The event is described in the Gospel of Luke (Luke, 2: 22–39). The iconography is based on a Gospel episode of the Holy Family encountering Simeon the righteous in the Temple of Jerusalem and passing him the Infant Christ.

In the earliest liturgical calendars the feast was called the “fortieth day after the Nativity of Christ” and didn’t have a specific name. The final establishment of the Candlemas feast happened not earlier than 5th century. The Jerusalem tradition of the 5th – 7th centuries mentions two feasts: the Meeting of Our Lord and the Purification of the Holy Virgin Mary (Purificatio Beatae Mariae Virginis). In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the feast of Candlemas is dedicated to the Lord but the liturgical books and hymns venerated the Holy Virgin who had brought the Infant to the Temple in obedience to the Old Testament law requiring that a woman perform purification forty days after childbirth through making a sacrifice. "And if her means suffice not for a lamb, then she shall take two turtle-doves, or two young pigeons: the one for a burnt-offering, and the other for a sin-offering; and the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean" (Leviticus 12:8). The Virgin Mary did not have to go through the purification ceremony after the birth of Christ but She humbly observed the established law.

Upon bringing Jesus into the Temple of Jerusalem, the Holy Family encountered Simeon the righteous. According to the Gospel, Simeon was among the seventy scholars who translated the Old Testament books from Hebrew into Greek at the commission of the Egypt King Ptolemy II Filadelphus. While translating the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, he came to the words; “Behold a Virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son” (Isaiah 7, 14). Reading them, he became confused, thinking that it was impossible for a Virgin without husband to give birth. Simeon was ready to erase the word “Virgin” and substitute the word “wife”. At this time an angel of God appeared, held Simeon’s hand and said that he would not die until he himself see the fulfillment of the prophesy. On return from Egypt Simeon lived in Jerusalem for more than three hundred years. The Gospel records that upon picking up the Child in hands, Simeon said: “Lord now lettest thou Thy servant depart in peace” which would later become a prayer sung on every night Orthodox service. Saint Simeon appeals to the Lord to let him depart from the earthly life to tell the good news to the forefathers Adam and Eve who were in hell.

In a theological sense, the feast marks the meeting of the Old and the New Testaments, which is reflected in the iconography – the Holy Virgin and Joseph are usually depicted in motion from left to right, while Simeon the Righteous and Anna are shown from left to right. At the point of their meeting, the Mother of God is shown passing the Child to Simeon who receives Him as the Great Sanctity. The righteous Anna is shown holding a scroll in her hand. The Child is usually portrayed with bare legs dressed in a short white shirt up to his waist.

The earliest scene of Candlemas is found in the mosaics of the Church of Santa Maria Majore in Rome (432 – 440 CE). In Russia, the earliest icons of Candlemas are the 12th century fresco-paintings in the Church of St. Cyrill in Kiev and the Church of the Savior on Nereditsa (Novgorod). Different iconographic variants of Candlemas vary in details. Thus, the Child may be shown seated on Maria’s hands or held by Simeon. There are also two other composition types – the Meeting of Our Lord against a throne - the compositional center - and the Meeting on the threshold of the temple where the Holy Family meets St. Simeon.

Zhanna G. Belik,

Ph.D. in Art history, senior research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum, custodian of the tempera painting collection.

Olga E. Savchenko,

research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum.