The light is a star, the Infant a spool. The Virgin Mary no longer holds a distaff and spindle. She is the Mother of God – what she had to spin, she has spun. It is up to him now to knit the shirt of the world in silence and word, in parables.
The principal relationship, as in the Annunciation, is between her and the Light. Between her and the Infant. The Light-Word. The incarnate Light. But in an interaction like that of the Deesis, where the Son is the bridegroom and the Mother the bride. Because the main message of the Nativity, apart from the fact that ‘the light of knowledge dawned upon the earth’ (Troparion of the Nativity), is precisely the intimate, deeply saving link between mother and son, the realization of the plan of the Incarnation through the Virgin Mary and of the first deification, the saving road of Adam through Christ. Not by chance do artists paint the Infant in the manger wrapped like a cocoon, about to spread his wings, filling them with blood, becoming the only bird that has nowhere to lay its head, but with a body like a soul. Like Lazarus’ body, symbol of human resurrection, like his own body, emptied of its shroud, which the Angel of the Lord points towards. And that of the Nativity, reminiscent of a fish that monks, hunters of men, catch with their own bare hands.
So the Infant contains within himself not only his own soul, but also his Mother’s (which is also sometimes depicted like a cocoon – see the Assumption from Rakovitsa), Lazarus’, deified humanity’s once it has shed its old garment. He is not only his own Resurrection, he is the Resurrection of the world. The way to the manger. And from the manger on upwards. To where the Christmas Star points.
The letter L determines the position of the Mother’s body in relation to her Son. She is drawn perpendicularly to the manger, her head turned towards or away from him. The second of these gestures expresses tiredness, exhaustion. Waiting in agony for what is to come. In the Nativity from Eleshnitsa, this is shown by the oversized hand under her chin, which borders on forgetfulness and hardship. When because of the long wait, painful time, time is so prolonged you almost lose track of it, falling into timelessness, into eternity. Like the monk Ero from Armenteira Monastery in Galicia, who kept on begging the Virgin Mary to reveal eternity to him. And standing under a tree in the courtyard, listening to the nightingale’s trills, he drifted off in such a way that when he came to, he couldn’t recognize a single face. Three hundred years had gone by.
Only in Eleshnitsa is the Mother’s position parallel to that of the Son. This balances the double gesture of the averted head and hand. The image of the young mother gives character to the whole composition: she has masculine radiance (Boboshevo), her bed resembles a mandorla, something like the created expression of the real mandorla of light (Alino), she lies on a plane with an almost invisible body (Dolna Beshovitsa), her halo is inscribed in the larger, created mandorla like a pupil in an eye (Karlukovo), in the white of an eye (St Stephen’s, Nesebar). The eye of God.
Albeit not directly, in the fresco of the Nativity, God the Father is invariably present. The fresco of the Holy Trinity is seemingly embedded in that of the Nativity. As are the frescoes of the Baptism and the Resurrection.
The cave of the Nativity is another characteristic detail. Not only as a place, but also as a symbol of the womb, of life in anticipation of the Resurrection, of Hell. There where the Infant already steps, so he can go on to what he has to accomplish.
Nativity, Seslavtsi / Iliyantsi / Ivanovo
In some of the frescoes, the Mother climbs into the cave on her knees, holding out her hands to the Infant, like those thousands of pilgrims flocking from the harbour to her church on the Greek island of Tinos. She climbs in an inner Golgotha, a Golgotha-womb, concave, the opposite of Christ’s, though in fact they are one and the same (Seslavtsi). In other caves, she is painted skilfully and knowledgeably from a geological point of view – the chosen colour is the same as the rock that makes up the mantle: peridot (Iliyantsi). In another fresco, the cave is tied at both ends (Ivanovo). Because ‘whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven’ (Mt 16:19).
Although all in swaddling clothes, the Infant is always with his head raised. He greets the Mother, blesses her. Even with tied hands, he blesses with the gesture of his head. Christ is blessing.
In a kind of sequence, the star’s movement and the Mother’s inner ascent establish the two main forms that are to be found in the most spectacular frescoes of the Nativity – from Dolni Pasarel and the Church of Sts Michael and Gabriel in Arbanasi. From a compositional point of view, they are in fact completely embedded in these two forms, built around them. Circumscribed.
In iconography, the detail contains the whole, and the whole fits inside the detail, just as all frescoes are superimposed on top of each other, and one is an expression of all, and vice versa. Like the reflection of a hill on a body of water, or a serviette folded in four, which we cut and, when it opens, the shapes are multiplied.
The archetypal form found in most frescoes of the Nativity is that of the Way. The narrow way like the eye of a needle, which the Saviour talks about in parables. And nothing expresses the Nativity as deeply as two symbols: the hourglass and the eye, which underpin the images from Dolni Pasarel and Arbanasi. The eye is in fact an hourglass, only the two arcs face inwards.
At its narrowest point, the hourglass from Dolni Pasarel borders on cumulus clouds in the heavenly world and hills in this world. Among the hills, right in the middle, are depicted the Mother and Child, and the only link between the two worlds is the Christmas Star, which hangs over the manger after guiding the Magi a long way to the chosen place, thus forming the letter L between heaven and earth. Because the eye of a needle is not straight vertically or horizontally. It is shaped like an angle. And the difficulty of passing through it is not just because the entrance is narrow, but because it is folded. There is no entrance as narrow as one that is folded. However strong the jet may be, if the hose is bent, the supply of water will be cut off.
So the way the Magi travel, each from his own place, following the star, coming together in front of the Infant’s cave, is nothing other than the route each of us must take to the Saviour. Where the earthly way finishes or takes another direction. And the real direction is neither forwards, nor back, nor down, but only up towards the light, on the bundle of rays of the Christmas Star, which has stopped over the manger. Passing through the only possible place, which the star illuminates: the Christ Child. Because ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ (Jn 14:6).
Through the hourglass, horses, sheep and other animals continue to flow like grains of sand. The painter from Dolni Pasarel has wisely introduced a shepherd who has grabbed the reins of three horses and wants to lead them over the hill, but they pull back. Because he isn’t the real shepherd. While the reins of the bull and donkey lowering their heads over the manger descend like streams to the proper place for food and water. Bowing their heads.
In the largest fresco of the Nativity in Bulgaria, the one in the Church of Sts Michael and Gabriel, Arbanasi, the hourglass is closed inside a huge eye, in the centre of which, the very pupil, are the Mother and Child. The pupil is half black, half white, like the heavenly bodies depicted in images of the Crucifixion and Creation. The eye’s lower edge is red because of the soil, the red clay of Creation, the fatigue, weeping and pain of this world, while the white beneath the upper edge is the heavenly kingdom with its angels and cherubim.
Seen from above, the hourglass represents an eye with a pupil at its narrowest point. The two together provide the scheme for a cross with seven rays: four horizontal rays going in the four directions of the world, one stuck in the earth, another in the sky like Jacob’s ladder, and the seventh where the others intersect: the passage, the pupil, the cornerstone with its enormous weight, after whose victory over death nobody has to die alone since they die together with Christ.
The fresco of the Nativity contains all the basic eschatological truths – about birth, death and resurrection, about God’s economy. And perhaps it conceals an answer to the most important human question of all: the meaning of life, the way. Which begins by seeing the star, ends with worship of the Infant beneath the star’s light and continues through the eye of the needle, through the cornerstone, upwards, all along the bundle of rays.
Text by Tsvetanka Elenkova
Photographs and English translation by Jonathan Dunne