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Icons: Christ Pantocrator & Hagia Sophia

The word icon, from the Greek eikon, simply means image. In the Orthodox Church, all forms of sacred art, irrespective of medium, are part of the icon concept, including wall decorations (such as mosaics and frescoes), reliefs on wood, metal, or ivory, illuminated manuscripts or books, embroideries, tapestries, and enamel work. Yet in the Western Church, icons generally refer to paintings in the Orthodox tradition using egg tempera and gold leaf on a prepared wooden panel.

The icons at Transfiguration fall into this latter category. They are based on authorized Byzantine and Russian models and employ traditional motifs and techniques in their execution.  The contemporary writing of an icon (icons are said to be written as they are regarded as visual scripture) is not simply the rigid process of making an exact copy, but rather it is a process of re-creation in which the artist enters into a creative dialog (through prayer and meditation) with the historical prototype—a concept going back to Plato in Greek classical times.  The process draws on both the past and the present, with emphasis on the spiritual rather than the physical.  The iconology of icons is as complicated as their iconography, and if you are interested in learning more about this fascinating subject, watch this site. Transfiguration has offered classes on icons in the past, and is likely to do so again.

Hanging behind the altar at Transfiguration is the icon of Christ Pantocrator.  The word Pantocrator means “Ruler Over All”, and this image has been prominent in the Church since about the third century.  Simply stated, it shows Christ as Creator, Savior, and Judge.  He wears a dark blue cape (himation) over a red tunic (chiton), symbolizing the two natures of Christ, the human and the divine. The gold drape over His right shoulder (the clavus) was used in Rome and Constantinople as a sign of high office.  His right hand is raised in blessing with His fingers forming the first two and last two letters of His name in Greek--ICXC.  His left hand holds the “Book of Life”, representing His return in judgment.  His nimbus, or halo, is an ancient symbol denoting a sanctified state. The Greek letters ó wNon the arms of the nimbus cross are the present tense of the verb to be, and may be translated as the abiding one or the one who isThus, the same transcendent and indescribable God who presented Himself to Moses as “I am who I am”  (Ex 3:14) is invisibly present behind the Son by virtue of His own name!

At the back of the church, hanging over the votive stand, is the icon known variously as Hagia Sophia or Hodegetria.  The name Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom in English) comes from the great church in Istanbul of the same name, where a similar mosaic image has been venerated for over 1300 years. Hodegetria means The one who points the way and refers to the position of the right hand of the Mother of God that points to the Christ Child enthroned on her lap.  According to popular legend, this particular icon was first written by St. Luke the Evangelist, with the living Mary serving as his model.  Here Mary is Theotokos, the God Bearer, presenting her child to the world.  Jesus is shown both as child and man, the visible form of the paradox that He is both God and man.  One hand is held in blessing and the other holds a scroll.  These signs signify that Jesus is both the pre-existent Logos (the scroll) and the coming savior (the blessing sign). 

The background of both icons is 24K gold leaf.  Gold is an important aesthetic element of all icons, but more importantly it represents a theological element: the uncreated and unending Light of God.  Uncreated light, unlike created light (such as sunlight or candlelight), casts no shadow and has no visible source.  On an icon, created light sources are subordinate to the uncreated light, which expresses a fundamental quality of God’s nature.  Nobody has created the Creator.  God is uncreated.  God is the only one who exists by virtue of Himself!  For humans, this is an absurd and incomprehensible concept—which is one of the reasons we have icons in the first place.  By meditating and praying with icons and by struggling to understand their many faceted symbols, icons become a tool for understanding and a window to the divine.

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Bill Robinson

Together with my wife, Nancy, I have been a member of Transfiguration since 2006.  I am licensed as a layreader and for chalice in four dioceses, as a lay preacher in three, have served on vestry in three parishes, as Junior Warden once, and as a Senior Warden twice.  At Transfiguration I have co-coordinated (with Nancy) the “Million Meals for our Neighbors” program for over seven years, and have worked extensively on the landscape design and landscaping of our church property.  Currently, I am a member of the choir, a reader, a member of the new Monday morning men’s fellowship, and an active member of Cursillo.  As a perpetual student of iconology and sacred art, and as a practicing iconographer, I am blessed to have been able to provide adult education on these subjects as well as three  Byzantine inspired icons to Transfiguration.  But more than anything else, I firmly believe in active lay ministry and in the importance of vigorous parish outreach to both vitalize and grow the church.

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