The “Unburnt Bush” Icon of the Most Holy Theotokos is based on the miracle witnessed by Moses in the Old Testament. In Chapter 3 of Exodus God calls Moses on Mt. Horeb from the midst of a bush which “was burning, yet it was not consumed” (Ex. 3:2). Moses is informed that he will lead the Hebrews out of their slavery in Egypt, and then God tells him His name, “I am Who am” (Ex. 3:14).
The Church has always regarded the Unburnt Bush on Horeb as a type of the Most Holy Theotokos giving birth to the Savior Christ, while remaining a Virgin. This imagery is to be found in the Church’s hymnography (for example, the Dogmatikon at Saturday Vespers in Tone 2), and also in iconography.
One of the earliest depictions of the Mother of God as the Unburnt Bush shows her holding her divine Son in the midst of a burning bush. Moses is shown to one side, removing his sandals, for that place was holy (Ex. 3:5).
Most icons now depict the bush in a symbolic fashion. There are two overlapping diamonds: one red (representing the fire), the other green (representing the bush), forming an eight pointed star. The Theotokos is shown in the center.
In the four corners of the green diamond are the symbols of the four Evangelists: a man (Saint Matthew), a lion (Saint Mark), an ox (Saint Luke), and an eagle (Saint John). These symbols are derived from Ezekiel 1:10 and Revelation 4:7. Archangels are depicted in the four corners of the red diamond.
The design of the icon has become more complex over time. Now we can see archangels, Moses and the burning bush (Ex. 3:2), Isaiah and the seraphim with the burning coal (Is. 6:7), Ezekiel and the gate through which only the Lord may enter (Ez. 44:2), and Jacob with the ladder (Gen. 28:12). The Theotokos is shown holding Jacob’s ladder which leads from earth to heaven. Sometimes the Root of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1) is shown in the center of the icon’s lower border.
There is an old story about a fire which was consuming several wooden buildings. In the midst of the fire an old woman stood in front of her house holding an icon of the “Unburnt Bush.” A witness happened to see her there, and marveled at her faith. The next day he returned to the spot and was astonished to see the old woman’s home completely unscathed by the fire, while all the other houses around it were destroyed. This may explain why the Mother of God, through her Icon of the Unburnt Bush, is regarded as the protector of homes from fire.
It is believed that the earliest icons of the Unburnt Bush originated at Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai.