Icons of the Theotokos: The Unburnt Bush


One of the most fascinating theological aspects of Orthodoxy is the concept of a “type”: when an event in the Old Covenant predicts the fullness of God’s plan in the New Covenant. Jonah being released after three days in the belly of the whale foreshadows the Resurrection of Christ after three days in the tomb. We commemorate the Righteous Joseph on Monday of Holy Week, because, like Christ’s betrayal, Joseph was the first to be sold by a jealous brother. Types are not restricted to predictions of Christ however, and this brings us to today’s icon of the Theotokos.

The Icon of the Unburnt Bush invokes Moses’ encounter with God on Mt. Horeb, when God revealed himself to Moses as a bush that was burned, but never consumed. The Fathers interpret the bush to prefigure the Theotokos, who gave birth to God the Word while still remaining a virgin—burning, but not consumed. Traditionally in iconography the bush is depicted symbolically, with a red diamond standing in for the flame and a green diamond symbolizing the bush, with Theotokos at the center.

The icon can vary from writer to writer, but some other details are essentially the same. The four corners of one diamond always evoke the symbols of the Four Evangelists: Matthew, who spoke of Christ as the Son of Man; Mark, who wrote of “a voice crying out in the wilderness”—like the roar of a lion; Luke, who wrote of Christ as the High Priest and the sacrificial ox; and John, whose eagle symbolizes the high Christology of his Gospel. The other diamonds corners depict Archangels, and this icon adds several more in the round green oval. In this incarnation of the icon, the Theotokos is seen holding Jacob’s ladder, emphasizing yet another type: that she is the ladder the Patriarch envisioned, the bridge between Heaven and Earth.

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