The Orthodox Faith – The Church Building (4c)

Depending on how big the iconostasis is, there may be rows of different kinds of saints, but again, the placement is not arbitrary but follows some plan. Very often the icon of Christ Almighty is found in the dome of the church. An icon of the Mother of God with Christ is in the Altar area. Directly behind the Altar table itself there is often an icon of Christ in glory, or Christ with the chalice giving Holy Communion.

Something must be said about the iconostasis. Sometimes it’s said that the iconostasis divides the church between the “holy area” for the clergy and the worldly area for the laity. This is a grave error. The whole church is holy  and all the people present are also holy, despite individual weakness.

The iconostasis is rather a window into heaven. We see Christ, His mother and his saints, as they are in heaven. Generally speaking, all the icons are visions of heaven. We have to understand something about icons. They are not photographs, so to speak, or portraits of the person depicted. Rather, they are painted in a symbolic way, to show humanity as it looks when glorified by God. Icons show us the holiness that is often invisible to the naked eye.

There is a great difference between Western religious art and icons. If one looks at a painting of a religious person and scene done in the Renaissance, we see how realistic the picture is. We can see every detail of the person’s face, clothing and so on. Renaissance religious art are almost contemporary scenes of Renaissance Italy. Some artists used their girlfriend or even prostitutes for portraits of the Mother of God. This is unthinkable for Orthodox. It is true that in recent centuries Orthodox icons have sometimes adapted the realism of the West, but this is a kind of decadence. True Orthodox iconography has its own renaissance or beginning in the latter half of the 19th century and continues until today. Orthodox iconography has spread beyond Orthodox Churches; many Protestants can see how icons express the truth of the faith in a unique way.

Just to finish with one example of the difference between Western religious art and Orthodox icons, no doubt we have seen paintings or sculptures of Christ on the cross, often the works of art have our Lord as a victim of suffering. There can be blood everywhere, chunks of skin cut out etc. So the emphasis is on the suffering Christ.

Of course, Christ did suffer horribly on the cross and Orthodox icons of Christ on the cross also portray His suffering. But the emphasis is not on gory detail. Sometimes Christ even appears to be at peace. That is because Christ on the cross is not simply a passive victim but actually does battle with and conquers death and the devil. In other words, even on the cross Christ is victorious and this is depicted in Orthodox icons.

Fr. John

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