shall continue with our lessons on the theology of icons, with the depiction of the
Annunciation of the Theotokos. The event of the Annunciation is
described in Luke's Gospel, in which the Evangelist described
numerous events that are linked to the Theotokos, and especially to
the birth of Christ. The birth of Christ is also described by
Mark the Evangelist, but the details that pertain to these events
are described by Luke, who had met the Theotokos in person and had
learnt of those events - for example of the Annunciation - directly
from the Holy Mother.
But what is important is the theological approach to the Icon. In
the icon of the Annunciation we can see the Archangel Gabriel and
the Holy Mother in that unique encounter! The icon that I personally
regard as most probably the best depiction of the Annunciation, is
the icon of the Holy Mother of the Annunciation of Ohrid. The region
of Ohrid lies just above the Prespes lakes - today's Skopje. This is
an exquisite icon, by an unknown artist.
Let us examine the icon for a moment. Some of the facts that I gave
in previous analyses of the Angel and the Holy Mother will be
approached today in a better manner. First of all, the Angel
is announcing an event. Given that he is announcing an event and is
in motion, his legs as we can see in the icon are wide apart. This
denotes the presence of movement. In other instances, we shall see
angels who are not likewise in motion, and whose legs are static.
Whatever we know about angels, we owe it to the Holy Bible.
According to Scriptural standards, they are "functional spirits,
sent forth to minister". In other words, they have two things.
Firstly, they are functional spirits, they minister to God, and
secondly, they are sent forth to minister. They have a mission. God
sends them forth, to do something in the world. That is their role.
For the other heavenly hosts we do not have much information. Most
of the things that we know are about angels and archangels.
While we do know that the other hosts are called principalities,
thrones, powers, virtues, etc., nevertheless, we do not know what
their functional roles are. We know very little about the Cherubim
and the Seraphim, which appeared in the space of the Old Testament.
But we do have more - and more frequent - appearances by angels and
especially archangels. You should remember, that Michael of the
Archangels appears in the Old Testament and Gabriel of the
Archangels appears in the New Testament. Thus, when you see an
Archangel in the space of the New Testament - and even if you don't
know his name - it is the Archangel Gabriel. The Archangel
Michael usually - but not necessarily exclusively - appears in the
Old Testament. Of course in events that mar our Church's history, we
have a few variations. We have the miracle at Chonais, which we
commemorate in September and was performed by the Archangel Michael.
But anyway, this is a general view of things. That is why you should
also know that from a liturgical point of view, the order in which
icons are placed in the Sanctum, the Royal Gate has two doors. The
one to the right - as we see it - and another to the left. You may
have noticed that the door to the left is the only one that is used
during the Divine Liturgy. Whereas in all the services, the deacon
exits through the left door and re-enters the Sanctum through the
right door, when the Divine Liturgy begins, the right door ceases to
be used altogether. Only the left door is used, through which the
Priests pass, holding the Precious Gifts. This signifies that this
door which is liturgical use during the moment of the New Testament,
is the door of the New Testament. Whereas the other door -
which is constantly in liturgical use and is abandoned, and no
longer used during the Divine Liturgy - is, symbolically speaking,
the door of the Old Testament. That is why the face of the Old
Testament door - to the right, as we see it - is always adorned with
an icon of the Archangel Michael, who is the Archangel of the Old
Testament, and on the other door, the icon of the Archangel Gabriel
is always depicted.
Angels, therefore, are "functional spirits, sent forth to minister".
If angels are ministering, as in the icon of Christ's Baptism where
they are ministering to His Baptism, we will notice that they are
depicted as motionless. Their legs are not apart. If their legs are
depicted apart, striding, that will denote they have been "sent
forth". This same movement of the legs can also be observed in
depictions of the Apostles. The Apostles are also in motion and they
are ministering to God. If they are on a mission, their legs will be
depicted in a striding position. If they are depicted as
ministering to the mystery of divine providence, their legs will not
be apart. In the icon of the Ascension, or the icon of Thomas's
touching Christ's scars, you will notice that the disciples are
depicted to the left and the right. Thomas is at the centre of the
icon touching Christ's scars, and the remaining disciples are on
either side. You will notice that half of them are with their legs
in motion and the other half with their legs motionless. They
cannot depict an Apostle with legs in motion and simultaneously
motionless; given that the Apostles are one body, half of them are
depicted in motion, with their legs in a striding position, and the
other half are motionless, with their legs together. In this way,
they are stating that they are simultaneously in motion, but also
motionless ministers. Which is what we also are, essentially. In
Orthodoxy, we do not ask ourselves "What is better?" To stand still
or be in motion? What should concern us, is to be on the move
per the measures of the mission that God wants us to undertake, and
be motionless per the measures of hesychasm and the stance of
watchfulness and prayer. Both these measures comprise a balance in
Orthodoxy. We never have any form of absolutism. In other
words, if someone were to state: "I will withdraw as a hesychast,
without making any move, any action", then he would be living
Orthodoxy correctly. Both these aspects therefore alternate.
In the icon, the Archangel Gabriel is "sent forth" to the Holy
Mother, which is why his legs are depicted apart, in motion. As you
can see, he has one arm outstretched - he is announcing something to
Her. If he were a functioning spirit and ministering to a mystery
(as you can see in an icon of the Baptism), his arms would not have
been outstretched. In fact, they would have been covered with a
cloth. If the hand is exposed, it is indicating something. God
is telling him to say something. The hand is not his; he is lending
his hand, to God. That is what takes place in the Divine Liturgy. If
you have noticed, we priests wear an external garment which is
phelonion, and it covers our arms. Our arms remain covered. This
signifies that we do not have arms of our own. And if we are to do
something, we do it in the manner that the Church tells us,
according to God's instructions. In other words, we do not use our
arms the way we want, in order to make gestures of sorrow, joy,
triumph, victory, etc.. The priest places his arm under the
phelonion when blessing the people, or the precious gifts, or when
saying "Peace to all". Nothing more. So you see that a priest
participates in angel fashion, to the extent of his measures, as do
all the people of God, during the performance of the Liturgy.
In motion, but also motionless. In the icon, therefore, the Angel
has his arm outstretched, his legs set apart, given that he is
presently "sent forth" to minister. You see how significant
these things are! You cannot abolish them.
Now let us observe the Angel's head. You will notice that the Angel
has a headband holding back his head of hair. The headband in
hagiography is (I could say) the carnal, material expression of the
noetic prayer. The
Angel is concentrating the wealth of his mind (I can't actually
describe his intellect and mind) in the presence of God. That is why
he is wearing the headband. What interests us is his concentration.
And note something else - that the head is not depicted in profile,
or face-on. The depiction is a three-quarter view of the face,
so that we can see both his eyes. What is of interest to us, is to
see both his eyes. And we can see this in images of all the saints.
The Angel is also holding a staff. You should never portray this
Angel with that romantic kind of expression - the way that the
Vaticanian style does, carrying a lily in his hand. There is
no tradition that reports any such detail, nor does the Holy Bible
mention that the Angel carried any staff in his hand. To us, the
staff has a theological symbolism. A staff was always the object
used by messengers when they had to make an announcement. Up
until recently, even in our villages, a town crier would come out
and strike a stick against the cobblestones in the street, and shout
out that this or that event was going to take place. The staff
signifies that the Angel has come to announce something. He is not
holding a flower to enhance the moment, or to offer it as a gift to
the Holy Mother. That is a mistake. It is a romantic approach to the
event. And our Church has never indulged in the romantic approach to
the matter, but always approaches it with solemnity. Our
Church seeks to inspire solemnity with Her art forms, and not to
display romanticism. That is why we differentiate ourselves
altogether; both in music and in portrayal. Two par excellence arts.
There are other forms of art of course, such as woodcarving. But, as
with these two par excellence art forms, the same applies with
woodcarving. We produce simple, uncomplicated woodcarvings. We
do not carve in any baroque or rococo style, which are highly
ornate, and overloaded, for the purpose of making an impression on a
person's senses. This art form permeates the entire Church, even
through to the priests' vestments etc. There is a theology
here also. The frugality of the vestments, without any additions,
without an excess of imagery on them and a multitude of colours...
Our Church prefers frugality in all these things. But our job here
is to observe the hagiography and and remember that frugality,
which is expressed here with this staff and the Angel's outstretched
The Angel also has a stripe on his garment - we can see this stripe
on Christ's garments also - which states that as an officer, he has
received instructions. He has been given a power from a higher
authority. He is stating that an Angel is not independent. He does
not function independently. He does not function per the
measures of personal desires, but is obeisant to God. That
stripe-insignia denotes the authority given to him. With
Christ, the authority given to Him is also denoted by a band, but at
the same time, we can see Him - almost always - holding in his hands
a scroll. The Scriptures in the past were not in the form of books;
they were in the form of those rolled-up scrolls of papyrus.
Christ was given the authority by the Father, to do what He was to
do. In short, no-one is independent.
Other than that, angels are portrayed the way we have seen them. We
have seen them human in appearance, we have seen them with wings.
They are not a concoction of ours. We portray whatever we have seen,
in a theological manner. The troparia chants of our Church mention
them as "secondary lights". The primary light is God. Everyone else
- the saints and the angels - are secondary lights because they
obtain their light from God. No-one has their own light. Even the
halos depicted on the heads of saints are an expression of that
secondary light. It is God's light, which illuminates their whole
You should remember that we always honour all the angels on Mondays.
Every time it is Monday, we honour the angels. Just as Sunday is the
day of the Resurrection. Monday is for the angels. Tuesdays are for
Saint John the Baptist. Wednesdays are for the Crucifixion and the
Holy Mother. Thursdays are for the Holy Apostles and always for
Saint Nicholas, in the status of a Hierarch. Fridays are again for
the Holy Mother and at the same time for the Cross. Saturdays are
for the reposed and Sundays are for the Resurrection. Of
course, these are in addition to the saints that are commemorated
each day. Thus, if you notice, all of the troparia hymns on
Mondays - if you open up the Book of Supplications called "Parakleteke"
- always include references to angels. Theological troparia on
angels can also be found in the Midnight services, and Sunday
mornings, when the triadic dogma of our Church is expressed, in
which angels participate with their ministering, as secondary
I am saying all this, so that you may acquire a broader experience,
as we do not have segmental arts. A hagiographer is born and
develops within the life of the Church. He has to see things more
broadly. A hagiographer who is not a churchgoer, who does not
partake of the mystery of the Church, will never be able to
undertake hagiography. Much less a hagiographer who doesn't know any
elementary theological things.
Let us now take a look at the Holy Mother. We can see that She
is seated. The Holy Mother or Christ can usually be portrayed
as seated. The seated position denotes certainty. Her
outstretched arm is a gesture of acceptance. It means "I accept".
We aren't dealing with comic strips here, where we need to insert
expressions and words. Acceptance is also denoted by a lowered
head. We can see a minimal, very slight bowing of the head, which,
together with the hand gesture, is a statement of acceptance. Thus,
wherever we see or want to express acceptance of an event, we
portray a bowed head. A minimal, tiny move of humility which
is not overly apparent; that is, not an explosive humility. That
would have also been a romantic or "deafening" element. An open palm
also denotes acceptance.
In He other hand the Holy Mother is holding another object. It is a
spindle for making yarn. This denotes something else that the Holy
Mother is - Who is more precious that the Cherubim and incomparably
more glorious than the Seraphim; Who resembles the angelic hosts and
is far more precious than all of them - but Who simultaneously
remains human and is preoccupied with human work. That is why
She is holding that spindle. No-one in the life of the Church is an
exclusively spiritual person. Given that people bear everything
carnal and a carnal nature - which is not a sin per se - they must
also perform human labours. Work. And you should remember that
ascetic theory in its entirety, and the neptic theory of Orthodoxy
are judged by alternation - that is, by the simultaneous application
of work and prayer. That is why the Holy Mother is holding a
spindle. And is seated.
I have already spoken of the three stars that are depicted on the
Holy Mother - one on Her head and the other two on each of Her
shoulders. The stars are 8-pointed; they each have 8 rays.
The triple star denotes that the Holy Mother is ever-virginal. She
was, is and forever will be a Virgin - before, during and after the
Birth. The 8-pointed star with its 8 rays denotes the mystery of
the "eighth day". The mystery of the eighth day is the mystery that
God had inaugurated with His plan of divine
in order to save mankind; because on the "seventh day", the last
"day" of Creation, we failed in that which God created us for. We
too by participating the way the Holy Mother does, are likewise
participating in the plan of divine
The Fathers of the Church have theologized about the Person of the
Holy Mother; this was during the third Ecumenical Synod. During the
Ecumenical Synod of Ephesus, where certain persons such as the
heretic Nestorius had maintained that the Holy Mother is not a
"Theo-tokos" (who had given birth to God), but a "Christo-tokos"
(who had given birth to Christ. You might ask: What is the
difference? The difference is huge. "Theotokos" is one
thing, and "Christotokos" is another. What does this difference
mean? Well, Nestorius had asserted the She was the "Christotokos"
- that She had given birth to Christ, and nothing more. According to
Nestorius, She was merely a pipeline, which Christ had merely passed
through. That is a theological error. How was Christ born?
What do we confess in the Creed? "....incarnated by the Holy Spirit
and Mary the Virgin, and become Man...". Two events are taking place
here. Just as the birth of a child requires the collaboration
of a man and a woman, here, the grace of the Holy Spirit is the
collaborator: "....incarnated by the Holy Spirit and Mary the
Virgin, and become Man...". What does the Holy Mother do? She
provides human (worldly) flesh to Christ. Therefore the Holy
Mother's participation is not simply the participation of a pipeline
that serves a situation. Christ does not merely pass through
Her, from inside, without the Holy Mother offering the human
magnitude. Christ assumes the human magnitudes thanks to the
Holy Mother; therefore, She is a Theo-tokos. It is God
Who is born, and made incarnate. The difference is huge. And a whole
Ecumenical Synod had been convened on this topic alone - if the Holy
Mother is a "Christo-tokos" or "Theo-tokos". And this theology
was tackled by very many of the major Fathers, such as Cyril of
Alexandria and other theologians, who had originally theologized on
the Person of our Holy Mother.
I will now return to the first icon of the Annunciation. There are
secondary elements in there, which can be presented chromatically
also. There is the throne. Or even that red cloth that is draped at
the top. We insert that draped cloth in other icons also -
usually in depictions of Magisterial feast-days, or in the
portrayals of Christ and the Holy Mother; that red cloth is a
statement of a joyous event. We could call it a
joyous-resurrectional event. However, it is only a secondary
element, in the sense that it may or may not be inserted in an icon.
You will not see it in every icon. It alternates, according to the
iconographer's choice. The theological elements however are
used exactly as they are. For example, the platform that the
Angel or the Theotokos is standing on is a secondary element. It is
very important to distinguish between the theological elements and
the secondary ones.
The colour of the Holy Mother's garment, Her external robe is dark
red, which is the colour that Orthodoxy regards as a deeply solemn
colour. Our Church never uses the colour black. It is highly
unfortunate when priests dress in black vestments - especially
during Great Lent - or place black covers atop the Holy Altar during
Lent. We do not have that absolute degree of sorrow. As
we shall also see from the shape of the mouth that is depicted, we
are speaking of that "joyous-sorrow". These are two elements
combined. We are never in absolute joy and absolute sorrow. Absolute
joy is a utopia, because we are living in a post-Fall state. And
absolute sorrow is a tragedy, because sorrow indicates that you have
lost everything, that there is no hope in Christ. The only
thing that we feel sorry for. We are sorry for our sins. It is what
Christ had said: "be angered, and do not sin". We need to be
angry over our sins only. We should not sin for any reason. And we
should only feel sorrow for our sins. During His moments of prayer
in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ (according to Mark's Gospel) is
mentioned as being "sorrowful". Specifically, His words were: "My
soul is surrounded by sorrow, even unto death" («περίλυπος
εστιν η ψυχή μου έως θανάτου» - Matt.26:38). This does not
imply that Christ was disillusioned. You must notice the (Greek)
word used here. He is "sorrow-surrounded" (περίλυπος
peri-lypos); He is not sad; He is merely engulfed by
sorrow. Which means that sorrow is around ("peri") Him. It is the
sorrow of sin that is in action around Him, and that is why He is
surrounded by sorrow - sorrow for our sins. Our Church never
indulges in events of absolute sorrow or grief. Good Friday is
not a day of sorrow. This is an entirely mistaken approach. It is a
day of "joyous sorrow". We feel sorrow for one thing: for having
dared to crucify Christ. And at the same time, we feel joy, because
Christ was resurrected. That is why, when you go to church on
the morning of Good Friday - which is when the Vespers of Holy
Saturday are celebrated - you will see the priests are obliged to
wear white vestments. And even if they had worn black vestments
during the Lenten period, they must necessarily change them and wear
white, because that is when the mystery of Christ's descent into
Hades takes place, and at the moment that He is dead on the Cross,
that is also when death is conquered. We do not have events of
sorrow and grief; we have that "joyous sorrow", which is ministered
to, throughout our life. As I said, absolute joy is a utopia. It is
a fictitious psychological state that cannot do anything more than
make us get away from our confrontation of sorrow for our sins.
If you have something, you can ask me on the things I just told you.
I have said everything very briefly, but I wanted to mention every
aspect, so that you can gradually handle the theology of the icon.
Why is the Holy Mother seated in this icon of the Annunciation?
I already mentioned the theology behind the seated pose. The Holy
Mother is not always depicted in a seated position in the icons of
the Annunciation. However, this example is very correct, because the
seated position that refers to Christ and the Holy Mother denotes
certainty. The seated position implies certainty - what is to ensue
is a certainty. The Holy Mother is certain about what She is doing.
She is accepting God's proposal. And She does it, without knowing
the facts analytically.
Why are secondary elements so sumptuous in some icons?
Look. The are not sumptuous, because they merely highlight the
persons. For example, those platforms do not overwhelm the image;
they are subordinate to the image. A hagiographer has the freedom to
work the secondary elements. What he doesn't have, is the freedom to
tamper with the theology. The freedom for the hagiographer to
express himself remains a possibility, only in those secondary
elements. But in the primary ones (that pertain to theology) he does
not have that freedom. If he does change them, he may well fall into
Why do monks and priests wear black garments?
Liturgical use is one thing, and my personal use is another. Black,
for my personal use, expresses the remembrance of death. All monks
wear black. In the Divine Liturgy however, the priests wear white or
red vestments. That is because it is a liturgical event, where the
Grace of God is ministered to. This magnitude - the "dress code" -
has a special handling. You see, I live inside this world, inside
this life. I have to wear the shoes that all of you wear. Isn't that
so? I am living human things. With black, I have a remembrance of
death. But when I enter a church service, no matter what happens,
whatever I may do, the black is overtaken by certain other garments
that I put on, which are not black. Black is a reminder of
death to me. But the Divine Liturgy is a community event, a communal
event. The remembrance of death is a personal event for me; it
is not a liturgical event, where the joyous-resurrectional event of
our Christ's grace is celebrated. And the white vestments that the
Russians wear - certain white stoles, robes or white vestments - are
an incorrect tradition which was brought over by a delusion that
came to Rome through the so-called Donation of Constantine. This was
a lie that they had circulated somewhere in Rome, that (supposedly)
Constantine the Great had made a donation to Rome before his death,
granting it to be the first church. There is no such thing. Anyway,
along with that donation of his, he had also gifted a white vestment
for them to wear etc.... and thus, an entire myth was conveyed to
Moscow. There are two lies, on which certain elements of
theology of the Vaticanian "church" were based; one was the
"Donation of Constantine" and the other was the "Pseudo-Isidorian
clauses" which I have not enough time to analyze. They are not of
concern at this time.
Why is the event of the Annunciation depicted in an external
In hagiography, we never depict an interior space (as for example
the interior of a temple). All events are external; there is no
internal space. Nothing is closed within walls in hagiography.
Everything exists outside. An event may take place somewhere inside,
internally, but a house will be depicted as an outdoor setting. In
hagiography we never close ourselves in. Everything is an exit.
There is no interior. Even if a liturgy is depicted, you will never
see where there is a closed temple, you will never see any walls.
Because the Liturgy itself is an exit from the things of this world.
Woe betide, if the Church were to be closed in, or performed a
Liturgy for enjoyment, or to acquire solemnity, and nothing more.
The Liturgy is an exit. And we participate in the Liturgy, so that
we might acquire the potential to make an exit, towards the world,
towards God and the others. There is never any closed space in
hagiography. Never. Even when it refers to doubting Thomas, "with
the doors closed", where "the disciples were gathered for fear of
the Judeans", the Apostles are depicted in an open space. Even
though the Holy Bible itself states "with the doors closed",
nevertheless, hagiography portrays them as standing outside.
The same thing can be observed in the icon of the Pentecost - even
though the Pentecost happened inside a loft.
That is the theology of our icon. There are no closed spaces. Just
as there is no person who remains closed within himself. The Church
is always a constant exit.
How are lips depicted in hagiography?
I will mention only two points about the lips. One is a local point,
the other is theological. The others you will see, when you study
the lips further. A very important feature of the face, like
the eyes and the nose, are also of course the lips. With the
lips, we often express joy, sorrow, as well as the "joyous sorrow"
that we mentioned earlier. First of all, as a local point on the
icon you can see the "E" point. That is, the lower part of the
bottom lip is located at the center of the third section of the face
of saints. We recall how the head is divided into four equal
sections. And the face in three equal sections. This I believe you
all know, from our previous analyses: that the head is four noses
long and the face three noses long. The last section, the lower part
of the face, the chin area, is also where the lips are found.
It is at the center of this last section that the "E" point is. In
other words, the lips will always end at the last point of the mid
section of the last section. If you observe the icon that I
gave you, you can see in the third section of the face, below, right
in the middle is the "E" point, and after that are the lips, at the
top. That is, the lips are entirely within the topmost space of the
last section of the face. What is of great interest to us, is
how to express the lips. We have learnt from every other form of
painting that we have sad lips or happy lips. Just bring to
mind for example a person who is sad, and another, happy one. That
is what we have been taught. But in hagiography, both these
elements are abolished. Because as I mentioned earlier, we do not
have absolute joy, or absolute sorrow. We have that "joyous sorrow".
However, we also do not have a straight line. A straight line would
have denoted a person who has no feelings whatsoever, and as such,
no emotions. A "frozen" person. We have "joyous sorrow". Or,
in another expression of the Church Fathers: a joy-inducing
mourning. Two expressions: Joyous sorrow or joy-inducing
mourning. What we want is to combine the presence of a joy-inducing
mourning and a joyous sorrow, in the expression of the lip opening.
That is where we express it. That is how we were also taught in
drawing. The opening between the lips is what expresses joy or
sorrow. And we have only Joyous sorrow or joy-inducing mourning,
therefore we must simultaneously combine the lines that express joy
and the lines that express sorrow. That is why we draw a line of
sorrow and a line of joy, simultaneously. Sorrow - joy,
alternating. That is the lip line of joyous sorrow; not fleshy lips.