BalkanMagazin :: Blagovesti u pravoslavnoj ikonografiji

The theological and liturgical significance of the Annunciation, in Orthodox churches, is already visible at the Imperial Doors. In the liturgy, they represent the gates of Paradise, because it is believed that the entry into the Kingdom of God began at the moment of Mary’s sinless conception, at the moment when the word was embodied. It was the first earthly sign of Christ, as well as the beginning of the salvation of mankind. This event is the basis of the dogma of the double nature of Christ – God and man.

Annunciation, mosaic, Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, 5th century

Paleo-Christian period and apocryphal gospels

The iconographic motif of the Annunciation was shown in the time of Paleo-Christianity, as evidenced by the frescoes from the catacomb of Priscilla (2nd century), St. Calixtus (3rd century), St. Maria Maggiore (5th century) and ampoules from Monza. In the 6th century, the akathist hymn of St. Roman Slatkopojc, celebrated this event, and Emperor Heraclius I, in 626, wrote a hymn in honor of the Mother of God where we find the same theme. Somewhat later, in 692, the Annunciation became one of the 12 Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church.

The literary sources of the Annunciation are found in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 1: 26-38), the Proto-Gospel of James (2nd century) and the Pseudo-Matthew’s Gospel (5th / 6th century). The significance of this holiday immediately conditioned the birth of the iconographic motif, which, over the centuries, has undergone many changes in the composition and its elements. It could be said that it was only in the 14th century that it was completely determined and stable in Orthodox iconography.

In the beginning, the motif of the Annunciation was very simple: Archangel Gabriel was on the right side and had no crime (Priscilla), while the Mother of God was sitting on the throne (St. Calixtus). With the liberation of the Christian religion, the iconographic language expanded, and the first aspirations to express dogmas through painting appeared. The first change in the theme of the Annunciation was a new arrangement of characters: the Archangel took the left side, and the Mother of God the right, which gave the presentation a new dimension, more dynamic and dramatic.


Annunciation, Byzantine mosaic, early 11th century, St. Sophia, Kiev

Composition change

Archangel Gabriel, God’s messenger, comes to tell Mary the Good News, the conception of Jesus. He is motionless, in a frontal position, and the significance of the event is simply shown by his very presence. This tradition is present until the 14th century, but as early as the 12th century, the Archangel became a little more mobile. At first, he was only facing the Mother of God, and then he entered a very energetic movement that ends the flight, which can be seen by the fluttering of the ends of his cloak. He blesses with his right hand, while his left is free or, according to Western tradition, he holds a flower in it. Sometimes, the Archangel holds a scroll on which is written: “Rejoice, gracious one! The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28).

The transition of the Mother of God to the right side of the composition was very slow, from the 6th to the 11th century, and the attitude and iconological attributes changed according to the needs and epochs. The Mother of God is turned towards the Archangel, although in iconography both are shown with the face turned towards the viewer, which is in accordance with the theological dogma that the power of the icon is in the faces. In the catacombs of St. Calixtus and on one mosaic of the Basilica of St. Euphrasius (6th century) in Poreč, the Mother of God sits on the throne.

In Byzantine iconography, starting from the 6th century, it stands, while the depiction of the Sitting Mother of God became more frequent in the 14th century, during the Palaeologus dynasty. At the same time, in the West, Goto introduced a new composition of the Virgin kneeling, but that motif never entered Eastern iconography. Namely, according to Orthodox teaching, the Mother of God is the empress of the Universe, so she is higher than all angels.

The attributes of the Mother of God changed according to the periods. The oldest attribute is the well, illustrating one section of the apocryphal Gospel of James (11, 1), because the meeting of the Mother of God and the Archangel took place right next to the well. The symbolism of water is very important in the East, and here it reminds us of an allegory from the Gospel of John (John 4: 13-14) and several episodes from the Pentateuch (Gen. 24: 11/2 Lev. 2:15).

gospel-moscow-17th century

Annunciation, icon, late 17th century, Moscow

The Mother of God with a cross and a book

The Mother of God-predilja entered the iconography around the 5th century (St. Maria Maggiore) and it is a continuation of the story with the well. Mary, frightened by the voice of an invisible angel, entered the house and, according to the legend, began to spin the wool for the curtain that separates the altar from the ark in the temple. This symbolic element is based on the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 27:51) and Mark (Mark 15:38) and on the Epistle to the Hebrews of St. Paul (Heb. 10:20). The attribute of the horsehair is rare in the 6th century and until the 12th century it was supported by folklore and monastic teachings in the East (Palestine, Syria). Eventually, it was accepted in Byzantine iconography and became the most popular motif.

The third type, the least seen, is the Mother of God with a book, a motif known in the West in the 13th century and accepted by the monks of Mount Athos in the 16th century. It is based on the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (6: 3): “She studied the law and prayed.” the words of the prophet Isaiah are often found in the open book: “A virgin shall conceive” (Isa. 7:14).

With her attitude, the Mother of God expresses the whole through feelings. Her hand with an open palm indicates her astonishment and concern over so much honor bestowed upon her. In the depictions where she, with a calm movement, puts her hand on her chest, she expresses her obedience to the will of the Lord. In the 14th century, we notice the Annunciation on which the Mother of God sits on a throne, her head and shoulders turned towards the Archangel, while her body is directed to the right in a counter-movement, which further enlivens the whole image.


The Annunciation at the Imperial Doors of the Modern Greek Church

The Mother of God, the temple of God’s glory

The architecture shows the place where the event really takes place. It is common for architecture not to limit space so that the event can be placed out of time and out of limited space and thus become universal. Architectural background is also used to enhance or soften the scene with its lines, shapes and colors. a semicircle with several rays and a dove is often shown above the houses, symbolizing the Holy Spirit descending from the Kingdom of God.

The significance of the Feast of the Annunciation is beautifully expressed in one text of St. Andrew of Crete, archbishop from the beginning of the 7th century:

“I salute thee, O majestic temples of the glory of God;

I greet you, the wedding bed in which Christ received human nature;

I greet you, the land of the world and the virgin land from which the new Adam was created

An unspeakable gift of God, to redeem old Adam. “

Source: Balkan Magazin – Aktuelnosti by

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