Iconography of the Saviour’s Childhood

Christmas time immerses us in the atmosphere of the Saviour’s birth and the first days of His earthly life. At the same time it leaves a number of details accompanying this event, as well as the subsequent period of Christ’s life, as it were, outside the scope of the picture. Even though we have no reliable or detailed information about the Saviour’s childhood, a number of attempts have been made in Orthodox iconography to symbolically display the important events of His infancy and adolescence. 

Helper in Labor and Expectant Mother of God

These icons can be conditionally attributed to the icons of the Savior’s childhood, since they depict the time before Christ was actually born. Images of the Expectant Mother of God began to be painted in the 14th century in Italy. From there they travelled to Georgia, where they acquired features of Byzantine iconography. Traditionally, these icons are addressed in prayer by couples preparing for childbirth and asking for the conception of a child.

These icons have some elements that are not typical for Orthodox iconography. On the first icon we can see Christ in the womb of the Mother (sometimes this image can also be seen in modern copies of the icon). On the second one, the Mother of God is wiping Her tears, because Joseph, having learned about her pregnancy, wanted to secretly release her, because according to the Jewish laws of that time, an unfaithful wife was subjected to the death penalty.

The first icon is widespread and revered in the Church (commemorated on January 8, new style). The second one, despite being written at about the same time and place, had been forgotten until 1993, when it was discovered during the restoration of the 14th century frescoes at the Dirbi monastery in Georgia.

Mother of God the Milk-Giver

The Milk-Giver icon of the Mother of God is revered as miraculous. It is commemorated on January 25 (new style), shortly after Christmas, which is also symbolic. 

This icon was glorified in a miraculous way. It was kept by Sabbas the Sanctified (6th century) in the monastery that he had founded. Before he departed to the Lord, he bequeathed to his brethren to hand over the Milk-Giver icon to a royal pilgrim bearing the same name as him. Six centuries later, the monastery was visited by Savva, the son of the Serbian King, refusing to inherit the throne for the sake of monasticism. While he was praying in front of the tomb of Sabbas the Sanctified, the icon, previously motionless, tilted several times towards the pilgrim. The monks regarded this as the fulfilment of the prophecy and handed the icon over to St Savva, after which many miracles began to happen through prayers before the holy image.  

Although this is the only Orthodox icon where the Mother of God is nursing the infant Christ, the oldest known image of the Theotokos in the catacombs of Priscilla also depicts Mary breastfeeding.

Holy Motherhood

This icon was painted in 1809 in Tver and then kept in a private collection. Its original title, as well as its author, remains unknown. This icon depicts the Mother of God with the Infant Christ (center), St Elisabeth with St John the Baptist (left) and St Salome with St John the Evangelist (right). 

This icon is remarkable for its details. We can see St John the Theologian and St John the Baptist (both depicted as infants) stretch their hands towards the Christ Child, while the Lord’s right hand is folded in a blessing gesture. The Baptist of Christ is clothed in a hairshirt, which, according to the Gospel, he wore while living in the wilderness. 

The attentive reader will notice a significant discrepancy in the icon. All depicted babies are about the same age, while St John the Theologian was significantly younger than Christ and John the Baptist (by 5 to 15 years). This is explained by the fact that the icon does not depict a literal event of the meeting of the three mothers, but presents a symbolic image and glorifies the holiness of motherhood, giving life to the God-man, as well as prophets and apostles. The fact that the icon repeats compositionally Andrei Rublev’s “Trinity” also speaks of its high symbolic significance.

First Steps of Christ

This ancient and rare icon is located in the monastery of St Gerasimos of Jordan (5th century) and is highly revered in the Holy Land. In the lower church of the monastery there is a cave, in which, according to legend, the Holy Family spent a night on the way to Egypt. During one of the halts on their way, Christ made his first steps.

According to tradition, a prayer is read in front of this icon, blessing children who begin to walk, “O Lord, our God and Source of all blessings; Protecting babies and keeping their gentleness in the arms of Thy Christ Himself; Bless now these Thy children, Thy creations, sculptured by Thy hand! Bring them up, make them wise and perfect them in the Name of Thy Son, with Him you are blessed together with Thy Most Holy and Life-giving Spirit, in this hour and always and forever and ever”.  The Greek original of this order is found in one of the manuscripts of the Sinai Euchology.

Labor of the Holy Family

Having learned his earthly father’s craft, Christ was a carpenter. This is the only icon depicting Him and the Holy Family at work. 

Although the icon was painted in the style traditional for Orthodox iconography, this particular image is rare. This is explained by the fact that it was painted and disseminated by the Renovationists (Renovationism was a pseudo-church movement of the 20th century, seeking to subordinate the Church to the Communists). This icon, according to the renovationists’ plan, was to have an edifying meaning, similar to Soviet propaganda posters, idealizing the image of working people. 

The icon’s composition comes from the apocryphal Book of Joseph the Carpenter, which says that the Mother of God spun curtains for the Jerusalem Temple, and Joseph earned food by the craft of a carpenter.

Holy Family

The image of the Holy Family penetrated into Orthodox iconography in the 17th century under Catholic influence. Although it did not receive noticeable distribution, this icon is more popular in countries where both Churches coexist closely. Some copies of the icon gravitate towards a kind of sensuality uncharacteristic for Orthodoxy. Mary and Joseph embrace Christ and each other, holding hands, as Mary puts her head on Joseph’s shoulder, although their faces remain calm, as is appropriate in Orthodox iconography.

Even though the marriage of Mary and Joseph was rather a formal one, the icon immerses the beholder into a special atmosphere of peace and love of the Holy Family.

We wish the same love and peace, as well as God’s blessings and prosperity to your homes and families. Merry and Happy Christmas!

About the author

John Malov,
Reader, theologian, member of The Catalog of Good Deeds team.

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