Annunciation Icon, Ohrid, 14th Century
Let us examine the icon for a moment. Some of the facts that I gave in previous analyses of the Angel and the Holy Mother will be approached today in a better manner. First of all, the Angel is announcing an event. Given that he is announcing an event and is in motion, his legs as we can see in the icon are wide apart. This denotes the presence of movement. In other instances, we shall see angels who are not likewise in motion, and whose legs are static. Whatever we know about angels, we owe it to the Holy Bible. According to Scriptural standards, they are "functional spirits, sent forth to minister". In other words, they have two things. Firstly, they are functional spirits, they minister to God, and secondly, they are sent forth to minister. They have a mission. God sends them forth, to do something in the world. That is their role. For the other heavenly hosts we do not have much information. Most of the things that we know are about angels and archangels. While we do know that the other hosts are called principalities, thrones, powers, virtues, etc., nevertheless, we do not know what their functional roles are. We know very little about the Cherubim and the Seraphim, which appeared in the space of the Old Testament.
But we do have more - and more frequent - appearances by angels and especially archangels. You should remember, that Michael of the Archangels appears in the Old Testament and Gabriel of the Archangels appears in the New Testament. Thus, when you see an Archangel in the space of the New Testament - and even if you don't know his name - it is the Archangel Gabriel. The Archangel Michael usually - but not necessarily exclusively - appears in the Old Testament. Of course in events that mar our Church's history, we have a few variations. We have the miracle at Chonais, which we commemorate in September and was performed by the Archangel Michael. But anyway, this is a general view of things. That is why you should also know that from a liturgical point of view, the order in which icons are placed in the Sanctum, the Royal Gate has two doors. The one to the right - as we see it - and another to the left. You may have noticed that the door to the left is the only one that is used during the Divine Liturgy. Whereas in all the services, the deacon exits through the left door and re-enters the Sanctum through the right door, when the Divine Liturgy begins, the right door ceases to be used altogether. Only the left door is used, through which the Priests pass, holding the Precious Gifts. This signifies that this door which is liturgical use during the moment of the New Testament, is the door of the New Testament. Whereas the other door - which is constantly in liturgical use and is abandoned, and no longer used during the Divine Liturgy - is, symbolically speaking, the door of the Old Testament. That is why the face of the Old Testament door - to the right, as we see it - is always adorned with an icon of the Archangel Michael, who is the Archangel of the Old Testament, and on the other door, the icon of the Archangel Gabriel is always depicted.
Angels, therefore, are "functional spirits, sent forth to minister". If angels are ministering, as in the icon of Christ's Baptism where they are ministering to His Baptism, we will notice that they are depicted as motionless. Their legs are not apart. If their legs are depicted apart, striding, that will denote they have been "sent forth". This same movement of the legs can also be observed in depictions of the Apostles. The Apostles are also in motion and they are ministering to God. If they are on a mission, their legs will be depicted in a striding position. If they are depicted as ministering to the mystery of divine providence, their legs will not be apart. In the icon of the Ascension, or the icon of Thomas's touching Christ's scars, you will notice that the disciples are depicted to the left and the right. Thomas is at the centre of the icon touching Christ's scars, and the remaining disciples are on either side. You will notice that half of them are with their legs in motion and the other half with their legs motionless. They cannot depict an Apostle with legs in motion and simultaneously motionless; given that the Apostles are one body, half of them are depicted in motion, with their legs in a striding position, and the other half are motionless, with their legs together. In this way, they are stating that they are simultaneously in motion, but also motionless ministers. Which is what we also are, essentially. In Orthodoxy, we do not ask ourselves "What is better?" To stand still or be in motion? What should concern us, is to be on the move per the measures of the mission that God wants us to undertake, and be motionless per the measures of hesychasm and the stance of watchfulness and prayer. Both these measures comprise a balance in Orthodoxy. We never have any form of absolutism. In other words, if someone were to state: "I will withdraw as a hesychast, without making any move, any action", then he would be living Orthodoxy correctly. Both these aspects therefore alternate.
In the icon, the Archangel Gabriel is "sent forth" to the Holy Mother, which is why his legs are depicted apart, in motion. As you can see, he has one arm outstretched - he is announcing something to Her. If he were a functioning spirit and ministering to a mystery (as you can see in an icon of the Baptism), his arms would not have been outstretched. In fact, they would have been covered with a cloth. If the hand is exposed, it is indicating something. God is telling him to say something. The hand is not his; he is lending his hand, to God. That is what takes place in the Divine Liturgy. If you have noticed, we priests wear an external garment which is called a phelonion, and it covers our arms. Our arms remain covered. This signifies that we do not have arms of our own. And if we are to do something, we do it in the manner that the Church tells us, according to God's instructions. In other words, we do not use our arms the way we want, in order to make gestures of sorrow, joy, triumph, victory, etc.. The priest places his arm under the phelonion when blessing the people, or the precious gifts, or when saying "Peace to all". Nothing more. So you see that a priest participates in angel fashion, to the extent of his measures, as do all the people of God, during the performance of the Liturgy. In motion, but also motionless. In the icon, therefore, the Angel has his arm outstretched, his legs set apart, given that he is presently "sent forth" to minister. You see how significant these things are! You cannot abolish them.
Now let us observe the Angel's head. You will notice that the Angel has a headband holding back his head of hair. The headband in hagiography is (I could say) the carnal, material expression of the noetic prayer. The Angel is concentrating the wealth of his mind (I can't actually describe his intellect and mind) in the presence of God. That is why he is wearing the headband. What interests us is his concentration. And note something else - that the head is not depicted in profile, or face-on. The depiction is a three-quarter view of the face, so that we can see both his eyes. What is of interest to us, is to see both his eyes. And we can see this in images of all the saints.
The Angel is also holding a staff. You should never portray this Angel with that romantic kind of expression - the way that the Vaticanian style does, carrying a lily in his hand. There is no tradition that reports any such detail, nor does the Holy Bible mention that the Angel carried any staff in his hand. To us, the staff has a theological symbolism. A staff was always the object used by messengers when they had to make an announcement. Up until recently, even in our villages, a town crier would come out and strike a stick against the cobblestones in the street, and shout out that this or that event was going to take place. The staff signifies that the Angel has come to announce something. He is not holding a flower to enhance the moment, or to offer it as a gift to the Holy Mother. That is a mistake. It is a romantic approach to the event. And our Church has never indulged in the romantic approach to the matter, but always approaches it with solemnity. Our Church seeks to inspire solemnity with Her art forms, and not to display romanticism. That is why we differentiate ourselves altogether; both in music and in portrayal. Two par excellence arts. There are other forms of art of course, such as woodcarving. But, as with these two par excellence art forms, the same applies with woodcarving. We produce simple, uncomplicated woodcarvings. We do not carve in any baroque or rococo style, which are highly ornate, and overloaded, for the purpose of making an impression on a person's senses. This art form permeates the entire Church, even through to the priests' vestments etc. There is a theology here also. The frugality of the vestments, without any additions, without an excess of imagery on them and a multitude of colours... Our Church prefers frugality in all these things. But our job here is to observe the hagiography and and remember that frugality, which is expressed here with this staff and the Angel's outstretched arm.
The Angel also has a stripe on his garment - we can see this stripe on Christ's garments also - which states that as an officer, he has received instructions. He has been given a power from a higher authority. He is stating that an Angel is not independent. He does not function independently. He does not function per the measures of personal desires, but is obeisant to God. That stripe-insignia denotes the authority given to him. With Christ, the authority given to Him is also denoted by a band, but at the same time, we can see Him - almost always - holding in his hands a scroll. The Scriptures in the past were not in the form of books; they were in the form of those rolled-up scrolls of papyrus. Christ was given the authority by the Father, to do what He was to do. In short, no-one is independent.
Other than that, angels are portrayed the way we have seen them. We have seen them human in appearance, we have seen them with wings. They are not a concoction of ours. We portray whatever we have seen, in a theological manner. The troparia chants of our Church mention them as "secondary lights". The primary light is God. Everyone else - the saints and the angels - are secondary lights because they obtain their light from God. No-one has their own light. Even the halos depicted on the heads of saints are an expression of that secondary light. It is God's light, which illuminates their whole head.
You should remember that we always honour all the angels on Mondays. Every time it is Monday, we honour the angels. Just as Sunday is the day of the Resurrection. Monday is for the angels. Tuesdays are for Saint John the Baptist. Wednesdays are for the Crucifixion and the Holy Mother. Thursdays are for the Holy Apostles and always for Saint Nicholas, in the status of a Hierarch. Fridays are again for the Holy Mother and at the same time for the Cross. Saturdays are for the reposed and Sundays are for the Resurrection. Of course, these are in addition to the saints that are commemorated each day. Thus, if you notice, all of the troparia hymns on Mondays - if you open up the Book of Supplications called "Parakleteke" - always include references to angels. Theological troparia on angels can also be found in the Midnight services, and Sunday mornings, when the triadic dogma of our Church is expressed, in which angels participate with their ministering, as secondary lights.
I am saying all this, so that you may acquire a broader experience, as we do not have segmental arts. A hagiographer is born and develops within the life of the Church. He has to see things more broadly. A hagiographer who is not a churchgoer, who does not partake of the mystery of the Church, will never be able to undertake hagiography. Much less a hagiographer who doesn't know any elementary theological things.
Let us now take a look at the Holy Mother. We can see that She is seated. The Holy Mother or Christ can usually be portrayed as seated. The seated position denotes certainty. Her outstretched arm is a gesture of acceptance. It means "I accept". We aren't dealing with comic strips here, where we need to insert expressions and words. Acceptance is also denoted by a lowered head. We can see a minimal, very slight bowing of the head, which, together with the hand gesture, is a statement of acceptance. Thus, wherever we see or want to express acceptance of an event, we portray a bowed head. A minimal, tiny move of humility which is not overly apparent; that is, not an explosive humility. That would have also been a romantic or "deafening" element. An open palm also denotes acceptance.
In He other hand the Holy Mother is holding another object. It is a spindle for making yarn. This denotes something else that the Holy Mother is - Who is more precious that the Cherubim and incomparably more glorious than the Seraphim; Who resembles the angelic hosts and is far more precious than all of them - but Who simultaneously remains human and is preoccupied with human work. That is why She is holding that spindle. No-one in the life of the Church is an exclusively spiritual person. Given that people bear everything carnal and a carnal nature - which is not a sin per se - they must also perform human labours. Work. And you should remember that ascetic theory in its entirety, and the neptic theory of Orthodoxy are judged by alternation - that is, by the simultaneous application of work and prayer. That is why the Holy Mother is holding a spindle. And is seated.
I have already spoken of the three stars that are depicted on the Holy Mother - one on Her head and the other two on each of Her shoulders. The stars are 8-pointed; they each have 8 rays. The triple star denotes that the Holy Mother is ever-virginal. She was, is and forever will be a Virgin - before, during and after the Birth. The 8-pointed star with its 8 rays denotes the mystery of the "eighth day". The mystery of the eighth day is the mystery that God had inaugurated with His plan of divine providence (oekonomia) in order to save mankind; because on the "seventh day", the last "day" of Creation, we failed in that which God created us for. We too by participating the way the Holy Mother does, are likewise participating in the plan of divine providence (oekonomia).
The Fathers of the Church have theologized about the Person of the Holy Mother; this was during the third Ecumenical Synod. During the Ecumenical Synod of Ephesus, where certain persons such as the heretic Nestorius had maintained that the Holy Mother is not a "Theo-tokos" (who had given birth to God), but a "Christo-tokos" (who had given birth to Christ. You might ask: What is the difference? The difference is huge. "Theotokos" is one thing, and "Christotokos" is another. What does this difference mean? Well, Nestorius had asserted the She was the "Christotokos" - that She had given birth to Christ, and nothing more. According to Nestorius, She was merely a pipeline, which Christ had merely passed through. That is a theological error. How was Christ born? What do we confess in the Creed? "....incarnated by the Holy Spirit and Mary the Virgin, and become Man...". Two events are taking place here. Just as the birth of a child requires the collaboration of a man and a woman, here, the grace of the Holy Spirit is the collaborator: "....incarnated by the Holy Spirit and Mary the Virgin, and become Man...". What does the Holy Mother do? She provides human (worldly) flesh to Christ. Therefore the Holy Mother's participation is not simply the participation of a pipeline that serves a situation. Christ does not merely pass through Her, from inside, without the Holy Mother offering the human magnitude. Christ assumes the human magnitudes thanks to the Holy Mother; therefore, She is a Theo-tokos. It is God Who is born, and made incarnate. The difference is huge. And a whole Ecumenical Synod had been convened on this topic alone - if the Holy Mother is a "Christo-tokos" or "Theo-tokos". And this theology was tackled by very many of the major Fathers, such as Cyril of Alexandria and other theologians, who had originally theologized on the Person of our Holy Mother.
I will now return to the first icon of the Annunciation. There are secondary elements in there, which can be presented chromatically also. There is the throne. Or even that red cloth that is draped at the top. We insert that draped cloth in other icons also - usually in depictions of Magisterial feast-days, or in the portrayals of Christ and the Holy Mother; that red cloth is a statement of a joyous event. We could call it a joyous-resurrectional event. However, it is only a secondary element, in the sense that it may or may not be inserted in an icon. You will not see it in every icon. It alternates, according to the iconographer's choice. The theological elements however are used exactly as they are. For example, the platform that the Angel or the Theotokos is standing on is a secondary element. It is very important to distinguish between the theological elements and the secondary ones.
The colour of the Holy Mother's garment, Her external robe is dark red, which is the colour that Orthodoxy regards as a deeply solemn colour. Our Church never uses the colour black. It is highly unfortunate when priests dress in black vestments - especially during Great Lent - or place black covers atop the Holy Altar during Lent. We do not have that absolute degree of sorrow. As we shall also see from the shape of the mouth that is depicted, we are speaking of that "joyous-sorrow". These are two elements combined. We are never in absolute joy and absolute sorrow. Absolute joy is a utopia, because we are living in a post-Fall state. And absolute sorrow is a tragedy, because sorrow indicates that you have lost everything, that there is no hope in Christ. The only thing that we feel sorry for. We are sorry for our sins. It is what Christ had said: "be angered, and do not sin". We need to be angry over our sins only. We should not sin for any reason. And we should only feel sorrow for our sins. During His moments of prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ (according to Mark's Gospel) is mentioned as being "sorrowful". Specifically, His words were: "My soul is surrounded by sorrow, even unto death" («περίλυπος εστιν η ψυχή μου έως θανάτου» - Matt.26:38). This does not imply that Christ was disillusioned. You must notice the (Greek) word used here. He is "sorrow-surrounded" (περίλυπος peri-lypos); He is not sad; He is merely engulfed by sorrow. Which means that sorrow is around ("peri") Him. It is the sorrow of sin that is in action around Him, and that is why He is surrounded by sorrow - sorrow for our sins. Our Church never indulges in events of absolute sorrow or grief. Good Friday is not a day of sorrow. This is an entirely mistaken approach. It is a day of "joyous sorrow". We feel sorrow for one thing: for having dared to crucify Christ. And at the same time, we feel joy, because Christ was resurrected. That is why, when you go to church on the morning of Good Friday - which is when the Vespers of Holy Saturday are celebrated - you will see the priests are obliged to wear white vestments. And even if they had worn black vestments during the Lenten period, they must necessarily change them and wear white, because that is when the mystery of Christ's descent into Hades takes place, and at the moment that He is dead on the Cross, that is also when death is conquered. We do not have events of sorrow and grief; we have that "joyous sorrow", which is ministered to, throughout our life. As I said, absolute joy is a utopia. It is a fictitious psychological state that cannot do anything more than make us get away from our confrontation of sorrow for our sins.
Question: Why is the Holy Mother seated in this icon of the Annunciation?
Reply: I already mentioned the theology behind the seated pose. The Holy Mother is not always depicted in a seated position in the icons of the Annunciation. However, this example is very correct, because the seated position that refers to Christ and the Holy Mother denotes certainty. The seated position implies certainty - what is to ensue is a certainty. The Holy Mother is certain about what She is doing. She is accepting God's proposal. And She does it, without knowing the facts analytically.
Question: Why is the event of the Annunciation depicted in an external setting?
Reply: In hagiography, we never depict an interior space (as for example the interior of a temple). All events are external; there is no internal space. Nothing is closed within walls in hagiography. Everything exists outside. An event may take place somewhere inside, internally, but a house will be depicted as an outdoor setting. In hagiography we never close ourselves in. Everything is an exit. There is no interior. Even if a liturgy is depicted, you will never see where there is a closed temple, you will never see any walls. Because the Liturgy itself is an exit from the things of this world. Woe betide, if the Church were to be closed in, or performed a Liturgy for enjoyment, or to acquire solemnity, and nothing more. The Liturgy is an exit. And we participate in the Liturgy, so that we might acquire the potential to make an exit, towards the world, towards God and the others. There is never any closed space in hagiography. Never. Even when it refers to doubting Thomas, "with the doors closed", where "the disciples were gathered for fear of the Judeans", the Apostles are depicted in an open space. Even though the Holy Bible itself states "with the doors closed", nevertheless, hagiography portrays them as standing outside. The same thing can be observed in the icon of the Pentecost - even though the Pentecost happened inside a loft.
That is the theology of our icon. There are no closed spaces. Just as there is no person who remains closed within himself. The Church is always a constant exit.
by fr. Constantine Strategopoulos