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The Birth of Christ, this mega event of world history, is celebrated by the Holy Orthodox Church with doxology and compunction and is wondrously expressed in her melodious hymnography and peaceful iconography.
In the Church the simple Orthodox Christian lives the mystery of the Incarnation with his senses which are transformed to become a means of communion with the ineffable. Venerating the Nativity icon, he “sees” the theology of the Incarnation with his eyes and feels the delight of the Incarnation. But also from this single icon alone, the studier of the tasteless spiritual life can perceive the spiritual greatness, the mystical depth and the aesthetic beauty of Orthodox art that we usually call „Byzantine.‟ We find the Nativity icon in its completed form mostly in the post-iconoclastic period. In Greece, two churches from the 11th century have been preserved at the monasteries Hosios Loukas and Dafnion. We see the Nativity depiction in its most authentic form in their mosaics. Let‟s summarize the key elements that make up the icon. The mountain, „rocky, but graceful and bright coloured,‟ takes up the central portion. A dark cave in its belly is opened and there is a manger inside with the baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes. Mother Mary is lying on her side on a mattress. Sometimes she is depicted sitting or kneeling. Behind the manger, the heads of two good animals are raised. The ox and the donkey warm the Divine Infant with their breath. Outside the cave, at the bottom edge of the icon, a pensive Joseph sits, perhaps still having a secret affliction of doubt within him. The first bath which the midwife Salome made for the Newborn is depicted on the other side of the icon. To the right and left of the mountain, angels worship and glorify Christ or bring the joyous message to the Shepherds who stay up all night. A shepherd sits cross-legged playing the flute. Other shepherds with their flocks are also painted. On the other corner come the three Magi dressed in their exotic wardrobes, bringing their royal gifts. The brilliant star that guided them has stood above the cave, “like a dew drop hanging over Christ‟s head,” as the late Fotis Kontoglou writes. The iconographer-author completes the description of representation with the plain nature that adorns it: “Wild holly and fragrant herbs, myrtle, thyme and decorate but humble rocks, like no one has seen in the blessed mountains of our country.” We said at the start that the icon reveals the Nativity‟s theology and spiritual character. Before we examine what each element of the composition symbolically reveals, we will look at the whole composition along with its art style. The composition of elements from the historical reality (mountain, cave, manger, etc.) with the spiritual element of Heaven, symbolized by the golden background of the icon, and the unrealistic dimensional character of the painting gives us a visual composition of the earthly and the divine; the union of the human with the divine. And this is why the representation is not humanized like a gross made idol in the mirror. Nor does it remove the historicity of the earthly elements and components but transforms them. The composition follows more the hymnographic tradition related to the Apocrypha Gospels; especially in the details. So the cave is painted dark like the darkness of the pre-Christian world, where the Infant in swaddling clothes shines all white. In Western iconography, the little Christ is depicted naked while the Gospel clearly says, “She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes” (Luke 2:7). Every time we venerate the icon, the two livestock remind us that, “The ox knows his owner and the ass his master's crib: but Israel does not know me, and the people has not regarded me” (Is. 1:3). Christ and the Virgin occupy the central position in the composition. One has the impression that they
comprise the centre circle indicating the Virgin Mary‟s importance in the plan of man‟s salvation. But also indicates the importance of the human race and its contribution to the divine dispensation is emphasized trough the Panagia. Joseph is left out of this circuit. So immediately upon first glance, the believer becomes conscious of the conception without man and Joseph is indeed sitting thoughtfully, corroborating the great mystery with his ignorance but also his doubt. A Church troparion puts this question into remembrance: “Joseph spoke thus to the Virgin, „Mary, what is this doing that I see in you? I am at a loss and am amazed, and my mind is struck with dismay...Instead of honour, you have brought me shame” (Troparion of the 1st Hour, Nativity Service Joseph‟s skeptical stance gives courage to those tormented by logismoi of doubt regarding the mysterious Birth. Those who cannot accept the Gospel message with a simple heart, such as the kind-hearted shepherds, hope in God‟s mercy to overcome the doubts and various evil logismoi. For Joseph will give us the answer in another troparion: “I have searched the prophets and I have been warned by an Angel, and I am persuaded that Mary will give birth to God in a way beyond explanation.” The Magi were wise and benevolent seekers of truth of their time. Here they become representatives of those who search and journey long roads to find the incarnate truth, which is Christ having been born. The affectionate detail of the Baby‟s first bath still remains. Perhaps sometimes this scene seems strange to believers but the tradition had already been accepted by the 6th century to date, with occasional exceptions. In this tender event, apart from one intimacy that some theologians give to the icon, they see another corroboration of faith in the Logo‟s incarnation. They believe even the immersion into the bath foreshadows the Lord‟s Baptism. If we make a comparison with Western iconography, especially after the Renaissance, we find several differences that sometimes signify the difference in spirit between the two traditions. The cave becomes a stable seen with romantic eyes embellishing it. Panagia is a beautiful peasant girl and Christ a cute chubby baby, who is even depicted nude. Joseph takes a position next to the Infant, equal to the Virgin Mary. The Adoration of the Magi becomes a multifaceted parade of the aristocracy of the painter‟s time period. The sentimentalism with its romantic connotations and sometimes classicist recollections sidesteps the Mystery transforming the symbolic representation of this ineffable mystery into a fine inventory of mythic-historic events within the framework of Humanist deformity and optimistic harmony. Returning to the Orthodox Nativity Icon, we see things that transcend logic and the intricate order. We see things strange to our reasoning. For example, Christ is shown in a manger and at the same time in a bath. The Magi are represented twice. The Orthodox iconographer uses time freely because Christ is outside time. Because if He took on flesh and was born at a historical moment, He doesn‟t cease to be yesterday and today and tomorrow. By means of the icon, the iconographer presents us with this transcendence of time, the liturgical time, where everything is present. The Orthodox Nativity icon formats the Church‟s theology, finding the measure between the divine and the human it glorifies the Incarnation with colours and shapes, with tenderness but without the sweetness. It offers the faithful the entrance gate to the Mystery as well as aesthetic joy and gladness of true art.
Orthodox Witness, No. 19, September-December 1986.
Byzantine mosaic of the Nativity, Daphni Monastery, Greece
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