One of the most striking features of a Byzantine style church is the extensive use of iconography, with images often covering most if not all of the walls inside the sanctuary. Upon entering this sacred space, we see the scriptures come to life through the imagery, colors, and events that are depicted. The icons speak to us in a theologically correct way and convey deep meaning about spiritual realities that are often beyond our comprehension. And while the cumulative effect of so many images is quite powerful, each individual icon offers us the same experience. A good example can be seen in the icon of the Annunciation.
Imagine being one of the earliest iconographers. With scripture as a guide and inspired by the Holy Spirit, they had to figure out how to portray such a great mystery in a manner that would render the meaning accessible to all. As we read in the gospel of Luke, it’s the moment when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary to announce that, with her consent, she would conceive a child and bear a son. This will not be just any child, but the Son of the uncreated and eternal God.
The event occurs indoors, as indicated by the red fabric swag draped across the structures in the background. In the foreground, the Archangel Gabriel appears before Mary:
“Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!” (Luke 1: 28)
The archangel is depicted with one wing upraised and his feet apart as if he were running. The posture of his body gives a sense of motion and captures the urgency and great joy of his message. With his right arm he imparts a blessing while with his left he holds a staff that is the symbol of his authority as a messenger of God.
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1: 30-33)
The Virgin Mary sits on a high seat to symbolize her lofty status as the Mother of God. And yet her posture and words exemplify grace and humility.
“How can this be, since I do not know a man?” (Luke 1: 34)
Gabriel was unable to explain such a great mystery to the one who would carry in her womb the Son of God. Yet she did not doubt upon hearing the great message of the angel but was rather astonished and wondered aloud just how such a marvelous wonder would occur.
To this, Gabriel replied:
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God. Now indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.” (Luke 1: 35-37)
Above the Virgin Mary, the Divine Glory is seen as a semicircle, with three rays directed towards Mary to demonstrate the action of the Holy Spirit coming upon her. Mary’s posture, with her head bowed toward the angel, is also one of great obedience, as her words attest:
“Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1: 38)
We see three stars on Mary’s clothing which symbolize that she was a virgin before, during, and after the birth of Christ. She holds in her hand a spindle of yarn which depicts the task assigned to her for making the veil of the Temple. The colors of her garment are also symbolic, with the blue underneath symbolizing her humanity and the red symbolizing the divinity she receives.
Through bright colors, we see the joyful message of the angel delivered to the virgin. We also learn of this great event through the hymns that are chanted throughout the year. In them, Mary is known as the living ark, the burning bush who is not consumed, the golden jar of manna who held in her womb the pre-eternal God, Who by a word created the entire universe. She is proclaimed to be the one who contained Him that was uncontainable, thus proving that she was more spacious than the heavens. During the Orthros service on the Feast of the Annunciation, we hear chanted that which is depicted through the icon and, with our senses engaged through the sights, sounds, and the smell of incense, our minds are lifted higher so that we too may be able to better understand such a great mystery.
The age-old mystery is revealed today, and the Son of God becomes the Son of man, so that by partaking of what is lower He may impart to me what is superior. Of old, Adam was deceived; and he did not become God, though this was his desire. But now, God becomes man, to make Adam god. Let creation sing for joy, and let nature be exultant. For the Archangel is standing with awe before the Virgin and is delivering the salutation, “Rejoice,” the reverse of the pain and sorrow. O our God, who in Your tender mercy became man, glory to You!
Video produced by Efstratios Papageorgiou
Written by Michael Gavalas