The Theotokos of the “Sign” Icon

The Orthodox Church celebrates the Feast of the Icon “Znamenie” on this day, December 10, which is November 27 in the Old Julian Calendar. This is the icon most likely to confront any visitor to an Orthodox church, as it is usually present in the upper part of the altar, the focal point of any church. It is also one of the most ancient Christian icons, being found in the first-century catacombs where the early Church worshiped secretly. What does this image show, and what is behind its name?

img_0139The icon shows the Mother of God from the waist up, facing us, with her hands lifted up to the level of her head, elbows bent. From time immemorial this gesture has signified a prayerful appeal to God. The Christ-child, Emmanuel, is depicted in a circle of light at her bosom. Icons of this type were, and still are sometimes, called Oranta (Latin for praying). Her prayerful stance also gives the impression of presenting us with Christ, and our attention is drawn – as always with icons of the Theotokos – to her Son, our Saviour.

This image acquired the name Our Lady “of the Sign” (Znamenie – Знáменіе). It is sometimes thought – quite understandably, given the Icon’s composition – that this name refers to the prophecy of Isaiah:

Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign:
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son,
And shall call His name Immanuel
(Isaiah 7:14)

However, the origin of the name in Russia can also be traced to a specific historical event, when through the Oranta icon, God wrought a miracle. On November 27, 1165 in the midst of the assault on the city of Novgorod by the forces of Prince Andrew of Bogolubovo, the citizens of the besieged town brought the Icon to the city wall. One of the arrows pierced the icon and the Most Holy Mother of God turned her face to the city and shed tears. The tears dropped on the phelonion of Bishop John of Novgorod, who exclaimed: “O wonder of wonders! How can tears be streaming from dry wood! O Queen! You are giving us a sign that you are entreating your Son that the city be spared.”

Inspired by the wonderful sign, the people of Novgorod repelled the attacks of the Suzdal forces. To this day, the whole of the Church of Rus’ celebrates the Feast of the Icon “Znamenie” on this day, December 10, which is November 27 in the Old Julian Calendar.