you. And Salome put in her finger, and cried out, and said: Woe is me for mine iniquity and mine unbelief, because I have tempted the living God; and, behold, my hand is dropping off as if burned with fire.
And she bent her knees before the Lord, saying: O God of my fathers, remember that I am the seed of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob; do not make a show of me to the sons of Israel, but restore me to the poor; for You know, O Lord, that in Your name I have performed my services, and that I have received my reward at Your hand.
And, behold, an angel of the Lord stood by her, saying to her: Salome, Salome, the Lord has heard you. Put your hand to the infant, and carry it, and you will have safety and joy. And Salome went and carried it, saying: I will worship Him, because a great King has been born to Israel. And, behold, Salome was immediately cured, and she went forth out of the cave justified.”
Very obvious in the scene are the ass and the ox by the manger. The painter has depicted the ass as though he is braying with emotion, and the ox placidly licks the infant Jesus. A tradition arose later that the ass represents the Jewish people, who did not accept Jesus as Messiah, while the Ox represents the non-Jews, who did accept him. Neither ox nor ass are present in the biblical birth narratives, but the ox and the ass were very early elements in Nativity scenes. Perhaps the earliest example is the simple image of Jesus in the manger with the ox and ass as found on a 4th century sarcophagus kept at the Basilica of San Ambrogio (Ambrose) in Milan:
Though of course a manger implies the presence of animals of some kind, the ox and ass find their biblical origins in two different quotes. The first is from Isaiah 1:3:
“The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel does not know, my people do not consider.”
The other is an uncertain reading of Habakkuk 3:2 in the Greek Septuagint version, but translated quite differently elsewhere:
ἐν μέσῳ δύο ζῴων γνωσθήσῃ… “En meso duo zoon gnosthese…”
“…In the midst of two animals you shall be known…”
A typical element in icons is the bathing of the newborn Jesus by the midwife and her companion. Note how in this icon, the painter has not given Jesus the usual “Orthodox” halo with the “Ho On” inscription, but has rather given him streams of light at his head, forming three points of the cross. And where in strict iconography, Mary is usually rather dismally turned away from the newborn child in the manger, here the scene of the washing is placed at left and close by Mary, so that she seems to be peacefully watching the washing of her child. That softens the dismalness of the old version.
At right we see the angelic annunciation of the birth to the shepherds, as recorded in the gospel attributed to Luke. Here the shepherds are represented by one fellow standing, a boy sitting, and as part of another element, an old shepherd:
One shepherd stands gazing up at an angel, as other angels cluster close by upon a cloud. The shepherd does not appear to be unduly surprised by this heavenly apparition, as his dog stares curiously upward. And just to the right of the shepherd is another, a boy sitting atop a rock, legs crossed, absorbed in playing his horn. He is a pleasant addition by the painter, who has done much to add interest to the traditionally rather gloomy Eastern Orthodox Nativity, with little touches like the dog, the horn-playing boy and flowers blooming here and there in the rocky landscape, though traditionally the birth was in the cold of midwinter.
I like to compare this depiction of a placid annunciation to shepherds with the etching of the same scene by the Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn. Rembrandt liked to keep close to biblical accounts, and in his version the shepherds are as startled as though a UFO had suddenly appeared above them in a flash of light. He emphasizes the fear of the shepherds, as in the account of Luke 2:8-9:
8 “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.”
Rembrandt shows us terrified shepherds, with their flock scattering in fright, and their cows running off in a panic, tails in the air:
But back to the Greek icon, which has the common iconographic element of the aged Joseph, sitting with chin on hand, rather unhappy about the odd circumstances of the birth. And just to his right, looking rather smug in this example, is the old shepherd who is traditionally considered the Devil in disguise, not helping matters by tempting Joseph to doubt the virgin birth. He seems to say to Joseph, “So she told you she hasn’t slept with anybody, and that God somehow got her pregnant — Right.”
The painter has put in another sleeping dog by the feet of the old shepherd, and a flock in the defile in the rocks between the horn-playing boy and the old guy tempting Joseph.
In the upper left background, we see a city. It is not painted in the usual illogical manner of traditional iconography, but its architecture, though a bit primitive, makes more sense to the eye. Before the city the Magi (mentioned in Matthew and the Protoevangelion) are seen arriving on their horses, but here they wear the crowns of three kings. The notion that the Magi were kings is a later development popular in the West, and it uses Psalm 72:10 (71:10 in the Septuagint) as its justification:
10 The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts.
Originally the number of the visiting Magi was indeterminate, but gradually the consensus arose that they were three, probably based on their three gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Finally, we see the scene of the adoration of the Magi, presented here in a very Italian-influenced manner. The kings, called in the West Gaspar, Balthazar, and Melchior, present their gifts to the Christ Child. And again according to Western rather than Eastern tradition, one is shown dark-skinned, with curly short hair on his head, in short as a “moor.”
Gaspar, traditionally the oldest, kneels and kisses the foot of the child as he presents his gift, gold. He is king of Tarsus. Melchior, the middle one in age, stands at left beside Mary. His gift, in Western tradition, is Frankincense from Arabia. And Balthazar, the youngest, is the pleasant dark-skinned fellow just to the right of Joseph, offering myrrh, and his origin is often placed somewhere in Africa. These names and traditions and the notion that they were kings are not found in old Eastern Orthodox iconography, but are common in Western European religious art.
The painter has put in two of their three horses, standing by with a servant as the Magi present their gifts.
As I have mentioned in an earlier posting, the traditional Eastern Orthodox icon of the Nativity is a rather gloomy affair, but once Western European iconography began to influence Eastern Orthodox depictions, Nativity icons gradually became softer and more gentle and cheerful, more “Christmasy” to the extent that they adopt Western European elements.