Here is a pleasant, Western-influenced Nativity icon.  The title inscription reads:


We can see the Western influence not only in the landscape, but also in representation of Mary and Joseph at the cradle — much more cheerful than the older traditional representation of Mary lying turned away from the child, and Joseph off in a corner being gloomy.

Here Joseph joins the mother and an angel at the wonder of the birth, giving a quite uncommon joyousness and gentleness to the scene.  Just below the manger cradle we see the heads of the traditional ox and ass.

At lower left we see Joseph asleep, and an angel appearing to him in his dream, telling him to take Mary and the newborn child and flee to Egypt.

Above that, we see the later “Flight to Egypt,” with Joseph leading the ass on which sits Mary with her child.

At upper right is the angelic announcement to the shepherds of the birth of Jesus

At lower center to right we see the arrival of the Magi with their very Middle-Eastern-looking attendants, bringing their gifts to the newborn child, who greets them in lively fashion with arms outspread.  The Magi are represented in the traditional manner — one old, one middle-aged, and one young.  The painter of this icon has not adopted the alternate tradition of making one dark-skinned, as we often see in western European depictions of the Nativity, though we do find it in some late icons.

As I have mentioned previously, the influence of Western European art  — largely Italian, Flemish, and German — on Russian iconography of the Nativity added a softness and a cheerfulness not previously found in icons of this subject.


There is something very peculiar to be found in Nativity iconography in certain medieval Cappadocian Churches.

Here is a Nativity fresco from the north aisle of the Eski Gümüş Monastery complex — a monastery and church carved out of the rock in Niğde Province, Central Anatolia, Turkey.

(Courtesy of Asaf Braverman:

Let’s examine the segments of the fresco.

In the center we see Mary reclining, her face turned away from the infant Jesus in swaddling clothes, lying in the manger to her left.  Above Jesus are the traditional ass and ox.

Mary’s name inscription is abbreviated as  ΜΗΡ ΘΥ  for ΜΗΤΕΡ ΘΕΟΥ/Meter Theou — “Mother of God.”

The child Jesus has the usual IC XC abbreviation for Ιησούς Χριστός/Iesous Khristos — “Jesus Christ.

Above the child Jesus, we see three attending angels, their hands covered as a sign of veneration:

Above the angel at right is their name inscription, written as ὉΙ ΑΝΓΓΕΛΥ/HOI ANGGELY — instead of the standard ὉΙ ΆΓΓΕΛΟΙ/HOI ANGELOI — “The Angels.”  Remember that in Greek, a double g (ΓΓ) is pronounced as “ng.”

At left we see the Three Magi approaching, depicted as young, middle-aged, and old.  They bear gifts in their hands, and above their heads, the name inscription is written as ὉΙ ΜΑΓΥ /HOI MAGY, instead of the standard ὉΙ ΜΑΓΟΙ/HOI MAGOI — “The Magi.”

Joseph sits below the Magi, looking rather gloomily thoughtful, as is customary:

At lower left, the midwife and her helper prepare to wash the newborn child Jesus.   The helper at right, pouring the water into the basin from a pitcher  — Salome — is commonly so named.  More unusual is the identification of the other woman in Cappadocian Nativity iconography.  She is identified in this fresco as Ἡ ΜΕΑ/HE MEA — in standard formἩ Μαῖα/He Μaia, meaning “The Midwife.”  In later Greek, the letters ai were pronounced as ay in “stay,” instead of the earlier ai as in “aisle.”  Some misinterpret the inscription as the personal name “Mea” instead of correctly as her descriptive title.   In the Protoevangelion of James and in Pseudo-Matthew, she is given the name Zelomi.

As with many things in Eastern Orthodoxy, this very old and traditional scene of the washing of the infant Jesus after his birth has become the cause of controversy, with some even painting the scene out of Nativity depictions.  The reason is that washing a newborn infant seems to imply a normal human birth, with all the messiness accompanying it.  There are those who feel that the birth of Jesus had none of this, so the “washing” scene is considered demeaning and “doctrinally incorrect.”  But as I have said many times, in the study of icons and iconography we pay attention to what painters actually depicted — not to what those with doctrinal interests feel they should have depicted.

Now we come to the most interesting part of the image.  We see at upper right an angel announcing the birth to the shepherds:

To the right of the angel is the identifying title for the whole composition, written here as Ἡ ΧΥ ΓΕΗΙCΗC/HE KH[RIST]OU GENISES instead of the standard Ἡ Χριστού Γέννησης/He Khristou Genneses — “The Birth of Christ.”

And here are the shepherds — three in number in this example:

Like the Magi, they are shown as being of three different ages — a boy at left, a young man at center, and an old man with a grey beard at right.

If we look closely, we can see their names.

Here is the boy:

He sits atop a hillock, playing a long transverse flute.  His name is CΑΤΟΡ/SATOR.

The fellow in the middle gestures upward toward the angel with his right hand.  His name is ΑΡΕΠΟΝ/AREPON.   His left hand is on the shoulder of the old man, who is named ΤΕΗΕΤΟΡ/TENETOR.

Now it is not difficult to recognize that these are words from the very old and supposedly magical “Sator Square”:


The last two names on the fresco have been Hellenized by the addition of the -n ending to Arepo and the -or ending to Tenet.

What is the Sator Square?  It is a mysterious ancient palindrome, traces of which pop up in regions as widely separated as Ethiopia and Northern Europe.  Here it is in its earlier and later arrangements:

R    O    T    A    S
O    P    E    R    A
T    E    N    E    T
A    R    E    P    O
S    A    T    O    R


S    A    T    O    R
A    R    E    P    O
T    E    N    E    T
O    P    E    R    A
R    O    T    A    S

Roman examples as early as 1st Century c.e. Pompeii have been found, which is a strong indicator that it may be of pre-Christian origin.

It is a palindrome — in fact the earliest double palindrome known — that can be read left to right, right to left, top to bottom and bottom to top.  It is generally thought to have been a magical formula of some kind, but no definite solution has yet been found to its significance, though various possibilities have been suggested. As we have seen, some connect it with pre-Christian beliefs, which would make sense, considering the age of the earliest known examples.   Others, however, think it is just a jumbled version of the first two words of the Christian Pater Noster — “Our Father” prayer.  I will not go into all the suppositions here, because there is abundant information available online.

Whatever the original significance may have been, it is known that it definitely had later use as a magical formula.  But just why we find evidence of it in Eastern Orthodox frescoes in Cappadocian churches remains puzzling.

Adding to the mystery is that in those churches, it is not used in its “block” form as the “Sator Square,” but rather as the names of shepherds present at the Nativity.

In the Eski Gümüş fresco, we saw that the boy shepherd Sator is playing a transverse flute.  In an outline illustration published in the Revue Archéologique (January-June 1965), pp. 101-102, Presses Universitaires de France), we find something similar:

(Revue Archéologique)

It is drawn after a fresco in the so-called Kokar Kilise — “Fragrant Church” — in the Ihlara Valley, Cappadocia.

On the left we see Salome pouring water, and opposite her, “He Mea” — the midwife washing the child Jesus, much as in the Eski Gümüş example.  But on the right, we find five shepherds instead of the three.  Four of them wear pointed hats.  But far more interesting is that the shepherds — two of which play end-blown flutes — have their name inscriptions above them.  They are, from left:


As you can see, aside from the added -e ending on Tenete, their names together comprise the complete Sator Square:

S    A    T    O    R
A    R    E    P    O
T    E    N    E    T    E
O    P    E    R    A
R    O    T    A    S

This odd “magical” naming of the Nativity shepherds in Cappadocian iconography seems to have taken place between the 9th and 12th centuries (the latter being the general dating of the Eski Gümüş Nativity).  At the Church of St. Eustathios in Göreme, there are again three shepherds named Sator, Arepo and Teneto[n?].  Additional Cappadocian examples of Nativity shepherds named from the Sator Square are known, but the  precise significance those names had for the iconographers of that period and region remains a mystery.

Many thanks to Asaf Braverman for kindly permitting me to use his photography done at the Eski Gümüş Monastery in 2008.


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 (the midwife) 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 Salome, 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, an old shepherd stands conversing with him.  In Russian popular belief, the shepherd talking to Joseph is often identified as the Devil in disguise.  In this Greek version, however, he is only a shepherd.

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 him and the horn-playing boy.

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 Protoevangelionare 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.


Today’s icon type is very easy to recognize. It is commonly called “The Four Births.”  It is also sometimes called the Доброчадие/Dobrochadie. That Russian title comes from a line in the Russian Orthodox marriage ceremony:

Даждь им плод чрева, доброчадие, единомыслие душ и телес…
Dazhd’ im plod chreva, dobrochadie, edinomuislie dush i teles …

“Give them the fruit of the womb, good children, unity of soul and body…”

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

It depicts the births of four figures very prominent in the Eastern Orthodox hierarchy of religious figures — Mary (Called the Mother of God), Jesus, John the Forerunner (John the Baptist) and Nicholas of Myra, commonly called Holy Nicholas the Wonderworker.

The iconography of the birth and early lives of biblical figures such as Mary, Jesus, and John is not based simply on the biblical accounts; they are combined with extra-biblical apocryphal stories such as found in the Protoevangelion of James and the Pseudoevangelium of Matthew.

Three of these “birth” types — that of Mary, of John, and of Nicholas, are very similar, as one can see, because iconographers had little information to work with, so they just repeated similar elements: a reclining mother, a father seated at right, three attendants, and the newborn child washed by a serving maid.

The birth of Jesus in this example is a mixture of the earlier “Eastern” type combined with some elements from the “Western” type that were adopted into Russian iconography, primarily in the 18th and 19th centuries. It depicts Mary in a seated position beside the infant Christ (rather than lying down and facing away from him, as earlier), and it includes the three Magi at left and a shepherd at right. At front left, Joseph is shown with an old shepherd, who in Russian folk belief is often seen as the Devil trying to tempt Joseph to doubt the virgin birth (“Hey, come on Joe — you’re not really buying that cock and bull story, are you?”). That comes from the earlier nativity form, as does the scene at right, the child Jesus washed by a serving maid.

It is interesting that the cave in which Mary gives birth is a detail found in the Protoevangelion of James,generally believed to date to the 2nd century (found also in the Pseudoevangelium of Matthew), and was a matter of controversy in early Christianity because in the pre-Christian Mithraic religion, the sun god Mithras was born from a rock (not surprisingly, on December 25th), and his rites were celebrated in a cave. The early Christian martyr (and Eastern Orthodox saint) Justin Martyr, in the latter half of the 2nd century, thought that the Mithraic use of a cave was a deceit of the devil, whom he believed inspired such similarities to Christianity among the pagans. He had this to say in his Dialogue with Trypho:

And when those who record the mysteries of Mithras say that he was begotten of a rock, and call the place where those who believe in him are initiated a cave, do I not perceive here that the utterance of Daniel, that a stone without hands was cut out of a great mountain, has been imitated by them, and that they have attempted likewise to imitate the whole of Isaiah’s words?…” (LXX)

“‘…But when the Child was born in Bethlehem, since Joseph could not find a lodging in that village, he took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger, and here the Magi who came from Arabia found Him. I have repeated to you,’ I continued, ‘what Isaiah foretold about the sign which foreshadowed the cave; but for the sake of those who have come with us to-day, I shall again remind you of the passage.’ Then I repeated the passage from Isaiah which I have already written, adding that, by means of those words, those who presided over the mysteries of Mithras were stirred up by the devil to say that in a place, called among them a cave, they were initiated by him. ” (LXXVIII)

Each of these four births is also found as a separate icon type, whether in its basic form or with some elaboration, as in this example of the “Birth of the Most Holy Mother of God”:

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of


Christmas is one of the major festivals of the Eastern Orthodox year.  But for those familiar with the Western European Christmas, the traditional Eastern Orthodox icon of the Nativity of Jesus is likely to seem disappointing and somewhat gloomy in appearance.  Here is an example — circa 1500 — from the Rostov-Suzdal School:


It has the usual elements:

The baby Jesus lies in a stylized cave, wrapped up in swaddling clothes and lying in a long manger box.  Beside him are an ass and an ox, derived from Isaiah 1:3:

The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.”

The “divine light” coming down from heaven in the top center of many such icons represents the Star of Bethlehem that guided the Magi.

Mary is lying on her pallet, with her face serious and turned away both from Joseph and the child Jesus.  She looks rather unhappy about the whole affair, and that is typical of this icon type, whether Russian or Greek, though the “accepted” interpretation is that she is absorbed in pondering matters.

At lower left, we see the husband, Joseph, sitting in deep thought, often with his chin resting on his left hand.  He too looks worried, and with reason.  According to Russian folk tradition, the shaggily-dressed shepherd standing beside Joseph and talking to him is actually the Devil in disguise.  He is trying to talk Joseph into doubting the virgin birth.  And from the looks of this icon, Joseph seems in a mood to buy what the Devil is selling.  This identification of the shepherd with the Devil is obviously not the case in all Nativity icons — not even in Russia

In the upper part of the icon are angels — who vary in number from example to example — announcing the birth to a shepherd or shepherds.  On the left, we see in older icons the three Magi (“Wise Men”) arriving on their horses across the hills, though later icons often show them as having arrived at the manger.  The Magi would actually have been astrologers.  The Slavic text of Matthew calls them Volsvi, which relates to the modern Russian word volshebstvo, meaning “magic.”

Icons tend to ignore chronology, mixing a number of related scenes together, and that is what we often see in Nativity icons, with the angelic annunciation to the shepherds combined with the arrival of the Magi.  We see another such “out of time” incident in the usual element of the midwife washing the Christ Child after his birth (she is known as Zelomi in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew).  Her helper Salome is pouring the water for washing into the basin.

We know from the apocryphal story that Salome doubted the perpetual virginity of Mary (a dogma of Eastern Orthodoxy), and even tried to physically check Mary out with her hand to determine the truth.  Salome was punished for her “scientific” research by the withering of her hand, but then, as these stories usually go, she repented and her hand was healed, as we read in the source of this tale, the Protoevangelion of James:

And the midwife went in and said unto Mary: Order thyself, for there is no small contention arisen concerning thee. And Salome made trial and cried out and said: Woe unto mine iniquity and mine unbelief, because I have tempted the living God, and lo, my hand falleth away from me in fire. And she bowed her knees unto the Lord, saying: O God of my fathers, remember that I am the seed of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob: make me not a public example unto the children of Israel, but restore me unto the poor, for thou knowest, Lord, that in thy name did I perform my cures, and did receive my hire of thee. 3 And lo, an angel of the Lord appeared, saying unto her: Salome, Salome, the Lord hath hearkened to thee: bring thine hand near unto the young child and take him up, and there shall be unto thee salvation and joy.

The unspoken moral to that story was obviously, “Don’t question what we tell you, and do not examine the evidence.”  A lot of politicians today would favor that approach.

Here is another and similar example, with slight variations:


Though painted in the old manner, it has a later style inscription:


It reads (with missing letters added):

“Birth of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Рождество/Rozhdestvo is the spelling found in modern Russian, but in Church Slavic it is written without the d as Рожество/Rozhestvo.  That is why on old icons of the Nativity, the Church Slavic inscriptions often read:

Birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ”

Literally it is [THE] BIRTH (Rozhestvo) OF THE LORD (Gospoda) OF US (Nashego) JESUS CHRIST (Isusa Khrista).  But of course in normal English we would translate it as “The Birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Not the cheeriest of “Christmas” images, this traditional Nativity icon type was nonetheless the prevalent depiction of the birth of Christ in Greek and in Russian iconography.  Fortunately, however, later Russian icon painting began to be influenced by the Western versions of the Nativity, and so there are many “late” (18th and 19th century) Russian icons showing a far more pleasant scene of Joseph and Mary with the infant Jesus, much like scenes one finds in Italian painting.  It seems that even the Russians eventually found the traditional depiction too depressing to allow it to be the only type representing the Nativity.

As a sidelight, it is worth mentioning that the stories of the birth of Jesus found in Matthew and Luke (the other two gospels have no birth stories) differ significantly from one another, and are virtually incompatible on close examination.  Even the genealogies given in those two writings have irreconcilable differences.  Depictions of the Nativity, whether in Eastern Orthodoxy or Western Christianity, generally combine various elements of each story to make a “unified” account that is not what one actually finds in the original texts.  That artificially unified account is the common matter of traditional school and church “Christmas plays.”  And of course both Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Christianity mixed in apocryphal details as well, though that tendency faded out in groups allied with the rise of Protestantism.