Unique Advent Icons & O Antiphons

Sophia of the Sacred Wisdom, 1670, St. Nicholas Mokry Church, Yaroslavl Russia

Sophia of the Sacred Wisdom & O Sapientia

December 17 is dedicated to the O Sapientia, O Antiphon as part of Advent. In the first centuries, the Church had a custom of praying seven great prayers calling afresh on Christ to come, calling him by the mysterious titles He has in Isaiah, calling to Him; O Wisdom. O Root! O Key  O Light! come to us! This is the first of them – O Sapientia. “The Great Os”, on which the Magnificat antiphons used at vespers on the last seven days of Advent are based, praise the coming child.

In this icon, we see Christ as the Messenger of Great Counsel/Wisdom — one of two times in which he is He is shown with wings. His face is red because He is filled with the fire of the Holy Spirit.

This icon praises the wisdom of God, through which creation came into existence, and which is found, personified, in Jesus. It is unusual to find a depiction of it, but the title is one that is often ascribed to Jesus. When the earliest Christians were searching back through scripture for references to Jesus, the figure of Wisdom in Proverbs 8 and in the Wisdom of Solomon 7 resonated.

In the icon, the figure of Jesus stands just above Wisdom, claiming and affirming her as an insight into His own character. Mary and St. John the Baptist stand either side of Wisdom, and also attest to her as the likeness of Jesus, with all the authority of the mother and the forerunner.

Wisdom sits on the seven pillars on which the universe is founded; she is dressed in vivid colors, making herself available to us, full of energy and passion. There is nothing insipid about Wisdom: she is forceful and attractive.

The attention and praise that are given to her are channeled upwards to the figure of Christ, and from Him still farther up to the Father’s throne, where the angels echo earth’s praise.

There is no embarrassment at all about the identification of the feminine Wisdom with Jesus. St. Augustine talks about the “breasts of the Father” from which we are fed; Julian of Norwich describes Jesus as a mother pelican, tearing her own breast to feed her children; Jesus describes Himself as a mother hen; Hosea pictures God as a mother helping her infant with its first toddling, unsteady steps.

The O Sapientia

LATIN: O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodidisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviter disponensque omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae. 

ENGLISH: O Wisdom, who came from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end and ordering all things mightily and sweetly: come, and teach us the way of prudence.

Another Sophia, The Wisdom of God

Sophia the Wisdom of God, Novgorod 15th Century

At the center of the composition is a representation of Sophia, Wisdom of God, as a crowned Angel with a face of fire and wings. Sophia is surrounded by an aura of Divine Glory and sits on a throne supported by seven pillars. Under the feet of Sophia there is a stone, as a symbol of all Creation being subdued to the Word of God. The right hand is depicted in an act of blessing, while the left one holds a scepter.

To the sides of Sophia, in typical Deesis composition, stand the Mother of God and St. John the Baptist. The Mother of God holds the text ‘My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices…’, while St. John’s text says ‘This is the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world…’. Both the Mother of God and St. John the Baptist are represented with wings and they are wearing crowns.

Behind them follow St. John the Evangelist (‘No one has seen God except His only begotten Son…’) and St. John Chrysostomos. Bringing these two saints together emphasizes the same idea of an ongoing Revelation. The Evangelist and the composer of the Divine Liturgy are depicted in identical manner, with no difference of glory. This is a strong visual statement about Tradition understood as a path of ongoing Revelation as opposed to tradition reduced merely to a museum of ancient beliefs.

Higher still, the Lord Sabaoth sits on a throne of Cherubim and is surrounded by a choir of Seraphim. The text in His left hand has the ancient call: ‘Listen to me, my people…’. Around the glory of the Lord Sabaoth there are the typical symbolic representations of the four Evangelists (the angel, the lion, the bull and the eagle), the angelic hosts, the sun and the moon.

Sources: