Reflections from Saint Paul's Church

Icons in Saint Paul's Church

Icons are the holy pictures which are found in Eastern Orthodox Churches and which have become increasingly popular in the West in recent years. Icons are not merely decorative. Orthodox Christians show great reverence to icons because they are a particular way in which the presence of God is made known. While icons have a sacramental quality, people do not worship the icon itself. Icons have been described as "windows to heaven." When praying in front of an icon, it is said that a person looks through the icon to the heavenly reality behind it. To show reverence to an icon is to worship God.  Orthodoxy makes a careful distinction between worship, which may be given to God alone, and reverence, which may be shown to icons and other symbols which direct us to God.

The principal subject of icons is the person of Jesus Christ who is the "image (Greek: εικων–‘icon’) of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation" (Colossians 1:15). Icons of Christ are a graphic expression of our creed that the invisible God took on our flesh in order that we might see and know him personally. Icons depict the divinity of the Son of God in the fullness of his humanity. Icons also depict the saints in whom the image of God has been restored through their union with Christ. All people are created in the image of God. That image has been broken and distorted by sin, but in Christ it has been restored. The unique two-dimensional style of icons intentionally avoids a strict realism in order to emphasize the fact that the image of God transcends our earthly existence.

Just as light figures significantly in the art of stained glass, light is an important characteristic of icons. The eyes of people portrayed in icons are never depicted as reflecting light. Rather, an icon and the person shown radiate light from within, the divine Light who is the second Person of the Trinity. It is this Light which illumines the saints who are the lights of the world in their generations. Lighting a candle before an icon is both a prayer to God and a way of affirming that we, too, are called to bear the Light of Christ into the world.

There are several icons in St. Paul's Church.  Two, Christ the High Priest and the Icon of the Sign, were written (i.e., painted) by a master iconographer in St. Petersburg, Russia, in the late 1990s and are based on very old originals.  A third icon, of Saint Paul the Apostle, patron of our parish, is found near the entrance to the church.  This icon was written in 2005 by a nun of the monastery of New Skete in nearby Cambridge.

The Icon of Christ the High Priest, located to the right of the High Altar, depicts our Lord as he is described in Hebrews 4:14ff.: "a great high priest who has passed through the heavens." In this icon, based on a fourteenth century Serbian original, which is now in the Dormition Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin, Christ is vested as an Orthodox bishop, with omofor (the broad stole draped around his neck), crown (mitre), and posokh (the T-shaped pastoral staff of an Orthodox bishop). His right hand is raised in blessing. In his left hand he holds the book of the Gospels and a sword for, as we read in Hebrews 4:12, "the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword." Traditionally, icons of this type are found at the center of a row of icons called the "Deisis (‘prayer’) tier" on the iconostasis, the screen which separates the Altar from the nave of the church in Orthodox churches.  This icon would normally be flanked by a series of icons featuring various saints who are praying to Christ.


(click on thumbnails for larger view)

The Icon of the Sign, at the Lady Shrine in the north transept, depicts the great Advent prophecy of Isaiah 7:14: "The Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel (God with us)." In this icon, the Blessed Virgin Mary is shown with Christ/Immanuel in a mandorla  on her breast, signifying that the unconfinable God was confined within her womb. The mandorla, a kind of halo which encompasses the whole body, represents heaven, divine glory, uncreated light. The Holy Child’s hands are raised in blessing, while the Mother’s hands are held in the ancient gesture of prayer (orans).  The angels in the icon remind us that, as Mother of the Son of God, Mary is "higher than the cherubim and more glorious than the seraphim."              

The original of this particular icon of the Sign is generally thought to have been written in Yaroslavl, Russia, in the thirteenth century (though some authorities identify it as a work of twelfth century Kiev).  Its full name is "Mother of God, Great Panagia (Orans)."  The third ecumenical council of the undivided Church, held in 431 in Ephesus, declared that, as Mother of Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, Mary should be called Theotokos, "God-bearer" or "Mother of God."  Panagia, "All Holy," is another Greek title for Mary.

The icons of Christ and his Mother were written in the medium of egg tempera, with gold leaf for the background.  Although this is traditional, it is not required.  Other kinds of paint, and even other media, including mosaic and wood carving, may be used.  The new icon of St. Paul, which welcomes worshipers to our church, was painted with acrylics on a gold leaf background by a Nun of New Skete.  The depiction of the apostle closely follows the traditional iconographic program and is readily recognizable as St. Paul.  The seemingly exaggerated forehead represents wisdom.  In his left hand, he holds a book, signifying his writings, while the fingers of his right hand form the Greek letters, ΙС ΧС, the abbreviation of Ιησους Χριστος, "Jesus Christ".  The hand of God in the upper right hand corner emanates the uncreated heavenly light which illumines the saints, with the jagged beam suggesting the blinding light which Paul encountered on the road to Damascus.

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