The New Iconography of the Four Excedras
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Icon History and Meaning in the Orthodox Church
“He who sees Me, sees the Father.” John 14:9
The Seventh Ecumenical Council, occurred in Constantinople in the year 787, responded to the claims that the use of icons in worship was idolatrous and against the fourth of the Ten Commandments, “You shall not make any graven image…” (Exodus 20:4). This Council took more than fifty years to finally be accepted throughout the Byzantine Empire and the whole Church. In 843 the Empress Theodora brought the icons triumphantly back into the Church on the First Sunday of Lent and this event has forever been incorporated into the life of the Church as each subsequent year we hold a procession of the Holy Icons on the First Sunday of Lent up until this day.
Icons in the Orthodox Church are not merely decorations but vessels of meaning that hold some of Christianity's most important theological truths. It is immediately apparent that the faces and even landscapes depicted seem different or even abstract. The Byzantine style, depicts the body in a spiritual way: at once visible in both its glorified and still human form. It is noticeably different from the fleshly Renaissance paintings. The saints are depicted often with sunken cheeks and frail bodies signifying their life of fasting, modesty and abstinence. Their lips are small, signifying the prudence of words, rather than a loose and thoughtless tongue. The ears are slightly larger to show not only their attentiveness to the voice of God, but also to the prayers of those who call upon them for help. The faces drawn are solemn and not smiling, not as an expression of sadness but the rather dispassion before the things of this world.
For the Orthodox Church, icons are a testimony of the theology it is founded upon: the Incarnation of the Son of God. If He truly, “became matter for my salvation” (St. John of Damascus), then He could be seen, touched, heard, and thus even depicted in artistic representation. Historically, iconographers were not just individuals with artistic talent—as in the West with artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci— but they were monastics or individuals with a life of prayer, theologically educated, and skilled interpreters of sacred texts. During the Seventh Ecumenical Council it was affirmed that: “The making of icons is not the property of the artists, but is an established tradition of the Church…for to the artist belongs only the execution of the image, whereas its context and design belong to the Holy Fathers.” This teaching is affirmed to this day with the custom of iconographers not to sign their work, showing that it does not belong to their “unique individuality.” Adherence to traditional forms and types is prized over innovation and novelty.
For Orthodox Christians, icons provide a way to contemplate God and His saints; from their conception, the role of icons has been to provide a visual for prayer, helping to keep the mind focused but also icons were a tool for teaching. All of this helps to explain the fervent desire Christians have had in protecting icons during the period’s iconoclasm (icon smashing) — a desire that often led to torture or death. Iconoclasts were people opposed to the use of icons depicting the images of Christ and His Saints. The sheer presence of iconoclasm made people realize the strength and importance of icons, and a movement naturally emerged to protect them at all costs. Icons were created as a way to pray to God and connect one’s soul to God through the physical veneration (honor or reverence) of the likeness of Christ. They were not created to idolize in worship the image or the materials themselves, a common misconception. Icons are sacred images that reflect the physical and the spiritual, the human and the Divine, the visible and the invisible. They enable us to have contact with the experience of the Church, which is the mystical body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27).
Each icon is unique and each cries out single central message: “God became man so that man could become God.” (St. Athanasius the Great) This truth and loving act of God is what Christians venerate when they kiss icons, process icons, when they reverently place them on the walls of their homes and Churches. The term “venerate” is at times improperly translated and replaced with “worship,” which can easily lead to confusion. It is not, however, the image itself that is worshiped, but God or his friends the Saints who receive the love we show: for it passes through the image to the heavenly archetype. The incarnation, God becoming man that we could see and touch is essential in the salvation of man. God became a man we can see and we therefore depict Him. This saving act of God is what man venerates in an icon. To discard icons is to discard the reality of the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
The Iconography of Our Church
As Christianity has its roots in Judaism, it was natural for early Christians to use iconography, given that Judaism instituted the practice possibly as early as the 6th century B.C. during the Second Temple period. Icons depict scenes from the Bible and key figures as a way to teach, but more importantly for Orthodox Christians, as a tangible conveyance to assist prayer and worship. Praying with icons draws our attention to the subject or prototype of the icon; venerating an icon is directed to the prototype—thus, these are not “idols” as is a common misconception.
The iconography of St. John’s demonstrates a traditional Byzantine style which is experiencing rediscovery and revival throughout the Orthodox world. Unlike western religious art, Orthodox iconography seeks to convey spiritual reality rather than beauty in human terms. The layout of our iconography in the Church follows standards that have evolved over the centuries and on the whole communicate our belief that when we worship, especially in the Divine Liturgy, we are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) in the angels and saints.
Beginning with the dome, Jesus Christ Pantokrator (Almighty) is seen in the center. In His Halo are the Greek letters Ο Ω Ν, echoing the words God spoke to Moses when he asked, “By what name shall we call you?” God’s reply (in the 2nd century B.C. translation of the Old Testament), “I am (Ο ΩN) that I am” (Exodus 3:13-14). The Eternal Son of God, in Orthodox understanding, is the agent of creation, for all things were made through Him (John 1:3). Surrounded by angels and prophets of the Old Testament, the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, as well as other Disciples, are depicted on the pendentives which architecturally support the dome.
In the Apse of the Church, midway between the top of the dome and the floor, behind and above the altar table, is the Virgin Mary, whom we title Theotokos (Bearer of God), and Platytera, who is “more spacious than the heavens,” for it was through her that the uncontainable God became man. Jesus is depicted less as an infant and more as a diminutive adult, to convey that He had the fullness of His Divinity from before His birth. The left and right sides of the Platytera depict the Annunciation.
Behind the altar table, partially visible from the nave (main part of the Church), is an icon of Christ communing the faithful, including Fathers of the Church. To the left, in a small alcove, an icon of the crucified Christ in Extreme Humility, and in a small alcove to the right, the Priest Melchizedek, mentioned in Genesis, Psalms, and Hebrews.
The icon screen separates the altar from the nave. Together with the icons themselves on the screen and the walls, the interior of an Orthodox Church seeks to communicate the sense of heaven on earth inside the Church as sacred space. An opening in the center of the icon screen is referred to as the Royal Doors, or literally from the Greek term, “Beautiful Gate.” Above the center opening, used by clergy during the services, is an icon of the Deisis: Christ flanked by the Theotokos and St. John the Baptist, who are shown facing towards Christ with their hands raised in supplication on behalf of humanity. To the right is Christ, next right is John the Forerunner (the Baptist), then the Archangel Gabriel. Since our Church faces east (as is the case with most Orthodox Churches), the direction from which the sun rises and the Sun of Righteousness (Malachi 4:2) arose, Archangel Gabriel is on the north door. To the left of the Royal Doors, the Theotokos with the Christ Child, then saint of the Church (in our case, John the Baptist, and the icon of John baptizing Christ in the Jordan river, then the Archangel Michael, on the south door. Above the major icons on the icon screen are icons of the twelve Apostles.