The Depth of an Icon: A Student Paper from Writing in the Humanities at Mount Angel Seminary

Essay by Isaac Allwin; photos by Sister Hilda Kleiman, OSB

Curator's Note: This post is a paper from a College One student at Mount Angel Seminary, Isaac Allwin, who is a seminarian for the Diocese of Tucson.

His paper is the result of two assignments in Writing in the Humanities, an in-class essay and an outside essay.  Both assignments focus on the mosaic of the Annunciation in Annunciation, one of the main buildings of Mount Angel Seminary.  The mosaic is based on an icon written through the hand of Brother Claude Lane, OSB.

Incarnate Beauty also contains more detailed photos of the Holy Spirit, the Archangel Gabriel, and the Mother of God.

The Depth of an Icon: A Look into the Use of Symbolism and Theological Meaning in the Annunciation Icon

When I was first shown the icon of the Annunciation in the building of the same name at Mount Angel Seminary, it appeared to me as simply a religious picture. I soon learned, however, that this particular form of art contains numerous details in the form of composition and color selection, as well as identification of specific persons and objects represented.  It was only after I studied the icon closely for several weeks that I realized the artist included these details to create a plethora of hidden meanings and hints at deep theological mysteries.

There are, first of all, three main areas of focus in this icon.  Two large persons occupy the right and left side and nearly fill the icon with their height. A third, a small semi-circle in the top center of the icon, contains several figures.  These three foci provide a triangle of sorts, reminding one of the Trinity.  This icon is also very large, nine feet tall, and towers over any person who comes close to look at it.  This impresses upon the viewer the importance and gravity of the event, which is one of the most important in the history of existence.

The person on the left is a traditional angel with bird-like wings.  He is in motion, with the wings pointing in different directions and the legs crossed, just landing on the ground from his flight.  In one hand he holds a scroll.  The genderless face is serene and beautiful while it looks upward.  In the background on the right side is a building, and the person on the right side is standing in front of it.  She is obviously a woman because of her feminine face and head covering.  She is also relaxed and graceful, with her arms pointing downward and a spindle in her hands.  Together, she and the angel are looking at a white dove standing on a book, which is sitting upon a stand covered by a cloak.  These objects are bound in a semicircle.

The image is also very colorful, of many different hues, and of a generally bright nature.  The floor of the icon takes a dull yellow color, but gold serves as a background.  Red is exceptionally common and symbolizes royalty in the image.  It is found in Mary's cloak, spindle, shoes, and in the edge of her halo. It is also in the angel's wings, in the Greek letters identifying Mary and Gabriel, and in the mantle sitting on the stand in the semicircle.  Gabriel's wings are a combination of two colors, red and blue.  A darker, richer blue highlights the angel's wings and a stripe on his clothing, representing divinity and heaven. The semi-circle in the top part of the picture is green, along with the forest green cloak of the angel.  This green symbolizes life in the angel and in the objects contained within the semicircle.

In addition to the wide range of hues, the colors vary also in their value, or the lightness of the scale, and intensity, the saturation of the colors.  Often, this is used in the icon to provide depth and shadows to the image, especially in Gabriel's and Mary's garments, which have many folds.  On Mary's right shoulder, the use of an extremely bright value creates a glare, mimicking a reflective garment in the sun.  Finally, the saturation and intensity is used to create a gradual change of hue in Gabriel's wings from the red and blue tips to the white bases (Doherty).

The icon is perhaps most enriched by the identity of the figures portrayed, which gives a story and meaning to the image.  In the Annunciation in the Gospel of Luke, Gabriel appears to Mary to ask her to become the Mother of God.  However, there are many details that not only enhance the identity of the figures but also point to other separate mysteries and stories that relate to the Annunciation.

The gold background symbolizes eternity: the Annunciation is such a sacred moment that it seems to take place in heaven.  The angel to the left is Gabriel. He appears to be in motion, having just arrived after a spectacular landing. One raised hand blesses Mary while the other hand contains a scroll with a message for her.  This message is the request that Mary be the Mother of God. Gabriel's qualities are also notably genderless, indicating his supernatural nature and lack of human nature.  In the icon, he is portrayed as a powerful being.

Mary is one of the most involved persons in the Annunciation.  She can be identified by her head covering, which she wears in almost every image and art form she is portrayed in.  Mary's red royal clothing refers to her queenship of heaven and earth, which was given to her precisely for agreeing to become the Mother of God, a decision that is the central part of the Annunciation.  She also wears a belt of cloth, commonly identified as a symbol of pregnancy with Jesus and a direct result of her fiat, her assent to God's word.  On her feet are red shoes, yet another common association with Mary that might symbolize that she walked the white path of martyrdom through her Son.

Perhaps most telling of her signs are three sets of four stars on her garments, one on each shoulder and one on her forehead.  These symbols are only present on Mary and are very common in icons.  If one adds up all the stars, there are twelve, which matches exactly the story in the book of Revelation, in the chapter of the same number: "A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars" (21:1).  Twelve symbolizes that Mary was not only the mother of Jesus but also of the Catholic Church, which began with the twelve apostles. Behind her is most likely the Temple of Jerusalem, as it is one of the only notable buildings in the Bible.  It symbolizes she is becoming a temple for Jesus through motherhood.

The semicircle is significant because everything contained inside it has something to do with life.  The dove is the Holy Spirit, who is often called the giver of life and who conceived Jesus in Mary during the Annunciation.  It is important that the mantel is included because it shows the fruition of the Annunciation.  It is red and stained with blood because it the one Jesus wore during His passion.  Jesus was conceived in Mary for a purpose: to die on the cross and be an example to humanity of love and sacrifice.  Because he died on the cross, the Gospel came to be; hence, its presence in the form of a book.  It was henceforth spread to all nations by the apostles so that everyone should know of this mystery.

Thus, included in the icon of the Annunciation is not only the event itself but two events following it: the sacrifice of the cross and evangelization.  In this way, the icon of the Annunciation contains countless details that depict many aspects of the Annunciation as it occurred in the Gospel.  Some of these details express more discrete facts about the Annunciation.  Others hint at theological facts or stories that may not have been contained in the Annunciation but were closely connected with it.  The Annunciation icon has a very deep meaning that may not be visible at first glance!

Works Consulted

Doherty, Tiarna, and Anne T. Woollet.  Looking at Paintings: A Guide to Technical Terms.  2nd ed.  Los Angeles: J Paul Getty Trust, 2009.  Print.

New American Standard Bible.  10th ed.  La Habra, CA: Lockman Foundation, 1995.  Print.