The Icon of the Nativity

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Byzantine Iconography has the ability to portray a whole story in a snap shot, without necessarily all having had happened during the same moment. The Icon of the Nativity of Christ typically shows 5 scenes.

In the central scene, we find Mary, the Theotokos, laying in a cave and the Son she bore, Jesus Christ, is shown in the manger next to her (a manger is not a stable, but rather is where animals eat out of, so don’t get confused). Typically a donkey and an ox are show in the cave, while these do not come from either nativity stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, we do find these animals in the Old Testament Old Testament in Isaiah 1:3, “The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” (The Roman Catholic Pope just recently said that these animals are just part of a myth, there is no gospel evidence for these animals being there. Whoever first “wrote” this icon clearly wanted all of us to know that Jesus was the Messiah by visually referencing Isaiah.)

There are still a couple other things to notice about the cave. The inside of the Cave is completely black, representing the darkness and sin in the world and that Christ is our light. Christ is dressed in swaddling clothes, which seems normal for a baby, but it also helps us look forward to the Crucifixion and lying in the tomb (the cave also represents the tomb in this icon too).

In the bottom left corner, we find Joseph talking to a ragged old man. This ragged old man is supposed to represent Satan (aka the Devil). He is tempting Joseph to not believe the virgin birth of Christ. In many icons you see the Theotokos looking in his direction, in a way saying, no this is true; believe the miracle God has done.

In the bottom right corner, we find women cleaning Christ. This is to show that he was born as a real 100% human and that just as all babies, needed cleaned after birth.

In the top left corner, we find Wisemen (or Magi, as we traditionally call them in Orthodoxy) being led by the star.

In the top right corner, we find the angel proclaiming the news of the birth of Christ to the shepherds, from Luke 2:8-20.

Lastly, in the bottom center there is typically a tree there, though this seems like it may be unimportant, it also has symbolism too. This is to represent the “Root of Jesse.” Jesse was King David’s father. King David is a forefather of Christ and hence, so is Jesse. The prophecy, which comes from Isaiah 11:1-2 reads, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him.” This is obviously a prophecy of Christ being born of a virgin mother.

Lastly, sometimes we find a man playing an instrument in these icons and unfortunately, I have no clue nor could find any information on this man. My only thought would be to say that this comes from Final Psalm, Psalm 150 – “Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre.” We use this Psalm as verses in between hymns all the time, so it would be appropriate that the visual icon have a reference this.

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This post was written by Andrew Athanasiou

About Andrew Athanasiou

Andrew is a student of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, located in Brookline, Massachusetts. Andrew is a Masters of Divinity Student who is also a Seminarian. Andrew is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and his knowledge comes from five major sources: Greek Orthodox Seminary; Greek Orthodox Summer Camp; both being taught and teaching in Greek Orthodox Sunday School; and finally further readings and interests in other theological areas.