Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Art and Beauty Tuesday--The Nativity of Our Lord

I am re-running this Art and Beauty Tuesday post from last year since I have been getting some new comments on it.

Icons of the Eastern Church go a long way in explaining the theology behind a particular Feast Day.  The Feast of the Nativity has become so commercialized that even when we think we know about the theology behind Christmas, there is always more to explore.

In the center we see a star.  I think we know innately from the representation, that this is *the* star.  It seems to encompass many stars together, which, interestingly, is one theory on how the star of Bethlehem occurred. The sky is gold, showing the Divinity that is present.  We see the angels guiding both the magi and the shepherds, for it is God who sent the star and God who sends His messengers to each person in the Nativity story.

We notice in the center, that Jesus was born in a cave, not a barn the way we think of it today.  These caves were the home of the livestock and animals.  The inns were often built over the caves, using the heat of the animals to heat the building above.

Two things are apparent about St. Joseph.  The first is, he is shown on the lower left of the picture, away from Mary and Jesus, who are the true center of the Nativity story. Joseph is shown "entertaining doubt", represented by an old man.  Joseph has a halo.  He is holy and ultimately listens to God's direction.  But he doubts.  He has difficulty accepting what is occurring.  His position away from the Mother and Child also shows that he is not the biological father of Christ.  That is the Holy Spirit.

Joseph is also shown as a grey haired older man.  It has been known from ancient times that Joseph and Mary were not a "couple" in the traditional sense.  Tradition, both in the East and West, says that Joseph was an older man, possibly a widower, who may have been Mary's guardian. When Mary was too old to serve in the Temple, [i.e., after the ritual impurity associated with menstruation] Joseph was said to have become betrothed to her as a means of continuing that legal guardianship.  His concern and doubts regarding her pregnancy take on a new urgency in light of this type of relationship.

On the bottom right of the icon, we see midwives bathing the newly born Christ.  This reminds us that Jesus was born as all men are and needed care as any helpless infant would.

If we peel back another layer, we see an even deeper symbolism in the Nativity Icon.  The cave in which Christ is born is the same type of location as the cave from which He is resurrected.  Jesus was wrapped "in swaddling cloths" which echo the burial cloths that He is wrapped in after death.

The washing of the infant Christ from the midwives is a reminder that He will submit to baptism by John the Baptist at the beginning of His earthly ministry.

So many of us have lost so much of the Christmas Story--in fact, of the entire story of Christ.  So many of us have forgotten, or have never been taught, the endless richness that is in Scripture.

Let us never stop searching for continued meaning in our spiritual tradition.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this. I'm not too familiar with Orthodox icons and their symbolism, so this is very educational for me. :-)

I had not heard the tradition about St. Joseph either. Protestants assume that he and Mary went on to live as any other married couple after Christ's birth (including having more children together), but I understand that such an idea would have been abhorrent to ancient Christians.

I hope you had a blessed Christmas!


newguy40 said...

Thanks for sharing that image.
I am interested in iconography and how images are used to tell a story or make a particular point.

I do want to make one comment on your explanation. I am hardly a biblical scholar or even well studied. But, tradition does not indicate that Joseph "doubted". Only that once he was informed of the origin of the Child as well as when instructed to flee to Egypt, he obeyed without hesitation. He does not doubt (or question) as Zechariah does.

Pls don't think I am remonstrating you. I enjoy your blog and image selections very much.

I do have a particular reverence and love for St Joseph. I have an icon of him with the Infant in his arms. St Joseph only speaks to us thru his actions and devotion to Mary and the Child.

Staying in Balance said...


I got the information on St. Joseph was from some Orthodox websites. I think the word "doubt" is not used to mean "refused to believe". Joseph was a human being who must have wondered how in the world his betrothed had become pregnant and he had initially decided to divorce her until the angel appeared to him in a dream.

I also think that in icons, there is not a realistic time line (in the photographic sense).

Joseph is shown off to the side to illustrate the time difference, as well as to illustrate the centrality of Mary and Jesus.

I think the icon writer is trying to tell us the entire story in one go.

Evanscove--There is a tradition that the "brothers of the Lord" could possibly be children of Joseph's by an earlier marriage, which would explain his advanced age as well.

Anonymous said...

The Catholic understanding would be that the "brothers and sisters" of Jesus were either cousins (as, at least from what I've heard, cousins were sometimes also referred to as brothers/sisters) or children Joseph had from a previous marriage. Of course, we have no way of knowing his age or when/where/how he died, but some hold that he may have been much older than Mary.

But I had not heard about Mary being unable to serve in the temple after reaching puberty (or even serving in the temple at all, for that matter) and Joseph therefore taking her in and serving simply as her guardian. Perhaps so... I was raised in charismatic evangelical churches, and as I indicated, it seemed to be universally held by Protestants of all stripes that Mary and Joseph had children together. Protestants tend to scoff at the idea of Mary remaining a virgin.

Again, this was a very informative post. Thanks for the info!


TACParent said...

I think Joseph looks exhausted from the long trek and maybe worried about Mary and the baby. There are a lot of images and hence, stories in this picture, that's for sure.

Staying in Balance said...

I had first read about Mary possibly serving in the temple in my parents' Catholic bible as a kid. Of course, it is only a possibility.

Icons definitely have lots of different stories (or parts of the same Story) going on at the same time.

The one thing about icons that differs somewhat from other, especially modern, paintings, is that each thing in them has a specific meaning and tells part of the whole Story.

nivchek said...

If you like Eastern Orthodox Beauty, you might also like Ancient Faith Radio, where you can hear all manner of Orthodox chant and hymnody from all Orthodox cultures and some great quotes from the fathers!

Staying in Balance said...

Thanks, Nivchek. I do listen to Ancient Faith Radio!

KK Icons said...

I am an iconographer. I was learning more about the symbolism and story recently, as I had my first Nativity icon as a commission this Xmas season. Joseph traditionally is tempted by Satan, in the protoevangelum of James, I believe. It is also found in the regular biographies of Theotokos that Orthodox often read. One is an ancient source, and I will try to find the author and origin of it, as I was thinking of rereading it soon. I will post the link to my icon if there is interest.

Staying in Balance said...

I didn't know that--thanks! Great information! Sure, come and post a link to your icon!

Barbara Schoeneberger said...

Dymphna, you are so good at explaining art, sacred and otherwise. I met a lady artist who was commissioned to write icons for a Catholic church in Colorado Springs. She stated that she wasn't going to use gold. I didn't want to insult her so I kept my mouth shut. I just knew I had never seen an icon without gold and something seemed wrong about her decision. Now that you explained that gold indicates divinity/heaven, I understand my unease. I'm sure glad I wasn't paying all that money to have icons written with no gold!

Staying in Balance said...

One icon I have that doesn't have a gold background is The Creation of the Animals. The background is mostly blue because God is on the earth and not in Heaven. Gorgeous icon. You can see it here: http://www.monasterygreetings.com/product/Animal_Kingdom_Icon/Icons_of_Creation

Larry Gregan said...

Hi, thank you for posting this icon. Who is the iconographer? I would love to obtain a copy of this one.

Staying in Balance said...

Larry, I'm not sure who the iconographer is, but Monastery Icons has icons of the Nativity of Christ that you can purchase. http://www.monasteryicons.com/monasteryicons/Item_Nativity-of-Christ_443_ps_srm.html

Also, one of our commentors above, Iceyicons is an iconographer with work on Etsy. Here is her site: http://www.etsy.com/people/KKicons

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