Reading Some of the Best Known Artistic Depictions of the Nativity

Hidden Symbolism of Nativity Icons

An icon is called to elevate the mind of the beholder from the image to its prototype. Nativity icons tell us about the Gospel events that took place two thousand years ago and began anew the history of mankind.

The iconography of feasts has evolved over centuries with various elements of their imagery eventually being rethought and modified. Truly ingenious icons appeared over time, having been created not merely by man but through the intercession of the Holy Spirit. As a result, the icon painters embodied eternal and incorruptible content with the help of perishable material.

The Beginnings of Nativity Iconography

Stone Icon of The Nativity of Christ made in St Elisabeth Convent*

The Beginnings of Nativity Iconography

The events related to the Nativity of Christ began to be depicted as early as in the first centuries of Christianity. Most surviving historical monuments are located in Italy. The earliest of them are the frescoes in the catacombs where early Christians were forced to hide from persecution. A number of such images, dating back to the 2nd-4th centuries have been preserved in the catacombs of St Priscilla and St Sebastian.

Image of the Nativity in the catacombs

Image of the Nativity in the catacombs of St Priscilla in Rome. 2nd century AD

In the Middle Ages, the iconography of the Nativity of Christ was influenced by various sources describing this event. Among them are the Old Testament prophecies, narratives from apocrypha, and, most importantly, the Gospel story.

While the early images of the Nativity illustrated scenes from the Gospel of Luke, in the 4th century, the Gospel of Matthew also began to appear on icons, depicting the Magi coming to worship the Infant Christ. During the formation of Christianity, it was important to express the universal significance associated with the coming of the Saviour to all peoples of the earth. With that in mind, the Mother of God was often depicted sitting solemnly on a throne holding the infant Christ and vested in royal robes. The Magi, as representatives of pagan peoples, appeared in these icons bowing down and presenting their gifts to the Infant and His Mother.

In the 6th-7th centuries, iconography begins to take a more familiar shape, in which a modern Christian would recognize both Gospel narratives. Nativity icons began to depict the Virgin and the Child in a cave, surrounded by the animals, the shepherds, the angels and the magi. Their composition was in line with the holiday kontakion.

Adoration of the Magi, sarcophagus from the catacombs of St Agnes; 4th century.

Adoration of the Magi, sarcophagus from the catacombs of St Agnes; 4th century.

What is the Nativity Icon Really About?

The icon of the Nativity of Christ is not simply a depiction of the Gospel events. It has a much deeper significance and conveys the true meaning of the Feast, hidden in understanding the reason why God was born on earth among people.

Man was created in this world for constant communion with God. With the Fall, man lost this opportunity and therefore turned his life on earth into suffering. To restore the lost connection and the source of eternal life for people, God had to be born as a man in this world and then sacrifice Himself. In Baptism and the Eucharist, people again received the opportunity to commune and unite with God.

Icon of the Nativity of Christ from the monastery of St Catherine on Sinai, 7th century

Icon of the Nativity of Christ from the monastery of St Catherine on Sinai, 7th century

Following the theology of their era, icons sometimes get ahead of it. Approximately in the 6th century, the tradition of symbolic interpretation of the liturgy was established, making Eucharistic sacrifice the main theme in the iconography of the Nativity. The Nativity Feast began to be identified with the Sacrament of the Appearance of the Body and Blood of Christ, and its iconography developed as an attempt to comprehend the meaning of the Savior's coming into this world and a presage of His sacrifice.

An expressive metaphor, appearing over time on some Nativity icons, depicted the Infant Christ, tied with swaddling clothes, atop an altar-bed, instead of the manger.

Another tradition that can also be interpreted as a symbol of the Eucharistic sacrifice, originated from the apocrypha and introduced figures of midwives, washing the Infant in a baptismal font, resembling a chalice.

Iconography of the Nativity in the Russian Tradition

Novgorod icon of the Nativity of Christ, 15th century

Novgorod icon of the Nativity of Christ, 15th century

Russian icon painters developed the Byzantine iconography, which came to Russia after it was baptized. Russian icons, in comparison with Byzantine, were more conventional and vibrant. They also differed in composition, depicting all the figures (angels, magi, shepherds and midwives) forming several separate groups, symmetrically distributed around the central figures of the Virgin, the Child and the cave.

A spectacular example of ancient Russian icon-painting art is the Novgorod icon of the Nativity of Christ, currently kept in the Tretyakov Gallery. It was written in the 15th century, when the Russian iconographic type of Nativity was still being formed.

In this icon, the jubilation of nature, expressed through the trees with bright fruits and the light emanating from the Divine Child, is combined with the theme of the inevitability of sacrifice which can be read on the grave faces of those depicted in the icon. The Savior's manger no longer looks like an altar and resembles a stone coffin, typical for Russian iconography.

The Novgorod icon goes beyond capturing the mere event and focuses on the whole world being transformed at the moment of the Nativity of Christ. Its timeless reality depicts neither night nor darkness. Even the human figures in it do not cast any shadows. The icon painter tells us about the coming of the Savior to earth from the perspective of eternity, transforming his icon into an image of the age to come.

Icon of the Nativity of Christ from the iconostasis of the Annunciation Cathedral; 15th century

Icon of the Nativity of Christ from the iconostasis of the Annunciation Cathedral; 15th century

The icon from the iconostasis in the Moscow Kremlin's Annunciation Cathedral is considered a true masterpiece. There is not a single accidental detail in this icon, filled with the highest meaning.

Its composition is traditional and depicts the cave with Christ lying in a manger, surrounded by the rest of the figures. Their position is not accidental and represents the order in which they learned the mystery of God's birth (the animals are the closest, then the sinless angels, the shepherds and finally the magi).

The figure of the Child on the icon is the smallest, as a symbol of God's humility, shown forth in becoming a man. In contrast to the Child, the image of the Mother of God is the most sizable of all, as a symbol of the exaltation of the Virgin who gave birth to the God-man. In doing so, she overcame the separation between the earthly and heavenly worlds, bringing together people and angels. This is also signified by Her diagonal position in the icon, connecting the figures of Joseph and the angels. The position of all these figures is repeated symmetrically, which testifies to the spiritual unity of the characters, who appear to be immersed in sorrowful thoughts about the destiny of the Christ Child, born to be brought as a sacrifice.

The mountain in the icon repeats the outline of the body of the Theotokos, metaphorically referring to Isaiah's prophecy, in which the saints described the prototype of the Mother of God. 

“In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it” (Isa. 2: 2).

The shepherds walking towards the cave, with their gaze turned to the Holy Virgin, symbolize the peoples, calling on the Mother of God for many centuries in their prayers.

The icon painter managed to depict the silence filling the world at the moment when Christ came into it. Time is standing still in the icon, and the sky is coming down to earth where the Sun of Truth has shone forth.

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Despite carrying a symbolic meaning that can be explained, an icon cannot be regarded as an ordinary work of art, or interpreted with a ready set of cipher-keys. Similarly to the Church, whose nature is not from this world, icons are incomprehensible and belong to a different plane of comprehension. They can be understood or created only through a spiritual effort and the grace of the Holy Spirit.

January 01, 2022
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