The icon type of the Extreme Humility

The icon of the Extreme Humility is sometimes also called “The King of Glory”, and it appeared in the mid-12th century. It is not based on one scene as described in the Gospels; rather it combines different scenes and theological truths into one image. It was developed to meet the liturgical need of an icon that would include the terrible events of our Lord’s Crucifixion, the Un-nailing of His Body from the Cross, the Lamentations of the Theotokos, and the Entombment. All of those events occurred on a single day, the Great and Holy Friday. 

In the icon we see our Lord Jesus Christ, unclothed, and standing inside a tomb. He is usually only shown from the waist up. His head is slanted to the right, His eyes are closed, His arms are usually crossed in front of Him, and on His hands and ribs we see the marks of the nails and spear. Behind Him we see the Cross, and a sign on top which reads: “The King of Glory” (in Greek Ο Βασιλεύς της Δόξης – abbreviated as ΟΒCΛΤΔΞ). This is the simplest and oldest version of this icon type, and variations were developed later on.

Icon by unknown artist, 15th century, Icon Museum Recklinghausen [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

In some variations we see the Theotokos holding the Body of her Son, while in others St. John is also present. We may additionally see the instruments of the Passion – the spear and the sponge of vinegar – on their own behind our Lord, or held by angels. In rare occasions, Christ may also be wearing the crown of thorns, possibly an influence by Western-style painting.

The whole composition shows that Christ’s terrible Passion has just concluded. There are, however, elements in the icon that imply the upcoming Resurrection of Christ, and His triumphant victory over death: 

  • The inscription “The King of Glory”.
  • Christ’s gloriously illumined Body and the golden background – the golden color in Orthodox iconography is always symbolic of the Divine Light and of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The icon has a strong scriptural base (Psalms 23 (24): 9-10, Isaiah 53: 7-8, Philippians 2: 7-11, 1 Corinthians 2: 8), and its character is at the same time symbolic, liturgical, and eucharistic. The death of Christ – and especially His choice to die in such a humiliating way – being the lowest point of His “kenosis” (emptying), is the only way to the Resurrection and the Life.

During the first centuries of its appearance, the icon “Extreme Humility” would be placed inside the Altar, and only on Holy Friday would it be carried outside for veneration. From the 14th century and on, the icon is placed over the Prothesis Table.

The icon type “Behold the man” or “Bridegroom” (Nymphios)

Another similar icon type displayed at church on Holy Week, from Palm Sunday evening until Holy Thursday morning, is the “Bridegroom” (Nymphios) or “Behold the man” – not to be confused with the Extreme Humility. This is, again, an icon of the Holy Passion based on the Gospels (Matthew 27:27-31), also alluding to the Resurrection, and thus its name. The title of Christ as the Bridegroom is linked to the troparion “Behold the Bridegroom is coming”, and it refers not to the Passion, but rather to the triumphantly Resurrected Christ and final Judge of the Universe.