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September 1 marks the start of the liturgical year of the Orthodox Church. This goes back both to the Romans, who assessed a tax called the Indiction on this date, and to the Jewish calendar, with Rosh Hashanna marking the new year at about this same time. As this is the start of the liturgical cycle of great feasts and great fasts, I’ve decided to put out a series of posts on one of the most recognizable features of Orthodoxy: The Icon.
There are 12 Great Feasts in the Orthodox liturgical year, plus Pascha (Easter), which is the Feast of Feasts (there are also 12 in Catholicism, but with differences). In this series, each part to be posted close to the feast, I’ll be looking both at the event commemorated, and at its iconographic depiction. Through this series I will also try to lay out the functions of icons, their liturgical use, and their accepted proper forms both historically, and as they have developed throughout time (and have both departed from, and returned to their older roots in the process). Here and there I’ll fill in with some additional posts on related topics, certain saints, and the major other icons. Our first selection, corresponding with the first of the Great Feasts, is the Nativity of the Theotokos, which occurs on the eighth of September, just a few days hence. (Nota Bene: any errors in this series are my own fault.)
The liturgical year in part follows the lives and ministries of two people, Jesus and his mother Mary, as well as significant events in the lives of the Apostles, and of the Church itself. Two of the Marian feasts mirror or foreshadow similar feasts of Christ. Thus we have the Nativity of the Theotokos, and later the Nativity of Christ; and we have the Presentation of Mary at the temple, followed later by the Presentation of Christ at the temple. These two foreshadowing events of the Marian feasts, however, do not celebrate events depicted in the Gospels of the Bible we know today, but events that nonetheless entered the Christian cannon at a very early date. These events are told in the apocryphal gospel of James (The Protoevangelium of James), which, while not accepted into the formal cannon of scripture, is nonetheless considered to illustrate something that was spiritually true or necessary, even if not completely verifiable.
In the case of the Nativity of the Theotokos, as Mary had to have been very special to have been chosen by Gd for his Incarnation on Earth, so it must be reasoned that her own parents had to have been special and godly too, so this feast celebrates her parents, and her own birth, as a foreshadowing of Christ’s coming.
In the Protoevangelium of James, Mary’s parents are named Joachim and Anna. Of Joachim we are told little, but we can infer that as Mary and Elizabeth (mother of John the Baptist) are first cousins, Anna must have been the sister of Elizabeth’s mother. In a pattern familiar to any reader of The Old Testament / Torah, Joachim and Anna are said to be old and barren, and well past the point of child-bearing years. As with Abraham and Sarah before, and Elizabeth and Zacharias yet to come, Mary’s conception and birth is itself a miraculous gift to her parents (though the Orthodox do not refer to it as “immaculate”).
What is the spiritual meaning of the feast? I’ll leave it to the words of Father Thomas Hopko (of blessed memory):
The fact that there is no Biblical verification of the facts of Mary’s birth is incidental to the meaning of the feast. Even if the actual background of the event as celebrated in the Church is questionable from an historical point of view, the divine meaning of it “for us men and for our salvation” is obvious. There had to be one born of human flesh and blood who would be spiritually capable of being the Mother of Christ, and she herself had to be born into the world of persons who were spiritually capable of being her parents.
Icons serve several purposes in Orthodoxy. They are not meant to be realistic depictions of events, but rather, coming from a time prior to general literacy, meant to illustrate the spiritual truths of events or people. They are pure symbolism, and the symbols must follow certain conventions so that their meanings are understandable to all, and all must point to Christ. The dangers of overly realistic depictions are that of sentimentality, or attachment to a specific image in the mind’s eye as being the “authentic” one, which would in turn lead the viewer to latch on to that image above all others. Think how jarring it is to see an actor in a film depicting someone you know well, especially if the depiction is poorly done – you have trouble moving past that actor’s portrayal and so never engage fully into the story. So it is with iconography – by remaining at the symbolic level, you can, and indeed must focus on the narrative and spiritual truths depicted, and need not be stalled at the superficial level.
Some conventions to bear in mind:
- The perspective of the image may be distorted, or even inverted. Figures, shapes, and objects at the back may be the same size, or even larger than the foreground images.
- Even if the events depicted occurred indoors, all icons depict everything out of doors. This is because nothing is hidden from Gd. If an event did occur indoors, then a drape will be laid across the top of the image.
- Time is flattened. Multiple things may be shown all at once, out of sequence, with the same people shown multiple times.
- The colors worn by people have their meanings too.
- Not all icons of an even may show exactly the same things. Some will leave out some details that others include, but they all will show the major event itself.
I’ll bring up other conventions, as well as differences in traditions (such as Byzantine, Russian, and modernist) throughout the series as appropriate.
The traditional icons of the Nativity of the Theotokos all depict Anna laying in her bed, with the infant Mary swaddled and laying in a cradle of some sort, or about to receive a bath, or perhaps both separately. Anna is attended by midwives and may or may not be still pregnant, but Joachim is not by her side at her bed. Joachim may be shown elsewhere in one of several ways: receiving the news of Mary’s conception from the Archangel Gabriel, embracing Anna in joy of their good news, admiring his daughter at her cradle, at a distance fretting over Anna’s labors, or with Anna and Mary together elsewhere. The focus of the icon is nearly always on Anna herself, often in her birth pangs.
Regardless of the details, the story is always the same. Anna has / is giving birth to Mary, the future Theotokos, and her arrival in the world is something Christians celebrated and marked at a very early period in church history. Why is Mary called Theotokos? Theotokos is a Greek word which means “the birth-giver of Gd”. Gd, the infinite I Am, chose her to be the vessel of His incarnation, His becoming, for a time, a living and breathing human being like us, in the form of his son, Jesus Christ.
There are numerous books on icons, but I’ll give 2 favorites:
The Open Door, by Frederica Matthews Green
Beyond the Image, by Katherine Khorey and David DeJonge (you can get it cheaper on Amazon, but this is the author’s own site, which also sells icons)