Orthodox icons are seen as 'theology in color'

Orthodox icons of Jesus, saints are believed to reveal God's word


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On a wall behind the altar of an Orthodox camp chapel near Ligonier is a larger-than-life icon of Jesus freeing souls from Hades.

The 8-foot Jesus, robed in white, stands on his broken cross. Its shards also represent the shattered gates of Hades, which in Orthodox theology is where the righteous and unrighteous await judgment. Grasping the hands of Adam and Eve, he raises them from a dark pit.

The icon illustrates an ancient understanding of Jesus' resurrection as the gift he offers to all humanity on a renewed Earth. While all Orthodox churches are filled with icons, the Resurrection icon in the camp chapel at Antiochian Village retreat and conference center is one of the largest in Pennsylvania and possibly the United States.

"An icon is theology in color," said Mother Alexandra, founder of the Convent of St. Thekla, which also is on the grounds of Antiochian Village in Bolivar, Westmoreland County. The center, which also houses a museum and bookstore, is a ministry of the Antiochian Orthodox Church.

Today Eastern and Western Christians all celebrate Easter. Most years the Orthodox celebrate after Catholics and Protestants because they use a different formula to calculate the date of Easter and also observe it according to the Julian calendar. The Orthodox and Catholic churches were originally one, but split in 1054. Orthodoxy is dominant in the east, Catholicism in the west. Protestants split from Catholicism centuries later.

Icons are part of the essence of Orthodoxy, and are also venerated by Eastern Catholics. The images of Jesus and the saints are believed to reveal God's word much as the Bible does, with Scripture and icon complementing each other. Believers who gaze on icons in prayer say their minds and hearts are drawn to God.

"We sometimes refer to icons as doorways to heaven. Often they are explaining things about God in ways that let us see and enter into the event," said Mother Alexandra, a 44-year-old convert from Catholicism. Outsiders sometimes accuse the Orthodox of idolatry because they pray before images. But they are confusing veneration with worship, she said.

"The only one we worship is God," she said. "But we venerate those in whom we see Christ's light shining through, just as we venerate members of our family when we see that they are holy. Do we have a picture of our loved ones? We do in the church also. The saints are our family."

When the Orthodox bought the camp from the Presbyterians in 1978, they commissioned renowned iconographer Constantine Youssis to transform its chapel. Icons now adorn the walls, ceiling, and screen beyond which only the priest may pass to the altar. But, at 12 feet high and 18 feet wide, the Resurrection icon dominates.

It shows Jesus robed in white to represent the purity of resurrected life. Icons of his earlier ministry show him in red and blue garb to symbolize his humanity and divinity.

All icons must be made according to strict rules.

"An iconographer can't do what he wants to do. There is nothing personal in it," Mother Alexandra said. "It's very different from art."

The iconographer must begin work with fasting and prayer, and allow no variation from the tradition that has been handed down through the ages. For instance, the moment of Resurrection itself is never depicted.

Instead, as in the camp chapel, icons depict what is sometimes called "The harrowing of Hades." Jesus is shown above a dark pit, in which broken chains and keys can be seen, indicating that he has broken the power of death. He is bringing Adam and Eve out of Hades. In Orthodoxy, hell differs from Hades and is intended for the damned after judgment.

The image is drawn from the New Testament. 1 Peter 3:19-20 says that when Jesus was crucified, "he also went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built."

In these icons, he is always shown raising Adam and Eve because they represent all of humanity. Other figures who commonly appear in the background are John the Baptist, King David and King Solomon. Their inclusion is partly based on Matthew 27:52-53, which says that when Jesus died, "The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs and after Jesus' resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people."

Iconographers have some choice of who to depict in this scene. Sometimes the figures are recognizable, sometimes not.

Saints from later periods in history may be shown as a sign that all of the faithful someday will be resurrected and live with Jesus when he reigns on a renewed Earth.

"They have all been impacted by the Resurrection. This shows that the Resurrection is universal. It's for everyone," she said.

Iconic figures appear flat and ill-proportioned. Scenery is not realistic. There are theological reasons for that.

"There is never a shadow in icons. There is always light, and the light is coming from Christ," Mother Alexandra said. "Even in icons of the saints alone, the light of Christ is showing through their life. That light is not their own."

Ears, eyes and noses are enlarged to convey that Christ enlightens the senses. Hands are enlarged to symbolize service. But feet may appear smaller than they should be in life, and often don't touch the earth.

"This shows that we are to seek the things from above, letting go of the things we don't need," Mother Alexandra said.

The image of Jesus leading the dead out of Hades isn't the only iconic depiction of Easter.

Another shows the women who went to the tomb to properly prepare his body and found the grave empty. A version of that icon was recently given to Antiochian Village in memory of Joanne Abdalah, a writer and wife of the Rev. John Abdalah of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral in Oakland. Mrs. Abdalah, who died in 2008, was the first librarian at Antiochian Village.

One of the women in the Resurrection account from the gospel of Luke was Joanna, Mrs. Abdalah's patron saint. So St. Joanna is prominent in the icon, alongside the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, with unknown women in the background.

"The Myrrh-bearing Women at the Tomb" depicts a scene that the congregation re-enacts before dawn on Easter. The people gather in darkness -- it may be shortly before midnight or shortly before dawn. They make a procession around the outside of the church, imitating the women on their way to the tomb. The priest reads that Scriptural passage and then knocks on the church doors. When the doors are opened, all the lights are on and the candles lit, as a sign of the Resurrection.

The Resurrection, Mother Alexandra said, isn't only something that happened to Jesus long ago or that awaits the faithful when he returns. "Our resurrected bodies will be the bodies we have now. We walk in resurrected life every day with the Lord," she said. "Death isn't a different life. It's this life, continued. It's the sequel."


Ann Rodgers: arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416. First Published April 4, 2010 4:00 AM


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