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The epiphanic theme of this complex iconography derives initially from Scripture where Moses is at the foot of Mount Sinai:
And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, ‘I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.’ When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here am I.’ Then he said, ‘Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’(Exo. 3:2-5).
Early Byzantine icons on the theme of the Burning Bush showed a straightforward narrative such as we see in the detail on the current icon (top-left corner) with Moses removing his sandal on Mount Sinai. In this iconography we have an elaborate approach that was introduced in Russia in the 16th century. In this period Moscow, which had recently declared itself the ‘Third Rome’ following the Fall of Constantinople (the ‘New Rome’ or ‘Second Rome) in 1453, was a great centre 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. An early version of this iconography was painted by a Moscow School artist at the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery and is now in the Russian Museum in St Petersburg (fig. a).
The Kirillo-Belozersky icon is monumental in size and dates from the 16th century. The way the various visual elements are laid out is very different from the style generally adopted in the 19th century when the theme had become popular and widespread usually in the form of smaller icons for personal devotion.
One other older icon (Fig. b), in this case also of large size, shows how the transition into the later type was already underway by the 17th century. Here the form of the overlaid star shapes already resembles the standardised version seen in later examples such as YY002.
The composition is formed of two overlaid stars containing the Virgin and Child in the centre. 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 them in Heb. 1:7. ‘Of the angels he says, “Who makes his angels winds, and his servants flames 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.' While a 14th 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.
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 Exodus 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’. (2:21)