We recently received a message from a customer asking about our new icon of the Visitation of the Theotokos and Elizabeth, which includes Christ and John the Baptist in the wombs of their mothers, and the reasoning behind depicting something that in reality took place secretly.
Others may have similar questions, so we wanted to provide a public response to say more about its meaning.
When we speak of events that took place secretly, I call to mind the hymn from Vespers on Christmas Eve: "O Christ, you were born secretly in the cave..." Our faith proclaims many things which took place in secret, from the creation of Adam, to the incarnation of Christ, the Virgin Birth, many of Christ's miracles, the Mystical Supper, and the Resurrection itself. While those who lived in those days only saw these events literally, as through a dark glass, we now see and proclaim them with the fullness of spiritual knowledge.
The theological nature of iconography is not to only depict the visible world; it also expresses the underlying spiritual truth, in order to enlighten the viewer and move him to higher contemplation.
We see this everywhere in iconography: the glorified bodies of the saints are depicted through their stylized, slender forms. Christ on the Cross appears dispassionate and almost bloodless, rather than agonized and gory. The infant Christ has the bodily proportions of a miniature adult, rather than those of a baby. The ages of the Apostles and other saints are often depicted as fixed in time: St. Peter always has gray hair, St. Paul is always balding, etc.
In essence, iconography is not photography or portraiture; it is theology in living color.
It may seem strange to show Christ and St. John as fetuses superimposed over their mothers, but there is really no other way to depict visually the Gospel account of the Visitation. The leap of John in the presence of Christ and the Virgin, given in the Gospel account, is not incidental to the story, so the story is not merely the embrace of two women. The reason for their meeting was because of the sons they bore.
It is worth pointing out that this imagery is not something we at Legacy Icons invented, nor is it modern. The “window into the womb” is an ancient feature of icons both of the Visitation and the Annunciation:
Since we are not Gnostics, we fully embrace the humanity of Christ.
“But when you think of God, who is a pure spirit, becoming man for your sake, then you can clothe him in a human form. … Depict his coming down, his virgin birth, his baptism in the Jordan, his transfiguration on Mt Tabor, his all-powerful sufferings, his death and miracles, the proofs of his deity, the deeds he performed in the flesh through divine power, his saving Cross, his grave, his resurrection and his ascent into heaven.” (St. John of Damascus, Against Those Who Oppose Holy Images)
Everything Christ did in the flesh—including his conception, or “his coming down,” as St. John says—was for our salvation. So it is not only permissible to depict Christ’s humanity in icons, it is necessary. And let us not forget that Christ did not become man at birth, but at the Annunciation, at the instant of his divine conception. This is witnessed by countless hymns of Eastern Orthodox liturgy:
“Today is the beginning of our salvation.” (Troparion of the Annunciation)
“She who is holier than the Angels and all creation now carries in the flesh the Angel of the great counsel.” (Matins, Sunday before Christmas)
“[Christ is] a babe in the womb, he who gives life to babes in the womb.” (Matins, December 20)
“[Christ] shines ineffably from the Virgin and in the flesh is coming to birth.” (Ibid)
“Jesus bowed the heavens and came down and made his dwelling in a virgin womb without change.” (Vespers, December 24)
If the God-Man, in his good pleasure, willed to become a fetus for our salvation, we can and will appropriately depict him as a fetus too. Fetuses are persons which bear the image of God, because our God was once a fetus. This truth is lost to many in our world today, all the more reason to celebrate the Incarnation of Christ in every facet.
“So how can we not record in images the saving pains and miracles of Christ our Lord, so that when my child asks me, ‘What is this?’ I may say, ‘That God the Word became man.” (St. John of Damascus)