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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Story of the Nativity Icon

Christmas is one of the biggest holidays celebrated in remembrance of the birth of the Savior from the Virgin Mary. Traditionally in Ukraine this great holiday is associated with a Christmas tree, nativity plays, and twelve ritual dishes people eat on the Christmas Eve. However, we do not always appeal to the original source of this holiday – the Bible. And most importantly, we don’t always go back to the historical monuments that convey the joy of the Christ’s birth to us: worship texts and, of
15 January, 2013 - 10:07

Old Ukrainian icon dedicated to the Nativity topic is deeply symbolic and presents a sample of Byzantine tradition. Murals of the St. Cyril’s Church, built in the 12th century, also belong to the early Nativity-themed monuments.

Ukrainian Nativity icons have characteristic plane composition that unfolds in three horizontal tiers and also portraying figures on different scales. All the events associated with Nativity are as if collected in a single space, like the pages of the Bible. Authors of the oldest artistic monuments put the crib with the Son of God in the center of an icon and from the sixth century icon became more focused on the Virgin Mary, therefore, she is put in the central spot and her figure is much bigger compared to the other characters.

The most famous Nativity Icon is the one made in the middle of the 16th century in the village of Trushevychi (Stary Sambir raion, Lviv oblast). In Ukrainian iconographic tradition it represents a rare image of the Nativity, surrounded by scenes from Mary’s life. The scene unfolds against the background of the rocky mountain that represents the symbol of Christ. Virgin Mary as the mother of the King is solemnly lying on a bright red bed (symbol of the Burning Bush). Mary is in deep thought, she is lying and looking away from Jesus thereby realizing the mission of the Son of God. An interesting iconographic aspect is the gesture of Holy Mary when she covers her mouth with a hand – protecting the secret of mystery of the birth of God’s Son incomprehensible to the human mind.

Right behind Mary, against the dark cave in the rock (symbol of darkness of paganism and unbelief) is the Divine Child in white, sometimes in light green veil (Light of Understanding and Sun of Righteous­ness). Cave is a dark world where the light for humanity, that awaits salvation, came into being. The image of the newborn Savior is conveyed in a special theological and philosophical context: he is swaddled not the way a child would be but the way a dead person was wrapped in burial clothes, his bed is also not a regular cradle but looks more like a tomb. In such mystical way the author reveals the essence of Christ’s coming into the world: God became a man to die and after death to give life.

Christ and Virgin Mary are surrounded by artistic content, which, at the same time, explains the meaning of the event: the wise men, Christmas star, shepherds, and angels. There are an ox and a donkey, which were mentioned in the prophecies of Isaiah, leaning over little Jesus. Animals are associated with Israel and the pagan nations. Three wise men are also approaching Christ from the side, they also symbolize people, who travel to the Gospel light. These are representatives of different groups: wise men are pagans, stargazers – scientists, kings – secular power. According to the Gospel of Matthew, they bring gifts of gold – as for a king, frankincense – as for the God, and myrrh – as for a mortal man.

In the lower left corner of the composition we see the scene of washing Christ, which was taken from the apocryphal story of two women – Solomia and Maia. Washing scene also affirms the true birth of Christ in human flesh. To his right there stands sad Joseph, tempted by the devil in the form of a shepherd who awakens doubts in him about paternity of the child. At the same time, Joseph symbolizes a humanity that doubted the divine nature of Christ. In the top of the icon above the mountain there are angels, announcing the birth of the Savior to shepherds. In the center of the sky there are three rays that resemble Christmas star, but also symbolize the presence of the Holy Trinity in this epochal event. Beside the “Bethlehem Star,” another witness of God’s almightiness is the presence of angels in the icon. The angels praise Jesus’ birth from the heaven.

The important role of Mary is highlighted in the icon by scenes from her life, which can be seen from the right to the left: 1) the Annunciation; 2) the Synaxis of Virgin Mary; 3) Candlemas; 4) Circumcision of Our Lord; 5) Ascension; 6) Flight to Egypt; 7) Birth of Virgin Mary; 8) The Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary; 9) the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven; 10) The Intercession of Holy Mary.

At the same time, the theme of Nativity was reflected in many icons with national traits and leaning towards realistic interpretation of landscape. Author of the Nativity Icon from the late 16th century made in Lopushanka-Khomyna followed such compositional scheme. The landscape in this icon resembles flat Carpathian Mountains. Embroidered parts in cha­racters’ garment present an ethnographic element.

The next stage of development of Nativity iconography is the icon of The Synaxis of Virgin Mary made in the middle of the 16th century in Busovysk. Composition corresponds to the iconographic type “bow of the wise men,” but signature on it indicates the fact that the icon displays the Synaxis of Virgin Mary (celebrated on January 8 in Ukraine). The theme of the Synaxis is closely associated with Christmas and its ideological meaning is the glorification of the Mother of God.

Popular episode, that presented a separate iconographical subject since the early 17th century, can be seen in the church icon Shepherds’ Greeting from Boikivshchyna. Composition is divided into two planes: in the foreground we can see Mary sitting beside the manger with a newly born Christ, next to them are Joseph with shepherds, who came to greet Christ after they heard the news from angels. In the background, in the depth of the landscape there is a scene of destruction of infants and up in the sky there are angels, traditionally depicted in the top segment of the icon. The angels hold a ribbon with the inscription “Glory to God in Heaven.” An example of this iconography is an icon from iconostasis in Maniava Skete made in the 17th century by Yov Kond­ze­le­vych.

Such simplistic interpretation of the image of Joseph and Mary at the manger with the Savior right with the shepherds or the kings from the East, only rarely with angels, still can be found in icons from the 19th and 21st centuries, on greeting cards and so on.

Christmas, according to sticheron, is a combination of the heaven and earth, restoration of human spirituality lost in sin, it is not only the coming of God to earth, but also the elevation of man to heaven. Mystery of Nativity icons reveals mystic deep spiritual meaning of coming of our Savior to the earthly world. This theme has been widely used in church ritual and artistic life of the Ukrainian people, because it is a favorite holiday that brings families together.

By Mariana MAKSYMIV, art critic, Photo replicas provided by the author