The Orthodox Christmas icon is a bit different from any depiction of the Nativity of Christ in Western art. It is a bit strange to our eyes, lacking the sentiments and techniques that we are used to seeing. It is even foreign, almost unrecognizable at first glance, but upon careful study, is deeply meaningful and beautiful. Like every icon, each translation of the image differs according to the iconographer’s style and region, but they all have certain image elements in common. The feast of the Nativity was developed in the 4th Century, and by the 6th Century, all of the imagery had been established.
This icon’s purpose is to teach the essential truths of our faith, in this case, the Incarnation of God, and the fact that Jesus is fully human and fully divine. As in all icons, there is no attempt to show depth, or time sequence. Events that took place at different times are all shown on the same plane here. Like the icon above, the following image is Russian, done in a very classic and typical manner, and makes a good sample for studying the symbolism. (I learned most of this information about the theology from Ouspensky’s book: The Meaning of Icons, an excellent resource about iconography.)
At the top of the icon there is a dark blue half circle, which represents heaven, as well as the mystery and presence of God. Three rays come down from this area, a reference to the Trinity, and they point to the place where the Child lies. The Child is the center of the icon, both compositionally and dogmatically.
He is lying in front of a dark cave. He is wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger, accompanied by an ox and an ass. (Interestingly, these 2 animals are not mentioned in any of the Gospel accounts, but appear in every artistic depiction of the birth of Jesus, in both the East and the West, sharing in the joy and taking part in the worship of the Babe.) The cave, the stable for beasts where He was born, is black, representing the darkness of sin. The Child shines in front of it, the light coming out of darkness for us. There is a second element of symbolism here, linking Christmas and Easter. The way the image has been developed is not only the telling of Jesus’ birth, but also a foreshadowing of the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord. The cave looks like a tomb, the swaddling clothes like burial wrappings, and the Lord shining in front of its darkness, life defeating sin and death, reminds one of the Resurrection.
Mary lies on a bed in front of the figure of Jesus, outside of the cave. She is painted proportionately large, because she is an important person in the salvation story but not the central one. She is laying down on a bed because she is a normal woman, tired after giving birth. This is to witness explicitly that the Lord became fully human and was born in pain, as are all babies. This a very important dogma, and a refuting of the early heresies about the nature of Christ. Mary not only looks tired, but sad as well. This expression, too, foreshadows her Son’s passion and death. She is, however, looking towards Joseph, another important figure in the story. More on that later . . .
On one side are the 3 wise men, coming to pay homage to the newborn king. They follow the light from the star of heaven, looking upward. In most Western paintings, they are shown as different nationalities. In the Eastern icon, they are shown as different ages. They represent the learned and educated of the nations, the leaders and elite, both young and old, worshipping and honoring Christ.
On the other side are the shepherds, one in this icon. They represent the simple man, the ordinary working people, also coming to worship and honor the Lord. The shepherd in this icon is playing a musical instrument. He listens to the angels, and adds his own human music to the chorus of the heavenly beings.
The angels in this icon serve a two-fold purpose: they sing glory to God, looking up to heaven and the mystery of God. Other angels look down towards the people. They are messengers bringing the Good Tidings to mankind.
Down in the lowest section of the Nativity icon are midwives bathing the infant Jesus. Just as Mary is shown exhausted after giving birth, these women are placed in the icon to attest that Jesus was born a human infant, a real child, with the same needs as any newborn.
Finally, there is St. Joseph in the lower left corner. He is separate because he is NOT the father of Jesus. Like most of us would be in such a situation, he is a bit confused and troubled. He has had some doubts over this pregnancy and birth. The other figure, shown in profile and not relating to the viewer at all but merely exposed to our view, is Satan disguised as an old shepherd. He is tempting Joseph to doubt. Leonid Ouspensky, in his book, explains it well: “In the person of Joseph, the icon discloses not only his personal drama, but the drama of all mankind–the difficulty of accepting that which is ‘beyond words or reason–the Incarnation of God’.
While in some icons the Mother of God is represented looking at the Babe, ‘keeping in her heart’ sayings about Him, or else looking straight before her at the external world, in our icon, as in many others, she looks at Joseph as if she were expressing by this look compassion for his state. In this, the icon teaches a tolerant and compassionate attitude towards human unbelief and doubt.”
All of these figures are arranged more or less in a circle around the newborn Christ Child. Heavenly hosts worshipping our Lord, joined by simple people, joined by educated people, joined by practical people doing their jobs with love and care, joined by those struggling with doubt, Jews, Gentiles . . . all of us together singing praise, sharing our talents, and adoring the Son of God at His birth, our center, and our Lord.