The “Art” of Worship

By: Dale M. Coulter
Tuesday, October 5th, 2010

I have been reflecting on the meaning of icons and art within the Christian tradition. This reflection was prompted by looking at the icons of several Orthodox churches. Recently, I have had the chance to visit several Orthodox churches and see the role of icons in worship, particularly in the iconostasis.

In brief, the iconostasis is the screen of gold and icons that separates the main sanctuary from the “holy of holies” where the Eucharist occurs. In the middle of each iconostasis is a set of doors leading to the bread and wine. After consecration the Orthodox priest will bring the wine and bread out through the doors as the final act of worship for the congregant.

To the right of the doors, one always finds the icon of Christ, the pantocrator or creator of all. To the left of the doors resides the Mary the Theotokos with the infant Jesus. Immediately to the left of this icon is the icon for the saint after which the church is named, or an icon of the Trinity, if the church is named Holy Trinity.

While there is much theological significance to the icons, what has struck me recently is the way in which they convey the communion of the saints. When an individual worships in the midst of icons, there is a strong sense that one is approaching the Triune God in and through the cloud of witnesses that testify to His glory.

Worship is never a solitary event. It always occurs in the communion of the saints as we join our voices to the chorus of those who sing with the Seraphim, “holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are filled with your glory.” Icons remind us that we are together caught up into the presence of the Triune God. They also remind us that God catches us up into His presence in and through other human beings who become channels of that presence precisely because they are joined to Christ who is the source of salvation.

As the source, Christ pours out his gifts to the human beings in the power of the Spirit who then become channels of divine life to others. In the midst of this fellowship, this communion, we embrace God as the Father reaches out to us through his two hands, the Word and the Spirit.

Icons also remind us of the importance of art as a way of making sense of our world and of redeeming life. The iconographer is not simply an artist, but a worshipper because she uses the materials of creation in order to depict God and God’s action in the world. Worship is an act of life, and when the artist captures life she captures the God of life, not simply in its triumphs but also its tragedies because all Christians follow Christ from cross to resurrection. By connecting life’s events to the cross and resurrection, the iconographer redeems the world and places all events within the frame of God’s acting in time—history becomes salvation history.

As those who hold fervently to a theology of encounter that claims God always desires to transform believers by catching them up into his presence, Pentecostals and Charismatics should be firmly committed to artist expressions as acts of worship. This is how the artist becomes an iconographer and thus a gift to the church. She channels God’s presence into her art as her “living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1-2) before his throne. Worship is not a solitary act, but one done in the communion of the saints as we together become conduits of God’s presence. In these acts of worship, we can make sense of our world and redeem it.

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Dale M. Coulter
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5 Responses to “The “Art” of Worship”

  1. Shane VanMeveren says:

    Much of the modern theology that permeates our Christian denominations focus upon the power of Christ’s victory over death. Whether Presbyterian, Lutheran, Evangelical or Charismatic, we never leave our funerals on a hopeless note because we fully trust in the removal of “the sting of death.” Or… do we? We claim that, but our actions seem to say something else.
    If we were to analize how many Christians in the denominations listed above really feel about death, the shocking reality is that death still wins! Once the ham sandwiches are eaten and the hearse has been put back into the garage, we live with no further connection to our dearly departed brothers or sisters in the faith. “We’ll see them when we get to heaven.” In other words, the veil is still firmly in place because the living and the dead continue to be separated. The church on earth and the church in heaven are virtually unconnected in much of our theology.
    What the Orthodox Church reminds us (and what Dr. Coulter has pointed out in this article), is that if we are truly part of the body of Christ, then we are always connected–to those around us and to those who stand in the presence of God. Those who have died in the faith are still very much alive and still very much apart of Christ’s Church. If they are apart of Christ’s Church then should they not also be apart of the Church’s worship? I am thankful for the Orthodox reminding us of that!

    • Nice insights Shane. To my mind, this is what makes the communion of the saints such a vivid reality. It is the pneumatological connection among all of God’s people, who all remain alive and thus present to one another “in the Spirit.”

      It is not that I want to have a conversation with someone no longer physically present, but more than I sense myself caught up into the presence of the saints precisely because of the one Spirit who permeates heaven and earth. And this communion is more than a Spirit-ual presence for me, but a channel of life because the words and deeds of the saints continue to bear fruit in my own life as I pursue the same Christ they pursued.

  2. I appreciate Dr. Coulter’s meditation on the Orthodox Christian use of icons. I think it is so important to understand that the icon in the Orthodox Tradition is primarily theological and only secondarily artistic. The Fathers of the 7th Ecumenical Council declared that any veneration shown to an icon passes on to the prototype, i.e., the saint that is depicted in the icon. When I kiss an icon of Jesus Christ the veneration of my kiss passes on to Christ Himself, not that the paint and wood are Christ but rather that the wood and the paint makes Jesus Christ present to me. For the Orthodox Christian “symbol” cannot be neatly separated from “reality”. The “material” makes the “spiritual” present. A popular phrase in Orthodoxy is that icons are “Windows into heaven”. Secondarily icons are art but in a very particular way. While icons are painted in a stylized way (Byzantine style) there is a “canon” by which they are painted. Just as the canon of the Holy Scripture defines what writings are canonical or authoritative there is a canon that define the spiritual “authority” of the icon. For instance even a “Byzantine” style painting of Jesus Christ as a smiling, California “surfer-dude” is not an icon because it does follow the canon. Nor is the Virgin Mary bedecked in an ermine-fur robe because she is “royalty”. Every color and every position is making a theological statement and just as the Holy Scripture must be correctly interpreted the icons likewise must be interpreted and just as the holy Scriptures belong IN the Church and are interpreted by the Holy Spirit present with in the Church likewise icons are not just religious art but rather a word of God speaking IN the Church, understood by the Church and interpreted by the Church.

    • Thanks Tim for these additional reflections on the role and meaning of icons within Orthodoxy. The first part of your reflection captures nicely the communion that occurs in and through the icon itself. The icon mediates a deeper spiritual communion with Christ and his saints.

      The second point is well taken in terms of icons within Orthodoxy. You are, of course, correct about the canon. Another way of making a similar point (not the same!) is that the iconographer always operates within the tradition, as any Christian artist should. For my own part, I think we must recover art as an expression of worship within “western” Christianity, and icons certainly provide a wonderful example of how to do that.

  3. there not “their”

    EDITOR’S NOTE: I’ve edited your previous post with this correction and for spelling.