Icons and Their Placement
Fr. Thomas Hopko · August 4, 2008
Father Thomas reveals how icons are painted and the proper procedure for placing them in the church building.
When a person enters an Orthodox Church building these days, that person will be struck by the presence of the holy icons – icons on panels; icons on the screen across the front of the Church in front of the holy altar table and the sanctuary area; frescoes on the walls. In virtually every Orthodox Church today, the presence of icons is overpowering.
But we have to know that traditionally and canonically, so to speak, there is a way in which the icon ought to be made, drawn, and painted; and how the icons ought to be placed in the Church building. Sometimes this is not done. And in recent centuries, especially after the Westernization of Eastern Orthodox churches under Peter the Great in Russia and so on, the icons in the Church were just painted like any kind of paintings and pictures, and this was not proper or correct.
In one of the big events of our time, of the second half of the 20th Century and now the beginning of the 21st Century, was the recovery of canonical, traditional, Orthodox iconographic art and the recovery of the proper placement of icons and frescoes in an Orthodox Church building.
Now, even the traditional and canonical way has variations. It is not something absolutely rigid and absolutely always the same. But there is a rational; there is a manner in which an icon ought to be made and how the icons ought to be placed in the Church building.
Again, this can vary a bit here and there, but there are certain things that are crucially important and especially important because the icon is confessing the Christian faith; because the placement of the icons in the Church building is also a confession of Christian faith. They’re doctrinal teachings. They’re proclamations of the Gospel. And so how icons are made and how they are placed is crucially important.
Now, just a few of these very important things we should reflect on and we should be aware of. First of all, an icon is not a photographic copy of what happened. It’s not a depiction of a purely, historical event. The icons are rooted in history, certainly. Jesus Christ is a historical human being. His mother, Mary, is historical.
The events of His life are historical. He was born in Bethlehem. He was crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem. He was a Jew of the 1st Century. He had certain disciples and apostles with very particular names and faces and stories. Christianity is a historical faith. But, the historical events of Christianity, sometimes even portrayed differently in the Scriptures and Gospels themselves, are bearing a theological, eternal, and divine meaning.
The Gospels themselves are not simply biographies of Jesus. They’re not simply histories. They are Gospels. And the gospel, by definition, was a formal proclamation of an imperial nature that the subjects of the king were to receive as good news, as glad tidings. The gospels were proclamations of victory in battle. And so the Four Gospels are called the gospels, because they proclaim the victory of God in Christ over all His enemies – wickedness, injustice, evils, sin, death, and the devil himself.
So the icon is an evangelical expression. It’s a gospel expression. And therefore, even in the depiction of historical events, sometimes in the icon, you have what is not technically historical, not factual. I’ll give a couple of examples.
Very often in the Orthodox Church when you have a depiction of Christ crucified, Jesus hanging on the cross, that’s clearly a depiction of something that happened in history. But then, on the top of the cross, there was the titulum. That was the inscription that was publicly nailed to or hung on the cross with the victim that told the public why that person was being put to death; why that person was being executed. And so, that sign on the top of the cross is always there.
And so, very often in crucifixions and in depictions of the Crucifixion that title, the titulum, is there, and sometimes the words are put there, and sometimes the first initials of the words are put there. So on many crucifixes, you have in Latin letters, INRI – Jesus of Nazareth Rex (King) Iudaeorum (of the Jews). Because, in St. John’s Gospel, it said on the cross that the titulum read, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” so that would often be put there.
Now, even here, we have to notice that in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, there’s the titulum, but none of them have the same words exactly. Mark simply has, “King of the Jews.” Matthew and Luke, one of them has, “This was the King of the Jews;” another of them has, “This is Jesus, King of the Jews.”
So it’s very interesting that all four Gospels have the Titulum on the Cross. None of them have exactly the same words. So much for absolute historical accuracy in the Holy Scripture, because even the titulum, the only thing that was written about Jesus when He was on Earth, and it was written after He died, when He was dead, the Four Gospels have four different renditions or versions. But normally, they would use the version from St. John.
However, and this is the point that I’m coming to, very often in Orthodox churches, the titulum is not there, but what is there is, “The King of Glory.” So instead of writing, “The King of the Jews,” what’s written there is, “The King of Glory.” That’s not historical at all. That was never put there. Nevertheless, theologically, Jesus Christ is the King of Glory. He is the one who enters into the holy place not made by hands. He is the King of Glory, whom God has made the head and king over all creation for the sake of the Church, which is His body. So, on the crucifix would be written “King of Glory.” Well, that was not historical.
Another example would be the depictions of Pentecost or the icon/fresco of the Ascension, which virtually all the time, in place of Judas, puts St. Paul – not Matthias, but Paul. So in the fresco of Pentecost, you’ll have Paul opposite Peter. On the fresco of the Ascension, you’ll have Paul opposite Peter. But Paul was not at the Ascension, and he was not at Pentecost.
He was persecuting the Christians after those events; got converted; and then became an apostle of Christ, chosen directly by the Risen Lord. He was not one of the Twelve, but normally, on the icon, they put him rather than Matthias, who actually according to Scripture, was the one who replaced Judas.
So icons are not totally historical. There can be an icon, for example of the Holy Eucharist, which shows Jesus giving the bread and the wine, His own Body and Blood, to Twelve Disciples – 11 of the faithful disciples and St. Paul. But Jesus never gave Communion to them in that form that it’s shown in that icon. He gave Communion to them at the Supper. And there is even an icon of the Supper, which is a different icon than the icon of Communion of the Apostles, which is often placed on the wall of the back of the sanctuary behind the altar table.
So icons are not photographic reproductions of what happened historically. Now, sometimes they’re painted that way or allegedly painted that way, and even then, they are distortions. For example, in the Westernized realistic paintings that became popular in many Orthodox churches, when the traditional icons fell out of favor, for example, in Westernized Russia or the Ukraine or Romania or Greece, you can have a painting of the Resurrection of Christ, which shows Him coming out of the tomb. Well, that is not historical. The stone was not rolled away to let Jesus out. The stone was rolled away to show that He wasn’t there. And that is not the traditional icon of the Resurrection of Christ.
Or you may have an icon of the Baptism of Christ, which shows Him fully clothed; standing by the shore of the Jordan River with John the Baptist pouring water over Him from something that looks like a seashell. Well, there were no seashells at the Jordan, and Jesus was not baptized by having water poured over His head when He was fully clothed. Jesus was baptized by being stripped naked and going down into the water streams and being immersed in the water. That’s what the traditional icon shows. It does not show Jesus fully clothed standing on the shore.
So you’ve got to have the proper historical foundation, and you have to have the proper theological foundation. That’s what makes an icon. And an icon is liturgical art and dogmatical art. It is not simply aesthetic art. It’s not decoration. It’s a confession of faith through the proclamation of the Gospel where the historical details must be accurate, but the theological statement that is being made must be true. And that’s what you have in the holy icon.
Now, one of the iconographic devices that very important to understand is a thing that is called a mandorla. Mandorla means an almond. And a mandorla is an iconographic device that is used in an icon when what is being depicted is not historically visible. So for example, in the icon of the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan, the dove is put into a mandorla. It’s put in this circular, almond-shaped depiction. Sometimes, it even looks like two squares superimposed on each other. That’s a mandorla.
Sometimes, the hand of God, let’s say over the Baptism of Jesus, is shown in a mandorla. In the icon of the Transfiguration, Jesus is in a mandorla with Moses and Elijah, because only Peter, James, and John saw them and only when they were in the ecstasy of the Spirit. A shepherd man hiding on Mount Tabor would not have seen Jesus transfigured, or would not have seen Moses and Elijah. Just like a person passing by the Jordan would not have seen any dove descending and remaining upon Jesus.
In the Ascension, Jesus is put in a mandorla, because nobody hanging around the Mount of Olives would have seen Jesus go up. Jesus’ Ascension where He’s taken and hidden in the cloud is a statement of faith. It’s something that the disciples may have seen in front of them, but it’s not something that was just seen by anybody hanging around.
So the use of the mandorla is very, very critical in the painting of icons. Also, is the use of inverse proportion, wherein real icons, it’s just the opposite of naturalistic proportion. Wherein the icon, the front of a table is larger than the back. Whereas in a realistic table, the front of the table would be the opposite proportion. You have inverse proportion.
Sometimes on the icon, when you have a person who is known for being a great teacher or theologian like St. Paul or St. Gregory or St. John the Theologian, they have larger foreheads. Sometimes, the hands of Mary, when she’s holding the Christ Child, are larger than they ought to be, because she shows that she’s the mother protecting this child.
So icons are not painted in realistic fashion. They’re painted in theological, mystical, spiritual, and liturgical fashion. And they’re used for veneration at Church services. That’s why the icons of events are very often depictions of the songs that are sung. For example, if you see the icon of the Nativity of Christ, what you see in the icon is what the Gospels say were there and what is sung about in the hymns – the star, the angels, the shepherds, the Magi, Joseph doubting, the cave, the oxen, the ass. They’re all in the icon altogether, because this is a depiction, not of what happened historically as such, but of the theological meaning of the birth of Christ.
So icons are very peculiar forms of liturgical and dogmatic art, evangelical art. It’s a very particular art form that follows very particular rules. Now, there are also rules, norms, or canons, we might say, of how the icons are placed in the Church building, and this developed over the centuries.
And very simply, if you follow the normal norm of how you put the frescoes or icons in a Church building, this can vary, but basically this is what you have in all Orthodox churches or should have.
First of all, over the top of the Church building itself, in the highest dome, you have Jesus as the Pantocrator, Jesus as the Alpha and the Omega, Jesus as the one who is dead and alive again, Jesus as the one who was made the head over all things for the sake of the Church, Jesus about whom it could be said, “He is the one who is, who was, and who is coming.”
And therefore, in the domes of churches that are domed, and sometimes in churches that are not domed but have a central ceiling space, right over the nave you have the Risen, glorified Christ; the King over all things; the Almighty One. And then, in the Church buildings normally, you have the following:
Over the altar table, and the altar table would be a cube, if it follows the teachings of the Torah, and there would be a seven-branched candlestick, if you follow the Torah literally, and then on that cubed table, in the Church building, you have what is said about that table in the Tabernacle of the Old Testament. You have what is said about that table in the Temple of Jerusalem.
And what was on that table in the Old Testament Temple and the Old Testament Tabernacle? Well, three things were there. There was the Ark of the Covenant with the Tables of the Law. There was a jar containing the manna that the people were fed with when they were in the desert. And there was Aaron’s rod that budded.
The Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament mentions those three things. They’re also mentioned in different ways in Numbers and Exodus and in the Torah writings that tell about the Tabernacle of Witness, the Ark of the Covenant, and the Temple in Jerusalem.
Now, in the New Covenant Church, the Church of the Messiah, the Church of Jesus, instead of having the Ten Commandments, the Tables of the Law, you have the book of the Four Gospels with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John’s icons on that book; very often with the Crucifixion of Christ on one side and the Resurrection of Christ on the other side.
Why? Because the center of the Christian faith is Christ, and the center of the Christian faith is the Gospel of Christ – God’s Gospel in Jesus Christ. So that book on the altar is not the Bible. It’s not even the whole New Testament. It’s just the Four Gospels, because Christ is the center of the Christian faith, and the Christian faith is rooted in the Gospel.
Also, on that table would be a container or receptacle, not with manna; we don’t have manna anymore, but we have Holy Communion. So the consecrated Bread and Wine that is kept on the Holy Table to be given to people who can’t make it to the Liturgy or who haven’t made it because they are shut in at home or are sick or in the hospital, jail, or prison, that’s where the Bread and the Wine that is consecrated as the Body and Blood of Christ is kept.
So instead of the Tables of the Law, you have the Gospel. Instead of the manna, you have the Holy Eucharist, the gifts, the consecrated Bread and Wine. And then in place of Aaron’s rod, you have the Cross, the hand cross with which people are blessed.
Now, in the Old Covenant in the Temple, over that Table of Witness, which had the Ark of the Covenant, there was something that is called and translated into English as a mercy seat. In Greek it’s called hilasterion, which means propitiatory technically speaking. But it’s normally translated mercy seat.
Now, that mercy seat in the old Tabernacle and then the old Temple was empty. There was nothing on that mercy seat. God commanded that two cherubs, a cherub on each side, would be put by the mercy seat and surrounding the mercy seat. They were even made out of gold according to the Old Testament Holy Scriptures, the Bible. But the mercy seat itself was empty.
Now, it was at that mercy seat where God spoke to Moses and Aaron. That’s where Moses spoke with God face-to-face. God would go and stand before that mercy seat over the Table of Witness, the Table of Sacrifice, and God would speak face-to-face, as to a friend. But it was empty. There was nothing on it.
Now, in the New Testament, the new Moses is Jesus Christ Himself, who is the Word of God Himself. And that is why in Orthodox churches, in the apse over the altar table, you have a very large fresco of Mary the Mother of God, the Theotokos, either with Christ inside her or with Christ sitting on her lap or Christ enthroned on her. And the reason for that is because that’s the new mercy seat. That’s the hilasterion of the New Testament. That’s the propitiary.
Now, where you have Mary praying with her arms upraised and Christ in her, that’s called the sign from Isaiah. “And this will be a sign for you. The virgin will conceive and bear a son and call His name Emmanuel, which is God with us.” That’s the Gospel. That’s the Incarnation.
Mary, when she’s depicted also sometimes with her hands raised and sometimes with her hands down and Christ is sitting on her like on a throne, that shows that the Word became flesh and the mercy seat is not empty anymore, because God has become visible. The Word has become flesh. God speaks to us now through His Son Jesus who is raised and glorified.
And so, in the Eastern Orthodox churches, you have the altar table with the Gospel book, with the Holy Communion gifts, with the cross for blessing, with the candlesticks, and then over it you have the mercy seat. And the mercy seat is now Mary. And even in the hymns of the Church, Mary is hymned as the seat of wisdom; as the Tabernacle in which Christ dwells; as the living Ark; and as the hilasterion, the propitiary.
And so that huge fresco of Mary over the altar is not a fresco of Mary, it’s a fresco of the Incarnation. It’s a fresco of the fact that the Word has become flesh, and God speaks to us now through His Son, and He’s no longer invisible, but He’s visible, and you can paint His icon.
Now, in front of the altar table, in front of the sanctuary area in Orthodox churches, you have this icon screen called an iconostasis. And that also has a kind of a regular or canonical way of being constructed. Normally, there’s an arch over the central doors of that screen, which are directly in front of the altar table. Very often, over that arch would be an icon of the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper, because that table is the table of the Kingdom upon which we eat the Body and Blood of Christ. That’s not necessarily the case, but sometimes it is the case.
Now, there are doors put in that archway. They’re called Royal Doors or Heavenly Gates. Sometimes, a veil is hung also, following the Old Testament practices of veiling the Sanctuary and opening it up when the worship is taking place. Now, on the doors that are in that archway in front of the altar table, the canonical rule would be that you would have the following icons:
You’d have an icon of the Annunciation, because that would be an icon of the Gospel. The word annunciation in Greek is evangelismos. The word for gospel is evangelion, the good news, the glad tidings. So you have the angel bringing the glad tidings to Mary that she will give birth to the Messiah, the Lord and Savior, God Incarnate, the Lord Jesus Christ.
And it’s at that place in the Church building where the Gospel is preached; where the Gospel book is carried in procession; where it is proclaimed; where the Word is given to us, spoken from Christ in Heaven, through the mouth of the preacher – the bishop or the priest or whoever is blessed to give the sermon.
And then on these doors, you have the four Evangelists. So you have the evangelismos and the evangelistes, the Gospel writers Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And they’re shown on those doors writing the Gospels, because the center of the Christian faith is the Gospel.
Then, on either side of that archway in front of the altar table, you have two icons, often called the local icons, which must be, if they’re done properly, the following two icons: On the left would be an icon of the Theotokos, Mary Mother of God, holding the Incarnate Word, the Son of God, in her hands. That is not an icon of Mary. That is an icon of the Incarnation. That is an icon of the Word becoming flesh. The Savior is born of the virgin.
And then on the other side, you have Christ alone in Glory, often holding a Gospel book in His hands, sometimes open to some passage and sometimes closed, which shows the glorified Christ in his glory. And so, sometimes these two icons are called the icons of the two comings of Christ.
Facing the iconostasis, the one on the left Mary with the Child Christ, who doesn’t look like a baby. He looks like a small little man, because He’s the Wisdom of God, the Word of God, the Son of God. That’s the icon of the first coming. The icon on the right hand side as you face the icon screen is an icon of the second coming, the coming of Christ in glory as the Risen Savior.
And so everything that happens in the Church, while the Gospel is preached, happens and takes place between these two comings. The Gospel is preached and the Holy Eucharist is celebrated, remembering the first coming of Christ and anticipating the second coming of Christ. So it is not the case that those two icons are an icon of Jesus and an icon of Mary.
And therefore it would be wrong, as it is in a couple of churches that I’ve seen in my life, where you just have Mary alone without the child and Jesus alone on the other side. Or sometimes, they even put John the Baptist there with Jesus over the door. That is not right, at least according to the normative tradition. On either side of the Royal Gates of the archway in front of the Holy Table, the Altar of Sacrifice, the Heavenly Throne, you have the two icons of the first coming and the second coming of Christ – the Incarnation and the Parousia.
And then, on the doors in which the servers walk through, they’re called the Deacon’s Doors, and deacons means servers, and that’s where the deacons and the other servers would walk through when they’re serving at the Services, and on those doors you would have either deacons or Old Testament priests, sometimes, or angels. Normally, they would be deacons or angels, because the angels are God’s ministering servants. And so, those who serve go in and out those doors, and so you have angels or deacons on those doors.
And then, in the Orthodox Church, you normally would have on that screen John the Baptist, the greatest born of woman; the greatest of the Prophets. And then, you would have an icon depicting the event or the person to whom the building is dedicated. So if it were a building dedicated to Peter and Paul, you’d have an icon of Peter and Paul there. If it was St. Nicholas Church, you’d have an icon of St. Nicholas.
If it was the Church of the Holy Trinity, you may have an icon of the three angels that symbolize the Trinity that appeared to Abraham in the Old Covenant. You cannot have a picture of God the Father, looking like an old man. That’s forbidden. But an icon of the Ancient of Days in a mandorla may be acceptable, because it shows that it’s a depiction. It’s not a historical thing. If the church were dedicated to Christmas, you’d have an icon of the Nativity at that point.
So on the screen, you have the doors with the Annunciation and the Four Evangelists, sometimes with the Eucharist over the doors. On either side of the doors, you have the icons of the first and second coming of Christ – His coming in the form of a slave and His coming in glory, the Incarnation and the Parousia. And then you have the doors of the servers with the angels or deacons on them. And then you have the icons of John the Baptist and the particular event or saint to which the Church building is dedicated.
Then, you may have a second tier of the Twelve Major Feasts of the Church. You may have another tier of the Prophets of the Old Covenant. You may have another tier that would have other saintly persons, not the Prophets, but let’s say David the King or someone from the Old Testament.
And then, around the walls of the churches, you would also have the other saints historically – martyrs, monks, nuns, holy bishops. Very often in churches, you have the icons of more recent saints, like in America, you would have St. Herman or St. Innocent, and they would be in their proper places.
So this is how the Church is set up iconographically when it is done according to the canon. And basically, you would find this in all Orthodox churches properly done. So the building, itself, is confessing the faith. The building, itself, is confessing and proclaiming the Gospel. And the building itself, is kind of a Christian version of the Old Testament Temple and the Old Testament Tabernacle, and as such, it is also the depiction of the heavenly worship that is shown in the Bible in the book of Revelation.
Because, in the book of Revelation and also, by the way, in the Letter to the Hebrews, you have an understanding of how worship goes on among Christians who believe that Jesus is the Messiah. And as a matter of fact, the book of Revelation is a very liturgical book. But if you read it, you will see that an Orthodox Church building and the way that the icons, frescoes, and mosaics are placed looks very, very much like the vision of the Heavenly Temple that is depicted in the Apocalypse.
So, this is how the Orthodox churches developed through history as places of worship that also confess the Orthodox Christian Faith, “once for all delivered to the saints,” and proclaim the Gospel of our salvation in the Lord, Jesus Christ, who is the Foundation together with all the Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, and the great cloud of witnesses, the Saints, who are with Him in the Glory of His Resurrection.