Every human life has a beginning, as each life reaches an end; a matter of biology but at the same time, a great miracle. The exhibition of Russian and Greek icons associated with the birth of new life, Miracle of Birth, added to this year’s Christmas holiday celebrations and was seen at the Icon Museum in Kampen, in the north of the Netherlands.
Not limited to the birth of a child, the exhibition visited such topics as pregnancy, pain associated with childbirth, the postpartum period and the milestones in childhood.
Are all human beings born? Which saints can help a woman to become pregnant? How is the birth of a special child announced? Why is John’s mother depicted in a beautiful ‘birthing bed’, but Mary lies on a simple red cushion? Who is allowed to bathe the newborn the first time? How is a name chosen? Why is the Christ Child portrayed breast-feeding? Who protects young children against diseases and other dangers? And who helps a child learn to stand on their own two feet?The Miracle of Birth does not profess to offer scientific or other explanations for these queries; instead it presents a surprising and noteworthy look at iconic images of these issues from the 16th to the late-19th century. I havechosen to examine some of the themes from the 100 icons displayed here.
In the beginning…
The exhibition opens with an icon of the creation of Adam and Eve; the only people not born. According to Scriptures, Adam was created from dust and earth, Eve from Adam’s rib. Theiridyllic paradise comes to an end when Adam and Eve partake of the forbidden fruit. The snake convinces them that eating the fruit will not lead to death, as God had warned, but on the contrary, it will endow them with divine wisdom. After eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve are driven from Paradise. They have become mere mortals and producing offspring has become a necessity.
Child-bearing as a blessing
Having children is not self-evident or patently obvious. Fertility is seen, by some as a precious gift from God. There are certain saints who can be appealed to in the case of (supposed) infertility or by someone desiring a child. Well-known biblical mothers like Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, and Anna, the mother of the Virgin Mary are natural advocates. A lesser-known saint who also served that function, Stylianos of Paphlagonia(modern Turkey), is often found on Greek icons depicted with a baby in swaddled clothingin his arms. Tradition has it that he lived between the 4th and 6th centuries, initially as a hermit and later, as a stylite (a monk/saint who lives on a pillar). His fame as a healer grew after he was attributed with miraculously curing an ailing infant. Henceforth, icons of Stylianos were often placed in the rooms of sick children. At the same time, a barren woman came to him for help with infertility and through his intercession, she bore a child, therefore he has also become an advocate for women with fertility problems.
Messengers of the Good News
Angels play an important role in the Bible as messengers of God. The birth of important people in biblical history was often heralded by the arrival of one or more angels. One example is the three angels who visited Abraham foretelling the birth of a son, Isaac (Genesis 18) and another, the Archangel Gabriel, who announces both the birth of John the Forerunner and of the Christ Child.
According to Protoevangelium of James, also known as the Infancy Gospel of James, an angel also proclaims to Joachim and Anna that, despite their advanced ages, they will have a child.
Helper in Childbirth
This icon of the Mother of God, also given the moniker, “Helper in Childbirth” isdedicated to the protection of the mother during the birthing process. The iconography is a variation of the famous Mother of God of the Sign. However, the differences are significant. The Mother of God of the Sign extends heroutstretched hands up in an attitude of prayer alongside her body, while the Mother of God,Helper in Childbirth, folds her hands in prayer over her heart. Under her protective hands, the new-born, fully-formed Baby Jesus Immanuel glows in an almond-shaped halo of light.In the depiction of the Mother of God of the Sign, only the upper half of the Christ Child’s fully-clothed body is seen. Another striking difference is the viewing direction. The Mother of God of the Sign is looking straight ahead, whereasthe Helper in Childbirth is glancing to the side.
Gifts for mother and child
No visitor to a newly-born child can arrive empty-handed. This origin of this tradition may stem from the practice of presenting young mothers with practical items such as children’s clothes, blankets and other necessities.The baptism of young children is also a wonderful opportunity to present gifts.Many icons display scenes of one or more young women offering gifts of food or other special items to new mothers. It is difficult to surmise if the visitors and/or their gifts carry any deeper significance. Perhaps they merely allow us a glimpse into the universal wonder of the miracle of birth and the customary celebrations that encircle it.
Nativity icons frequently depict the three Wise Men of the East also known as the Magi. According to apocryphal sources there were three kings who brought three gifts to the Christ Child; gold, frankincense and myrrh (Matthew 2:11.) Over the centuries, there has been much speculation and analysis over their choice of gifts. To many, the most obvious explanation is that the Magi wished to present the most prized and honored bequest to the King of the Jews. Gold, frankincense and myrrh were greatly treasured and exclusive products known in the ancient world and were standard gifts to royalty at that time. Others put forward that the gifts carried great symbolic and spiritual significance. Gold referring to the earthly kingdom of Christ, the tabernacle or temple and the dazzling glory of heaven. Incense alludes to the divinity of the Christ Child, his all-embracing perfection, his role as high priest and the ultimate sacrifice he would bestow on mankind. Myrrh may foreshadow the suffering of Jesus Christ, the man, and his ritual embalming.What became of the gifts of the Three Wise Men? No one knows. Some biblical scholars suggest that Joseph used the gold to purchase a donkey and to pay for the holy family’s flight to Egypt. But it is also possible that the gifts remained unused – a fate which befalls many unsolicited gifts to date.
Pillow and crib
Who today would know the word ‘crèche’ or ‘manger’ if it had not featured so prominently in the stories of the Nativity? In the New International Version (NIV, 2004) of the bible, the outmoded, rather old-fashioned ‘manger’ was replaced by the more modern ‘crib’, triggering shock waves among believers and non-believers. For many, a manger or a crèche and an inn carry a more romantic sentiment than crib and a shelter or accommodation.Icons of the Nativity invariably present the Child Jesus in a manager that resembles a simple, small crib. This is in contrast to western representations of the nativity scene where the Baby Jesus is less prominent and Mary, the Virgin Mother, is the central focus. Mary lies on a large, purple-red pillow which is often understood as a reference to the Byzantine Imperial Court. This reflects the hereditary legitimacy concept of porphyrogennetos or Πορφυρογέννητη, literally translated as ‘born into the purple’ which states that a child born to a reigning emperor during his sovereignty had more rights that siblings born prior to his accession to the throne. There were conditions associated with the birthright title, the most important of which was that the child was born in the Porphýra orΠορφύρα, the purple room in a special pavilion in the Great Palace of Constantinople complex. The purple-red cushion upon which Mary lies and the simple manager of Jesus are subtle allusions to the dual nature of Christ’s divinity; as God and as Man.
On icons of the Nativity of the Mother of God and icons depicting the birth of saints, it appears that special attention is paid to the birthing bed and cradle of the newborn. The beds are noteworthy for their exceptional height; this may reflect practical considerations around the birth of a child. It is more efficient and requires less bending for midwives to assist a birth if the bed is high. Getting in and out is also easier for the mother who just gave birth.
An atypical and quite extraordinary icon is the Nativity of the Mother of God (Moscow, early 18th century) where the baby, Mary, is in a cradle that is suspended from above.Through a cord by her bedside, Anna, her mother, gently rocks the newborn’s cradle.
Almost without exception, all newborn babies are fed milk; placed, soon after birth, on the breast of their mothers. Prior to the introduction of products like milk powder or baby formulas, it was common practice for babies born to mothers who lacked sufficient breast milk, to be suckled by women who had had a surplus of milk.
Icons portraying the Mother of God suckling the Christ Child originated in the 6th century. In religious circles during this period of time, heated discussions took place calling into question the dual nature of Christ; divine and human. Could Christ have been fully divine and entirely human? The depiction of the Christ Child on the breast of the Virgin Mary dispelled any doubts about the totality of Christ’s human nature. Theotokos, theearthly mother of the Baby Jesus, feeds her child, for without it, he would not survive. To ensure that the representation of a woman’s breast is not construed as sensual but as a theological statement, the breasts depicted on icons are intentionally anatomically incorrect.
Also on various icons of the Nativity of the Mother of God, Anna is portrayed breast-feeding her daughter, Mary. This illustrates and emphasizes her humanity; The Virgin Mary is Theotokos as well as a child like any other.
By Joost Heutink
(Translated by Lorraine Weber)