The nativity scene shown here is a Russian icon dating from the 19th century. It is part of a small collection of icons bequeathed to Brighton Museum & Art Gallery in 1967 by Miss Edith Overton Wybergh, whose father was the last English chaplain in Moscow. The word ‘icon’ means image. In everyday language we often describe an object or a person as an ‘icon’, but in art history the word is used chiefly for an image created to aid devotion in Eastern Orthodox Christianity.
At the centre of the picture sits the Virgin Mary. In accordance with tradition, she is dressed in a blue undergarment and a red cloak. Her hand is raised in a gesture of communication. Behind, in a black cave (black symbolizing both hell and the grave), is the infant Christ. An ox and an ass bow down before him, as foretold by the prophet Isaiah. God the Father sits above, and sends down the Holy Spirit via three rays of light, reminding the devout of the Holy Trinity. Mysteriously, the image shows only two of the three kings approaching to present their gifts. They have been following the elaborate star of Bethlehem which shines above the rocky landscape. Below the kings, Joseph is being tempted by the devil (disguised as an old shepherd) to break off his betrothal to Mary because she has given birth to a child not fathered by him. The scene in the bottom right-hand corner shows the infant Christ being bathed. This scene has no source in the Bible, but frequently occurs in icons depicting the nativity.
The icon describes not just the time immediately surrounding the birth of Christ, but alludes to events in his later life: the font-like basin in which he is to be bathed makes us think of his baptism. The tight swaddling bands look like a shroud and his crib is strangely coffin-like; these point to his death, as does the black cave in which he lies.
All icons are considered miraculous, but certain icons are believed to be able to work miracles. In particular, icons of the Virgin and Child have been attributed with healing powers. A legendary icon said to have been painted by St Luke is believed to have saved Constantinople from bring conquered by enemy forces on several occasions.
Icons still play a central role in Orthodox religious life. They are displayed in churches, particularly on the screen (iconostasis) which divides the sanctuary from the rest of the church. In the home they are given pride of place in what Russians call the ‘beautiful corner’. They are taken on journeys, and are displayed in processions on feast days.
In religious practice, it is not the icon itself which is venerated, but what it represents: the spiritual, not the material world. The fact that the icon does not depict the real world has resulted in its distinctive pictorial language: conventions of space and time can be ignored. Thus, important figures are shown as larger than unimportant ones, and panels often show not just one moment, but a whole series of related events. Because the image represents an ideal universe, there is no artistic license. The artist follows patterns set down in centuries-old descriptions and sketchbooks. A religious schism in 16th century Russia occasioned a strict set of rules for the painting of icons, in part to prevent Western artistic influences from creeping in. Every aspect of the image is regulated; every gesture, every colour, has a meaning, or several different meanings. Colour symbolism, for instance, is complex, and each colour can have many meanings. We can take as an example the Virgin’s dress: blue is the colour of purity, but also of humanity; red is a royal and divine colour, but can also signify sacrifice.
The earliest surviving icons date from the 6th century AD, and are housed at St Katherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai, but it is claimed that St Luke painted the Mother of God during her lifetime, thereby creating a model for icons of the Virgin which is still in use. Also dating from the 6th century is a legend that Christ sent to a contemporary king an image of himself, a cloth with an imprint of his face. This became known as ‘The Image not made by Human Hands’, and is often reproduced on the traditional wooden panels.
At various times throughout history, the veneration of icons has been forbidden, resulting in the loss of untold numbers of works. Sometimes the reason was religious: in the 8th century it was decreed idolatrous to adore a physical object, and a century-long period of destruction (iconoclasm) followed. At other times the reason was political: for part of the 20th century, the church was banned in Russia, and mountains of icons were put on the fire. Many Russians who fled the Bolshevik revolution took icons with them to the West, and often had to sell them to survive. With the fall of communism, these icons are again eagerly sought by Russians, for cultural as well as for religious reasons.