Sacrifice at the Temple: The Presentation of Christ in Orthodox Iconography

The icon of the Annunciation is the first in a series of icons depicting major events from the life of Christ, celebrated as great feasts of the Church. More than simple illustrations of Gospel stories, each of these festal icons gives theological expression to a particular aspect of Christ’s redemptive work, to a distinct moment in the history of salvation. At the same time, each of these moments, and each of the corresponding icons, encompasses the entire story of salvation in its fullness, precisely because it inscribes within itself the form of Christ. In the icon of the Annunciation, and in the cycle of icons to which it is linked, the dominant form is the life of Christ itself, that is, the particular mode of his presence, the character of his engagement with the world. And this form presents us with an overwhelming paradox, for in the life of God incarnate, the highest manifestation of divine glory appears as the lowest form of self-humiliation, and the fullness of divine life as voluntary suffering and death.


Faithful to this central truth, the Orthodox iconographic cycle of the life of Christ abounds with allusions to his sacrificial death, beginning with the icon of his Nativity. Wrapped up like a body for burial, the child in the manger visually recalls the body in the tomb, and thus the end of the story is present already in its beginning. Early icons of the Nativity assimilate the interior of the cave to the sanctuary of a church, so that the child lies like a sacred victim on an altar of masonry and stone. In later icons, the new mother assumes a pensive look, raising her hand to her face, a gesture she will repeat while standing by the side of the cross. The child’s birth is thus closely intertwined with his death as the drama of divine self-emptying begins to unfold.


The iconography of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, which comes next in the cycle, to a certain extent psychologizes the metaphysical drama of the incarnation and crucifixion. Whereas the earliest icons of the Presentation emphasize the child’s relation to his mother, images produced after Iconoclasm focus on the figure of Simeon and dramatize the fact that the child is not simply being “offered” in the Temple, but about to be literally sacrificed, and that this sacrifice is at the center of all Christianity.


Presentation of Christ, Meeting of the Lord, Theophanes the Cretan, Pappas Patristic Institute
Presentation of Christ in the Temple by Theophanes the Cretan, 1546. Tempera on board, 57 x 39 cm. Monastery of Stavronikita, Mt. Athos.

In a masterly panel painting by Theophanes the Cretan, painted in 1546 for the monastery of Stavronikita, the Virgin stands slightly to the left of center. She has just placed the infant Christ, whose legs are bare and exposed, in the arms of Simeon, who stoops to receive him. The eyes of the mother remain fixed on the child, who reaches out to her, while Simeon gazes in gratitude at the source of his long-awaited gift. The transaction unfolds before—or perhaps across—the space of the sacrificial table. The table itself is covered by a canopy and screened behind a pair of low doors whose panels form the sign of the cross. To the left of Mary stands the prophetess Anna, speaking to Joseph (cf. Luke 2:36–38), who holds two small birds that he has brought to be sacrificed in accordance with Jewish law (Luke 2:24; cf. Lev 5:7–8). Anna and Joseph duplicate the figures of Mary and Simeon, and both Simeon and Joseph carry their precious offerings on hands covered by the folds of their garments (cf. Num 4:4–15).


The compositional structure of the Presentation effectively echoes that of the Crucifixion, with Mary standing at the right hand of the cross, here replaced by the sacrificial table.[1] In this way, the icon presents us with a liturgical Golgotha, anticipating the self-offering of the God of Israel on his own ancient altar. At the same time, the space of the Temple has been reconfigured into a Christian sanctuary, as if Mary were offering the child as a loaf of bread (called the “Lamb”) for the Eucharistic liturgy. Consistent with the logic of this sacrificial interpretation, Byzantine writers frequently describe Simeon as a priest, which he was not, or confuse him with Zacharias, who was (cf. Luke 1:5). [2]


Altogether, the Presentation is portrayed as a complex matrix of love and loss. Mary’s handing over of the child to Simeon, Simeon’s desire to hold the child, the child’s desire to be held (or his fear of such holding), and Simeon’s plea to depart, to die, to absent himself from the world (Luke 2:29), create a network of longing and desire so dense and complex as to be almost impossible to delineate. The child’s own loyalties vary from icon to icon, as his gaze shifts between his mother and Simeon. In all of these images, Mary’s loss of the child is central: first to Simeon and then to the cross. Her evident grief is thus oriented toward the future, and she recognizes, in the loss of the child to Simeon, the pain of a much greater sacrifice. The juxtaposition of birth and death—of embodiment and the destruction of the body—brings together in a single moment of time the mourning for the lost mother and the mourning for the lost son.


Amolyntos, Mother of God, Pappas Patristic Institute
Mother of God “Amolyntos,” early fifteenth century. Tempera on board, 93.5 x 73.5 cm. Athens (private collection)

The iconography of Mother and Child likewise anticipates the loss of the child to death on the cross. These seemingly simple compositions are in fact saturated with complex allusions to the Passion: the look of sorrow on the mother’s face, the child’s reclining posture, his bare (left) leg or legs (which we noted in the iconography of the Presentation), his legs crossed at the ankles, his raised heel and/or dangling sandal, his golden, fluttering garment, and many other symbolic elements, make these images compelling anticipations of the child’s sacrificial death on the cross. In the Amolyntos type, these allusions are made explicit by the addition of angels bearing the instruments of the Passion.


Kardiotissa, Presentation, Meeting of the Lord, Pappas Patristic Institute
Mother of God “Kardiotissa,” seventeenth century. Tempera on board, 41 x 35 cm. Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens.

To be sure, they are most acutely rendered in the Kardiotissa type, in which the extreme backward thrust of the child’s head evokes the fate of the sacrificial birds, standing with upturned heads in the arms of Joseph (cf. Lev 5:7–8; Luke 2:24).


In these powerful and perhaps even disturbing images, the child’s arms are raised as if on the cross, for the body of the mother is the locus of the divinity’s self-emptying, the “region of unlikeness,” [3] the matrix in which God assumed the “form of a slave” and became “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). The Kardiotissa type is thus a mirror held up to the future, in which, by anticipation, we see Christ crucified in reverse (that is, with his back to the viewer). These icons give graphic expression to the doctrine that the self-emptying of God in the Incarnation signals the death of God; that the incarnation is a voluntary “crucifixion” in which the divinity is nailed to the flesh, the body of the mother. “I therefore call the Mother of God a cross,” said one of the Church Fathers, “for the Lord was suspended on her outstretched arms.” [4]


Like all the images in the Christological cycle, the iconography of the Presentation is a combination of uniqueness and repetition, of immutability and transformation, with the divine kenosis predominating over and giving meaning to the whole. Among the disparate and potentially disconnected moments of the historical narrative, Christ’s voluntary sacrifice is the common denominator. [5] This is what gives his life its indivisible uniqueness, so that the essence of its unity consists in its kenotic movement outward, finding itself by losing itself in contingency and multiplicity. Seen from this point of view, the icon of the Crucifixion is not simply another icon within a series of icons, but rather the matrix from which all icons emerge, the focal point on which their divergent forms converge.


Excerpted from Fr Maximos Constas, The Art of Seeing: Paradox and Perception in Orthodox Iconography (Alhambra, CA: Sebastian Press, 2014), 99-106.


 

[1] The association of the Presentation with the Crucifixion is an ancient tradition based on Simeon’s words to Mary, “A sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Luke 2:34–35), which were understood to be a prophecy of the Passion, when Mary would grieve over the death of her son.


[2] In the ninth century, Photios argued against such a view, which is nevertheless attested in many Byzantine homilies and hymns; see his Amphilochia 156 (PG 101:824–828).

[3] Plato, Statesman 273d.

[4] In Praise of the Theotokos (PG 43:497C). Traditionally attributed to Epiphanios of Cyprus, this work belongs to a slightly later period.

[5] Compare Gregory the Theologian, Oration 40.29: “Because he had to suffer for the world’s salvation, all things that pertain to the passion had to converge towards the passion: the manifestation, the baptism, the testimony from above, the proclamation, the gathering of the multitudes, the miracles; and these events became like one body, not dispersed or broken apart by intervals of time” (SC 358:264); and id., Or. 38.16: “How many celebrations there are for me corresponding to each of the mysteries of Christ! Yet they all have one completion, my perfection and refashioning and restoration to the state of the first Adam” (SC 358:142).