For many people who have heard of the term, “Holy Family” is a name given to the Infant Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and Joseph. Images of the three members together in a loving embrace, like a family portrait, do exist – but unfortunately I have none to offer. This is because in the Orthodox Tradition, such images are extremely rare. Indeed, it is safe to say that Orthodoxy does not consider the Word of God incarnate, His ever-virginal Mother in the flesh, and the man betrothed, but not wedded, to Mary as an icon of a “Holy Family”. One good reason for this is that it is an icon which literally no person could ever live up to: no other woman will ever be the mother of God incarnate, and therefore no man could ever be betrothed to her. Jesus Christ, the Theotokos, and the Saints are great examples to us of the spiritual life, not exceptions.
But rather than discuss that which is not Orthodox Iconography, I will instead share that which is. Below, I have posted a few examples of “Holy Families” in Icons – that is, Saints who were related by birth, lived, struggled, and often died together in Christ, and so are honoured together in Icons.
Joachim and Anna, the parents of Mary, the Mother of God are often shown together in icons. It must be remembered that in the Orthodox tradition, Mary was not born “immaculately” (i.e. without Original Sin) but was born after sexual relationships between her parents; indeed, the Conception of the Theotokos is a feast day in the Orthodox Church (Dec 9th), and the icons of this feast show Joachim and Anna in a loving embrace, alluding to the natural manner of Mary’s conception.
It is true that Joachim and Anna were aged and believed themselves to be barren, but the miracle God performed was not a sexless conception. The righteousness before God of both Joachim and Anna rendered the conception and birth of Mary “chaste” and “pure”. Therefore, the Icons of the Mother of God with Joachim and Anna are portraits of a “Holy Family”. The natural familial love between the three is shown in a 14th century mosaic from a church in Constantinople (right). It’s easy to see how this image was copied later in the West, but with Joseph, the Virgin-Mary and Jesus Christ replacing Joachim, Anna, and the infant Mary respectively.
Later, we have whole households converting to Christ, and during those first few centuries of the pagan Roman empire there are numerous families who are martyred together. When this happens, and where devotion to those Martyr-Saints is strong, there appear icons of these families. Icons and frescoes depicting the martyrdom of the Saints naturally show the families together. However, what is more interesting are the “portrait” icons which show the family together. Such Icons are painted to be “windows into Heaven”, and so are showing these Martyrs still united as a family beyond death. Common examples are the Italian widow Sophia (Wisdom) and her three daughters Faith, Hope, and Love (Pistis, Elpis, and Agape in Greek). Read more about their lives here.
Another example of an entire family martyred and honoured together are St Eustace the Great Martyr along with his wife Theopistos and two sons: Agapios and Theopiste. St Eustace was a pagan commander who was converted to Christianity through a revelation. His whole family converted with him and when this conversion was discovered all four were executed. This article on the life of St Eustace shows many icons of the Saint, some with his family and some without. In any collection of family pictures, members are shown by themselves in portrait or together in larger groups. So it is with Icons of the Saints.
Even in relatively recent times, families of Christians have witnessed for the Faith together, and died together for Christ’s sake. A prominent example is the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, and his family, who after the Bolshevik Revolution were kept under house arrest in Yekaterinburg until their murder. Though it could be argued that the motivations for their murder political rather than because of their faith, it is nevertheless true that Christianity was violently opposed by the ideologues who murdered them. It is also beyond doubt that the Christian faith of the entire family was incredibly strong, as even their captors had to admit. Finally, it was by the popular acclaim of the Russian faithful, many of whom had fled the country after 1918, which elevated these seven family-members to Sainthood. As with St Eustace, sometimes the Royal-Martyr Nicholas is shown alone in Icons, but more commonly he is shown along with his wife and five children.
Also in the 20th Century are the 222 Martyrs of the Boxer Rebellion in China (a shorter account of their story). At the centre of such icons are usually St Mitrophan, the priest and pastor of the Chinese Orthodox in Beijing. Around him are his wife Tatiana, his elder son Isaiah, daughter-in-law Maria, and youngest son John, all of whom were martyred. Among the martyrs were the brother of Maria, who is also usually shown, yet the multitude shown in the icon were not all related to each other. In this icon, then, the family of St Mitrophan is also shown together with the other Orthodox Christians who died during those tumultuous weeks for refusing to renounce their Faith. It is an “extended” family portrait, not only of Mitrophan’s immediate family, but also his spiritual family, united by the Blood of Christ. They were martyred together, and so are shown in an Icon together.
Jesus Christ tells us that because of Him “brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death.” (Mk 13:12). These words are certainly fulfilled in the lives of some of the Saints. Yet we also read in Scriptures of entire households being baptized into Christ, and indeed Christ’s Mother, step-father, and “brothers” are also honoured as Saints, so it is not necessarily the case that all families will be broken up by faith in Christ. Where families are not broken by Faith in Christ they are united, and such family ties are made stronger; made holy. The Icons above confess that these “holy families” do exist, and that such familial ties of love are honoured in Heaven.