Iconography of Advent, Nativity and The Garden of Life

Benedictine Nuns of Holy Trinity Monastery, Herefordshire have a succinct summary of the History of Advent and some traditions here.

The season of Advent and Christmas are replete with imagery and iconography.

This site has an interesting introduction to Advent iconography in the Orthodox church.

Click here for other customs, traditions, devotions, legends, and lore.

Advent wreath with one rose candle and three p...
Advent wreath with one rose candle and three purple candles, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Advent Wreaths and Candles :  Colour Me Purple or Blue and Pink and White.

The Advent wreath is one of the most popular symbols used by Christians during the season of Advent.  These wreaths, consisting of a circle of evergreen branches set around four candles, are used in both churches and Christian homes.  The evergreen circle stands for the eternal life we have in ChristThe burning candles represent the coming of Christ as the light of the world.


The colours of the Advent candles can vary.  Traditionally, three purple candles and one rose-coloured or pink candle are used.  The purple signifies that Advent is a season of repentance as well as expectation.  

Some Christian traditions changed the colour of Advent candles some years ago from purple to blue to heighten the distinct anticipatory character of the season.

The reason behind it was that Advent blue signals the blue at the end of the night just before the sun rises to bathe the world in light and warmth. It is the colour of waiting, longing, and anticipating with delight. It is also the colour often associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary in art and iconography.

 The joyfully coloured pink candle is reserved for the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday.  Gaudete, which means "rejoice" in Latin, is the opening word of the Introit for that Sunday:  Rejoice! the Lord is near. (Philippians 4:4).

In the Celtic Advent wreath the interior arms form a Celtic Cross, and are decorated with knot work adapted from the Book of Kells. The exterior circle contains words from an ancient Celtic Prayer "As I Light This Flame I Lay Myself Before Thee",

Some traditions have added more interpretations to the four Advent candles.  
 Click here for more information.

Among the most well known icons of the Nativity is a “Jesse Tree.” 

Named after the father of David in the Old Testament , the tree’s presence is to remind how the birth of Jesus was a fulfilled prophecy from Isaiah:


“A shoot shall sprout from the stump (tree) of Jesse and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him” (Isaiah 11:1-2).

In the flesh, Jesus can trace his ancestry through both His mother and adoptive father Joseph, all the way back to Jesse, father of David. 

This lineage is sometimes shown in Icons of the Jesse Tree.


This site has an excellent and detailed explanation of The Jesse Tree tradition with several examples ideas for how to use Jesse Tree symbols to celebrate each day.

"One of the most famous icons is that of the Nativity.  Its symbolism is that of the Creator of the Universe entering history as a newborn babe.  The little helpless figure in swaddling clothes represents the complete submission of Christ to the physical conditions governing the  human race.  

Yet he remains Lord of Creation.  The angels sing praises.The Magi and the shepherds bring their gifts.  The sky salutes Him with a star.  The earth provides Him with a cave.  The animals watch HIm in silent wonder and we humans offer Him one of us, the Virgin Mother.

The lower scenes underline the scandal of the incarnation. The right hand scene shows the washing of the infant by a midwife and her  assistant.  It tells that Christ was born like any other child.  

The scene on the left portrays Joseph, who, having observed the washing of
the infant, is once again assailed by doubts as to the virginity of his

He is tempted by the devil, who suggests that if the infant  were truly divine He would not have been born in the human way.  The Mother Mary is in the centre, and from her reclining position looks at  Joseph as if trying to overcome his doubts and temptations."

Taken from Introducing the Orthodox Church: Its Faith and Life by Anthony M. Coniaris, Light & Life Publ. Co.

The idea of Advent as a journey is a valid and well established one, so I was intrigued by this poem below by Felix Dennis in the way it offers another rich perspective on Advent Hope. I don't know much about the author's religious sensibilities so these are only my own interpretations. 

But the poem also speaks of the dark side of human nature and there is some  imagery and metaphor here : the nettles, the parasitic mistletoe , the leprous moss and ivy that stunt and choke the emergent growth of the child's sapling.

How powerful a metaphor this is for considering the sick legacy left by child abuse and its suffocating and crippling effect on individuals, the church and community.

But there are also glimpses of the better side of human nature too : an act of kindness given without thought of gain, the striving towards the birth of Christ, the light of the world, the Alpha and The Omega, the beginning and the end that keeps us attached to the root of the Tree of Hope, the Jesse Tree.


The Garden Of Life

Our lives are less a journey than a garden
Of virgin soil inherited at birth;
And none but fools would covet, still less pardon,
The motley plants we nourish in its earth;

The bitter fruits of malice and rejection,
The ivy of despair that cloaks a wall,
Tall shrubs of pride, so sure of their perfection,
(Their scabby leaves a wilderness of gall);

And here, a single rose— an act of kindness,
Unsullied by the blight of worldly gain;
But see the nettles, representing blindness
To any other’s misery or pain;

And here, the saddest sight— a child’s sapling
Stunted in its yearning for the light,
While overhead, dark mistletoe is grappling
With leprous moss as envy succours spite;

And here, a bed of honesty and honour,
(Surprising, is it not, to find it here?
Still, men are all half whore and half Madonna);
This evil copse is nightmare grown to fear.

The sapling?  Were it walnut we might whip it,
The ivy will destroy it if it can;
Yet given light, the sapling will outstrip it:
The Tree of Hope was God’s last gift to man.

First Published in Island of Dreams

If you want to hear the poem read by its author Felix Dennis click here 

For more icons of the nativity this site offers some fascinating insights.  

This site offers one explanation of the iconography of the Annunciation

 and there are plenty more depictions of icons of the Annunciation here

I particularly liked this one on the parallel of the manger and tomb imagery:

"It should be never forgotten that Jesus came to us in order to die – this was known by Him, at least, from the very beginning. 

Therefore, in iconography, the manger in the Nativity Icon deliberately resembles a stone coffin, the swaddling clothes resemble a burial shroud, and the cave itself can even be said to prefigure Christ’s tomb.

With the side-by-side comparison shown above of the Icon of the Nativity with the Icon showing the Myrrh-bearing women discovering Jesus’ empty tomb, no more words are necessary."

This Sunday's gospel introduces us to one of my favourite saints, John,The Baptist and so this link that explains the iconography of John, is also well worth a look.

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