Below are some images of the beginning of our new “icon corner” or “icon wall”. These icons were blessed and heard the Divine Liturgy at Our Lady of Solitude Cloister & Retreat, a Melkite monastic foundation in rural northeastern Pennsylvania. These new “portals to heaven” are replicas of classic Greek icons.
Most of those who read this blog (all 6 of you) are Latin Rite Catholics and might be unfamiliar with the whole notion of the “icon corner” or the “icon wall”. They might even be unfamiliar with the theology of the icon. As a preface I have excerpted some articles on icons, iconography, and the icon wall.
Iconography (from Greek: εικωνογραφία) refers to the making and liturgical use of icons, pictorial representations of Biblical scenes from the life of Jesus Christ, historical events in the life of the Church, and portraits of the saints. Icons are usually two-dimensional images and may be made of paint, mosaic, embroidery, weaving, carving, engraving, or other methods. A person who practices the art of iconography is called an iconographer.
Images have always been a vital part of the Church, but their place was the subject of the Iconoclast Controversy in the 8th and 9th centuries, especially in the East. The Sunday of Orthodoxy, the first Sunday of the Great Fast (Lent) every year celebrates the reestablishment of the Orthodox veneration of icons. The use of iconography is considered one of the most distinctive elements of the Byzantine Rite.
From the first centuries of Christianity, icons have been used for prayer. Orthodox Tradition tells us, for example, of the existence of an icon of the Christ during his lifetime, the Icon-Not-Made-With-Hands, and of the icons of the Theotokos immediately after him written by the All-laudable Apostle and Evangelist Luke.
Egyptian death masks
Historically, the icon is thought to be a descendant of the Egyptian death masks that were painted on mummies wrapped in strips of glue and powered gypsum soaked linen. This led to the traditional icon painting technique of gluing linen on a board, gessoing it, and painting on it. The Christian icon also inherited the cultic task of the ritual mask and exalted this task. The task that revealed the deified spirit of the deceased resting in eternity. The spiritual essence of the old Cult was transfigured into a new cultural image manifesting itself more perfectly than the old.
Unlike the mask, the Christian icon is not part of a mummy or sarcophagus, it does not need to connect to a saint’s body. No matter where on earth the saint’s remains are, and no matter the physical condition, his resurrected and deified body lives in eternity, and the icon that shows him forth does not merely depict the holy witness but is the very witness. It is not the icon, as art, that tells us anything, it is the saint, through the icon that is teaching. This window, to the resurrected, breaks when the icon itself is separated by the observer, from the saint it depicts. At that moment the icon just becomes another thing of this world. The vital connection between haven and earth disintegrates.
“Written” or “painted”?
The most literal translation of the word Greek: εικονογραφία (eikonographia) is “image writing,” leading many English-speaking Orthodox Christians to insist that icons are not “painted” but rather “written.” From there, further explanations are given that icons are to be understood in a manner similar to Holy Scripture—that is, they are not simply artistic compositions but rather are witnesses to the truth the way Scripture is. Far from being imaginative creations of the iconographer, they are more like scribal copies of the Bible.
While the explanation of the purpose and nature of icons is certainly true and consistent with the Church’s Holy Tradition, there is a linguistic problem with the insistence on the word written rather than painted. In Greek, a painted portrait of anyone is also a γραφή (graphi), and the art of painting itself is called ζωγραφική (zographiki) while any drawing or painting can be referred to as ζωγραφιά (zographia). Ancient Greek literally uses the same root word to refer to the making of portraits and the making of icons, but distinguishes whether it is “painting from life” (ζωγραφιά) or “painting icons” (εικονογραφία). Thus, from a linguistic point of view, either all paintings—whether icons or simple portraits—are “written” or (more likely) “painted” is a perfectly usable English translation, simply making a distinction between the painting appropriate for icons and that appropriate for other kinds of painting, just as Greek does.
Some have suggested that icon writing be used because of the fact that for many centuries, (whether the early Church, the persecutions against the Christians by the pagan authorities, or more recently around the Orthodox World when the faithful have been subjected to non-Orthodox authority), icons were the books of the illiterate and through the depiction of an often simple image refer to and confirm the fundamental belief of the Church; the Incarnation. God’s becoming human, his undertaking and sanctifying of human nature and matter in general means that He can be depicted using matter.
The Icon Corner (Greek: εικονοστάσι) is a small worship space prepared in the homes of Eastern Orthodox or Greek-Catholic Christians.
The Book of Acts and the Epistles of the Apostle Paul record that in the early Church, Christians used to meet in the homes of the faithful. (Acts 2:46, Acts 20:7-12, I_Corinthians 16:19, etc.) This tradition of the “House Church” continues to this day in Eastern Christianity. The home is considered to be a microcosm of the Church. The parents (both the husband and the wife) are the “clergy” of the house church, and the children are the “laity.” The wedding ceremony (“crowning”) is analogous to Ordination, and the house is blessed with a rite that is based upon the Consecration of a Church. Once a year, the priest will come to bless the house with Theophany Water.
An Orthodox Christian is expected to pray constantly. According to Bishop Kallistos Ware, “[I]n Orthodox spirituality, [there is] no separation between liturgy and private devotion.” Thus the house, just like the Temple (church building), is considered to be a consecrated place, and the center of worship in the house is the Icon Corner.
An Icon Corner is normally oriented to face east. It is often located in a corner to eliminate worldly distractions and allow prayer to be more concentrated. Here is where the icons that the family owns should be located, normally including at least icons of Christ, the Theotokos, and the Patron Saint(s) of the family. An oil lamp normally hangs in front of the icons. The careful trimming of the lamp to keep it burning at all times is interpreted as symbolic of the attentive daily care faithful Christians should take over their souls. Relics of saints (if the family possesses any) and a Gospel Book and a blessing cross would be kept there, as well as incense, holy water, palms and pussywillow from Palm Sunday, candles from Pascha (Easter), and other sacred items, as well as a personal Commemoration Book (containing the names of family and loved ones, both living and departed, to be remembered in prayer).
Ideally, the Icon Corner is located so that it is visible when one first enters the house from the main entrance. Traditionally, when first entering the house, an Orthodox Christian would venerate the icons before greeting the members of the house.
A traditional Orthodox family will gather together every day for morning and evening prayers. Sometimes, at the end of the prayers, the head of the household will take the hand censer and cense the icons and all of the members of the household.
Often, in addition to the Icon Corner, a family will hang a small “Portal Icon” (usually of the Virgin and Christ Child) by the door, which is venerated by family and guests whenever going in or out of the house.
1.^ Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (Penguin Books, London, 1964, ISBN 0-14-020592-6), p. 310.