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.
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, and the victory over death:
- the inscription “The King of Glory”
- the gloriously illumined Body of Christ and the golden background – the golden color in Orthodox iconography is always symbolic of the Divine Light and of 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, especially by crucifixion – a most humiliating way – is truly and actually the way to the Resurrection and the Life. The kenosis (“emptying”) of Christ, the condescension of the Incarnate Word of God, becomes the way to the salvation of mankind.
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)
There is another similar icon type that is displayed at church on Holy Week, and this 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 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.