An excerpt from
The Open Door
by Frederica Mathewes-Green
Come in. I want you to see these icons.
We’ve come into this church around noon on Sunday. The service has recently ended, and the once-feathery wisps of incense are settling into a diffuse pale-gray cloud. It smells like smoke and roses. A few bulletins and worship books are scattered about, and a child’s white cardigan lies forgotten under a chair. The church is empty; the congregation has gone downstairs to coffee hour and we can faintly hear the hubbub of their voices. Up here, though, it’s quiet.
Walk up to the center of the church with me and take a look around. There’s a lot to take in. The church looks surprisingly complicated inside, compared to how it looked when we coming up the sidewalk. From the outside it looked like a simple cube. But in here much of the walls and even ceiling have been covered with paintings of people and scenes from the Bible and church history. It’s initially bewildering to the eye, with so many stories and scenes going on at once.
But if you imagine the room painted solid white you can see that it’s still a cube, with a single large dome centered overhead. If you look toward the back wall, behind the altar, you’ll see that it is topped with a half-dome, what architects call an *apse*. This altar area is separated from the main body of the church by a wooden screen, the *iconostasis*. And that’s it, actually. There aren’t even pews, only a few short rows of chairs against the walls. During worship, most of the congregation stands clustered on the oriental rugs in the center.
Unlike the familiar kind of pointy church that sends a steeple soaring toward the heavens, this dome covers worshippers as with a bowl. It conveys a feeling of God joining us in the Incarnation and rounding us into one Body.
When the congregation first moved into this building the walls were bare white, and they have been saving up to add made-to-order icons a few at a time, as they can afford to have them painted. Some of the prime spots in the church don’t yet have hand-painted icons. In those places the congregation is using reproductions of classic icons that have been laminated onto wooden panels. All the icons we will be looking at in this book fall into that category of historic reproduction. (I am grateful to St. Isaac of Syria Skete of Boscobel, Wisconsin, www.skete.com, for supplying these images.)
Let’s look at the wooden screen before the altar. It is called an *iconostasis*, a Greek word meaning “icon-stand,” and on it is set a series of large, almost life-size icons. Fold out the color panels from the front and back covers of the book and you’ll see two icons on each side. In the middle, where the pages of this book are (and not depicted-you’ll have to use your imagination here), there is an elaborate double door which opens to the altar. On the doors there is an icon of the Angel Gabriel announcing the birth of the Christ Child to the Virgin Mary. Beyond these doors is the altar, and behind the altar, on the back wall of the church, is the apse we noticed earlier. The apse is filled with a very large icon of the Virgin Mary standing with her hands raised in prayer. On her torso there is a starry disk, and in it we see the Christ Child blessing us.
To the right of those double doors (to the right of these pages) is the imposing icon of Christ we see reproduced here. He is holding a jeweled book in one hand and blessing with the other. His face, and particularly his eyes, are powerfully attractive, compelling, yet also somehow disturbing. They make us feel confused or self-conscious, as if they are asking a question we don’t understand. To the left of the double doors we recognize the Virgin Mary, who is embracing the Christ child. She traditionally holds this place on an iconostasis, to Christ’s right, recalling the scripture, “At your right hand stands the queen” (Psalm 45:9). In front of each of these icons is a brass stand holding clusters of beeswax candles, which are now more than half-melted and running with honey-scented streaks. The candles cast flickering light on the figures. These images of Christ and the Virgin are two of the best-known and most beloved icons in the world. We’ll be looking at them in this chapter and the next, and learning more of the “what” and “why” of icons.
In the third chapter we will turn to the icon to the left of the Virgin, which shows Christ pulling an old man out of a tomb, while other figures stand behind him in a rocky landscape. The old man is our forefather Adam, and this icon represents the events of Holy Saturday, when Christ went into the realm of Death and set the captives free. This spot on an iconostasis is usually reserved for the saint or feast for whom a church is named, so now we know that this church is called Holy Resurrection. On the far right side of the iconostasis we see a man looking toward Christ and lifting his hands in imploring prayer. We could guess from his disheveled appearance that this is St. John the Baptist, even if we didn’t know that this is his usual spot on an iconostasis. We’ll get to know him further in the fourth chapter.
If you turn around, you’ll see something going on everywhere you look. There are brass candlestands, hanging oil lamps, a box of sand forested with leaning candle nubs. Toward the front there is a bulky wooden bookstand, for the chanters; in the back, there are a dozen music stands for the choir. Near the iconostasis there is a large baptismal font shaped like a silver chalice. On the far edges of the iconostasis, beyond the Resurrection and St. John, angels stand guard on doors leading back to the altar. If we look up at the ceiling we’re startled to see Christ gazing directly down on us from the dome centered over the nave. Though the congregation has gone downstairs, the church retains a hum of bustling energy. Something vigorous has been going on here, and the high smoky room still reverberates.