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Analysis of an icon of Nativity of Christ


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Written by: Gjorgi Kalinski, Lasse Saari and Lidia Sviridova

Nativity of Christ, painted by Jyrki Pouta


Table of contents:


1 ANALYSIS OF AN ICON OF NATIVITY OF CHRIST
1.1 Background
1.2 Description
1.3 Perspective
2. PLOT OF EVENTS
2.1 The Birth of Jesus Christ
2.2 Shepherds’ latria
2.3 Joseph is in doubts
2.4 The holy infant Christ ablution
2.5 The three wise men latria
2.6 The Bethlehem star
2.7 The four herald angels
2.8 Two domestic animals
3.CONCLUSIONS
4. SOURCES

1. ANALYSIS OF AN ICON OF NATIVITY OF CHRIST



1.1 Background

This is an icon situated at the Orthodox church of Jyväskylä. It has been painted by Jyrki Pouta. Jyrki Pouta is a painter and a religion teacher in Jyväskylä. For this project he has painted all the 12 new icons to the Jyväskylä church depicting all the yearly feasts of the Orthodox religion. The icon is painted on a wooden block, using traditional icon-painting methods and tempera paints.

the church









1.2 Description

In this icon, we can see a very detailed representation of the birth of Jesus Christ. The icon is also rich in colours, with excessive expression of the red. The geometrical stance of the composition is rectangular bordered with quite thin frame. The central figure is Virgin Mary and her direction is diagonal heading an angle of approximately 45 degrees. All the characters of the icon are set in a very traditional way, where Virgin Mary is in the center, the three wise men to her right hand, shepherds to her left hand, Joseph near her feet in the left bottom corner and the holy infant Christ ablution in the right bottom corner of the icon.

Perspective

Typically for the orthodox icons, the natural performance of the perspective is annulated to what could be described as fixed proportions of composition’s elements. However, what is essentially emphasized here, are the figures of the Holly Virgin and Joseph, which rather considerably outrange the proportions of others. This notice could be interpreted as an intention of the author to form his own personal view concerning the events connected with the birth of the Holy Savior.

Naturally, the just born infant Jesus represents another central figure, but in this case the author emphasizes that thing not by the proportions as in the previous figures of the Holly Virgin and Joseph, but simply with the whitish veil in which the Savoir is wrapped, symbolizing that way his purity.

The geometrical positioning of the composition is rectangular, forming a steady and harmonious whole. Each piece of event forms a straight and undisturbed line of communication with the rest. The only exception from this rule is the midway vertical line, which goes from the Holy Virgin down to the old Shepard, but not upwards, to where the angels are, symbolizing the heaven. Assuming the old Shepard is the devil himself, disguised and tempting Joseph, it is obvious why that line is figuratively cut off, and instead the Holy Virgin herself, overshadows the devil, who is presented as a tempting old Shepard.

perspective









As a central figure, the Holy Virgin, as already mentioned, dominates the composition not only by her position, but also by the size. Her figure positioned at approximately some 45 degrees northeast is in almost perfect diagonal equality with the central ray of the Bethlehem star, which points directly to the infant Jesus.

It is also worth noticing that approximately some ¾ of the composition’s background apply to the mountainous relief, which is quite monotonous, in terms of the lack of any detailed shapes but the wavy lines. The strict rules of icon painting and the actual relief of the place where these things took place could interpret this aspect.

2. PLOT OF EVENTS

The birth of Christ took place at the time and place predicted by the prophets (Gen. 49:10; Isa. 7:14; Jer. 31:15; Micah 5:2; Hag. 2:6-9; Dan. 9:24,25). Joseph and Mary were providentially led to go up to Bethlehem at this period, and there Christ was born (Matt. 2:1, 6; Luke 2:1, 7)”. The exact date of Christ’s birth is unknown, however it is said that it took place in the “fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4). The whole sequence of events depicted in the icon had been taken from the Gospel when Jesus was born and actions connected with it. In the icon, we can see the following events:

2.1 The Birth of Jesus Christ

In the centre, we can see a Virgin Mary sitting on a stone after the birth of the holy infant. Mary, chosen by God, gave birth to Jesus in a cave used as a stable for animals. She placed him in a manger as a star shown brightly in the sky to announce his coming.

The cave, an iconographic symbol of encounter with God, is imaged in this icon as the place of honour where all may find Immanuel – God with us. The creator of the cosmos is born as human in the womb of Mary and the earth. He is light in the darkness, infinity incarnate.

Mary gazes outward, presenting her Son to the world. The Christ Child is embraced by his mother, adored by the stable animals, and sheltered by the mountains, which appear as steps leading us to the Lord of Creation. Despite the serenity of the scene, we are reminded that Jesus is wrapped in swaddling clothes, a prefigurement of his burial shroud. His manger is also a sarcophagus, as he was born to die, so that his death might bring life to all who would accept his mother’s invitation to accept and believe.

2.2 Shepherds’ latria

The shepherds are represented in different ages, two young men, and an older man. They are looking at Bethlehem star, one of them is even pointing at it, because they needed a sign, which would lead them to the Christ. One of the young men is playing the flute; his eyes are laid-back as he is all in a spiritual mood, playing for his Christ, and celebrating the happy moment.

2.3 Joseph is in doubts

He has to be strong, as the whole situation has demanded him to make sacrifices. He is already preparing to the end and the sorrows we can see in Virgin Mary’s eyes mean that she already suspects the faith their child is about to face.

Another interpretation could be the one according to which Joseph is tempted by the devil concerning the Mary’s virginity. The devil could be disguised in the figure of the old shepard standing beside him and addressing him in the same time.

2.4 The holy infant Christ ablution

We can see two female figures; one of them is holding the Christ who has almost an adult man’s body structure and facial expression. One of the women that helped Virgin Mary to give birth to Christ and the other came in order to get proofs of the birth of the holy baby.

2.5 The three wise men latria

Different aged people represent them: a youngster, an adult, and an old man. They brought presents to the holy baby.

2.6 The Bethlehem star

The Bethlehem star brought the wise men to the Christ’s birthplace, and is represented as raying in three sides, symbolizing that way the Holy Trinity of the Father, the Holy Son, and the Holy Ghost.

2.7 The four herald angels

They are the ones who announced about the holy baby’s birth to those who were to know about that and they helped them to reach the place in time.

2.8 Two domestic animals

The ox and the donkey – there are a few explanations for them being there: some specialists say that the ox and the donkey represent two people: the Jews and the Muslim which should be united under one god; others say that the animals present the people that do not believe in god and the ox is licking the Christ because it wants to get blessed as to be united under one god as a human being.

3 CONCLUSIONS

In general, the composition does not turn from the traditionalist approaches in icon painting. There are at least several aspects in favour of this conclusion. Apart from the general rules that apply mostly to its perspective, and the way the time of events is presented, these elements could be well perceived in the specific representation of participants’ facial expressions and body shapes.

Not that typically, the icon is rich in colours and borders contrasting elements, which as a whole shape a perfectly harmonious unit. There is also a contrasting unit of rather “far ends” concerning the saturation on one hand and the hue on the other. Expressed in pale dominants of conditionally accepted “background” (the relief, for example), these two elements however create a harmonious whole.

Unlike many icons representing the same event, the author here clearly focuses on a detail, either in telling the story followed by most of the aspects after the birth of the Lord or in representations of the body figures and facial expressions of the participants. It is definitely a composition of complex nature, going beyond the single event. Its dynamics, caused by the very detailed representation of certain aspects, undoubtedly bring a strong spiritual experience.

It is the affecting power of the representation that really brings divine feelings to the spectator. The one, without any doubts to fulfil the rightful path of our Lord, can find a complete peace of his soul in a representation that describes in many details the happiest moment of all the human kind.

4 SOURCES

Hirsjärvi, S., Remes, P. & Sajavaara, P. (1997). Tutki ja kirjoita. Helsinki: Kirjayhtymä.

Lappalainen H. (2002). Toiminnallista teoriaa: haastattelututkimus musiikinteorian ja säveltapailun elämyksellisistä opetustavoista. Jyväskylän yliopisto. Musiikin laitos. Pro gradu.

Uimonen, H. (2001). Oon junassa - kuuluu huonosti! - Matkapuhelimet ja äänimaiseman muutos. Musiikki, 31(1), 22-33.

"Nativity of Christ"