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 Baba Solomiya (Salome) — a character 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.
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 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.
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, traditionally considered to be the Devil in disguise, tempts Joseph to doubt the virgin birth.
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.
As we saw in a previous posting, the story of the parentage of Mary and of her birth, as found in icons, comes largely from the non-biblical Protoevangelion of James. We found it presents Joachim and Anna as childless, but both prayed and their prayers were granted. Anna gave birth to Mary. You will recall also that Anna had promised that if her prayers for a child were answered, she would give the child to God:
“As the Lord my God lives, if I give birth to either male or female, I will bring it as a gift to the Lord my God; and it shall minister to Him in holy things all the days of its life.”
We have already discussed, in a previous posting, the icon type “The Birth of the Most Holy Mother of God,” a formulaic “birth” image (see posting on “The Four Births” icon). So the next significant icon type in this apocryphal cycle is that which shows Anna keeping her promise.
According to the Protoevangelion, at the age of three Mary was brought by her parents to live in the Temple in Jerusalem:
“…and Joachim said: Invite the daughters of the Hebrews that are undefiled, and let them each take a lamp, and let them stand with the lamps burning, that the child may not turn back, and her heart may be captivated from the temple of the Lord. And they did so until they went up into the temple of the Lord. And the priest received her, and kissed her, and blessed her, saying: The Lord has magnified your name in all generations. In you, on the last of the days, the Lord will manifest His redemption to the sons of Israel. And he set her down upon the third step of the altar, and the Lord God sent grace upon her; and she danced with her feet, and all the house of Israel loved her.”
So that is the first of today’s icon types: The “Entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple.” In Slavic it is titled Vvedenie vo Khram Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui — “The Entrance of the Most Holy Mother of God into the Temple” — and in Greek often simply Τα Εισόδια της Θεοτόκου/Ta Eisodia tes Theotokou — “The Entrance of the Birthgiver of God.”
Here is a 14th century fresco example from the Khilandari Monastery on Mount Athos in Greece:
In some Russian examples, as in this one, the word Tserkov (“Church”) is found instead of Khram (“Temple”)
We see Joachim and Anna at left, and a group of girls accompanying the child Mary into the Temple. The painter has even thrown in a couple of angels. Often these handmaidens carry long candles, but here the painter has omitted them.
At right is the priest Zakharias, receiving Mary.
If we look closely at the upper right corner, we see the painter has added a very small image of the angel Gabriel flying down to announce to the young woman Mary that she is to bear a child.
That leads us on to the next major icon type, which in this case combines elements from the Protoevangelion and from the New Testament. It is the “Annunciation to the Most Holy Mother of God” (Blagoveshchenie Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui).
According to the Protoevangelion, when Mary had grown older, the high priest Zakharias asked that all of the widowers be brought to the Temple, each bringing a rod. Among those who came was the old man Joseph. The priest took all the rods and prayed over them, and when he gave them back, a dove flew out of Joseph’s rod and settled on his head. That was the sign that Joseph was to take Mary into his house, which he did. So now the Joseph of the story of the birth of Jesus has entered the picture.
After she moved into Joseph’s keeping, Mary was chosen by lot to spin the royal purple and scarlet yarn from which, combined with other (lesser) colors spun by other pure young women, the veil of the Temple was to be woven. And that sets the scene for the Annunciation:
Here is an example of the Annunciation that combines both the stylized manner preserved by the Old Believers as well as considerable Western influence, which we see in the more realistic, expansive, and rather baroque interior, as well as in the painting of the clouds.
At the top we see Gospod Savaof, “Lord Sabaoth,” who is God the Father, sending the angel Gabriel as messenger to Mary.
Just below that is a small image of Mary standing at a well, with Gabriel in the air above her. This, again, is an event from the Protoevangelion. Mary was engaged in spinning the purple yarn when she decided to go to the well:
“And she took the pitcher, and went out to fill it with water. And, behold, a voice saying: Hail, you who have received grace; the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women! And she looked round, on the right hand and on the left, to see whence this voice came. And she went away, trembling, to her house, and put down the pitcher; and taking the purple, she sat down on her seat, and drew it out.”
So that is what we see in the small image: Mary standing at the well, hearing a voice, but looking around and seeing no one. This event is the lead-in to the actual appearance of Gabriel to Mary, which makes up the primary image in this large icon. One also, however, finds separate icons of the Благовещение у колодца/Blagoveshchenie u kolodtsa — “The Annunciation at the Well.”
According to the Protoevangelion, here is what happened (of course this combines with the Gospel story of the annunciation):
“And, behold, an angel of the Lord stood before her, saying: Fear not, Mary; for you have found grace before the Lord of all, and you shall conceive, according to His word. And she hearing, reasoned with herself, saying: Shall I conceive by the Lord, the living God? and shall I bring forth as every woman brings forth? And the angel of the Lord said: Not so, Mary; for the power of the Lord shall overshadow you: wherefore also that holy thing which shall be born of you shall be called the Son of the Most High. And you shall call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins. And Mary said: Behold, the servant of the Lord before His face: let it be to me according to your word.”
So we see that Eastern Orthodox iconography really has two annunciations: a “Proto-annunciation” (Предблаговещение/Predblagoveshchenie) taken from the apocrypha (also called the “Annunciation at the Well), then the standard biblical annunciation, with of course various details added here and there from the Protoevangelion.
Looking at the main image in the icon shown above, we see the Archangel Gabriel depicted twice. This is very common in Russian icons of the Annunciation. Why is he shown twice? Because the first time represents him entering, and the second time shows him actually standing before Mary. Because his face is usually turned away in the first “entrance” depiction, some interpret this as his speaking invisibly to Mary in the Proto-Annunciation. So now, at last, we have Gabriel, blooming flower in hand, announcing to Mary that she will give birth to Jesus.
On the table is a book, an element we often see in Western European Annunciation iconography, in which Mary is shown reading a holy book as Gabriel enters her room. Later Russian iconography (beginning in the 17th century) borrowed this from the West, whereas according to the earlier tradition, Mary was spinning the royal purple rather than reading a book when Gabriel appeared to her. In some Western examples the book is a Psalter; in others, as borrowed by Russia, it is the prophecy of a virgin giving birth as found in Isaiah 7:14. The presence of a book in the Annunciation is a Western element that developed during the Carolingian period (9th century c.e.), and was intended to represent Mary’s pious learning.
In older depictions, of course, we would not see an actual interior; we would just see buildings in the background, and a red cloth hanging across supports to show that we are to understand it as being an interior scene. This old manner of depicting interiors was sometimes used in the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly by Old Believer painters, but often the “new” Western manner of actually depicting an interior was used, as in this “mixed” example.
One also often sees, in the older forms, the Holy Spirit coming down in the form of a dove in a beam of light from heaven.
Here is a fresco of the “Proto-Annunciation” from Vysokie Dechani, in Serbia, though the inscription identifies it merely as the Blagovyeshchenie — “Annunciation” to the “Mother of God.”
Today’s icon type is very easy to recognize. It is commonly called “The Four Births.” It is also sometimes called the Доброчадие/Dobrochadie.
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 traditionally is 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”:
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 old Russian example. The inscription in Cyrillic at the top reads transliterated:
zh s s ROSTvo GA NASHEGO IS KH A
If you have been reading past postings on this site, you will know that the long horizontal squiggles above the letters in the original inscription indicate abbreviations, and you will also know that smaller letters written below those squiggles and above the larger letters of the inscription are letters to be inserted in the abbreviations. So, keeping that in mind, you will be able to read the inscription in full as:
ROZHESTVO GOSPODA NASHEGO ISUSA KHRISTA
And that means literally, “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.” That is the title of this icon type, one of the major church festivals of the Eastern Orthodox year.
In this icon we find again those early and odd stylized “stepped” hills made of forms that often look like a naked female torso topped by breasts.
The main figure is that of Mary, who has given birth and is reclining on a cloth with her back turned to the newborn Christ Child. 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.
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.”
In the upper part of the icon are four angels, three on the left, and one on the right, announcing the birth to the single shepherd who stands looking upward to the right of Mary. On the left, we see the three Magi (“Wise Men”), who actually would have been astrologers. The Slavic text of Matthew calls them Volsvi, which relates to the modern Russian word volshebstvo, meaning “magic.”
At lower left, we see the husband, Joseph, sitting in deep thought with his chin resting on his left hand. He too looks worried, and with reason. According to old folk tradition, the 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.
Icons tend to ignore chronology, mixing a number of related scenes together, and that is what we have already seen in this example, with the angelic annunciation to the shepherds combined with the arrival of the Magi. We see another such “out of time” incident on the lower right, where the serving woman Salome is washing the Christ Child after his birth. Her assistant (she is a midwife known as Zelomi in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew) is pouring the washing water into a basin. And who is that shepherd in the hairy garment talking to Salome?
Well, in many examples of this icon type (though not this one), it is that hairy-garmented old fellow who is shown talking to Joseph — the tempting Devil, in folk tradition. But here he is shown talking to Salome. 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.
I need only add that the “divine light” coming down from heaven in the top center of the picture represents the Star of Bethlehem that guided the Magi.
Not the cheeriest of “Christmas” images, this 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.