I found this Christmas icon in a group of old Russian icons. I thought I’d share it here on my blog for the benefit of those who enjoy iconography. It tells the Christmas story/drama in a pictorial fashion. As Michel Quenot said, “theology in imagery, the icon expresses through color what the Gospel proclaims in words”.
I haven’t figured out every detail of it, but here’s my best shot at it:
Starting at the top left: we have the annunciation in which the archangel Gabriel is telling the Theotokos (Mary) the good news of the salvation of the world. I’m not too sure who the figure to the far left is who is holding a scroll. My guess would be righteous Simeon from who states in Luke 2:29-32,
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.
The scroll in his hand may indicate he was one of the ones who translated the Septuagint.
To the right of the Annunciation, we have the Theotokos explaining to her betrothed, Joseph, that she is pregnant with child from the Holy Spirit. Joseph had a hard time believing her, but being a good and righteous man, he did not want to see her put to public humiliation and perhaps even death, so he was going to divorce her quietly. In the next scene, we see an angel coming to Joseph in his sleep, affirming that this child was conceived of the Holy Spirit.
At the top right, we have the decree of Caesar regarding the census. The Virgin Mary, her betrothed Joseph, and Joseph’s son (James) get ready to go to Bethlehem.
The middle section of the icon does not follow a chronological sequence going from left to right. At the very center is Christ, He and His nativity are the focal point of the entire icon. Therefore, everything is arranged around Him rather than Him being fit into a more chronologically proper sequence.
To the far left of Christ in the cave, we have the righteous Joseph, the Theotokos, and St. James all heading toward Bethlehem. Perhaps the Theotokos is explaining to her betrothed that it is time to give birth and James is pointing to the cave.
At the center is the cave in which Christ was born. Christ is wrapped in grave linens to foreshadow His death. We see animals behind Him, celebrating the redemption of all creation with their Savior. Three angels are worshiping the Christ child. The Virgin Mary is looking toward Joseph, interceding on his behalf for he is struggling with doubts. We sing the popular hymn, “What child is this?” but he was wondering, “Whose child is this?” The devil is depicted as an old man, tempting Joseph with doubts. The angels and the shepherds may have been for Joseph’s benefit as much as anyone else’s. In the end, Joseph overcomes his doubts and the temptations of the devil and believes in God’s word.
To the top left of the cave, we have three magi following a star (they also appear on the far right, and a little ways further down on the left. Perhaps all of their motion is to emphasize that they were on a long journey seeking our Lord.) To the right of that are two angels announcing to the shepherds the good tidings:
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:11)
The shepherds are located to the far right of the cave, one of whom is looking toward the star shining just above the cave. There are, of course, sheep around them.
Between Christ and the shepherds are two midwives washing the Christ child after His birth to emphasize that He had a fairly normal human birth, and He did not suddenly appear on earth in the form of a man, but was, very truly in every sense, a man. Fully human, fully God.
To the right of Christ in the cave, we have the three magi coming to visit Him. We see that this is set at a later time and not in the cave. While modern day manger scenes usually depict everything happening at once, the magi came a bit later when the righteous family had found some housing.
We then see angels warning the magi in their sleep not to return to Herod, but to go home a different way. So, they exit to the right though they came in from the left.
Directly below Christ in the cave, we see Herod sitting on a throne with the Jewish scholars to the left and the three magi to the right. So, we’re jumping back in time a little bit. Herod is attempting to ascertain the location of the Christ child so that he can kill Christ. Sadly, Herod ruled as a fearful tyrant: fearful of anyone who threatened his power. There is a story that one of his sons was playing with his friends and pretending to be king. Herod overheard this and strangled his own child just in case the boy had any real ambitions.
The Jewish scholars are, to some degree, traitors. For they knew the bloody history of Herod and should have surmised that he wished to destroy any potential competition: that is, he wanted to kill their own Messiah. But they told Herod where the Messiah was to be born anyway, and Herod then issued the terrible decree in which many children were ruthlessly slaughtered.
The bottom left is the depiction of him authorizing the decree to murder innocent children and then we see the soldiers doing just that. According to the most ancient tradition of the church, Herod was especially looking for John the Baptist because so many miraculous events surrounded his birth (see Luke 1), and his father was a somewhat public figure for the Jews. Therefore, Herod was especially suspicious of the child of Zacharias and Elizabeth.
To the far right and a little above the bottom of the icon, we see a man being stabbed to death by a soldier. This is John the Baptist’s father, Zacharias, of whom Jesus says,
That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar. (Matt. 23:35)
Zacharias was performing the functions of the high priest at the time the soldiers came to inquire about the location of his son. He, being in the temple, did not know where his son was. Thinking that he was attempting to hide information from Herod, they slew him right there.
At the bottom center, we see Elizabeth with the baby John the Baptist in her arms. She is running from the soldiers and praying to God to be saved. God opens up a cave for her to hide in with John. Shortly thereafter, she passes away (both Zacharias and Elizabeth were very old). John then grows up in the desert as Jesus taught,
And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his shewing unto Israel. (Luke 1:80)
At the bottom right, we see an angel coming to Joseph in a dream and warning him of the ruthless Herod. He takes his betrothed, her Son, and his son James, and they flee to Egypt.
For more information on the Nativity story, the Gospels are the best source and the Protovangelium of James is second to them. If I left out any details or got something wrong, feel free to let me know in the comments below. I’m far from being an expert or even well-studied on iconography.
Have a merry Christmas!