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This ancient Byzantine icon of “The Nativity” is far different from the usual scenes of joy and intimacy in western Christian art. It presents the Gospel story with a wealth of symbolic detail, including elements from the Protevangelion of James as well as the Nativity narratives in Luke and Matthew.
Icon holy cards are 3" x 5", a convenient size for use as gifts or bookmarks. The backs are blank except for a faint colophon at the bottom, leaving plenty of room for custom imprinting with your own message.
The classic Byzantine icon of the Nativity gives us a much different picture of the event compared to more recent western images. The whole purpose of this icon is to instruct, to make visible the story of Christ’s birth, the miracle of the Incarnation of God. This story is found in two Gospel accounts, Matthew 2:1-12, and Luke 2:1-20. Additional elements have become a part of Christian traditions that are found in ancient writings not included in the Canonical Bible. In the 5th and 6th centuries, pilgrims to the Holy Land would bring home small bottles of oil from the lamps burning in sacred places. The images on these bottles provided prototypes for some of the scenes included in this icon.
The central focus of the image is the mother and Child within a dark cave. The symbolic meaning of the cave is the world, dark with sin through man’s fault, now illuminated by the Light of the Incarnation. The Virgin Mary gently lays her Babe into the manger. The Greek letters near her proclaim that she is Meter Theou, the Mother of God. The Child Jesus is wrapped like a mummy because Luke’s Gospel refers to "wrapped in bands of cloth" (Luke 2:7, 12) and also to symbolically foreshadow His death and burial. (The manger is an icon of His crib, His church, and His tomb, all in one.) The ox and ass are present in the cave, as they are present in nearly every Nativity scene, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 1:3: "The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand." In the lower left corner sits a confused and dejected Saint Joseph in a green robe, with halo of sanctity and labeled in Greek to reflect his importance. He is being confronted by the devil disguised as an old shepherd, who is trying to persuade Joseph that a virgin birth is not possible. In the lower right are two women washing the Child. These are two midwives brought by Joseph to attend Mary as described in the apocryphal Gospels of pseudo-Matthew and pseudo-James. The other elements of the scene are part of the canonical Gospel stories. The wise men from the East bearing gifts are described in Matthew 2:1-12. The angels bringing "good news of great joy" to shepherds tending their flocks is a familiar passage from Luke 2:8-14. The Star of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:9) directs a ray directly toward the Child. The star is represented as a hole in the sphere of Heaven, letting a ray of Divine Light fall upon Him. The Greek inscription near the top of the icon translates as "The Birth of the Messiah." This icon represents not only the miracle of the Incarnation but also the effect of that miracle upon the world. All creation is represented at the event; the earth by the hills and cave, the heavens by the star, animals and plants, angels in both their roles of Divine messengers and glorifiers of God, and humanity--the wise and the simple, good and evil, the young and the old, men and women.