The Nativity Icon
Christmas came a bit late for early Christians. It was not declared a separate holiday from the Epiphany until 354, but once in place it has become the most important holiday after Easter to the Orthodox and perhaps trumps Easter just about everywhere else.
Some version of the tableau below has no doubt arrived at your home in the form of a Christmas greeting over the holidays. Since the image has been in vogue since the 4th century AD, I decided explain a little about its traditional symbolism.
Mary as central to the Incarnation is the largest figure and she is either surrounded by a red mandorla (halo) or wearing a red cape, the colour of immortality over a blue dress
symbolizing her mortality. Christ sleeps beside her in a cave or just outside of one. This cave is present in almost all Greek icons and represents the unredeemed state of man until, of course, Christ’s sacrifice restored Human nature to the state it was in before the Fall. That’s a heavy weight of symbolism but Orthodoxy has never shied away from that!
Christ is wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a crib. Both the wrapping and the crib could equally suggest a burial,- quite purposefully as the image is meant to foreshadow His death – something Mary appears to sense as her gaze is always more pensive than happy.
This three small figures riding up to the cave are the Three Wise Men, bringing the traditional gifts that would have been presented to royalty in those days: gold, frankincense and myrrh. In early icons, they were dressed in the alien garb of Persians, stressing the willingness of eastern religions to give way to the new religion.
A donkey and an ox always hover over the new born, warming Him with their breath. They have been there from the earliest times and represent the tribes of the Jews and the Gentiles, both of whom will receive the “Good Word” (a reference to Isaiah). They seem to multiply in both number and species in modern Nativities thus losing their original symbolic oomph.
At the top of the icon Angels sing praises and announce the child’s arrival to a shepherd ( or two or three) as stated in the Gospels and below and to one side poor Joseph always sits rather glumly because, no matter how wonderful, he is still a father to a child that is not his own.
The old man talking to him is not always present. He is the external form of Joseph’s doubts the devil himself telling him reject the entire sequence of events. Of course, Joseph resists this negative message. The halo proves that. This little bit of domestic realism would have appealed to the icons’ intended audience in the Graeco-Roman world and would have given proof that doubters, even someone in Joseph’s unenviable position, could be won over by the Christian message.
Since there is no Time in icons, Christ can be bathed by a servant girl or two) at the same time he is resting in his cradle. The entire sequence of events, angel’s announcement, the birth, the father’s moment of doubt, the washing of the child, the arrival of the Magi are happening, iconically speaking sub aeternitatis: under the aspect of eternity.
Mary has three stars on her cloak, one on her head and one on each of her shoulders. Their symbolism is weighty – that she was a virgin before conception, during her pregnancy and after Christ was born – to me a strange notion, but one that the Orthodox Church has insisted upon. (See M is for Mary in the Blog)
At the top of the icon, a circle of some sort and a ray points to the child, to show His heavenly origin, symbolized in more modern icons by a pointed star.
Other figures may be added, but this is the essential tableau!