Here is a pleasant, Western-influenced Nativity icon. The title inscription reads:
ОБРАЗ РОЖЕСТВА ГОСПОДА НАШЕГО ИСУСА ХРИСТА OBRAZ ROZHESTVA GOSPODA NASHEGO ISUSA KHRISTA
“IMAGE OF THE BIRTH OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST.”
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 not to fear, but to take Mary as his wife.
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.
A particularly interesting fresco of the Nativity is found in the little Greek church called the Omorfi/Omorphe Ekklesia (Ομορφη Εκκλησία) — literally “Beautiful Church” — on the island of Aegina (Αίγινα), off the coast of Piraeus.
It has the usual Byzantine elements common to the type, but with some interesting variations. The most obvious is that Mary — instead of lying on her pallet — is seated and nursing the child Jesus. We see the traditional ox and ass feeding from the manger beside her, but a very peculiar feature of this rendering is the cave in which she sits. The edges of the cave are ornamented with open eyes:
Iconologists customarily explain the cave eyes this way: First there is the common belief in the “Evil Eye,” and both newborn children and new mothers were thought to be particularly vulnerable to its influences. To counteract the Evil Eye, the superstitious used the principle of “like cures like,” so they used an eye — whether painted or in amulet form — to counteract the harmful influence of any potential Evil Eye.
The second — and related — potential source often mentioned for the eyes is the metaphor of man as a cave of robbers and demons, found, for example, in a Christmas homily by Anthimos of Athens:
“The Lord was born in a poor and humble cave, to transform man who is the cave and dwelling of the robber and the murderous demon, the fearful evil Devil, into the temple and house of the Holy Spirit.“
That man is the residence of demons is a notion found as early as the Epistle of Barnabas:
“Understand you. Before we believed in God, the abode of our heart was corrupt and weak, a temple truly built by hands; for it was full of idolatry and was a house of demons, because we did whatever was contrary to God.”
In any case, the supposition is that the cave — being a potential residence of demons, whether in actuality or as a symbol of mankind — could have its potential evil averted by the use of painted eyes as talismans. So what we see in this depiction is the eyes painted on the cave to avert the Evil Eye from the mother and newborn child — at least that is a common interpretation. It is difficult to say if that was what the painter actually intended.
It is also possible that someone got a bit too literal in reading the Protoevangelion of James in Greek. Here is a relevant portion:
Beginning at numeral 2, it reads:
“And they stood in the place of the cave, and behold, a bright cloud overshadowed the cave. And the midwife said, my soul has been magnified this day, for my eyes have seen remarkable things, for the salvation of Israel was born. And immediately the cloud disappeared out of the cave, and a great light appeared in the cave, which the eyes could not bear.”
If we look at the title of the icon at the top, we find it written as
ΤΟΥ ΧΡΙCΤΟΥ Ἡ TOU KHRISTOU HE
If we join the two segments, we get:
ΤΟΥ ΧΡΙCΤΟΥ Ἡ ΓΕΝΝΗCΙC
TOU KHRISTOU HE ΓΕΝΝΗCΙC
“Of Christ the Birth.”
In normal English, “The Birth of Christ.”
At lower left we see the usual washing of the child Jesus, identified by his IC XC abbreviation:
We again see common elements of this icon type at lower left. Joseph sits with a “How did I get myself into this?” look on his face. His title inscription — written with a phonetic and thus more “modern” Greek pronunciation — is ΗΟCΙΦ, pronounced Iosif.
Similarly, the title above the shepherds beside Joseph is also a phonetic spelling: Η ΠΙΜΕΝΕC instead of the standard ὉΙ ΠΟΙΜΕΗΕC / hoi poimenes.
To the right of the bearded shepherd we see a white dog, and above it what appears to be a wolf, with his mouth opened toward the small sheep in front of him. In this we are perhaps to see the threat of the Devil, who seeks whoever he may devour — but then again, perhaps it is just a wolf after a sheep, with the white dog barking a warning.
At left we find the Magi with another phonetic inscription:
He Magi Ta Dora
Loosely, “The Gifts of the Magi.”
At top, we see the Star of Bethlehem, and three angels, one of whom announces the birth to the flute-playing shepherd at right:
So there you have it — a little variation on the usual Eastern Orthodox scene of the Nativity.
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.
The image bears the usual title:
Р[О]ЖЕСТВО Г[ОСПО]ДА НАШЕГО И[СУ]СА ХР[ИС]ТА ROZHESTVO GOSPODA NASHEGO ISUSAKHRISTA
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.
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.
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 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.
The Eastern Orthodox (and consequently Russian) iconography related to the Birth of Jesus is a mixture of the discrepant birth stories found in the Matthew and Luke Gospels with apocryphal sources, primarily the Protoevangelion of James.
These stories, as we have seen, tell us of the parentage and birth of Mary, of the parentage and birth of John the Forerunner (the Baptist), and of the birth of Jesus and subsequent events.
Here is a Russian icon showing this mixture:
The title of the image is Rozhestvo Gospoda Nashego Isusa Khrista — “the Birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”
All of the relevant scenes are set in a framework of stylized “hills and palaces,” as the typical background elements of Russian icons are called.
The main central image is the Birth of Christ, showing a modification of the old iconography in that Mary is seated upright and facing the Christ Child, instead of lying down and facing away as in earlier usage. Three attendant angels stand at right, their hands covered with cloths to signify reverence:
Just below Mary a midwife washes the newborn Christ. Below the angels an old shepherd — identified as such by the title above his head — пастырь/pastuir’ — speaks with Joseph. In popular Russian belief, he is traditionally considered to be the Devil in disguise, tempting Joseph to doubt the virgin birth, but in this example he is simply a shepherd.
Turning then to top left, we see the three Magi arriving on their horses, with the Star of Bethlehem shining in the sky just before and above them:
Going down from that, we see Mary seated in a house, the Christ Child on her lap, receiving the Magi.
Below that an angel appears to the sleeping Joseph, warning him to take Mary and the newborn Christ child to Egypt.
The bottom scene depicts Herod the King asking the priests and scribes where the Christ is to be born.
To the right of that is the Slaughter of the Innocents:
Going up to top right, se see the three Magi departing on their horses, as a result of the scene just below, which is an angel warning them in their sleep not to return to Herod.
The middle right scene is the Flight to Egypt of Joseph and Mary, to save the Christ Child from the soldiers of Herod:
Below that, and slightly to the left, we see an apocryphal scene with the child John the Forerunner (Baptist) and his mother Elisaveta (Elizabeth) escaping from the soldiers of Herod, as recorded in the Protoevangelion of James:
” And Elizabeth, having heard that they were searching for John, took him and went up into the hill-country, and kept looking where to conceal him. And there was no place of concealment. And Elizabeth, groaning with a loud voice, says: O mountain of God, receive mother and child. And immediately the mountain was cleft, and received her. And a light shone about them, for an angel of the Lord was with them, watching over them.”
The final scene at lower right is also from the Protoevangelion of James. It is the killing of Zakharias/Zacharias, called a prophet in Eastern Orthodoxy, the father of John the Forerunner (Baptist):
“And Herod searched for John, and sent officers to Zakharias, saying: Where have you hidden your son? And he, answering, said to them: I am the servant of God in holy things, and I sit constantly in the temple of the Lord: I do not know where my son is. And the officers went away, and reported all these things to Herod. And Herod was enraged, and said: His son is destined to be king over Israel. And he sent to him again, saying: Tell the truth; where is your son? for you know that your life is in my hand. And Zakharias said: I am God’s martyr, if you shed my blood; for the Lord will receive my spirit, because you shed innocent blood at the vestibule of the temple of the Lord. And Zakharias was murdered about daybreak. And the sons of Israel did not know that he had been murdered.”
As the detail shows, we see a soldier killing Zakharias, and in the background is the altar with the Ten Commandments lying upon it, and above it a red angel of the Cherubim rank.
Just to the left of the soldier we see the child John in the arms of his mother Elizabeth, as they enter the cleft in the mountain.