For centuries, Christians have represented the deepest mysteries of the Christian faith in prayerful art, a practice meant to help the faithful participate more fully in the sacred liturgy.
Although many new churches are not as covered in art as was common a few centuries ago, the fruitfulness of praying with religious images has not changed. Meditating on the mysteries of Christmas depicted in icons can help the Christian enter more deeply into this liturgical season.
“[An icon] is not something that necessarily needs a detailed explanation. Rather, it’s an image that is understood in the context of the liturgy,” said Father Ioan Gotia, DCJM, a bi-ritual (Byzantine and Latin) priest, artist and expert in Byzantine iconography. “Its role is not so much to tell the story of what happened as it is to help us become present in the mystery, so that we may not only remember but also partake in it.”
Father Gotia, who studied under artists such as Father Marko I. Rupnik, treasures his childhood, surrounded by the icons in his parents’ home. His mother’s artistic abilities led him to appreciate and develop his skills when he began writing icons at the age of 14.
The young artist would go on to obtain a doctorate from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome with a concentration in Byzantine and Marian Iconography. He has painted numerous murals in Austria, Italy, the United States and Spain, where he currently resides.
“Every action of Jesus encompasses and embraces all of time. In Christmas we are able to be present in Bethlehem, in the mystery, accompanied by the liturgy,” he said.
The following pieces are representations of the Nativity done by Father Gotia, who explained the basic meaning of their symbols. One of these works is found in the rectory chapel of St. Mary’s parish in Littleton, Colo.
1. Jesus is wrapped in diapers but also in linen cloths, as the dead prior to burial. This indicates the beginning of Jesus’ mission to save man through his passion, a reality also expressed by the red cross in his halo.
2. The Virgin gives her son to Joseph, in his mission as foster father, in one icon and gives him to us in the other, inviting us to partake in the mystery.
3. St. Joseph looks at us in both icons, inviting us with his hand to draw near Jesus. He also places his hand on the shepherd’s shoulder, a representation of man, bringing him into the mystery.
4. All of creation offers the child Jesus something: Mary, her being; Joseph, his protection; the animals, their home; the shepherds their sheep and food; the star, its light…
5. The birds on the trees sing for Jesus, referencing Psalm 83: “Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself… at your altars, O Lord… Blessed are those who dwell in your house.” It is Christ who prepares for us a dwelling place.
6. The mountains and trees are shown green, as in the summer, even though Jesus was born in the cold months, to signify that his birth brings about the new creation.
7. Mary is always portrayed with three stars: on her head and on each shoulder, as a sign of the gift of her virginity before, during and after birth. It also indicates the child’s divine origin.
8. The angel adores the child with his hands covered, recalling the humeral veil used by priests and recognizing him as true God.
9. The stars are portrayed inside the cave to denote that where Jesus is, heaven is present. He is depicted as victor from the beginning: His light overcomes all darkness.
10. The child is laid on the straw because he came to be our nourishment. He was born in Bethlehem, which means “house of bread” in Hebrew.
11. Jesus enjoys our gifts, as simple as they may be, and awaits them with open arms. They are not so much material things but primarily ourselves.