Friday, September 21, 2012

Blog Spotlight: A Reader's Guide to Orthodox Icons

This is another post in the continuing, if very occasional, series spotlighting blogs in the hope of giving them higher visibility.

This is one of my favorite blogs. I find myself heading over there every feast day to enrich my understanding of the day's icon. Just as attending the services and listening to their hymnography deepens your understanding of how the Church understands what is being celebrated, the icons express the same truths in their own language. And, just as in a language, the more exposure you get the better able you are to understand. So, if I see something strange in one icon (a man on a small fish, a demon on the end of a sword, a white flower in a saint's hand, etc.), when I come across it somewhere else I won't be confounded.

Together, the Great Feasts serve to tell us the story of the Incarnation, which has its climax in the centre of the year with the celebration of the “Feast of Feasts” – Pascha. It is therefore fitting that the first Great Feast of the Church year, which begins in September, is that of the Nativity of the Theotokos.

The early life of Mary, the Mother of God, up to the occasion of the Annunciation is described in the ancient Protoevangelium of James. Hymnography and iconography for the feasts celebrating Mary’s conception, birth, and dedication to the Temple as a child, all borrow from this early (c. 2nd century) account.

The Mother of God’s birth was miraculous, not because she was born without original sin, nor because she was born of a virgin, but instead because she was born of a man and her barren wife: Joachim and Anna.

The icon of the feast is a more-or-less faithful imaging of the protoevangelium, with the composition echoing the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ which Mary’s birth prepares the way for. Anna is reclining in a bed, in a similar way to how Mary herself reclines in icons of Christ’s Nativity. Below Anna, the infant Mary is being bathed by midwives, just as the infant Christ is washed by Salome in the icon of His own birth. Likewise, just as Joseph is shown removed from the main scene of the birth in Nativity icons, Mary’s father Joachim is also shown apart from the scene in icons of the Theotokos’ birth.

As for the differences, the main one is that the surroundings. Whereas Christ’s birth is shown to be in a cave, in the wilderness, the Mother of God’s birth is shown within the city walls, amid what appears to be a beautifully decorated house, because Joachim was “a man rich exceedingly” (Protoevangelium). Instead of a cave, Mary is inside Anna’s bed-chamber, which according to the protoevangelium was made into a sanctuary until the time Mary entered the Temple. Whereas Mary and the Christ-child are attended by angels in their relative solitude, around Anna is a hive of activity: the “undefiled daughters of the Hebrews” whom Anna brought into the bed-chamber to attend to her. A table by Anna shows the feast which Joachim prepared on Mary’s first birthday, to which were invited the scribes, priests and elders of Israel...

Complete article here.