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The theme, depicted in the upper left corner, derives from scripture where Moses is at the foot of Mount Sinai: 'And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.' (Exo. 3:2). Early Byzantine icons showed a straightforward narrative such as we see in the detail here with Moses removing his sandal on Mount Sinai. In the image we have is an extended and elaborate iconography that was later introduced in Russia in the 16th century. In this period Moscow, which had recently declared itself the ‘Third Rome’ following the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, was a ferment of theological and iconographical activity due to the presence of Greek scholars and theologians, and a number of new themes were introduced into the iconographical canon.[See footnote 1]
The composition is formed of two overlaid stars containing Virgin and Child. Between the points of the stars are angels and archangels who represent divine powers, and who are accompanied by natural elements such as wind, ice and fire, which St Paul associated with Heb. 1:7. ‘And of the angels he saith, Who maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire’. In the points of the red star are the symbols of the Four Evangelists. Lossky & Ouspensky see the star as a 'symbol of the future aeon.'[See footnote 2] A fourteenth-century manuscript from the Solovki Monastery describes the Virgin's power to send forth lightning, earthquakes and frost to those who turn from the Lord.[See footnote 3]
At the other three corners inside the icon's raised border (kovcheg) we see imagery connecting the Old and New Testaments through complex symbolism, with the Virgin and Christ at the centre. At the upper right is The Rod of Jesse (Isa. 11:1); (lower left) Ezekiel’s vision of a door that only the Lord can enter (Ezek. 44:2), and (lower right) Jacob and the Angel (Gen. 32:22).
The 4th century Cappadocian Bishop St Gregory of Nyssa was the first theologian who saw, in Exo. 3:2, a typology for the Mother of God. He writes in the Life of Moses: ‘The light of divinity which went through birth shone from her into human life did not consume the burning bush, even as the flower of her divinity was not withered’.