Connection Between the Icon and the Liturgy


A museum is not the right place for the icon. The icon loses much of its meaning outside the church and liturgical space, because the icon is liturgical by design. Almost every Christian has icons at home, but he is entitled to have them insofar as his home is an extension of the temple and his life is an extension of the liturgy.

The icon reflects the liturgical life and liturgical experience of the Church. It makes sense in its entirety only inside the church space. It becomes part of the architectural ensemble, which comes to life at the moment when a liturgical action is being performed in it; all objects and participants thereof become part of the mystery of universal transformation. The church itself is like an icon of the Kingdom of Heaven. Both in the liturgy and in the icon, the notion of time, the boundary between the past, the present, and the future, is washed away.

Iconography does not explain the events of our salvation from a historical point of view… Although the Apostle Paul was not among the Apostles at the Last Supper “historically”, icons still depict him as the first to receive communion… An icon is a testimony of liturgical life and divine unity… It does not divide history into past and present.

Archimandrite Basil, “The Entrance.”

All changes related to the iconographic style or church decoration are inextricably linked with the liturgical life and the level of Eucharistic piety of the people.

The age of the early Christian Church was characterized by the active participation of all believers – both clerics and laymen – in worship. All prayers were recited aloud, and all who participated in the divine service went on to partake of the Holy Chalice. The open sanctuary and the absence of barriers between the clergy and the people were characteristic of this time. Eucharistic symbols, such as the Chalice, the fish, the lamb, the bread basket, the vine, a bird holding a bunch of grapes, occupy the most important place in the wall paintings of that time.

Ancient churches were decorated with mural paintings. It is the fresco that is the earliest example of Orthodox iconography. The frescoes could not be taken out of the temple. The life of such an icon was inextricably linked with the life of the church itself: it was born with it, and died with it.

During the Byzantine period, all themes of fresco painting are oriented towards the sanctuary, which remains open, and the altar space itself is painted specifically in line with the subject of the Eucharist (Communion of the Apostles, Last Supper, St. Basil the Great and St. John Chrysostom). All these images were intended to prepare the believer for the communion of the Holy Body and Blood, and for his full participation in the Liturgy.

The icon has its roots in the Eucharistic experience of the Church and is inextricably linked with it, as well as with the quality of church life in general. When this quality was high, church art was also at its height; when church life was deteriorating or the times of its decline were coming, church art, of course, also fell into decline.

Archimandrite Zinon (Theodor)

When the Liturgy ceased to be the common cause and believers stopped taking communion at every Liturgy – all this affected church art, in particular icon painting.

The altar was separated from the nave. The iconostasis wall grew between laymen and clerics, and the altar paintings dedicated to the Eucharist were hidden from view. It is believed that the iconostasis, which was intended to reveal the reality at which every icon points, contributed to deepening the gap between clergy and parishioners: the parishioners transformed from active participants of the divine service into passive listeners.

There is also the opposite opinion. For instance, Léonid Ouspensky believes that the classic iconostasis of the age when hesychasm and ecclesiastical art were in full bloom (14th – 16th centuries) is a vivid illustration of what the priest reads in “secret” prayers. The rejection of the entire iconostasis is also the rejection of everything that the Church teaches through it. Similar views were expressed by Father Pavel Florensky and Prince Eugene Trubetskoy.

All in all, this period is characterized by the upsurge of spiritual life and the blossoming of church art. It was then that the most famous masterpieces of Russian icon painting were created: frescoes and icons, which embodied the search for God and the ideas of hesychasm. Unfortunately, with gradual infiltration of Western concepts into the life of the society and the church, as well as into art, there was a certain decline.

During the Synodal period in the Russian Orthodox Church (18th and 19th centuries), after the church reforms of Peter the Great, the custom of receiving communion once or several times a year, rather than at each liturgy, gradually evolved and gained a foothold. Many people began to attend church only in order to be present at the Liturgy, and not for the sake of the Communion of the Holy Sacraments. The decline of Eucharistic consciousness fully corresponded to the decline in church art and the predominance of realistic, “academic” painting. Church paintings of this period retain only a distant semblance to their ancient prototypes, but are totally devoid of all the basic characteristics of iconography that distinguish it from secular art.

The revival of the Eucharistic life and the more active communion coincided in time with the “discovery” of the icon — the growing interest in ancient iconography. Church painters started looking for new images, and at the same time for a way to revive canonical icon painting. Meanwhile, they search for ways to decorate the church space. In particular, a one-tier iconostasis which blurs the feeling of a dead wall between what is happening in the altar and the rest of the temple returned to temples. In contrast, many enthusiasts of the authentic icon and the Eucharistic revival believe that it is the traditional iconostasis that can play an important spiritual role, and they agree with the view of the Rev. Pavel Florensky, who believed that it was the atmosphere of mystery that the multi-tier iconostasis with the Royal Door helps to create. It is that atmosphere of mystery that enables the faithful to appreciate the Liturgy more.

All of the above points to the fact that people’s spiritual and liturgical life influences the development of church art in one way or another, and this can be readily observed if one traces the upward and downward trends in church art. Despite the fact that a contemporary icon painter can access any samples: albums, online libraries, as well as visit ancient churches and monasteries, the search for the right style of the today’s church art continues, and it is still inextricably linked with the inner life of a person and his prayer.

About the author

Daria Chechko
A philologist; an author and designer of St. Elisabeth Convent's website.

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