In my last post about the Akathist Hymn in Icons, I mentioned the Old Testament Saints who surround the Mother of God, offering her praises. It is Old Testament Saints who surround the Mother of God, rather than St Roman the Melodist or other authors of hymns to her, because their praises are also prophecies concerning the Mary and her Son.
There are numerous examples of this design of icon, especially in Russia, but I will be using the icon above, which is 16th century, and probably painted by Greek iconographers. Starting at the top right and moving clockwise, surrounding the Theotokos are:
The Prophet Ezekiel, holding an “impassable gate”. Ezekiel’s vision of the temple gate through which the Lord passed and was ever-after sealed (Ez. 44:2) has always been recognized by Christians as a clear reference to Mary’s ever-virginity. In the Akathist Hymn, the Theotokos is described as the “Door of Holy Mystery” (Oikos 8) and “Gate of Salvation” (Oikos 10)
Jacob, holding the ladder of his dream (Gen. 28:12) upon which angels were seen dancing up and down from earth 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. In the second oikos (3rd stanza) of the Akathist Hymn we sing: “Hail, Heavenly Ladder by which God came down; Hail, bridge that conveys us from earth unto Heaven!”
Gideon, holding a fleece. In the book of Judges dew appeared miraculously on Gideon’s fleece (Jud 6:11-16; 6:33-40). So too, the Dew Christ, appeared miraculously on the Living Fleece the Theotokos. One prayer to the Mother of God reads: From you has dripped the refreshing dew that quenched the flame of idolatry. We therefore cry aloud to you: Rejoice, O Virgin, fleece cover with dew which Gideon foresaw. In the Akathist Hymn we sing: “Hail, you who quenched the worship of fire” (Oikos 5), making the same allusion.
The Prophet Daniel saw a mountain, from which was cut a stone, not by the hand of man (Dan. 2:34, 45). This is a reference to the miraculous Virgin Birth which was accomplished without the hand of man, and so Daniel is shown holding that same mountain, the foreshadowing of the Mother of God. In a longer service of the Akathist Hymn sung in Lent, the line is sung: “Hail, O unquarried mountain and unfathomable depth.”
Prophet Isaiah is shown holding a hot coal and tongs (Is. 6:7). Though burning with fire, the hot coal cleansed the lips of the prophet just as Christ inside of the Virgin cleansed her. In the 3rd Oikos, we hear: “Hail, acceptable incense of intercession”, linking the hot cleansing coal (Who is Christ) with the censor that holds it (who is the Theotokos).
The Prophet Balaam is almost always shown in a state of near-confusion at the bottom of the icon, pointing upwards towards a star. The princes of Moab invited the prophet Balaam to curse the Hebrew nation, their enemies, hoping that this curse by the prophet would help defeat the Hebrews. The prophet Balaam, looking on the approaching Hebrew people from a hill, in a prophetic vision also saw afar the distant Descendant of this people. In spiritual ecstasy, instead of a curse, Balaam exclaimed: “I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth” (Numbers 24:17). This is a prefiguration of Christ and led to the belief His coming would be prefaced by a star (which it was). In the Akathist Hymn Mary is described as “Mother of Star that never sets” (Oikos 5), as well as “Ray of the Spiritual Sun” (Oikos 11).
King David, King Solomon, or occasionally both together, are holding the Temple which they helped build, whose East gate remains sealed, through which only the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered. This clearly prophesies the Virgin Birth of the Theotokos (Ez. 44:1-2). From the Akathist Hymn: “Hail, all-holy chariot of Him Who sits upon the cherubim; Hail, all-glorious temple of Him Who is above the Seraphim!” (Oikos 8)
Moses is shown holding the burning bush, which is dealt with in much detail in Discovering the Unburnt Bush Icon.
Above Moses is Aaron, the High-Priest of the Israelites, holding the rod which miraculously blossomed forth almond flowers (Num. 17:1-11). This was believed by the Church Fathers to be a prefiguration of the Mother of God, who miraculously blossomed forth “the flower of Immortality”, Jesus Christ. In Oikos 3, we sing “Hail, rod whence springs a never-withering branch”.
Jeremiah, holding the Tablets of the Law. It might not be immediately apparent why Jeremiah would be holding these tablets, but it is related to the prophecy read on Christmas Eve:
This is our God; no other can be compared to him!
He found the whole way to knowledge, and gave her to Jacob his servant and to Israel whom He loved. Afterward she appeared on earth and lived among men. She is the book of the commandments of God, and the law that endures for ever. All who hold fast will live, and those who forsake her will die. Turn, O Jacob, and take her; walk toward the shining of her light. Do not give your glory to another, or your advantage to an alien people.
Happy we are, O Israel, for we know what is pleasing to God.
Baruch has always been considered part of the Book of Jeremiah in Orthodoxy, and so the prophecy is attributed to him rather than Baruch, who was Jeremiah’s scribe. From the 12th Oikos: “Hail, Tabernacle of God the Word… Hail, Ark gilded by the Spirit”; Mary is the Ark which contained the Stone Tablets of the 10 commandments, which in turn are a foreshadowing of the Word of God, Christ Himself.
Finally at the top is the Prophet Habakkuk who in a prayer spoke of God coming forth from a mountain overshadowed by God’s glory (Hab 3:3). The “overshadowed mountain” refers to the Mary, who was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit at the Annunciation (described in Kontakion 3 of the Akathist), and from whom came forth God.
The blue orbs in the centre of some of the objects contain a faint image of either the Mother of God with the Infant Christ in her womb or, more likely, Christ alone. This emphasizes that these prophetical objects do indeed foreshadow the Incarnation.
The Old Testament Saints in the Icon put in context the “Praises” in the “The Praises of Our Lady of the Akathist Icon” (in Russian: ПОХВАЛА БОГОМАТЕРИ, С АКАФИСТОМ). Yes indeed they are praises of the Mother of God: “Ark gilded by the Holy Spirit”, is clearly not meant as an insult. However, these praises are in fact prefigured in the Old Testament writings and prophesy of the coming of the Word of God. Like all good “praises” of the Mother of God, they focus on Jesus Christ, through whom and because of whom, His mother Mary receives such praise.
The Power of the Most High then overshadowed the Virgin for conception, and showed her fruitful womb as a sweet meadow to all who wish to reap the harvest of Salvation, singing: Allelulia!
(Kontakion 3 of the Akathist)
About the Mother of God; at the bottom is a list of some of the titles given to the Mother of God, and their Old Testament origin.
The Tree of Jesse Icon, showing many of the Prophets with the objects which prefigured the Incarnation of god in Mary.
The Akathist and Small Compline from the GOARCH. This is the longer service to the Mother of God mentioned above. Being longer, it contains more Old Testament allusions to the Theotokos than the original Akathist.