Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church


The Great Feasts: Icon Of The Nativity of Our Lord

December 24th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously in this series: here, here, and here

(Click on picture to view a larger, sharper image.)

Novgorod school, attributed to the 15th c., 17 x 21 inches

The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ


Your Nativity, O Christ our God, Has shone to the world the Light of wisdom! For by it, those who worshipped the stars, Were taught by a Star to adore You, The Sun of Righteousness, And to know You, the Orient from on High. O Lord, glory to You!


Today the Virgin brings forth the Transubstantial, And the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One! Angels with shepherds glorify Him! The wise men journey with a star! Since for our sake the Eternal God was born as a Little Child!

The figure of the Blessed Mother is usually the first thing people notice in this icon. The figure is normally near the center of the design and is often the largest. In most traditional nativity icons the All Holy Virgin reclines on a portable bed of the kind Jews used while traveling. But, in some icons she sits upright on the bed. The second thing noticed by most people is the black –always black– cave also located somewhere near the center of the design. Thirdly, people notice that Mary and the dark cave are surrounded by ‘scenes’ or episodes from the story and placed in a somewhat barren, rocky or uncomfortable landscape. Finally –and almost overlooked—people see the tiny wrapped figure of the Christ child lying in the manger inside the cave. That wrapped child lying on top of the manger in a dark cave always reminds me of Christ wrapped in a death shroud and laid out on a stone tomb in a sepulcher.

Of course, the Christ child is the intended center of the icon. The small white shape of his swaddling clothes contrasts with the dark shape of the cave as “a spiritual light shinning forth in the shadow of death that encompasses mankind… The black mouth of the cave in the icon is, in its symbolic meaning, precisely this world, stricken with sin through man’s fault, in which ‘the Sun of truth’ shone forth.”1 The uncomfortable landscape might remind us of the wilderness of the Exodus story. There, the Israelites were fed with manna bread from heaven. Here, God Himself has come down from heaven to be the bread of eternal life, the Eucharist.  He is also the sacrificial Lamb laid upon the altar of the wood manger, symbolic of the altar of the wooden cross.

Mary’s posture always suggests underlying dogmatic beliefs. In the Nativity of Our Lord icons her pose can vary in two ways and they address either the Divine or human nature of Jesus.  In some icons of the Nativity of Jesus, Mary is half-sitting, alert and attentive to the child which suggests a lack of the usual suffering associated with child birth. In that case the virginity of Mary and the Divine nature of the child are emphasized. However, in the highlighted icon for this post the humanity of Christ is emphasized through the listlessness and languor of Mary’s reclining pose. Her fatigue suggests that the Incarnation indeed took place in Mary’s womb and she has now brought him forth into the wider world. It was not just all an illusion as the heretical Nestorians taught. God did take on human flesh and become human.

Mary gazes down toward Joseph who sits in the bottom left corner confused and troubled, pondering the improbability of it all. His figure is not part of the mother and child grouping for he is not the father. The devil in the guise of an old shepherd stands before him sowing doubt that the virgin birth is possible. He suggests that if the infant were truly divine He would not have been born in a human way. 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.2 The scene reminds us of our own personal struggles with faith. But Holy Mary looks on in compassion and loving concern –not just at Joseph but even at us in our times of temptation and doubt.

In the bottom right corner two midwives Joseph rounded-up and brought back to the Mother of God are depicted about ready to bathe the baby. Like any other human new-born the Son of God has become subject to the necessities of human life. Often the basin appears like a baptismal font3 or a large chalice which reminds us of the ‘cup’ of the passion from which the Lord will drink.

The angels of the Gloria are at the top of the icon. Messengers as well as worshippers they usually appear with some of them looking up toward heaven glorifying God and some looking down toward man to whom they bring good tidings.4Among the shepherds is usually one playing a flute or reed-pipe, joining the shepherds’ own human music with that of the heavenly strains of the angels. Like the shepherds some of us enjoy communion with heaven while engaged in our daily work while others of us, more sophisticated and learned, are like the Magi in the left side of the icon who “have to accomplish a long journey from the knowledge of what is relative to the knowledge that is absolute, through the object (like the star) that they study.”5

The ox and the ass stand next to the manger and contemplate the Christ Child demonstrating that even the dumb animals can recognize the Creator when He chooses to reveal himself:6 “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.”7

Finally, from the top of the icon Divinity pierces into the natural world in the form of light beams emanating from the star of the Magi (or from the orb of heaven) illuminating the Child Jesus in the crib. As the story in the Apocryphal gospel of James goes, Joseph and the midwives, when they returned to the cave, were blinded by a bright light shining forth from the grotto, a light so bright that “they could not bear it”;8 as the bright light of the Transfiguration would blind the apostles on Mt. Tabor.9


1 Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, Crestwood, (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1989) p 157. The thought, however, comes from a homily attributed to St. Gregory of Nyssa.

2 Ouspensky 160

3 Solrunn Nes, The Mystical Language of Icons, (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004) 43

4 Ouspensky 159

5 Ouspensky 159

6 Nes 43

7 Isaiah: 1, 3

8 James 14, 11

9 Nes 43

Book suggestions:

The Meaning of Icons, Vladimir Lossky and Leonid Ouspensky,  (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999)

The Mystical Language of Icons, Solrunn Nes,  (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004)

Tags: , ,


2 Responses to “The Great Feasts: Icon Of The Nativity of Our Lord”

  1. avatar Raymond F. Rice says:

    Thank you for helping me to read the icon!!

  2. avatar Ben Anderson says:

    Thanks for re-posting this Bernie!

Leave a Reply

Log in | Register

You must be logged in to post a comment.

-Return to main page-