An Iconic Nativity

For the Eve of Christmas, I figured I would delve into this beautiful icon which beautifully illustrates the Christmas story!

Now, icons are one of those artworks that appear to be simple, since sometimes the artwork can be simplistic. Some icons can even seem cartoonish! However, there’s usually a lot packed into them!

To view them, first you look at the center and meditate on the central object. Then, look around. You’ll probably see more of the details of the story and the traditions associated with them, as many iconographers painstakingly do their best to visually represent the traditions.

The Nativity, by Moskos Ilias, c. 1658. Benaki Museum of Greek Civilization, Athens, Greece. Via IllustratedPrayer.com
The Nativity, by Moskos Ilias, c. 1658. Benaki Museum of Greek Civilization, Athens, Greece.

In the center, the Virgin Mary is knelt down, adoring her infant, Jesus. Angels attend her, also adoring the baby. They are located in a cave. Why a cave? Simple. Traditionally, the stables of old used to be caves. After all, wood is not a very common material in the Middle East, and you would not use such a scarce material for mere livestock! Instead, you would use what you had. And what do you have? Rocks and caves!

Above them, angels bustle about, holding the words of their Glorias in their hands as script in a reminder that they are singing their praises to Jesus. Above them is the star, which also is drawn in such a way to remind us of the glory of God the Father, as there are many times in which God is drawn in this way. To the right of the choirs of angels is an angel turned to a couple of shabbily dressed man — a youth and an older man — and pointing to the angelic host. These men are the shepherds! The angel points to Jesus.

Going clockwise, you see an image of a donor… and then the shepherds approaching a saint. The saint’s name? St. Joseph! Usually, St. Joseph is depicted in Nativity scenes as being separated from the Virgin Mary. In this way, their is an emphasis of the distance between he and the Virgin Mary, as she is to remain a perpetual virgin, and it is a reminder of his role as a protector of the Son of God. Later, they will go to see the Christ Child, but the iconographer chose to depict that moment where Mary adored her child for the first time.

Now, go clockwise just a little bit more to the top left of the icon, and you’ll see three men in the distance atop horses. Though they are far away, they wear crowns or fancy turbans on their heads. They are the wise men! In a couple of days, they will come to adore the Christ Child. For now, they point to the star.

And thus, the Nativity story is summed up in a beautiful icon with gold painting!

Anyway, have a Merry Christmas and God bless us everyone!

Karina Tabone

Karina Tabone is a wife, mother of three, author, blogger, and lover of Christian artwork. She's the author of the Illustrated Rosary series, which pairs every prayer of the Rosary with beautiful religious artwork. She likes also milkshakes, sunshine, and mystery novels. Follow her on Twitter at @illustr_prayer

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