The Russian Nativity Icon
The Russian nativity icon vividly portrays the Christmas perspective of the Orthodox Church. Through symbolism and teaching about Gods incarnation (becoming human) the icon presents Christmas as a “feast of re-creation.”
The word icon is a Greek word meaning “image” or “likeness.” The nativity icon is done in an art style dating back to the sixth century Byzantine Empire. Orthodox iconography is a purely idealistic art form. Through the Byzantine style we see forms that are not meant to be realistic in nature, but abstractions that reveal theological concepts.
The Virgin Mary and baby Jesus are found in the center of the icon because the birth of Christ is the main subject of the painting. Bound by swaddling cloths, the Christ child lies upon a coffin-like manger within a mountainside cave. Christ’s birth brings spiritual light to illumine the darkness of sin, death, and hell as shown by the black cave. Mentioned by Justin Martyr, an early theologian, and in legend, the cave replaces the stable in Byzantine nativity scenes. The swaddling cloths, which resemble burial wrappings, allude to Christ’s death. Christ is guarded by an ox and an ass, signifying the prophecy of Isaiah: “The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know; my people do not understand.”
Mary’s figure is larger than the rest, a sign of her importance in Orthodox piety as the new Eve. Her reclining position emphasizes Jesus’ human nature and the Orthodox concern that it not be thought of as illusory. The gold bed sets Mary apart, emphasizing her importance.
Also out of scale, the idealized mountain landscape visualizes Habakkuk’s messianic prophecy: “God came from Teman, and the Holy One from Mount Paran.” References to the mountain in the Orthodox Christmas liturgy signify creation’s fulfillment and salvation. In certain Christmas hymns Mary is called the “holy mountain.”
The upper half of the icon portrays angels glorifying God and announcing Jesus’ birth to humankind. Their hands are veiled, symbolizing contact with the holy. They bend down to bring the good news of the Savior’s birth to the shepherds, who represent the humble, and to the Wise Men, who represent the learned. Each of the Wise Men is of a different age, attesting to Orthodox belief that God reveals himself to persons without regard for age or worldly experience.
The shepherd located center right joyfully plays his pipe in response to the angel’s message. He represents God’s chosen people, the Jews, who have received direct word from God about the Messiah’s birth. The merging of events occurring at different times in one painting, such as the visits of the shepherds and the magi, is known as “continuous narration,” a technique that was used frequently by medieval artists.
Two midwives, in the lower right-hand corner of the painting, prepare the infant’s bath. They illustrate the Orthodox teaching that Jesus was subject to humanity’s bodily requirements and needed to be washed like any other child having been born of its mother.
Across from them, the devil, in the guise of an old, bent shepherd, tempts a pensive Joseph. The figure of Joseph is separated from those of Jesus and Mary, indicating that he was not the baby’s father. According to Orthodox liturgical texts, his sad expression comes from the devil telling him that the virgin birth was impossible since it was contrary to nature’s laws. Thus, the icon seeks to warn us about the heresy of denying the virgin birth. Mary, however, gazes compassionately at Joseph, an indication that the Orthodox tradition counsels compassion and tolerance toward those in doubt over this birth’s mystery.
One final detail, the Tree of Jesse, located bottom center, represents the words of the prophet Isaiah: “A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him” (Isaiah 11:1-2).
The icon’s gold background gives it a warm, inviting atmosphere. The red colors direct attention to the figure of Mary, who also is draped in red.
Most of the icon’s figures appear in profile and are two dimensional. Their flatness is somewhat relieved by the light and dark linear highlights added to their garments, giving a sense of drapery folding over their bodily contours. The triangular mountain landscape is treated in a similar way. The uninitiated tend to associate the flat appearance of icons with primitive art, although icons actually are painted according to a series of sophisticated rules. The icon painter is not concerned with self-expression, but rather with the expression of the church’s holy tradition. To attain true status as an icon, the painting must be blessed by remaining on the church altar during a mass.
The spiritual purpose of the icon is reflected in the fact that icons never appear realistic and the conventional laws of perspective are not followed. Byzantine icons use an “inverted perspective.” Unlike conventional Western painting, where everything disappears on the horizon as it appears to the naked eye, an icon is painted as if the vanishing point were within the person viewing the icon.
In Orthodox churches, an icon of the nativity decorates the “iconostasis,” a screen with icons in front of the altar area. “The Nativity of Christ” engages us in contemplation of God who came among us to recreate his universe and his people.
~From Phillip Gugel, in CHRISTMAS: The Annual of Christmas Literature and Art, Volume Fifty-six, edited by Leonard Flachman, Karen Walhof, Jennifer Fast, and Richard Hillert