THE NATIVITY ICON IN BYZANTINE ART
Orthodox Christians do not celebrate the birth of baby Jesus, we celebrate the Incarnation. What?, you say. What is the Incarnation? This is an important word as it means God becomes Man. This is what we celebrate. The birth of Jesus was that moment in history when God sent His only begotten Son to become like us, taking on human flesh for our healing. This miracle of miracles took place though the ascent of Mary whom we call the Theotokos, Birth-giver of God. God with His divine will became man, taking on a human will in human flesh so Man could unite his human will with God’s divine will. From the time of Adam and Eve, man was separated from God ,unable to follow God’s law. The Incarnation is the beginning of the transformation of mankind so we can be reunited with God.
Above you can see the icon of the Nativity. Let’s look at each element of this icon to learn what it communicates to us.
In the top center you see a blueish light, which represents the star which guided people to witness the Incarnation. Was this a real star? Probably not. It was most likely a spiritual sign not seen by everyone. You can see that it points to the Christ Child who is lying in a manger.
The birth place
Christ was born in a cave, which is shown as a dark place. This was a reality as well as symbolic. Christ came to bring the light of knowledge to overcome the darkness of our ignorance. The star symbolizes this as well. It brings bright light to the dark cave, showing us the way to Christ. It is a light pointing us to the Truth. In the area where Christ was born, it was common to have a stable in caves carved in the hills of that region.
But why did he choose a stable? Stables are where animals are kept and you can see the animals looking at the Christ child in the icon. Where animals are it is also smelly and not the normal place anyone would choose to bear a child. This shows us the great humility of Christ. He could have chosen to be born in a palace if he wanted to, but he chose the most humble of places, a stable. This is a message for us, to be humble like Him.
What kind of clothes is Christ wearing? He is wrapped in linen. This is how a person was wrapped in those day for burial after his death. This is showing us that He is destined to the same fate after His Crucifixion where He was able to claim victory over death in His Resurrection.
Mary, The Theotokos
She is shown in the center of the icon to show her importance in this event. She was the instrument of God to bring about His incarnation. She gave her ascent to bear the Son of God. Surely an awesome responsibility. She is looking away to show her humility and wonder at this wondrous event.
Joseph and the devil
In the lower left corner of the icon you will see two men. An old man and one with a cane. The old man with the halo is Joseph. He was old because he was appointed as a mature man to protect Mary so she could remain a virgin. Some say he was 70 – 80 years old. Since he was not the father of the baby, he is being tempted by the man with the cane who is Satan. He is trying to raise Joseph’s doubts about the possibility of a virgin birth. This shows how difficult it is for all of us to accept things that are beyond our reason.
Near the top you can see angles. Angels are from heaven and they glorify God. You see them here to glorify the Christ Child and herald the good news to all the world, because it is not just a child that has been born, but God himself who has become man.
On the upper right you can see two shepherds with their sheep below. An angel is telling them about this miraculous birth calling them to come and glorify Him. Why shepherds? Would you go to college to become a shepherd? Of course not. Shepherds are among the simplest of people. This indicates that God did not become Man for those who are privileged, but for the simplest of people. He calls all to follow Him so all people can be united with God in eternal life.
One shepherd is playing a reed flute, which shows that human music is also appropriate for the glorification of God.
The wise men or Magi
To the left you will find three men on horses. These were men who came all the way from Persia following the star. They were probably astronomers, scientists of their day. They saw the star which was a symbol for them of a great cosmic event. They followed it to find the Incarnation of God. Knowing how important this was they brought gifts of the highest value in appreciation of what God had done. They came some time after the birth, so you can see that in an icon we can have many events that happen even at different times being shown to tell the complete story.
In the lower right we have the women who are preparing the font for the cleansing of the baby after it was born. This shows the humanity of Jesus. This too is symbolic of the baptism we are to undergo, to be united with Christ, cleansing us of our sins and receiving a transformation in our heart with the Holy Spirit, which is sealed with our Chrismation.
The two animals
The ox and the donkey represent the two people: the Jews and the Gentiles.
The story of the Nativity of Christ is beautifully told in the Holy Scriptures. The story is found in Matthew 1:18-25 and in Luke 2:1-20.