This is the icon most likely to confront any visitor to an Orthodox church or cathedral, 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?
The 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.
In the Russian land, this image acquired the name Our Lady “of the Sign” (Znamenie – Знамение). 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
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 Russian Church celebrates the Feast of the Icon “Znamenie” on this day, December 10, which is November 27 in the Old Julian Calendar.
The Theotokos of the Sign above the Altar
As for the use of this image, or variants of it, above altars in church, this is related to the New Covenant, Christian, church being a renewed version of the Old Covenant, Jewish, Temple. In the Jewish Temple, as described in the Bible, there was the Mercy Seat. Flanked by cherubim, above the altar, and inside the sanctuary, it is within the Mercy Seat that the presence of God was manifest every year to the priests. Now, of course, God is manifest to us all in the person of Jesus Christ, and so Mary – within whom the glory of God was manifest – becomes the “new” Mercy Seat. Indeed, in the first Icon at the top of this post, she is even flanked by Cherubim, as the Mercy Seat was. But unlike the Mercy Seat of the “Old” religion, the Mother of God, and her Son, are clearly visible and manifest to everyone who enters an Orthodox church.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them a light has shined.
For unto us a Child is born; to us a Son is given.
And the government shall be upon His shoulder, and of His peace there will be no end.
And His name shall be called the Messenger of Great Counsel, Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace, the Father of the World to Come.
God is with us! Understand this, O nations, and submit yourselves! For God is with us!
(from the Song of the Holy Prophet Isaiah)
More examples of the Icon of the Sign