The Only Begotten Son and the Word of God
(Russia; nineteenth century)
Russia; nineteenth century; 34.5 x 28.8 cm
Theological basis of the icon
The rare and complex composition of the icon is based on the well-known canticle, the authorship of which is attributed to the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (527-565). The theme emerged as a response against Nestorianism, which denied that Christ is God-Human, that is, He has two natures, divine and human. The canticle is sung during the celebration of the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, as well as St. Basil the Great: “The Only-begotten Son and the Word of God, immortal, and yet for our salvation you have received the body from the Holy Virgin and always the Virgin Mary, and without changing your deity you have become man. You have suffered the cross, Christ God, you have overcome death with death. As one in the Holy Trinity, equal in glory to the Father and to the Holy Spirit, save us.” This liturgical hymn, although short in scope, is rich in its theological content. It points to profound truths about Christ, to his Divine and human nature, the incarnation, death and the resurrection. This hymn contains the whole dogmatic teaching on Christ. First, He is called the Only Begotten Son of God because He is the second Divine Person, in nature equal to the Heavenly Father, and not an adoptive Son, as redeemed mankind became. He is also the Word of God, as the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John called him: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14). Christ for the salvation of us received the body from the Holy Virgin and always the Virgin Mary. And by accepting human nature, he did not lose any of his Divine nature. That is why it is sung in the canticle that without changing your deity you have become man. Christ completed the work of the incarnation and redemption with his death on the cross and the glorious resurrection. He overcame death by death, because he is not an ordinary man, but one of the Holy Trinity, who is equal in glory to the Father and to the Holy Spirit. In this way, God's care for man and his salvation manifested itself. The faithful participating in the liturgy therefore turn to God by glorifying him with this canticle and at the same time calling out save us!
The iconography of this motif was formed in Russia in the middle of the sixteenth century. The central theme of the icon is the incarnation, the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, his victory over death and the redemption of humanity.
Description of the icon
The icon is divided into three parts. There is the centrally located Lord of Hosts – Sabaoth at the top, who is giving his blessing and sitting on clouds, in a brilliant white garment, like an absolute spiritual being, from which indescribable brightness emanates. He has an eight-pointed star, a sign of eternity, fullness of time and perfect knowledge in his nimbus. A white dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit, hovers in the clouds. The Old Testament Holy Trinity, depicted as three angels at a table by Mamre's oak, is below him. This image expresses the equality between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as well as their interrelationships: fatherly love, filial obedience and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. The equality is also confirmed by a round table and three identical goblets.
At the centre of not only the second row but also of the whole icon, is Christ, placed in a circle, like Emanuel - God with us, as we sing in the canticle itself about Christ: he for our salvation received the body of the Blessed Virgin and always the Virgin Mary, which is confirmed by the depiction of the Virgin Mary - a sign with the Child Christ as a symbol of the Incarnation. Christ Emanuel is giving his blessing with his left hand while in his right hand he is holding a scroll with the words: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” (Matthew 28:18). There is a circular mandorla held by two angels of the Lord kneeling in the clouds, looking at the earthly world, around Christ. Emanuel is sitting on angelic thrones expressed by red wings. The whole circle is filled with golden rays in a pink field, which symbolizes God's brightness, heavenly glory and joy, and the text the Only Begotten Son and the Word of God. The deep blue colour of Christ's tunic and the red cloak indicate the incomprehensible mystery of God who became man. The green border illuminated by golden rays points to the spiritual world filled with the light of glory. A cross nimbus with the name “I am who I am” and with the initials IC XC confirms the person of Jesus Christ. From the viewer’s perspective, there is the sacrifice of Love - Jesus Christ, the Son of God, nailed to the cross in the second row on the left.
The lower part concerns death. In the centre of this row, under the figure of Christ Emanuel, a scene entitled Don't Cry Over Me, Mother, is depicted. It shows the Mother of God, who, as a mother, received the Word of God in her womb, and now mourns him in her arms. The theme Do not cry over me, Mother suggests great hope and a deep sense of suffering, which is also presented by the image of the victorious Christ sitting on the wood of the cross in the garment of a soldier with the attributes of a ruler. The angel of the Lord beneath Him strikes down Satan with a spear, and all the demons, defeated by the power of Christ, are driven into the underworld. The image at the bottom left shows Death with a scythe on an apocalyptic animal and five people in captivity lying dead. Death as an enemy of the people will be defeated at the end of the world. “The last enemy that will be destroyed is death.” (1 Corinthians 15:26) On the background of these scenes, the green colour prevails over black. It is a symbol of spiritual struggle and the victory of life over death.