The feast of the Nativity of the Mother of God, one of the Twelve Great Feasts, was established by the Church to commemorate the birth of the Virgin Mary into a family of the righteous Joachim and Anna. The Gospel doesn’t say anything about the birth of the Blessed Mary – this story comes from the apocryphal Protoevangelion of James, dating to the 2nd century CE.
The parents of the Holy Virgin who lived in Jerusalem – the blessed Joachim and Anna – were childless for many years. When Joachim went to the Temple of Jerusalem to offer sacrifice to God, the High Priest refused to accept it saying that he “has gotten no seed in Israel”. Grieved, Joachim went to a desert to pray, while his wife stayed at home alone and prayed too. Then the angel appeared to Joachim and Anne separately to tell them that “the Lord has heard your prayer and you will conceive and your seed shall be spoken of in the whole world”. Upon hearing this news, Joachim and Anne met at the Golden Gate in Jerusalem: “And behold Joachim came with his flocks, and Anna stood at the gate and saw Joachim coming, and ran and hung upon his neck, saying: ‘Now know I that the Lord God has greatly blessed me: for behold the widow is no more a widow, and she that was childless shall conceive.’ And Joachim rested the first day in his house.” (Protoevangelion of James, 4: 7-8). Anna conceived shortly thereafter. As the Protoevangelion says “And her months were fulfilled, and in the ninth month Anna brought forth.” The spouses vowed to dedicate their child to the service of the Lord and, in accordance with tradition, took her to the Temple.
On the early Christian icons the righteous Anna is shown half-seated or seated on a high couch (a traditional depiction of birth without suffering), Her figure looks larger than the others; she is flanked by the women with gifts, before Her stands a mid-wife and female servants washing the newly-born Infant Mary in the font or already passing Her to the mother; the Virgin Mary is also often depicted lying in a cradle. The later icons introduced Joachim into the Nativity scene. The 16th – 17th century iconography added to the episode the scene of Joachim taking gifts to the Temple, the prayer of Joachim and Anna, the scene of the Angel telling the Good News to Joachim and Anne, the Meeting at the Golden Gate (the Conception), the Caressing of Mary and the scenes from the Life of the Theotokos. The icons are distinguished by the wealth of details such as a table with the gifts and food, a cistern and birds.
The best-known of the earliest images of the feast of the Nativity of the Mother of God are the frescoes of the Nativity of the Theotokos in the St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev (the first half of the 11th c.) and the murals of the Transfiguration Church of the Mirozhsky Convent (12th c.), the churches of Joachim and Anna in the Studenica Monastery, Serbia (1304).
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.