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Icons

In the Ortho­dox Church the icons bear wit­ness to the real­i­ty of God’s pres­ence with us in the mys­tery of faith. The icons are not just human pic­tures or visu­al aids to con­tem­pla­tion and prayer. They are the wit­ness­es of the pres­ence of the King­dom of God to us, and so of our own pres­ence to the King­dom of God in the Church. It is the Ortho­dox faith that icons are not only per­mis­si­ble, but are spir­i­tu­al­ly nec­es­sary because “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). Christ is tru­ly man and, as man, tru­ly the “icon of the invis­i­ble God” (Col 1:15; 1 Cor 11:7; 2 Cor 4:4).

The iconos­ta­sis or icon screen in the Ortho­dox Church exists to show our uni­ty with Christ, his moth­er and all the angels and saints. It exists to show our uni­ty with God. The altar table, which stands for the Ban­quet Table of the King­dom of God, is placed behind the so-called roy­al gates, between the icons of the Theotokos and Child and the glo­ri­fied Christ, show­ing that every­thing which hap­pens to us in the Church hap­pens in his­to­ry between those “two com­ings” of Christ: between his com­ing as the Sav­iour born of Mary and. His com­ing at the end of the age as the King and the Judge.

The icons on the roy­al gates wit­ness to the pres­ence of Christ’s good news, the gospel of sal­va­tion. The four evan­ge­lists who record­ed the gospels appear, and often also an icon of the Annun­ci­a­tion, the first procla­ma­tion of the gospel in the world. (In Greek the gospel is the evan­ge­lion, the authors of the gospels the evan­ge­lis­toi, the annun­ci­a­tion the evan­ge­lis­mos).

Over the doors we have the icon of Christ’s Mys­ti­cal Sup­per with his dis­ci­ples, the icon of the cen­tral mys­tery of the Chris­t­ian faith and the uni­ty of the Church in the world. It is the visu­al wit­ness that we too are par­tak­ers in the “mar­riage sup­per of the lamb” (Rev 19:9), that we too are blessed by Christ “to eat and drink at my table in my king­dom” (Lk 22:30), blessed to “eat bread in the King­dom of God” (Lk 14:15).

Over and around the cen­tral gates are icons of the saints. The deacon’s doors in the first row (for the ser­vants of the altar) usu­al­ly have icons depict­ing dea­cons or angels, God’s ser­vants. The first row also has an icon of the per­son or event in whose hon­or the giv­en build­ing is ded­i­cat­ed, along with oth­er promi­nent saints or events. Depend­ing on the size of the iconos­ta­sis, there may be rows of icons of the apos­tles, the major feasts of the Church, the prophets and oth­er holy peo­ple blessed by God, all crowned on the top by the cross of Christ.

In recent cen­turies the iconos­ta­sis in most Ortho­dox church­es became very ornate and devel­oped into a vir­tu­al wall, divid­ing the faith­ful from the holy altar rather than unit­ing them with it. In recent years this devel­op­ment has hap­pi­ly been altered in many places. The iconos­ta­sis in many church build­ings now gives first place to the icons them­selves and has become once more an icon “stand” or “screen” (sta­sis) rather than a sol­id par­ti­tion.

Besides the iconos­ta­sis, Ortho­dox Church build­ings often have icons or fres­coes on the walls and ceil­ings. The “canon” of Church design is to have the icon of Christ the Almighty in the cen­ter of the build­ing, and the icon of the Theotokos with Christ appear­ing with­in her found over the altar area. This lat­ter icon is called the “image of the Church” since Mary is her­self the pro­to­type of the entire assem­bly of believ­ers in whom Christ must dwell. In the altar area it is also tra­di­tion­al to put icons of the saints who com­posed Church litur­gies and hymns. Direct­ly behind the altar table there is usu­al­ly an image of Christ in glory—enthroned or trans­fig­ured or res­ur­rect­ing, and some­times offer­ing the eucharis­tic gifts.