The Nativity Icon
|"All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
'Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel'"
The icon of the Nativity of our Lord is packed with theology. Most comes from Holy Scripture and all
comes from the holy Tradition. It depicts in paint the mystery of the Incarnation, God being man, and the
beginning of our salvation. On many icons of the Nativity, there are many details, on others less.
On the icon that we show on the right, the composition reveals the essence of the event of the Incarnation,
its effect on the natural world, and a perspective of its consequences. St. Gregory captures the essence
of the Nativity for the Orthodox in one sentence: "It is not a festival of creation, but a festival of
re-creation, of a renewal, which sanctifies the whole world."
The angels, who are representatives of the heavenly host, perform a twofold service: they glorify God
and bring good tidings to the world. In this icon, some turn their heads toward the heavenly sphere (star) and
sing the Glory of God, while another leans downward to the shepherd. These messengers of God, Orthodox
tradition dictates, are part of the created order. The first response of the shepherds is fear, then
wonder and amazement. The shepherds are poor and unlike the magi, who must be led by the light of reason,
they are led by direct experience, amid everyday working life. One shepherd expresses wonder at the
message of the angel while another plays a tune of praise on his shepherd's pipe depicting joy of the
The heavenly sphere, placed at the top center of the icon, is an opening ot the world beyond. This same
star appears in the icons of the Baptism of Christ, the Transfiguration, and the Harrowing of Hell. In
this icon, a long ray from the star points directly to the cave. This star is no mere celestial
phenomenon as the Christmas planetarium shows would indicate, but a messenger from the world of
Uncreated Light, signifying that in the Incrarnation, the Almighty God has come very near. The star, like
the angels, is perceptible only through the eyes of faith. It is that light which, in the words of
St. Gregory, "was hidden from the Jews, but shone forth to the heathen." Some icons have three rays from
the star, representing the Holy Trinity.
On the left side of the cave, we see the three Magi. Tradition names them Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior and
they follow the star that will lead them to the Christ child. The Magi and the shepherds bring their gifts,
and are among the first to worship Christ emphasizing that salvation is for all mankind.
The women on the bottom right are midwives. This indicates that Jesus was born in the normal way and would
have needed washing, as a regular human baby would. These women appear with bare arms as one legend says
that when Joseph hired them to help with the baby, they laughed when he told them that this was the Son of
God. As a consequence of their unbelief, their arms withered on the spot. But as they bathed the babe,
their withered limbs became whole again. This indicates that paralysis is antecedent to faith, and that
wholeness returns when faith appears.
On the bottom left, is Satan appearing as an shepherd telling the Righteous Joseph, who is depicted as an
older man, that Mary is not with divine child, but he has been betrayed thus bringing new doubts to
Joseph. Joseph is depicted away from Jesus and the Theotokos because he was not involved in the miracle
of the Incarnation of the Son of God, but he was the protector of Mary and Jesus. The icon discloses not
only Joseph's personal drama, but the drama of all mankind, the difficulty of accepting that which is
beyond reason, the Incarnation of God.
Below the center is a tree. The tree is the "Jesse Tree" from prophecy, which says that a shoot will
sprout from the stump of Jesse (the father of King David): "A shoot shall sprout from the stump (tree) of
Jesse and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him" (Isaiah 11:1-2).
The ox and the ass, located on the right of the Christ child, are also from an Old Testament prophecy:
"The ox knows his owner, and the donkey his master's crib" (Isaiah 1:3). They are shown by the Christ
child to provide warmth from their breath. Some icons show the Jesse Tree, the ox and the ass towards the
bottom. The ox and the ass indicate that the whole animal world recognizes the Incarnation of the Son of
God. He is their Savior too.
In the center of the icon is the Virgin Mary. Mary is lying on a red blanket signifying the color of life.
The Orthodox venerate Mary as the new Eve. Just as the first Eve became "the mother of all those who
live" (Genesis 3:20), the Virgin Mother of God becomes the mother of a new humanity, raised and deified
throught he Incarnation of her Son.
Christ is shown born in this dark cave, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a crib. Tradition uses the
dark cave to represent the location of Christ's birth. In this dark cave is the light of the world that
"shines in the darkness and the darkness can not overcome it." The crib at the same time represents a
casket, His swaddling clothes, His burial garments, the cave, His tomb. This is intentionally done to
illustrate that the purpose of the Incarnation of Christ was to make possible the Crucifixion and
Resurrection. We are in the middle of the fast, anticipating the Nativity, and the Nativity immediately
point to the Resurrection.
Finally, as we look at the icon as one united composition, we can only be filled with joy, not only
because of the festive activity depicted, but for the joyous news of our salvation so clearly proclaimed
by it. All creation is rejoicing at the birth of our Lord: the heavens (a star and angels); the earth
(the mountains, plants and animals); and especially mankind, represented most perfectly in the figure of
the new Eve, the most pure Mother of God.
Christ is Born! Glorify Him!
1. Antiochian Orthodox
Christian Archdiocese of North America
2. A Reader's
Guide to Orthodox Icons
3. OrthodoxWiki Nativity Icon
4. The Icon Through Western Eyes by Russell M. Hart