The beginning of spring has come. Nature is awakening. Some parts of the Christian world are already enjoying it, while others are still dreaming of the bright, blossomy days to come. But today, March 25, all who love Christ are united in celebration of the beginning of Renewal and Salvation. Rejoice! says Gabriel. And rejoice we do.
[On the Old Calendar the Annunciation falls on April 7, Holy Saturday this year.]
The Annunciation icon is in the centre of our churches today, adorned with lilies, venerated by faithful worshippers. It is no secret that most of the Annunciation icons are inspired by the Apocrypha, particularly by the Protoevangelium of James (chapters 10-12) and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (chapters 8-9). This is how the presence of the throne, the spindle with purple yarn, and sometimes the well and the pitcher in any icon or a wall painting can be explained.
Mary was chosen by the elders to weave the curtain for the Temple. As she was the youngest of the chosen girls, her fate was to work with the purple, the threads of the royal colour, as opposed to the silk, the blue, the fine linen, or the scarlet. Inconceivable and annoying it was for the rest of the girls, and they called her “the Queen of virgins” in an attempt to mock her. However, an angel appeared among them, saying that those words were a prophecy most true; and now, Orthodox believers appeal to her as Queen, seeing her at Christ’s right hand.
The basic idea of the composition for the Annunciation icon, however, was most certainly borrowed from ancient Greeks, who laid most of the cultural groundwork for the Byzantine Empire and further generations. The Parthenon’s north metope 32 was not smashed into pieces by early Christians in the 5th century when they converted this pagan temple into a Christian church, but instead this marble slab was used for prayer! Originally, it was the scene with Athena and possibly Hera. What the early Christians did was just change the title!
But there is something else in the Annunciation icon, the element so natural it can be sometimes left without any special attention from the beholder. Sometimes it raises questions, as in this icon from Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai. A single tree, a couple of flowers, and a small grove do not look suspicious in almost any picture, but what does the river have to do with this particular Gospel story? Why are all those birds, fish, and even an octopus depicted here? [See detail of this icon at the end of this article.] Can we imagine an artist from the 12th century painting a nest with birds and a garden on the roof just for fun or as art therapy, in an icon which is to be displayed in public?
The answers can be found mostly in sermons. The technique of composing Christian homilies is deeply rooted in the school of ancient rhetoric. Ekphrasis, or formal description, used to be its important tool. There were many treatises and instructions in which which scholars and orators, emperors and politicians, and later, priests and bishops, used ekphrasis to arrange their ideas and words to communicate with the people.
This paradigm for the Description of Spring, unlike others, was never copied as is. Speakers might let themselves use only bits and pieces, individual images of spring, to adorn their speeches. In fact, a more or less full formal description of spring is not something we come across very often. Byzantine artists used to apply methods similar to those the orators employed, but in painting.
The most famous Description of Spring, among its contemporaries and in future generations, is that of Saint Gregory Nazianzen, or Saint Gregory the Theologian. It is not a full, formal description, but a set of individual images, brilliantly harmonized. New Sunday Sermon, or Oration 44, was often quoted, partly or in full, by homilists of the 4th century and beyond. Here is my humble attempt of Russian-into-English translation of the fragment of this “Oration 44, on New Sunday, on Spring and on the Memory of the Martyr Mamant:”
…everything is flowing beautifully for celebration and co-rejoicing. Behold, what beauty! The Queen of the Yearly Times goes to meet the Queen of the Days, and brings as a gift everything that is gorgeous and most enjoyable. The sky is now transparent; the sun is higher and more golden, the disc of the moon is clearer and the host of stars is brighter. Henceforth the waves make peace with the shores, the clouds with the sun, the winds with the air, the soil with the plants, and the plants with the glances. From now on, the streams that are flowing are crystal, the rivers that are flowing are abundant, having broken free from their winter shackles; the meadow smells sweet, the plant is blooming, the grass is being mown and the lambs are leaping in the fields. Already the ship is taken out from the haven with elation, most pleasing, and is being lent wings with the sail; the dolphin, with all possible pleasure taking his breath and going up, is playing by the ship and tirelessly accompanying the sailors. Henceforth, the farmer mounts his plow, looking heavenward and appealing to the Giver of the fruits; already does he lead the bullock, the plow animal, under the yoke, cuts the prolific furrow, and rejoices in hope.
From now on, the herders of the sheep and the oxen tune their panpipes, play softly their shepherd’s song, and meet the spring under the trees and on the cliffs; from now on the gardener takes care of the trees; the bird-catcher prepares his cages, examines the beams, observes the way birds fly; the fisherman peers into the depths, cleaning his nets, sitting on the rocks. Already the hardworking bumblebee shows his wisdom, having spread his wings and left the hive, flying around the meadows collecting nectar, and another works on honeycombs, intertwining the hexagonal calyxes and joining them together, fastening them alternately, once straight, once at an angle, both for beauty and durability; and another puts honey into this storage space, making ready for any visitor this sweet fruit made without the plow. Oh, if only we did the same, O Christ the beekeeper, we, who have such a model of wisdom and diligence in front of us! Already the bird is building a nest; one flies into it from time to time, the other lives there permanently, yet another flies around announcing as if it was speaking to man. Everything praises the Lord and glorifies Him in silent voices. And through me, the gratitude to God is brought.
Through the centuries, these wordy images created by St. Gregory served as a source of inspiration to artists and preachers. About two hundred years later, St. Anastasius of Antioch used just a few lines from this brilliant text in his sermon on the day of the Annunciation. As a result, the whole meaning of the Gospel event was revealed in full to all the believers. The beginning of Salvation, the renewal of Man and the whole world started at that moment, to be reborn again and again every year on March 25.
We can see several images in a row in the 11th-century book of homilies, illustrating this text. But in the scene of the Annunciation, all these trees, bird nests, and gardens become a metaphor in exactly the same way as in St. Anastasius’ sermon. So, any little flower, or bush, or tree is never just for adornment: they have meaning, they serve as a link between the Gospels and us.
A small garden can sometimes be seen on the roof, as in St. George Church in Kurbinovo, or the base of the well might be overgrown by weeds, as in Holy Unmercenaries Church in Kastoria—this is a reminder of the Song of Songs: “A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a fountain sealed…a garden fountain, a well of living water, and flowing streams from Lebanon” (Sg 4: 12, 15).
It is difficult to imagine everything from St. Gregory’s description of spring depicted in the icon, but when it comes to visual arts, there is always another way. It is not strictly necessary to quote visual images from pictures with the same theme—they just need to obtain the right meaning when put in place. The 4th-century description of spring, when used in sermons of the 6th century or later, was always noticeable, different from the rest of the texts. This applies to our visual arts as well—the 12th-century artist found an image of a river, a composition which fit with his artistic and theological intentions and was in some accordance with the text, probably among the mosaics of mid-4th century, and “quoted” it in the icon! One of the likeliest models for this river with fish and birds is the so-called “Nile landscape,” an additional decorative element in scenes from the Old Testament in the dome of Santa Constanza Church in Rome, or a similar landscape in San Clemente Basilica.
Thus, a complementary visual element becomes a metaphor for the Annunciation Spring and for the Theotokos herself—”flowing streams from Lebanon.”
Let our souls breathe in the fresh and clean air of this glorious news: “Rejoice, O Full of grace! The Lord is with you!”
This article is based on Art and Eloquence in Byzantium by Henry Maguire (1981).
Irina Gannota is an artist with a degree in Ceramic Arts from the Stroganov Moscow State Academy of Industrial and Applied Arts. During her third year at the Academy she “discovered” Orthodox Christianity for herself. This led later to her artwork mainly in porcelain icons, which can be viewed on her website. She lives and works in Moscow.