Icons of the Feast Days

The Crucifixion from St. Sophie
Ukrainian Orthodox Sobor, Montréal, QC

Every saint has his or her own feast day and some have more than one. Additionally, there are feast days that commemorate certain events. While most of the “event” icons are based on Scripture, the Church also recognises some feasts commemorating events that happened many years after the final books of the bible were written.

The Feast of Feasts

Pascha is the Feast of Feasts and the greatest day on the Church calendar. However, the Our Lord’s resurrection is intrinsically linked to His death on the cross. It is through both His death and resurrection that humankind is redeemed. Therefore, we cannot properly celebrate the resurrection on Easter Sunday without first solemnly commemorating Christ’s death on Great and Holy Friday.

Icons of both these events are generally plentiful in Ukrainian churches. An icon of the crucifixion must be written with great dignity without unduly dwelling on Our Lord’s suffering as is often the case in Western Rite ecclesiastical art. Generally, the icon will feature Christ’s mother and St. John the Apostle at the foot of the cross because Holy Scripture makes it clear that they were there at the time. However, there are sometimes others featured such as St. Mary Magdalene.

For many years iconographers portrayed the resurrection with Christ rising from the tomb in victory with a banner in one hand. While Christ’s resurrection was the greatest victory of all time, Scripture does not describe it in terms of banner waving or puffs of smoke. Such elements demonstrate more artistic license than conforming to scripture. Nonetheless, this artistic tradition cannot be ignored even if it is waning and there are still iconographers that portray the resurrection in this manner.

Christ shatters the gates of hell in the resurrection icon -
St. Joseph Ukrainian Catholic Church, Winnipeg, MB

More and more iconographers are returning to authentic portrayals of the resurrection that either depict Christ’s decent into hell or depict the Myrrh Bearing Women arriving at the empty tomb.

The Twelve Major Feasts

The “Twelve Great Festivals” (the Dodekaorton) of the Church express fundamental Church teaching. St. Germanus called them “the pearls of the divine dogmas”. Icons for these major feasts are often found in a row above the major icons of the iconostas. However, they may be found virtually anywhere in a Ukrainian church. For example, there is no festal icon tier on the iconostas of St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church in Ottawa; however, there are beautiful representations of the Twelve Great Feasts conspicuously placed elsewhere throughout the church.

The Dormition and Holy Cross icons -
St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church, Ottawa, ON

The twelve major feasts mostly commemorate special events in the life of Jesus Christ and His mother. For Christ, they are the Nativity, the meeting in the Temple, the Baptism, the Transfiguration, the Entry into Jerusalem, the Resurrection, and the Ascension. For the Virgin Mary, they are her Birth, her presentation in the temple, the Annunciation, and the Dormition. In addition to these are added the Pentecost and the Elevation of the Cross.

Eleven of the twelve major feasts commemorate occasions that are described in Holy Scripture. However, the feast of the Elevation of the Cross is based on St. Helena’s work in recovering Christ’s cross in the fourth century.

The Feast of the Nativity -
historic Holy Trinity Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Canora, SK

Other Event Icons

Some icons portray biblical events that are commemorated as lesser feast days. For example, one such icon is the Wedding at Cana. The small town (now called Kanna) still exists in modern Israel and a significant percentage of its population is Christian. There one finds a church dedicated to the event in which Christ’s first recorded miracle took place.

Another great event that was given its own feast day is the Protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Покровъ). By tradition, an apparition of the Theotokos occurred at a church in Constantinople in the 10th century. It was here that she was seen to spread her veil of protection over all the people present. A great number of Ukrainian churches in Canada are dedicated to St. Mary the Protectress; although, Greek Catholic churches tend to use the name Patronage of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The feast is nonetheless the same. In Ukraine this feast has a strong tradition and it is almost as important as one of the 12 major feasts, so it is no surprise that there are a great many icons dedicated to the Protection in Canadian churches as well.

Protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the ceiling of St. Mary’s
Bukovynian Orthodox Church, Oshawa, ON

Within the Ukrainian tradition, there is a feast day that is often seen in the iconography of our churches. We celebrate the Baptism of Rus, which is the event in which Grand Prince St. Volodymyr decreed that the entire nation of Rus (the forerunner of Ukraine) must be baptized into Christ. In this icon one usually sees the Grand Prince looking on as Greek priests, newly arrived from the Byzantine Empire, are baptizing massive numbers of people in the Dnieper River. Vadym Dobrolige wrote an interesting example of this type of icon for St. Vladimir Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Vegreville, Alberta. The church is now an exhibit in the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, east of Edmonton.

Baptism of Rus icon from St. Vladimir Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, east of Edmonton, AB