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Insights into the Eastern Christian Iconography
For the Eastern Church the icon is not a means to put the imagination into motion. The icon is not a picture; it is rather a vehicle of grace and life.
It elevates and purifies the faithful by bringing him in the presence of the invisible kingdom of God.
Today we shall explain in a simple way the symbolism of the icon of the nativity above.
This icon follows a traditional motif.
At the centre is the Virgin Mary and Mother of God kneeling in adoration in front of her son, Jesus. Joseph, her spouse, is also kneeling in adoration, but he is positioned at a lower level than that of Mary. Below there is a shepherd sitting serenely and playing his pipe. Some sheep are turned toward Joseph. Behind the Virgin there are the Angelic host pointing to the star of Bethlehem and seemingly guiding the three Wise Men who are approaching with bowed heads in veneration, bringing their gifts. To the right, a shepherd, prompted by an angel is coming to the grotto carrying in his shoulders a lamb to offer to the Holy Family.
Baby Jesus is in the centre of the dark grotto wrapped in swaddling clothes. His face is that of an older child. His crib is not in the shape of a manger, but rather in that of a tomb.
The surface of the top of the grotto is very rough, sharp and as if broken. In the rays of the star there is the form of a little cross. Sparse vegetation is present.
The Virgin is clothed in a purple/red robe over a blue dress. Three stars are on her robe, one on each shoulder and one on her headdress. On the top of the icon there is the Greek inscription saying The Nativity of Christ. Next to the Virgin Mary the first and last letters of her name “Mother of God” (M R – G d) and next to Jesus likewise the first and last letters of his name, (J s – C- t) i.e. Jesus Christ, in Greek.
What is the meaning of all this?
Obviously, the important person here is first of all Jesus, who is lying at the centre of the icon and in the middle of the dark grotto: The Son of God and Son of Mary, comes into our world, darkened by sin and evil.
His crib in the form of a tomb reminds us his purpose of coming to be one of us: He comes to freely give His life for our salvation. His serious non-babyish countenance denotes who he is, namely, the Wisdom of God.
The Virgin Mary is on a plane above the Magi and the shepherds and Joseph, because she is the Immaculate Mother of God (Aspilos Theotokos). The colours of her clothes are not random: purple/red is the colour of royalty, but also of Divinity; blue is the colour of humanity. She is wearing purple over blue, because she is all-human, (blue), however, she is clothed (from above, through grace) Divinity (purple). The three stars on her denote her status: Virgin before, during and after the Birth of Christ.
The presence of the animals, in and outside the grotto symbolize the eventual redemption of all nature, i.e. of the whole universe.
The rugged and broken earth symbolizes the irruption of the Divine into our world and the rupture of the natural laws, that is the Virgin Birth, the Incarnation of the Son of God, the Salvation through His death and the redemption of the whole world.
As we can see from this example, in Byzantine iconography nothing is left to chance. The different icons are stylized in a very definitive way in order to proclaim through the beauty and symbolism of colours and postures and landscape etc. the truths of Faith.
Historically, this style and motifs became more-or-less fixed especially after the long conflict of Iconoclasm that troubled the Eastern Church for almost a hundred-and-twenty years, (726 A.D.-843 A.D.), starting with the Emperor Leo III who banned the icons.
After all, the icon is the result of the faith and life of the Church. It is the life of the Church lived in Christ. Its beauty awakens vital forces of life. God is Beauty par excellence. Christ showed us the fullness of beauty and of being. The icon carries within it the love of God’s beauty and the beauty of His love.
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