The Icon of the Annunciation of the Most Holy Theotokos


We 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 describes numerous events that are linked to the Theotokos, and especially to the birth of Christ. The birth of Christ is also described by Matthew 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.

The following text is the written edition of the introductory session of the Theology of Orthodox icons of the workshop on icon making, given, on Friday, November 18th, 2005, by father Konstantinos Stratigopoulos, vicar of the Church of Dormition of the Holy Metropolis of Glyfada, Attica, Greece.


We 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 describes numerous events that are linked to the Theotokos, and especially to the birth of Christ. The birth of Christ is also described by Matthew 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.

However 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 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. It is an exquisite icon, by an unknown artist.

Let us examine the icon for a moment. Some of the facts that I have given 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 apart. This denotes the presence of motion. 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 “liturgical spirits, sent forth to minister”. In other words, they have two things. Firstly, they are liturgical spirits, they minister 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 orders we do not have much information. The most we know is about angels and archangels. While we do know that the other hosts are called principalities, dominions, thrones, authorities, powers, Cherubim, Seraphim, nevertheless, we do not know what their liturgical roles are. We know very little about the Cherubim and the Seraphim, which have appeared in the events of the Old Testament.

But more – and more frequent – appearances we have 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. Archangel Michael usually – but not necessarily exclusively – appears in the Old Testament. Of course in events that mark 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 know, from a liturgical point of view regarding the order in which icons are placed in the Sanctum, that the Royal (Beautiful) Gate has two doors. The one to the right – as we see it – and the one to the left. You may have noticed that the door on 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 Sanctuary 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 in 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 left door, the icon of the Archangel Gabriel is always depicted.

Angels, therefore, are “liturgical spirits, sent forth to minister”. If angels are liturgical, 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 the mystery of divine economy, their legs will not be apart. In the icon of the Ascension, or in the icon of the incredulity of Thomas, 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 the same 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. That is essentially what we also are. In Orthodoxy, we do not ask ourselves “What is better?” To stand still or be in motion? What concerns us, is to be in motion 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 does not live 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 was ministering to a mystery (as you can see in an icon of the Baptism), his arms would have not 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 called a 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 presents his arm from 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 an angelic fashion, to the extent of his ability, 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 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) and focusing to God. That is why he is wearing the headband. What interests us is this concentration. And notice something else – that the head is not depicted in profile, or portrait. 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 present a message. Up until recently, even in our villages, a town crier would come out and strike a stick against the cobblestones in the street, announcing an event that 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 in hagiography indulged in a romantic approach of the matter, but always approaches it with solemnity. Our Church art seeks to inspire solemnity, and not to display romanticism. That is why we totally differentiate from other art forms; 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 on focusing on the tangible component and 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 remember this frugality, which is expressed here with this staff and the Angel’s outstretched arm.

The Angel 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. It 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 obedient to God. This 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 conception 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 head.

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 deceased 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 lights.

I am saying all this, so that you may acquire a broader experience, as we do not have segmental arts. An hagiographer is born and developed within the life of the Church. He has to view things more broadly. An 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 basic theological elements.

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, simultaneously 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 the other hand the Holy Mother is holding another object. It is a spindle for making yarn. This denotes simultaneously what the Holy Mother is – She 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. Their work. And you should remember that the entire ascetic theory, 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 economy (oekonomia) 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 providence (oekonomia).

The Fathers of the Church have theologized about the Person of the Holy Mother; with an important milestone being the third Ecumenical Synod. It was 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 became 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 became 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 (“maforio”) is dark red, which is the colour that Orthodoxy regards as a colour signifying devout concentration. 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 expression of sorrow. As we shall also see from the shape of the mouth that is depicted, we are speaking of that “joyous-sorrow” expression. These are two elements combined. We are never in a state of absolute joy or 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. We feel sorrow for only one thing. We are sorrow 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 necessary wearing white vestments. And even if they had worn black vestments during the period of lent, 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.

Question: Why is the Holy Mother seated in this icon of the Annunciation?

Reply: 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.

Question: Why are secondary elements so sumptuous in some icons?

Reply: Look. They 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 heresy, (expressing something different).

Question: Why do monks and priests wear black garments?

Reply: 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. In addition 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 decretals” which I have not enough time to analyze. They are not of concern at this time.

Question: Why is the event of the Annunciation depicted in an outdoor setting?

Reply: In hagiography, we never depict an interior space (as for example the interior of a temple). All events are external; there is no indoor 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 indoors. Everything is an exit (Exodus). There is no interior. Even if a liturgy is depicted, you will never see it within a closed temple, you will never see any walls. Because the Liturgy itself is an exit (Exodus) 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 or focuses in his inner self (as in meditation). The Church is always a constant exit (Exodus).

Question: How are lips depicted in hagiography?

Reply: I will mention only two points about the lips. One is a local point, the other is a theological point. The rest 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 lips of sorrow and lips of happiness. 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; which is not signifying carnal lips.