AN EXPANDED NATIVITY ICON

I have discussed icons of the birth of Jesus in previous postings, but today we will look at an interestingly detailed Russian icon of the type, which combines elements of the biblical narratives with elements taken from the Protoevangelion of James.  We have seen this icon before, but focused only on the Magi in one case: (see https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2017/12/15/eastern-wise-guys/);  and in another, we looked at some of the imagery but not all (https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2014/12/12/a-traditional-mixture-the-birth-of-christ-in-russian-iconography/).  Today we will examine all of its elements.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

The image bears the usual title:

Р[О]ЖЕСТВО Г[ОСПО]ДА НАШЕГО И[СУ]СА ХР[ИС]ТА
ROZHESTVO GOSPODA NASHEGO ISUSA KHRISTA
Literally,
Birth [of] Lord of-us Jesus Christ
In normal English:
“The Birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The central image is the birth of Jesus, depicting Mary on her pallet, the child Jesus lying in the manger, and three angels standing over the child, their hands covered with cloths to show reverence.

Just below at left is the washing of the newborn infant Jesus by the midwife and Baba Solomiya (Salome) — characters taken from the Protoevangelion.  And at right is Joseph looking dismal, listening to the words of the “shepherd,” who by tradition is the Devil tempting him to doubt the virgin birth.

Note the fellow bending and speaking to Joseph at right in the segment shown above.  While in popular Russian belief he is often said to be the Devil in disguise, in this icon he has a title above his head that simply identifies him as пастырь/pastuir’ — “shepherd.”

Next we turn to the story of the Volsvi  — the Magi who follow the star seen at the top to Bethlehem, and there kneel before the child Jesus, held in the arms of his mother:

At upper right we see the Magi warned by an angel in a dream not to return to Herod, and above that they are seen mounted again on horses, returning to their own country by another road:

At lower left we see Herod consulting the chief priests and scribes, asking them where the Messiah is to be born.  Beside that is the “Massacre of the Innocents,” the soldiers, killing by Herod’s order, all children under the age of two in the region of Bethlehem:

At middle left we see an angel appearing to Joseph in a dream, warning him to take mother and child and flee to Egypt:

At middle right Joseph and Mary and the child Jesus are on the “Flight to Egypt”:

Now we move again into apocryphal material from the Protoevangelion.  The top image is Elizabeth — Mary’s cousin — being pursued by Herod’s soldier.  She flees with the child John (the future Baptist) to the  mountains, and there she asks a mountain to hide her.  The mountain splits open, revealing a cave into which Elizabeth escapes with John.

At the base, the priest Zachariah is killed by Herod’s soldier at the entrance of the Temple, because he would not reveal to the soldiers of King Herod where his son John was to be found.

Narrative icons such as this were like modern “graphic novels” in that they enabled the viewer to see the main elements of a story.

As I have mentioned before, only two of the New Testament gospels have birth narratives of Jesus — “Matthew” and “Luke,” and these two differ significantly.  The Protoevangelion not only took elements from each narrative, but added more material.  The sum of all these accounts was “gospel truth” to the average Russian Orthodox believer, who simply uncritically accepted the narratives as presented in icons and in the church liturgical writings as history, when in fact they were something quite different.

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