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Mosaics & Iconography

An Encounter with the Sublime:

The Iconographic Program of Saint Sophia Cathedral

An offering by the Koines Family
To the Clergy, Congregation, and Guests of Saint Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral,
February 1999

As the Prophets beheld, —as the Apostles have taught, —as the Church has received; —as the Teachers have dogmatized; —as the Universe has agreed; —as Grace has shown forth, —as Truth has revealed; —as Falsehood has been dissolved; —as Wisdom has presented; as Christ has awarded!

thus we declare! —thus we assert —thus we preach Christ our true God: In words, In writings, In thoughts, In sacrifices, In churches, In holy Icons, —thus we honor His Saints: worshipping and reverencing Christ as God and Lord —and honoring His Saints as true servants of the same Lord of all —and accordingly offering them veneration-

This is the Faith of the Apostles, —this is the Faith of the Fathers, —this is the Faith of the Orthodox, —this is the Faith which has established the Ecoumene.

Affirmation of Orthodox Faith
Synod of Constantinople
March 11, 843

In 987 A.D., Vladimir, grand prince of Kiev and all of Russia, sent envoys to study the religions of the various neighboring nations, whose representatives had been urging him to embrace their respective faiths. Having returned, the envoys reported that they liked neither the Muslim, nor the Jewish, nor the German, i.e. Roman Catholic, worship because they lacked beauty and joy, but in Constantinople, where the full ritual of the Orthodox Church was set in motion, they found their ideal. They said:

“We knew not whether we were in heaven or earth, for surely there IS not such splendor or beauty upon earth. We cannot describe it to you; only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty. ”

In 988 A.D., Vladimir converted his people to Orthodoxy with no apparent difficulty, and the Russians became the first Christian people after the Greeks to worship in their own language.

It has seemed to many that the peculiar gift of the Orthodox peoples -and especially of Byzantium and Russia -is this power of perceiving the beauty of the spiritual world, and expressing this beauty in their worship.

We go to church to hear and do and see what we do not hear and do and see in the secular world. Here, there is no hymn to engage our ears nor any ritual act to perform. What remains for us, like Vladimir’s envoys, is to accept the invitation that John issued to Nathaniel: “Come and see. “(John 1:46). The sacred images you see are the building blocks of sacred space.

What is an Icon?

The basic theme of the icon is the “holy portrait,” i.e., the portrait of a person not represented in the corruptible state of the flesh but in the state of his partaking of the divine life. In the absence of authentic portraits, types were created which became part of the living Tradition of the Church; all that was ephemeral was removed so that the transcendental quality of the image is revealed.

No two icons are alike. By altering the rhythm in the composition, the thickness or the thinness of the lines or the color distribution, iconographers always managed to innovate and to give a personal character to the traditional figures.

The various types of Christ suggest that which is revealed to man in the person of Christ, with epithets often cited next to the image, such as, for example, the Almighty, the Redeemer, the Wisdom of God, which, combined with the inscriptions on the gospel book held by Christ, indicate to the faithful the energies of God, the gifts of Christ to mankind.

The adornment with icons of the interior of Eastern Orthodox churches offers an aid to worship and prayer for the Orthodox faithful; it presents the glory aspect of the Resurrection of Christ. It must be stated at the outset that the icon is not worshipped but rather revered for the presence it brings of the personages and the events recorded in scripture. When Christ descended to Earth, He redeemed and consecrated the material world, enabling humankind to use any manner of vehicle to create icons. The icon as symbol takes on greater meaning than the ordinary, for the word “symbol” is derived from the Greek word “simvolon” whose underlying meaning is “to bring together.” If it were not for the Tradition, the icon would have been only a secular picture which lowers the revelation, which tries to make it more accessible, more familiar, thus corrupting the teachings of the Gospel and diverting it from its aim.