The traditions and teaching of the Christian Church often appear to change and evolve over time. Yet from within it can be seen that it is not that the teaching itself changes, but that each generation brings new ways to express their Faith, which itself is eternal and unchanging. A perfect example of this is the Icon of the Theotokos – “Unburning Bush”. Indeed, the Icon in its current form weaves together numerous ancient teachings of the Church – on the Mother of God, the Incarnation, Old Testament Prophecies and Angelology – into a single, stunning composition. Peeling the layers of this Icon are both rewarding and illuminating…
The name of the Icon, “burning bush” (sometimes “unburnt bush”) derives from the miracle witnessed by Moses on Mount Horeb. As described in the book of Exodus, whilst Moses was tending his Father-in-law’s flock, he witnessed a bush burning with fire, yet unconsumed. Drawing nearer, God called out to Moses from amid the flames, telling him to removes his sandals “for the place where you stand is holy ground” (Exodus 3:1-6). Moses was then called by God to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.
The Church established by Jesus Christ has always looked back on this event and seen the Unburnt Bush on Horeb as a type – a prefiguration – of the Most Holy Theotokos, who gave birth to Christ while still remaining a virgin (burning with fire yet unconsumed). This is found in ancient writings of the Church Fathers, and was afterwards reflected in the hymnography of the Church; for example:
The glorious myst’ry of your childbirth
Did Moses perceive within the burning bush…
…O undefiled and all-holy Virgin.
Therefore we extol you in hymns unto the ages.
(From The Service of the Salutations to the Most Holy Theotokos – 9th Century)
In time, it was also reflected in the Church’s iconography, with the Oranta Theotokos and Christ-child depicted within the burning bush.
Symbolism in the Unburnt Bush Icon
The image of the Mother of God as the Unburnt Bush has developed so that most examples of the Icon now have a rich and intricate symbolism.
The burning bush itself is represented by the two diamonds – one flame-red, one leaf-green – arranged as an eight pointed star in the midst of which the Mother of God and Christ are seated. The number of eight is well established in the Bible as a number symbolizing eternity and super-abundance. In between the eight points there are eight “petals” within which stand eight archangels – the highest ranking of the Heavenly Powers. The green diamond is decorated with more angels – seraphim and cherubim – and is often coloured slightly darker, almost blue, and is arrayed with stars to suggest the heavens. As discussed elsewhere, green or blue can both symbolize “creation” as opposed to the divine, so the twin use of the blue to represent the bush and the Heavens is appropriate. The divine/flame red diamond is almost always decorated with the angelic tetramorph representing the four Evangelists (and in the above icon the names of the four Gospel writers does appear).
Around the border of the Icon more prefigurations and prophecies of the Incarnation of the Son of God are arranged. Different icons will contain different numbers of scenes, but the four most common scenes, shown clockwise from the top-right of the above icon, are:
Jacob’s dream of the ladder (Gen. 28:12) in which angels were seen dancing up and down a ladder which stretched from the earth up to Heaven. The ladder is associated with the Mother of God, through whom the glory of God descended from Heaven to earth and was incarnate as Jesus Christ.
Ezekiel’s vision of the temple gate through which the Lord passed and was ever-after sealed (Ez. 44:2). This has always been recognized by Christians as a clear reference to Mary’s ever-virginity.
Not present on all Icons, but seen in the bottom centre of the icon above is a form of the “Tree of Jesse“.
At the centre of all this, surrounded by the angelic powers, is Mary the Mother of God and her Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Besides the Christ-child, our Lady may also hold “Jacob’s Ladder”, or else a symbol of the Gates of the Heavenly Kingdom, or else an unquarried mountain – or perhaps all three. All of these Old Testament symbols point us towards the Mother of God, covered with a garment of Divine Fire, who in turn points us towards the birth or her Son, Our Saviour.
The miracle that Moses witnessed on Sinai in the burning bush
Foretold your virgin childbearing, O pure Mother.
We the faithful cry to you:
Rejoice, O truly living bush!
Rejoice, O holy mountain!
Rejoice, O sanctified expanse and most holy Theotokos!