A common fixture of the Eastern Christian home is the Icon Corner: a space, either a literal corner or a wall, used for daily prayer and meditation, usually adorned like a Church with numerous icons important to the persons (or in this case person) involved. I always enjoy when people share their icon stories and the logic behind their choices for an Icon Corner. Mine is obviously not an actual corner. My house fits perfectly onto the two axes of the compass and therefore each wall faces directly in one direction. For my Icon Corner I chose the traditional Eastern wall, as that is where the Sun comes from – signifying the coming of the Son, the Light of the World.
A spare silver crucifix. As much as I love excess and camp, I prefer my crucifices to be simple and direct. I think just a slender cross-beam with a corpus is perfectly sufficient. The brevity of it adds to the violence I think. It is purposely situated so that as I stand to say Morning and Evening Prayers, this crucifix is right at eye-level. It also serves as a good focal point around which the other icons can float. The crucifix is not, of course, canonically Orthodox. The tradition of the East is to use flat icons or relief. The three-dimensional crucifix is a Western phenomenon, but . . . I don’t really care. Catholic is Catholic. If there is one thing the Western Church understands better than the Eastern Church it is the violence and the pain of redemption. As Byzantine as I am, I have and always will like my religion tempered with some good ol’ fashioned horror.
Icons of Christ and the Theotókos. These two icons straddle the crucifix, in the tradition of the Royal Doors with Christ on the right and his mother on the left. The image of the Theotókos is one of my favorite icons. It can be seen on the apse of many a Byzantine Church. In most basic terms it is an image of the Theotókos carrying the Christ-child in her womb. It is an image of Christmas – of the condescension of the God-man. Though intuitively we know that Christ is in Our Lady’s womb, the icon depicts him as resting in her chest – in her center, the very core of her being, signifying that her life is totally devoted to Christ. The icon of Christ is one of the most ancient icons of the Church: Christ the Pantocrator, the Universal Ruler. With his right hand he gives the Sign of Peace. In his left he holds a book, for he is the Word of God. Of old his face has always been divided in two. The right side is painted considerably heavier than the left, to show his two natures, both fully God and fully man, united into one person.
Under the icon of the Theotókos is an icon of my favorite Marian feast-day, the Feast of the Dormition, known in the West as the Assumption of Mary. Though it is not a formally defined dogma of the Catholic Church, the vast majority of Christians, and the ancient tradition of the Eastern Church, have always held that the Theotókos underwent a kind of physical death before her bodily assumption. However this was “through the veil of sleep”, not met with fear or doubt, nor with corruption of the body, therefore not truly death in the spiritual sense, but only a peaceful falling asleep. In the icon we see the Apostles gathered around her body in mourning. She is blissfully at peace. One offers up incense as Christ descends from Heaven with his host of angels to retrieve his holy mother’s body. The dormition and assumption of the Theotókos has always been one of my favorite concepts in Marian theology, so it is wholly fitting that I include its icon in my daily prayers.
Under the icon of Christ is the image of the Transfiguration of Our Lord on Mount Tabor. Peter, John, and James bow in amazement at the glory of their Lord as his majesty is suddenly revealed to them. The Prophets Moses and Elijah stand to Christ’s left and right. The blue starburst behind Our Lord is the Uncreated Light, the Light of Mt. Tabor as the Hesychasts call it. Christ is the Light of that World, and that Light is one of the uncreated energies of God which we mortals can experience. It is said that the monks have experienced it through constant recitation of the Jesus Prayer. Uncreated Light is another of my favorite concepts, and as the Jesus Prayer constitutes a major part of my daily routine, I keep an icon of the Transfiguration to remind me of the goal of prayer: sanctification, deification, and an increase in faith.
At the bottom of all this is what I like to call “the tall altar”. It’s really just a tall table, but it does the job. It’s before this altar that I do all the chanted prayers standing. There is a thurible which I use to burn incense during morning prayers, four Rosary cases (I have way too many Rosaries), and a beeswax candle in the traditional Orthodox style form the good people at Legacy Icons. The problem with this table is that it’s prone to collecting dust and ash from the candle. Blech! But what can you do?
Off to the right is “the short altar”. This is a repurposed night-stand at which I say all the kneeling prayers, i.e. the Rosary and the Jesus Prayer. On it I keep another candle (when both are lit in the early morning and at night it is beautiful), and two of those cheap acrylic picture frames in which I keep more icons and religious images. On the left is what I call the seasonal icon. The icon in the top rectangle always fits the liturgical season (right now it is after Pentecost, so the icon is of the Descent of the Holy Spirit). Under the seasonal icon I always keep a picture of the Pope, just so nobody gets the wrong idea about to which Apostolic Church I belong, and also an image of a peacock, an ancient symbol of Christ and the bird of choice of Flannery O’Connor. On the right is the one peace of Western religious art I keep in the icon corner. It is a depiction of the Pietà, the Blessed Virgin cradling the dead Jesus in her arms. In this image the angels mourn with her. I love this picture, so much better than Michelangelo’s sculpture. On the right corner there is a small little icon I picked up of St. Seraphim of Sarov, the great Russian mystic and starets.
Finally, my favorite icon and the one I’m most proud of (God forgive me), is a Russian icon of the Theotókos and the baby Jesus, called in Greek the galaktorophousa – the milk-giving icon. It is a standard depiction of the Theotókos cradling the baby Jesus with one key difference: her nursing breast is exposed and Our Lord gives suck. Many people are scandalized by the apparent immodesty of the image (it’s funny how even the most secular of people are slightly uncomfortable at the sight of Mary’s exposed breast). The icon is a reminder to the secret Gnostics among us, Protestants and victims of the Parochial aesthetic, who might be shocked at the sheer physicality of the Incarnation. Yes! Christ was a man! He was one of us. He was conceived in the womb of a woman (gasp!), passed through her vagina, and suckled from her breast. It is my tendency to be even more vulgar about the mechanics of the Incarnation, just to dispel the shameless sentimentality surrounding Christ’s infancy. This icon is a perfect realization in images of that tendency, and that’s why it’s my favorite.
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