Windows to heaven: Icons in church

Windows to heaven: Icons in church November 15, 2013

My church, St. Ignatius Orthodox Church, has completed the first part of a lengthy iconography program. Here’s a wonderful time-elapsed presentation of the work behind the altar.

In time, it will look something like this church. It took Fr. Theodore Jurewicz six years to properly adorn St. Stephen Orthodox Church in Lackawanna, New York. The results of such efforts, as one monk commented, are “not like Rembrandt. It’s other worldly.” The icons are “supposed to transport you to another dimension, Heaven.” Indeed, icons are sometimes called “windows to heaven.”

It’s wonderful to see such beautifully adorned churches like St. Stephen and St. Ignatius. Before the Reformation, many churches in Europe were similarly decorated. Protestants tended to favor imageless churches and scrubbed countless walls of adornment. We are now so far removed from the tradition in America that stained glass is about as close as most of us ever come. It’s a great loss, but one that can be reversed.

For readers interested in more information on iconography, here are some resources I’ve found helfpful.

The first is a short, accessible book by Frederica Mathewes-Green called The Open Door. It not only explains some of the rationale for icons but offers several examples and how to interpret them.

One amazing website worth following for anyone curious about icons is A Reader’s Guide to Orthodox Icons, which unpacks and interprets many, many aspects of iconography with stunning and beautiful examples.

As mentioned above, Protestant feelings on iconography can be a little less than amenable. Gabe Martini handles one set of objections in this multipart essay, “Is There Really A Patristic Critique of Icons?” Here’s the first part. You can also listen to it here.

Finally, for a rich and extensive guide to icons, check out Icons and Saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It showcases several prominent icon types, decoding the various elements of each so you can understand and better appreciate what’s happening in an icon when you encounter it.

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