The presentation of the Lord Jesus into the Temple is a significant event in the life of Jesus, although it may not be discussed as often as, say, His Birth or Resurrection. In this analysis, we will review the story of the presentation of Jesus to the temple, discuss the characters depicted in the scene, and bring to light the subtly displayed theological messages of the icon.
The Gospel Account of the Presentation
The account of this event that took place in Jerusalem can be found in Luke 2:22-35 NKJV:
Now when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male who opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, “A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon, and this man was just and devout, waiting for the Consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. So he came by the Spirit into the Temple. And when the parents brought in the Child Jesus, to do for Him according to the custom of the law, he took Him up in his arms and blessed God and said:
“Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, According to Your word; For my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, And the glory of Your people Israel.”
And Joseph and His mother marveled at those things which were spoken of Him. Then Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
Analysis of the Presentation Icon
The Jesus presentation into the Temple icon is one of the most notable of Jesus’ icons as it depicts a major event which is celebrated as a significant feast of the Lord in the Christian faith across all denominations.
Early depictions of this event in art form are shown as part in a series of the Life of Christ or the Life of the Virgin. In some of these series, the meeting of Simeon at the Temple or the circumcision of Jesus is shown, not both. Eventually, by the late middle ages, these two events have combined into one.
Characters of the Presentation Icon
In the West, by the late 8th or 9th century, Simeon came to be depicted wearing the vestments of a Jewish high priest and conducting a ceremony surrounded by the Holy Family and Anna the Prophetess. In Western icons, Simeon is most commonly shown to be the one holding Jesus but in Eastern icons the Virgin Mother is the one holding the Child Jesus.
Anna the prophetess is identified in the icon as a prophetess by the scroll which she holds; this scroll is sometimes open and sometimes closed.
The scroll in hand is a symbol that the person either wrote or prophesied, and Anna’s prophecy comes from Luke 2:38 where it states, “and coming in that instant she gave thanks to the Lord and spoke of Him to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem.”
Joseph is seen carrying the sacrifice as is outlined in the law of Moses. He is holding two young pigeons, instead of a lamb, which confirms the humble origin in which Christ chose to be born.
It is also important to note that Joseph is carrying the sacrifice pigeons/turtledoves on behalf of Mary. Joseph’s participation in this holy tradition is to show that he believes in the miraculous birth of Jesus from a virgin through the Holy Spirit and believes that the infant Jesus is the Messiah.
The Temple Structure
The presentation of Jesus occurred at Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem which was the only place for Jewish worship at the time. Prior to building this Temple, the Jews prayed wherever they placed the Tabernacle, which contained the 10 commandment tablets, the manna from Heaven and an altar.
Once the nation of Israel was established, Solomon built a permanent Tabernacle, the sanctuary, within the Temple, to house the contents of the Tabernacle.
Although this event took place inside the Temple, we note in the icon that the event is depicted out in the open, which is classic of iconography, with the doors to the Temple in the background. This is to signify that the eyes of God see all things, unhindered by any physical doors.
We note also the four-pillared dome which dominates the backdrop. This is an architectural feature of the inside of the Temple and it is called a ciborium (kivorium in Greek). We also notice in the icon a double door which is reminiscent of Royal Doors. This alludes to the majesty of the Temple’s contents.
Gestures Signifying Hidden Theological Messages
Again we see in this icon some theological messages and lessons embedded in the details of the icon.
For example, we must point out the head bowing of the various characters in the icon. This detail refers to the worship by the individuals of the infant Jesus, and this head gesture alludes to their belief and recognition of Him as the Messiah, Lord of all.
Also of note in many depictions of the Presentation scene is the hand gesture of the infant Jesus which is commonly in the blessing pose (thumb touching ring finger). This alludes to the Divinity of Christ.
The presentation into the Temple was a rite of purification and offering. However Jesus Christ, the Son of God, did not need to be offered to Him Who begot Him. Also, no sacrifice of purification was necessary for the Spotless Child. This concept also shows up in the baptism icon where Christ does not need the purification of the water, but He Himself purifies the creation.
Therefore, Jesus entered the Temple as a fulfillment of the law, not to be purified but to purify others. This event does not show the obedience Jesus to Moses’ Law, but its fulfillment through Christ Jesus.
Another very beautiful detail is that Simeon’s recognition of the Baby Jesus as the Messiah is shown in him holding Jesus with covered hands. This occurs to this day during the Eucharistic liturgy, where the priests handle the Body of Christ while holding specific cloths.
Christian Rites in a Jewish Temple
The icon further shows some details of the transformation of the Jewish Temple into the Christian Church, as well as the Jewish rites into the Christian liturgical rites.
We see this in some icons where there is a book upon the altar bearing the Cross, a symbol of the yet to exist Gospel. Although reverse-chronological to the time of the event, this Christian symbol alludes to the New Testament which begins with Jesus’s birth. The Gospel book is the transformation of the Ten Commandment tablets in the altar.
It is also not coincidental that in some icons, the iconographer specifically depicts the transfer of Baby Jesus from Mary to Simeon over the altar, which similarly shows the replacement of the manna from heaven with Jesus Christ, the life giving Lamb of God, who is also Food from heaven.