Thoughts on the Icon of the Holy Family

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Thoughts on the Icon of the Holy Family

Dominican Nuns Ireland
Published by Dominican Nuns Ireland in Reflections (Other) · 29 December 2019
Tags: ChristmasIcon
This icon is not a work of the imagination in which the artist tries to drag the onlooker inside an ideal family, but a theological teaching that exposes something of the Truth revealed in Jesus Christ. We do not enter into the icon, it is a sacred space delimitated by a red line all around it. It is the people, represented inside that space, that come to us. “The Kingdom of God is at hand” !

The Holy Family is a real human family and, as such, a model for all families of the earth. Nevertheless, it is more than that, and its example is leading us towards and introducing us in the mystery of the Trinity.

As regards the model, we must say that there is no prototype of the Holy Family as such in the strict Byzantine tradition. Nonetheless, this icon, created for St Peter’s parish in Drogheda, follows as faithfully as possible the ancient canons. The figure arrangement takes great care not to present a “family portrait” type of image of the Holy Family. Rather, the composition follows the theological and dogmatic significance of who and what is being represented.

The basic model is inspired from the DEESIS which is the main row of icons on an iconostasis (= the “wall” separating the faithful from the sacred space where the Eucharistic consecration takes place in the Orthodox church). In the centre, there is always a large icon of Christ Pantocrator (The Ruler of All) who is sitting on a throne, blessing the people with one hand and holding a scroll (or the Book of Life) in the other. On His right hand side is Our Lady, the Mother of God, interceding for the people that she presents to Him and at the same time, pointing Jesus to the faithful. On Christ’s left hand side is a saint intercessor, usually John the Baptist, but it can be another (for instance the patron saint of the church where the iconostasis is placed).Then, in the freedom of the Holy Spirit, the artist places these three persons according to the main principles ruling an iconostasis. In our icon, the second intercessor is St Joseph.

St Joseph, on the left hand side of Christ, stands a little in the back of the composition, being behind Jesus as well as Mary. We can see that, through the position of the three haloes.

And, by the way, we notice that Mary’s halo touches Jesus’, whereas Joseph’s halo touches Mary’s but not Jesus’.  Why ?  Because he is not the father according to the flesh, but by adoption. Nevertheless, the contact between his halo and Mary’s indicates the reality of their marriage through a deep spiritual communion, in total obedience to the will of God.

(Haloes are most of the time made of gold leaves, gold being the colour of the divinity).

The Child Jesus is not a baby. His size is of a young boy and His attitude is very majestic (like the Ruler of All), blessing with the right hand and holding the scroll in His left . As a child, He can wear a tunic of different colour but His coat is always gilded. In evangelical scenes, His human nature is more emphasised and the colour of his vestments will be red for the tunic (colour of royalty, consequently showing His divinity) but  His blue coat will show the humanity He took on for our sake.

The Mother of God is a totally human person. Accordingly Her inner garment is blue. As she has been divinised through the sacrifice of Her Son, her robe is covered by a purple-red imperial large shawl (maphorion) indicating Her dignity. The stars are a Syriac symbol of virginity embroidered on the wedding veil . For Mary, the number 3 indicates that she was a virgin before, during and after the birth of Christ.

St Joseph’s tunic is blue, like those worn by the Apostles. He is in charge of the Word of God. His left hand is raised in awe and reverence but restraint, for no one may touch the living tabernacle of God.

The shape of this icon represents the home as the ‘Domestic Church’ :

It is here that the father of the family, the mother, children, and all members of the family exercise the priesthood of the baptized in a privileged way “by the reception of the sacraments, prayer and thanksgiving, the witness of a holy life, and self-denial and active charity.” Thus the home is the first school of Christian life and “a school for human enrichment.” Here one learns endurance and the joy of work, fraternal love, generous—even repeated—forgiveness, and above all divine worship in prayer and the offering of one’s life. (CCC 1657)

May the Holy Family bring you the gifts of love, peace and joy at Christmas
and every day throughout the New Year.


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