PLAYING BY EAR

Today we will look again at the Blagovyeshchenie — the Annunciation.  Here is a pleasant example which, if you are clever, you will recognize as part of the new movement in Russian icon painting that began in the later half of the 1600s.  It involved a gradual tendency — borrowed from the Catholic West — toward greater realism and away from the strong stylization of earlier Russian icons — a stylization that was continued in the Old Believer tradition even as the State Church tradition departed from it.

So we know this is a State Church icon.  It was painted in 1670 by Ivan Maksimov.  If you detect the influence of Simon Ushakov here, you are correct: Maksimov was a student of Ushakov.

We see the usual elements:  the Archangel Gabriel at left, Mary at right, with her book open before her.  It is worth noting that in early icons of the subject, Mary was shown with her distaff and “purple” (usually red in images) thread.  But beginning in Western European art of the 9th century, and becoming very widespread in the 11th, she began being depicted instead with a book.  So this is another element borrowed from the West.

What I want to discuss today, however, is what is happening in the upper half of the icon:


We see the crowned Lord Sabaoth in the clouds at upper left, and a ray of light extending from him downward to the head of Mary; and in that ray the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove to impregnate Mary with Jesus.

Well, if he is impregnating her, why does the ray of light extend to her head rather than her womb?

Theologians had a great deal of trouble with the conception and birth of Jesus.  A god impregnating a human woman was nothing new.  We find it in the Greek and Roman stories of the gods and heroes.  But Christians had a real distaste for sex and for the messiness of birth, and they tried to adjust their notions of the conception of the birth of Jesus accordingly.  One school of thought arose that held Mary conceived Jesus not through the usual area of the female body, but rather through her ear.

Now to arrive at this conclusion involved a considerable amount of theological tap dancing.  It was believed that Jesus was the “Word” of God, the divine Logos.  A word is heard through the ear.  And because Eve, the first woman, was deceived into the Fall by receiving the words of the serpent in Eden through her ear, even so it was felt to be fitting that Mary should receive the cure for the Fall — the incarnation of Jesus, who is the Word — through her ear.  And so a widespread belief arose — often reflected in iconography — that Mary conceived Jesus through her ear.

In the 4th century, we find this in the writing of Athanasius of Alexandria:

Come and gaze upon this marvellous feat: the woman conceives through the hearing of her ears!

And Ephrem the Syrian (307-373) wrote:

Like the Burning Bush on Horeb, which carried God in the heart of the flames, so Mary brought Christ into her virginity; through her ear the Word of the divine Father entered and dwelt sec­retly in her womb.”

Perhaps you noticed that instead of a white lily, Gabriel in this icon is carrying a bouquet of roses and what appear to be a rather fanciful variation on tulips.  And through the window in the background, we can see part of a vase holding another bouquet:

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