With the present article we wish Orthodoxy in Dialogue’s readers around the world a most blessed and joyous Feast of the Annunciation.
In her sermon on the Incarnation, the 16th-century Franciscan mystic, Mother Juana de la Cruz (1481-1534), describes the archangel Gabriel as the “matchmaker” of a wedding between God and the Virgin Mary. Greeting her, the archangel announces: “Almighty God told me that he wanted me to be the ambassador and the matchmaker [casamentero] in such an excellent and marvelous wedding.”
In the late 12th-century icon of the Annunciation, housed at St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai, the archangel Gabriel assumes a similar stance in the foreground of the icon. Hand upraised and greeting the Virgin, he is clearly the royal messenger of a momentous event. Maximus the Confessor similarly describes Gabriel as “her herald and messenger” having him explain to Mary that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you to prepare and adorn you as a bride…” One commentator on the icon detects a wedding veil drawn back in the window depicted just over the Virgin’s shoulder. This same commentator understands the rooftop garden above the window as the “garden enclosed” of the Song of Songs (4:12) and symbol of her virginity. Maximus will ask us to “consider and examine the glory of the unwedded bride and the dowry of her virginity.” Saturated in gold, the icon evokes a royal wedding already underway. Gabriel successfully negotiates the royal matchmaking.
Maximus’s description of the setting for the Annunciation vividly paints the scene:
…[W]hen, how and where did the Annunciation take place? The virgin was fasting and …in prayer near a fountain, because she conceived the fountain of life. It was in the first month, when God also created the whole world, in order to show how he renews the old world again. It was the first day of the week, which is Sunday, on which day he dispelled the primordial darkness and created the primordial light, and on which day the glorious Resurrection… took place, along with the resurrection of our nature…
And like a dowry, this first thing was the engagement of the immortal bridegroom and the destruction of the original curse…
Our icon from Mount Sinai echoes many of these same elements. Where Maximus envisions solely a fountain, in this icon the whole forefront is painted as water with lapping waves. Evoking the Annunciation as the renewal of the world, this waterfront is populated by birds, fish, and water creatures. Birds preen in the waters and on the shore. One fish pokes its head above the waters as if to gaze at Gabriel. There is even an octopus present. Storks pair off and are seen nesting on the nearby rooftop. Directly below the descending Dove depicting the Holy Spirit, a waterbird outstretches its wings and raises its head up toward the overshadowing Dove. The intentional inclusion of the teeming waters, fish, and fecund birds occasions the viewer of the icon to recall the creation narratives. The writer of this icon, like Maximus, intends that the Incarnation be perceived as the first moment of the new creation. Where the Spirit in Genesis had brooded over the formless and void, here the Spirit descends upon the Virgin, overshadowing the first-conceived of the new creation. Eternal wedding feast and a renewed, restored creation merge and illumine the way forward.
Contemporary iconographer, Aidan Hart, understands the icon to resonate with the Akathist Hymn to the Theotokos. Keeping with the theme of the new creation, the hymn addresses the Virgin: “Rejoice, restoration of fallen Adam!” The hymn also acknowledges her, acclaiming: “Rejoice, tree that dost sweeten the salty waters of the sea of life! Rejoice, inexhaustible fountain of life-giving waters!” The Troparion for the feast also reflects a similar fountain-flowing theme: “Today is the fountainhead of our salvation and the manifestation of the mystery which was from eternity. The Son of God becometh the Virgin’s Son, and Gabriel proclaimeth the good tidings of grace.” While there has been speculation that the icon was written in Constantinople, Hart firmly believes it originated at St. Catherine’s. He points to a stylistic element in the icon’s halos whereby the shinning orbs look like gold-pressed vinyl records behind each saint’s head. This feature is seen only at Mount Sinai. Fully encircled by golden halo, the icon’s Dove is patiently detailed, its bill and outstretched feet clearly visible, as well as individual pinions of its plumage. A shaft of light descends from a partial halo at the icon’s top, tracing the descent of the Dove, and continuing downward to catch the edge of the Virgin’s halo and alight upon her right shoulder.
The Virgin looks intently at Gabriel, while in her hands she holds the red thread with which she has been working. The image of Mary working with the thread originates in the Second Century Protoevangelium of James wherein the author envisions Mary actively threading together the veil for the Jewish Temple. The imagery of this non-canonical text strongly influenced the subsequent depiction of the Virgin’s activity at the time of the Annunciation. Mary’s weaving role carried over into understanding her as allegorically “clothing” Christ in true human flesh, allowing Maximus to write that Christ was “clothed in our nature from her.” John Chrysostom uses similar clothing imagery: “For it was to Him no lowering to put on what He Himself had made. Let that handiwork be forever glorified, which became the cloak of its own Creator.” Mother Juana would much later describe the Incarnation taking place “just like a seamstress when she wants to make a shirt.” This thread in the hands of the Virgin Mary is the first weaving together of the new creation wherein humanity and divinity are woven together. “Rejoice, Thou that didst join the faithful to the Lord!” “Rejoice, fleece bedewed, which Gideon didst foresee!”
The Protoevangelium of James continues with the Annunciation account describing Mary as first going to fill a vessel with water: “she took the pitcher, and went out to fill it with water.” As seen above, Maximus also depicts the Virgin as present at a “fountain.” In modern day Nazareth, a local well is commemorated there as “the spring of the Virgin Mary,” situated just below the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation. It is located above an ancient underground stream. The novel inclusion of a steam of water at the forefront of our Annunciation icon likely hearkens back to this passage. However, it is further possible that reference is also intended to the Annunciation account in the Islamic Qur’an. In this telling, the angel Gabriel therein reaffirms Mary after the conception by stating: “Do not despair. Your Lord has provided a brook that runs at your feet.” This St. Catherine’s Monastery Annunciation icon is fully unique in its inclusion of a brook that runs at the Virgin’s feet. Where Islamic influence is altogether otherwise unheard of in Orthodox iconography, this icon’s origination at St. Catherine’s makes it plausible. The monastery has historically enjoyed a distinctly favorable relationship with Islam, uniquely being the only Orthodox monastery to host a mosque built directly beside the monk’s church. An ancient document ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad and purportedly signed by his handprint granted perpetual protection to the monastery. While the tradition of the Virgin drawing water at the well at the time of the Annunciation may account for this icon’s detailed waterscape, the possible influence of this Quranic verse merits further research and investigation.
In November 2022, I had the gracious blessing to see this icon in person. While high resolution photography has captured the dominant features of the icon, it is ever more profoundly moving to experience it in person. There is energy and movement and fecundity to experience radiating from the icon. Although now under glass, in person one gets the sense of its purpose and power that would have been experienced in its original liturgical role and festal celebration. There is life and vibrancy one feels from the trees, birds, and fish. Creation is set at the forefront on this icon “and God saw that it was good.” A prelapsarian Eden is evoked, shimmering with yet unimagined potential at this critical moment in salvation history. A calm and beneficent dignity shows forth from the faces of Mary and Gabriel. A triad of halos is formed with these two and the descending Dove’s. The viewer is drawn in as the fourth point, now connected to these other three. The Spirit’s kenotic descent appears to be imminent in its impending arrival upon the awaiting Virgin. Captured and projected from the icon is the instant of the Incarnation, memorializing the first-conceived of the new creation, a moment catalyzing the first dawning of future glorification. The wedding feast of the Lamb has begun, and his Bride is prepared to welcome him.
 Mother Juana de la Cruz, 1481-1534: Visionary Sermons, Edited by Jessica A. Boon and Ronald E. Surtz, (Iter Academic Press, Toronto: 2016), p. 48.
 The Life of the Virgin: Maximus the Confessor, translated by Stephen J. Shoemaker (Yale University Press, 2012), p. 54.
 Icon of the Annunciation, St. Catherine’s Monastery – Wikipedia
 Life of the Virgin, p. 52.
 Ibid. p. 50.
 “Choose for me by lot who shall spin the gold, and the white, and the fine linen, and the silk, and the blue, and the scarlet, and the true purple. And the true purple and the scarlet fell to the lot of Mary, and she took them, and went away to her house… And Mary took the scarlet, and span it.” Protoevangelium of James, 10.
 Life of the Virgin, p. 54.
 The Nativity Sermon of St. John Chrysostom | Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese Peter Lombard will describe “the humanity of Christ as a habit or garment which he puts on.” A Reader in Early Franciscan Theology: The Summa Halensis (New York: Fordham University Press, 2022), p. 39.
 Visionary Sermons, p. 54.
 Mary’s Well – Wikipedia
 Surah Maryam 19:24
 St. Catherine’s Monastery: Friendship between Christians and Muslims (arabamerica.com); MOHAMMED (sinaimonastery.com)
Kevin C.A. Elphick holds a DMin from Graduate Theological Foundation with a concentration in ecumenism. Earlier he obtained an MA in Franciscan Studies from St. Bonaventure University and an MA in Religious Studies from Loyola University in conjunction with a joint studies program at Spertus College of Judaica. At Spertus College, he studied under Rabbi Byron Sherwin who was the student of Rabbi Abraham Heschel. Dr. Elphick works in the field of suicide prevention and is a professed Third Order Franciscan with a community dedicated to ecumenical dialogue. He has written previously for Orthodoxy in Dialogue.