Virtual Tour – Theotokos of the Unburnt Bush

We are going to use this quiet time to study and expand our knowledge of icons. Sometimes, this intellectual growth process takes second position to the busyness of the day to day, but now there is time.

Theotokos of the Unburnt Bush, 1880, Russia

See this link to an analysis of Theotokos of the Unburnt Bush, by Professor Dennis J. Sardella, docent at the Museum of Russian Icons: An Interpretation.


I’ve summarized of some of the features that make this a very unique icon:

Why is it called the “Unburnt Bush”?

There are a couple of reasons for this term: the first is that it represents the Virgin Mary and the second is that it recalls the time when God revealed Himself to Moses.

Virgin Mary: The Unburnt Bush appeared to be consumed by fire, and yet remained untouched or unburned by the fire, analogous to the belief that the Virgin Mary remained pure before, during and after the birth of Christ.

Conversation with Moses: In the Old Testament, God reveals himself to Moses in the “burning bush” which also remained unburned by the fire. “The early church fathers believed that the burning bush was not a physical phenomenon in which the bush, though on fire, was somehow miraculously protected from the destructive effects of the flame, bur rather that what Moses saw as fire was the uncreated energy of God (who according to Saint John, is light), and that God used the bush as a vehicle or channel through which to reveal Himself to Moses.” (From Professor Sardella)

Moses was standing on holy land. And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I. (Exodus 3: 2‒4).

History of the Icon

Traditional Use of the Icon: this icon was used traditionally in Russia as a talisman against fire. Most of the homes in this time were built of wood, and the threat of fire was very real and constant. Legend has it that a woman stood outside her wooden home holding the Theotokos of the Unburnt Bush icon; that night, all the homes in her village were destroyed by fire all around her home, which remained untouched by the flames.

“The Mother of God rescued people from fire many times, which is referenced in the troparion of this icon: “He hath glorified Her holy icon with many miracles / and gave it to the faithful to heal their illnesses / and to protect them from outbreaks of fire.” – From St. Elisabeth Convent

Beyond this legend is the icon’s historic origin that dates back to the Monastery of Saint Catherine in the Sinai Desert, one of the oldest monasteries in the world. It is believed that Saint Catherine’s was built on the rock where God appeared to Moses and where he saw the mysterious burning bush (although this is not universally agreed upon). Saint Helen, Constantine’s mother, had a small church at Saint Catherine’s built and enclosed by walls to protect hermits in about the year 330. Later in the 5th century, Justinian built the church and the monastery structure that is known today as Saint Catherine’s…a repository of some of the world’s oldest icons.

The Unburnt Bush Icon (Neopalimaya Kupina) supposedly reached Russia when an ancient copy was brought to Kievan Rus by the Palestinian monks of the Sinai in 1390, however, it is believed that this particular icon began being painted in the first century. Originally, the Theotokos was placed inside the burning bush. Over time, the icon became more complex.

Symbolism of the Unburnt Bush

The “unburnt bush” was the vehicle by which God’s revelation (fire) came into the world without compromising the integrity of the bush, as the Virgin Mary was the vehicle by which God’s revelation (Jesus) came into the world without compromising the integrity of her virginity.

Orthodox

To the Orthodox, the miracle of the Unburnt Bush is understood in the theology and hymnography of the Church as a prefiguring of the virgin birth of Christ. Other commentators identify the Unburnt Bush with the early Christians who suffered persecution at the hands of the pagan authorities but were never defeated.

Take these lines from the Akathist Hymn*:

The great mystery of your childbirth did Moses perceive within the burning bush. The youth vividly prefigured this, standing in the midst of fire and remaining unconsumed, O undefiled and holy Virgin. We praise you therefore in hymns to the ages (Ode Eight, The Eirmos).

* The Akathist Hymn and Small Compline are two services which are sung on the first five Fridays during Great Lent.

Coptic

The same idea is present in Coptic hymns, for example:

The Burning Bush seen by Moses
The prophet in the wilderness
The fire inside, it was aflame
But never consumed or injured it
The same with the Theotokos Mary
Carried the fire of divinity
Nine months in her holy body
Without blemishing her virginity

There are MANY versions of this icon and if you visit the Museum of Russian Icons, you can see at least six that span from 1700 to 1890. This particular version of this genre dates to 1880 and is by far, the most serene, and visually pleasing of them for several reasons: peacefulness and harmony.

Feeling of Peacefulness & Harmony

What creates that feeling for peacefulness and harmony? Experts say it has everything to do with symmetry between the many figures, elegance in style, harmonic placement (likely due to geometry) and the icon writer’s choice of color. Imagine, there are 21 figures in this icon and yet there is no sense of crowding, or cluttering, or confusion, as what you often see in many of the others in this genre. The colors are calm as is the relationship between figures, which makes this a very peaceful, harmonically designed icon, ideally suited for prayer.

Unusual Feature: The Mandorla

The Mandorla is considered the opening to Heaven and is typically reserved for Christ in Majesty (Pantocrator) icons. This Mandorla is both the opening to Heaven and contains the symbolic eight pointed cross, the number eight representing eternity. The significance of the numerology of eight is also connected with the idea of new creation, or rebirth – which is one reason why originally baptismal fonts were octagonal.

A Mandorla is formed by two concentric circles that create a band filled with angels, as Isaiah reported in his vision, surrounding God’s throne. The angels could be seraphim, the highest order of angels who sing the trisagon, and who are bright red, as derived from the Hebrew word meaning “firey ones” or “burning ones.” There is some question about this because the number of wings on these angels is not six, which is how they are described in the Bible and how they are traditionally depicted iconographically.

The Eight Pointed Star

The eight pointed star is intended to denote the presence of the Ancient of Days and is formed by the superimposition of a rhombus over a rhombus that is turned 90 degrees. The red rhombus symbolizes the earth, while the green or blue one symbolizes the Heaven. Red also means fire, while green points at the bush, which is burning yet not consumed by fire. Red can be considered the flames from Heaven and also depicts the gospels as another source of God’s self-revelation, according to St. Irenaeus. Green or blue can both symbolize “creation” as opposed to the divine, so the twin use of the blue to represent the bush and the Heavens is appropriate.

Tetramorph

In the corner of this icon we see the tetramorph of the four evangelists, although in this icon their representations are different from traditional depiction:

  • Depicted in this icon
  • Matthew = man
  • Mark = Eagle
  • Luke = Ox
  • John = Lion
  • Traditional Depiction
  • Matthew – Man holding a book
  • Luke = Ox
  • Mark = Lion
  • John = Eagle

The Clouds

Inside the clouds are the angels and archangels. There are only three archangels listed in scripture: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael. According to the Orthodox tradition and noncanonical sources, there are nine, although this icon only shows eight.

  • Michael – “Who is like unto God?” – warrior angel symbolizes the power to overcome the enemies of God.
  • Gabriel – “The Strength of God” carries a branch to symbolize the annunciation.
  • Raphael – “The Healing of God” holds a small pot or glass vessel to hold myrrh, representing God’s annointing.
  • The following angels are from the Apocryphal Book of Enoch:
  • Jehudiel – “The Praise of God” holds a crown and three thronged whip.
  • Raquel – “The Friend of God” who judges fallen angels.
  • Selaphiel – “The Prayer of God” holds a navicula (censer in the shape of a boat).
  • Uriel – “The Light or Fire of God” who carries a fiery sword.

Because there are seven and not nine angels pictured, it is possible that these are simply generic angels. Nevertheless, the Theotokos’ central position surrounded by angels highlights her central position in the course of salvation.

Edges of the Icon

Four scenes from the Old Testament are on the edges of this icon. The author of the paper references Saint Augustine’s comment that, “the Old Testament is the New Testament concealed and that the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed,” as a way to explain the mirror image symmetry of Old vs. New Testament.

Top Left Corner: Moses and the Burning Bush

More specifically, the “unburnt” bush. Early Christian fathers believed that the burning was not an actual occurrence, it was simply a figurative way to describe the uncreated energy of God.

Top Right Corner: Isaiah’s Vision of the Lord & His Call

This is the scene in which Isaiah is cleansed by the touch of fire of God on his lips.

Bottom Left Corner: The Vision of the Prophet Ezekiel

This is Ezekiel’s vision of the gate being closed, which is a prefiguration of the concept of Mary’s perfection.

Bottom Right Corner: Jacob’s Dream

This is the dream in which Jacob envisions the ladder to Heaven, which is again a prefiguration of Mary, who is the bridge or ladder by which Jesus descended to earth.

Central Image of the Icon

In the center, Mary is holding Jacob’s ladder, reflecting the Orthodox belief that she was the “ladder” by which one ascended to God, or by which Jesus descended to humanity. The burning bush that called out to Moses was among the most mysterious of God’s manifestations in the Old Testament. This icon reminds us that we can enter into this same mystery through Mary.

Central Image of the Icon – Theotokos of the Unburnt Bush