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Orthodox Greek Cathedrals in Astoria

Use of Icons

It was during the sixtth century that the icon became an essential part of Byzantine art and Christianity, and devotion to icons was further increased through stories telling of the miracles they performed. However, many believed that the people who used icons were idolaters, worshipping earthly images rather than the divine things which they represent, and so the Byzantine Empire adopted a policy of iconoclasm in 726 C E. As a result, many religious works were destroyed. The devastating loss of these icons prompted religious thinkers like John Damascene to formulate theories in defense of the sacred icons. His theory, which reflects Neoplatonic thought and the idea that matter is redeemed through the Incarnation of Christ, was extremely influential in bringing about the restoration of holy images in 843 CE.

Following this early controversy, the Eastern church developed one of its core doctrines which is still in practice today. The Orthodox believe that icons make the divine present, and that through the veneration of icons, it is possible for one to share in the kingdom of God. The magnificent iconography of St. Demetrios' Cathedral and St. Irene of Chrysovalantou's helps keep the unity of art and religion alive and active in the modern world. Some of the icons in these churches come from the Monastic center at Mount Athos.

The icons of St. Demetrios' Cathedral and St. Irene's are very similar to those present in other Eastern Orthodox churches. They represent Christ, the Virgin Mary, the Holy Trinity, the saints, as well as other episodes from the bible and saints' lives. [see St Demetrios Gallery for more pictures from inside St. Demetrios' Cathedral.]

In every Orthodox church, there is an iconostasis separating the sanctuary from the rest of the church. Covering the domed ceiling of the inner sanctuary is a painting of the Virgin Mother with Her Child.

In Byzantium, the iconostasis, which developed in its modern form only in the later middle ages, formed two rows of icons. The lower row consisted of large icons of Christ, the Virgin, the archangels, and the saint whom the church was named after, while the rows above depicted icons of the Great Feasts.

The importance of icons in the Eastern liturgy becomes clear when one observes the rituals involved. George Galavaris, in his book Iconography of Religions, explains some of these rituals and their significance:

"When the Orthodox enters the church he offers a candle to the icon on the proskynetarion [a stand], kisses it, proceeds to the wonder-working icon, if the church has one, and to the lower icons of the iconostasis, where one finds the most ancient and often miraculous icons. Having venerated them, the faithful would contemplate the upper icons which display Christ's redemptive work.


"The iconostasis plays an important in the liturgy. The priest and the deacon recite prayers and cense the icons, especially those left and right of the royal doors, making the presence and participation of the Holy Person real, so that as the liturgy develops, the function and symbolism of the iconostasis becomes clear. . . The believer participates in a very tangible way in the communion of saints and the glory of the kingdom, when he kisses and venerates the icons of the lower row. Even the metal covers places on many of these icons, the oklad, stress the transcendental character of the represented figure and remove the holy from the everyday reality. . . the iconostasis is not a "symbol" or an "object of devotion;" it is the gate through which this world is bound to the other. The people, through the icons, participate in it and are transferred into the divine world."

Because the Orthodox do not view icons as mere artistic expressions, but as sacred images worthy of prayer and devotion, their importance must not be undervalued. The icons express the people's hope for health and haeling, and many believe that icons have actually intervened in their own lives and have performed miracles for them. In any Orthodox church there are many medals (tamata) brought by parishioners as thanks for the miracle which they believe healed them or one of their family members.

The Theft of The Icon of St,. Irene

The gratitude the people feel for these miracles can be more fully realized by reading a feature in The Voice of Orthodoxy, in which "thank you" letters are published for "The Miraculous Interventions of The Most Gracious St. Irene Chrysovalantou." It is the tremendous amount of faith and devotion which made the theft of the "weeping" icon of St. Irene Chrysovalantou all the more devastating for the faithful parishoners of St. Irene's. On December 23, 1991, three armed men and a woman came into the church, forced two priests and several other parishoners to lie on the front altar, and stole the icon from its plexiglass case. The icon is said to have wept for one month, beginning October 17, 1990, because of the threat to peace the Persian Gulf war posed. However, the icon was returned anonymously through the mail within a few days following its theft, but it was missing its frame and most of the jewels which adorned it. The icon received a considerable amount of press coverage, both because of its "miraculous weeping" and because of the theft. (Read "Queen's Church Robbed of 'Weeping' Icon" and "Faithful Pray For New Miracle To Aid Stolen 'Weeping' Icon" which appeared in the December 24, 1991 and December 25, 1991 issues of The New York Times, respectively.)

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