In previous postings we have encountered the Slavic word sobor, which means “assembly,” but can also mean “council” or even “cathedral.”
There are several icon types having titles beginning with Sobor. Commonly these are icons depicting a gathering or assembly of persons relating in some way to the main Eastern Orthodox church festival celebrated on the previous day. The “church jargon” term generally used for such a secondary festival in English is synaxis, which is just the Greek word that Church Slavic translates as sobor.
We have seen in a previous posting, for example, the icon of the Sobor of John the Forerunner — the “Assembly of John the Forerunner” — which is the secondary festival following the major festival of the Bogoyavlenie — The Theophany — which is the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan by John.
Today we will look at another such icon. This one is of the sobor celebrated on the day following the Feast of the Nativity — the birth of Jesus. And this secondary festival celebrates the sobor of Mary, the Собор Пресвятыя Богородицы — Sobor Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui — the “Assembly of the Most Holy Mother of God.” The earliest-known example of this type dates to the 13th century, and appears to have developed in Serbia.
In the posting immediately preceding this one, we looked at the Marian icon “In You Rejoices,” based on a hymn to Mary. Similarly, the iconography of today’s image is based on the fourth stikheron (a kind of hymn) of the Great Vespers of the Feast of the Nativity of Jesus:
Что Ти принесем, Христе, яко явился eси на земли яко Человек нас ради? Каяждо бо от Тебе бывших тварей благодарение Тебе приносит: Ангели – пение; небеса – звезду; волсви – дары; пастырие – чудо; земля – вертеп; пустыня – ясли; мы же – Матерь Деву. Иже прежде век, Боже, помилуй нас».
“What shall we bring you, Christ, who have appeared on earth as man for our sake? For each creature made by you gives you thanks, bringing: The angels, their song; heaven, the star. The Wise Men, gifts; the shepherds, the miracle; the earth, the cave; the desert, the manger; and we the virgin mother. God, who is before all ages, have mercy on us.”
The two Marian icons — “In You Rejoices” and “Assembly of the Mother of God” are often confused, with the former sometimes even given the title of the latter. But the two types can be distinguished in that “In You Rejoices” has a domed church as its background, whereas the “Assembly of the Mother of God” is set against a background of hills. Both images include John of Damascus, which perhaps contributes to the problem, as does both hymns being in the same liturgical service.
The “Assembly of the Mother of God” illustrates elements of the stikheron given above.
In the center we see Mary with the child Jesus. Directly above her is a star (“heaven, the star”). Beside it are angels (“the angels, their song”). To her left are the three Magi (“the Wise Men, gifts”). To her right are shepherds (” the shepherds, the miracle”). Below we see Kosmas of Maiyum (Cosmas of Maiuma) and John of Damascus with scrolls bearing hymns. At left is a figure representing the earth holding the manger (“the earth, the manger) and at right another figure representing the desert (“the desert, the cave”) In the lower center is commonly a group that varies in composition from example to example and may include singers, a king or kings, patriarchs, etc.
In the icon illustrated on this page, the figure with a scroll standing just above and to the left of Mary appears to be the Prophet Isaiah; this figure is not common in the type.
Here is a pattern for the “Assembly of the Most Holy Mother of God” type from the Perm icon painter’s manual:
A common name for this icon type is “What Shall We Bring You.”
It is, of course, also found in Greek iconography, with the text reading:
Τι σοι προσενέγκωμεν Χριστέ, ότι ώφθης επί γης ὡς άνθρωπος δι’ ἡμάς;
What to you shall we bring, Christ, who appeared on earth as man for us;
έκαστον γαρ των ὑπό σού γενομένων κτισμάτων, την ευχαριστίαν σοι προσάγει·
for each creature made made by you gives thanks to you, bringing:
ὁι Άγγελοι τον ύμνον, — The angels the song
ὁι ουρανοί τον Αστέρα, — The heavens the star
ὁι Μάγοι τα δώρα, — The Magi the gifts
ὁι Ποιμένες το θαύμα, — The shepherds the miracle
ἡ γη το σπήλαιον, — The earth the cave
ἡ έρημος την φάτνην — The desert the manger
ἡμείς δε Μητέρα Παρθένον· ὁ προ αιώνων Θεός ελέησον ἡμάς.
We the virgin mother; the God who is before all ages have mercy upon us.
Here is a 16th century example from the Dokheiariou Monastery on Mount Athos, with the appropriate line above each element of the composition: