SERVING THE CHURCH THROUGH ICONS: The Online Icon Course course is an ongoing project, exploring the iconography of the Church in depth. Beginning in the earliest Church, the units trace the interweaving of theology, liturgy, church design and personal devotion. Initially developed for icon painters, the course includes practical exercises to develop the skills needed for liturgical design. It is now being made available to all with an interest in developing standards of excellence in ecclesial art today. It is recommended not only to iconographers, but to priests, church architects, catechists and art teachers, and to all those for whom art is part of their spiritual journey.
This is a brief overview of the visual layout of the Church interior. It is meant as a starting point for discussion, about revitalising the western church interior, in the light of the early tradition and the eastern church schema. Please get in touch if you are interested in contributing studies on this, or any aspect of liturgy, art and architecture in Churches.
Despite the dissimilarity of the two church buildings - the basilica style of the west and the templon of the east there are considerable similarities in the underlying approach. The basilica is based on the Roman public building, with its apse for dignitaries at one end and the narthex and vestibules at the other - now the sanctuary and west door. This was the model of Constantine's old St. Peter's in Rome. The Orthodox templon is based on the round mausoleum, which was the model used by Constantine's mother Helena, for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. When Constantine set up his 'New Rome' (now Istanbul) the round mausoleum followed him east, while the long basilica stayed in the west.
At it's best, it is an interactive environment for worship and learning (catechesis). It should be designed and decorated in such a way that it enables us to experience more deeply the mystery in which we are participating. We are human persons - our senses are part of the body being redeemed. Since the whitewashing of churches during the Reformation, we have lost the courage to do more than include a few visual bits and bobs. While we train the mind and the voice, we have given up on training the imagination. The results of our neglect are all around us in what Pope John Paul called "the depersonalizing and at times degrading effects of the many images that condition our lives in advertisements and the media."
Bands of decoration, lower down the apse wall, reveal more. Firstly, the icon of the Divine Liturgy, reminds us that Jesus is the real celebrant: his Spirit dwells in the priest at consecration, making him “alto christus.” The parish community, like the apostles, are being sent on a mission - ‘Ite, missa est.’ Below this we see the Apostolic succession made visible in the more than lifesize priests who surround the altar. The priests are affirmed in a direct spiritual lineage from the Church Fathers. This process of affirmation of the faith - of being ‘surrounded by a host of witnesses’ is an immensely important function of life size liturgical images, whether icons or statues.
Bands of decoration, lower down the apse wall, reveal more. Firstly, the icon of the Divine Liturgy, reminds us that Jesus is the real celebrant: his Spirit dwells in the priest at consecration, making him "alto christus." The parish community, like the apostles, are being sent on a mission - 'Ite, missa est.' Below this we see the Apostolic succession made visible in the more than lifesize priests who surround the altar. The priests are affirmed in a direct spiritual lineage from the Church Fathers. This process of affirmation of the faith - of being 'surrounded by a host of witnesses' is an immensely important function of life size liturgical images, whether icons or statues.
The sanctuary is separated from the rest of the Church by the iconostasis, Rood screen, or simply a step. Traditionally, the crucifix, flanked by Mary and John, is atop the iconostasis or rood screen. Mary and Jesus appear, to left and right, with a votive candle stand. In the east these are usually half length portraits - 'awesome' high quality paintings. In the west, quality is often sacrificed for low quality ‘off the peg’ sculpture in the round. In the west, the patronal saint - by Mary in the iconostasis - rarely gets a look in! Could we also learn from the practise of having a portable icons of the liturgical year near the sanctuary - changed like vestments, they are a focus of flowers, candles and interest for the parishioners.
The icon schema values deacons. 4c. liturgical homilies place great emphasis on the parallel function of angels and deacons - they both minister at the sacred liturgy. Doors to the altar are painted with angels or deacons, such as St. Stephen, the patron of altar servers in every sacristy in the west, but nearly never depicted. Does anyone give a little icon of St. Stephen to an altar server when they receive their medal to encourage them? In the east, sanctuary doors have the Annunciation on the top,: this feast also appears above the chancel arch in east & west - Mary on one side and the angel on the other. This well placed depiction reminds us that the same Holy Spirit is descending from heaven here and now in this place.
We find the prophets and Ruler of All juxtaposed - an extremely telling position. The prophets proclaimed an invisible God, much like Islam today. This juxtaposition underlines that 'this man is the Creator God made visible:' the evangelists confirm it by writing the Gospel in the pendentives. In the east, the upper wall is an early form of the Holy land pilgrimage in Church. Whereas we narrow it down to the Stations of the cross, the eastern Stations traverse sacred sites - Bethlehem, Jordan, Mount of Transfiguration etc. Since John Paul II re-instated the 'Mysteries of Light' is there a case for western walls to carry Holy Land stations, perhaps interchangeable with Stations of the Cross in Lent?
In both eastern churches, and pre-Reformation western churches like San Marco, we usually find a band of pictures relating to the Gospel narrative and local saints, often set in liturgical year order. If you pushed the stations of the cross, in a western church, a bit further up, and painted them on the wall, you would have a similar band. You could, of course, add to that Stations of the rosary, or the life of the patron saint. Along the walls around us 'nearer to our level' we have full size pics. of saints more like us - role models we can aspire to. I have a suggestion her here - looked at the saints your church and ask they are really the people we want to be role models for our kids?
The back of the church deals with entrances and exits. Above the door, we are quite likely to have Christ the teacher, proclaiming - the obvious - "I am the door!" Here there is something for everyone. At ground level, we may see scenes about childhood and entering the church e.g. the childhood of Mary. In both eastern & western churches , we will meet a few particularly encouraging life-size saints. Above this, we will see scenes for the other end of life - the end times and last judgement from Daniel and the Apocalypse. West wall last judgement murals are a feature of both eastern and western churches, and medieval Europe was famous for its apocalyptic bas relief west doors.
Where do you have your baptistery, do you have a baptistery, and where do you have a depiction of the baptism of the Lord? This is the entrance sacrament of the Church. Most churches accept each others baptisms as valid, even if they argue about everything else. In church after church I go in and see no hint that baptism is important. The 'billboard for baptism' disappeared under the whitewash. In the eastern church you will still find depictions on the altar screen, among the portable icons for the churches year, and in the Holy Land pilgrimage around the nave. In a western church, think how much the kids would like having an icon of the baptism by the font.