Orthodox icons: The Annunciation of Ustyug

The Annunciation of Ustyug is a rare icon in Novgorod style written in the twelfth century that survived the Mongol invasion and is still available for veneration today. ‘Ustyug’ in its name signifies the origins of this rare icon. It is believed that icon came from the ancient city of Ustyug where according to the chronicles it is mentioned in connection with Saint Procopius of Ustyug praying in front of this icon for protection from a meteorite which threatened to destroy the city.

Lazarev, one of the leading experts on Russian iconography dates the creation of the Annunciation of Ustyug to 1119–1130 AD, connecting it with the building of the St. George Cathedral in the Yuriev Monastery. The history of the icon continues when it is mentioned in the chronicles of Novgorod in sixteenth century. At that time Ivan the Great (also known as Terrible) transferred the icon from the St. Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod to Moscow, to the cathedral of Annunciation in the Kremlin, famous for its iconostasis created by the renowned Andrei Rublev. In the seventeenth century the Annunciation icon was moved to the Assumption Cathedral in the Kremlin.

The iconography depicts Archangel Gabriel who brought the news to the Virgin Mary: “…God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.’ Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High… his kingdom will never end…The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God’…’I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May it be done to me according to your word.’ ” (Luke 1:26-38)

In the icon the Virgin Mary is shown holding red yarn in her hand as she was making a veil for the Temple at the time of the appearance of Archangel Gabriel. The archangel bears a distinct connection to the artistic traditions of Byzantium which are evident in his face and braided golden hair. The iconography is also rare as it depicts baby Jesus entering the Virgin’s womb, naked with only a loin cloth, the same way as our Lord is depicted in crucifixion icons. This iconographic tradition connects the Annunciation icon with the Icon of our Lady of the Sign (Panagia) which depicts the Theotokos during the Annunciation when she was saying, “May it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38).