Icons of Ss Joachim and Anna embracing each other tenderly are decorously showing the Conception of the Theotokos, Mary – their only child. The scene is part of the greater narrative of Mary’s origins, described in the 2nd century writing Protoevangelium of James and celebrated on the feastday of her birth: the Nativity of the Theotokos. However, in Russia especially, this specific scene – the Conception of the Theotokos – has become a focus of devotion for many of the faithful.
The key to understanding such focus on this particular feastday is to remember that Joachim and Anna were an elderly couple who had all but given up hope of bearing a child. In Jewish culture at the time, to be unable to bear children was considered a great shame, and even a sign of God’s displeasure. Through the couples’ entreaties to God, Joachim and Anna were granted a child, and not only that, but a child who would give birth to the Saviour of the World. For this reason, St Anna has long been understood by Christians to answer the prayers of women wishing to become pregnant. Moreover, in Russia it is towards icons of the Conception that such entreaties have been directed.
The Conception Icon used in Prayers for Children
The Conception of the Theotokos icon shown at the top of this post is late-16th century, from the region of the Ipatiev monastery in Russia. A well-painted and decorated icon such as this would not have been cheap, and so it is believed to have been commissioned by a noble family. Given its date and location, it is probable that such an icon belonged to Queen Irina Fedorovna Godunov, the wife of the physically-weak Tsar Feodor, son of Ivan the Terrible. Her life was overshadowed by ever-increasing pressure to produce a male heir to carry on the royal-line. Ultimately she was unsuccessful, and on the death of her husband she retired to a convent. This icon may have been the one before which the Queen prayed earnestly for a child. Her prayers for a child were not answered, but many Russian women from the middle ages until the present day have had their prayers answered after praying before icons such as these.
The hymns and prayers of the Church are inexhaustible, but it is a common feature that prayers asking for something also contain a confession of faith. Even the simplest of entreaties: Lord have mercy! is also a confession of God’s sovereignty, because it calls Him “Lord.” By directing prayers for conceiving children towards icons of St. Mary’s Conception, we are also confessing that God can and has done this in the past, granting the barren Anna a child. Before such an image, it is easy to imagine how a childless couple may empathize, and pray for a similar miracle in their own lives.
Since thy prayer was heard by God
When thou wast barren and full of grief,
Do thou entreat Him, O righteous Anna,
For those women who are with child.
– From the Canon to the Righteous Joachim and Anna
Composition of the Conception Icon
The icon of the Conception of the Theotokos is very simple. Joachim and Anna tenderly embrace, standing before a bed. Without being explicit, it is boldly confessed that, whilst a miracle granted to a barren couple, the conception of St Mary happened through natural means. This can be compared with Icons of the Annunciation, which could be described as the Conception of Jesus Christ: in those icons Mary is not shown with Joseph; Mary remained a virgin.
In the corners, Joachim and Anna are shown separately. According to the Protoevangelium, in his grief Joachim retired to the desert in fasting and prayer for forty days, whilst Anna remained lamenting at home. An angel was sent to each of the holy couple announcing that their entreaties had been heard by God and that they should return to each other to conceive: the main scene shows the happy meeting.
In the background are the walls of Jerusalem, with the bed placed before the Royal Gates. The gates are a prefiguration of Mary, who by being the Mother of God is the royal gates through which the King of Kings, Jesus Christ, enters the world. (See also: Akathist Hymn in Icons | Praises and Prophecies).
Today the bonds of barrenness are broken,
God has heard the prayers of Joachim and Anna.
He has promised them beyond all their hopes,
To bear the Maiden of God
By whom the Uncircumscribed One was born as mortal man,
Who commanded an angel to cry to Her:
Rejoice, O Full of Grace, the Lord is with You!
(Troparion of the Feast)