Iconography at St. Nicholas Part 2
In the traditional iconographic scheme for an architectural dome over the nave of the Church, there are typically four supports (sometimes four pillars from the floor) which are adorned with four icons of the evangelists , above which is the ‘barrel vault’ supporting the dome itself. In our case, the barrel is octagonal in shape with the icons of two prophets on each face of the octagon, making a total of 16 prophets.
The octagonal shape was selected for a particular theological purpose. We know from the very beginning inthe Book of Genesis that time in our world as God created it was set to revolve around the seven day week. Every week we gather in the temple to worship the Lord – as we are part of the world. But there is an element of revelatory fulfillment in the number 8, from the early Church, revealed in the Resurrection – for Christ rose on the third day (Sunday) and the myrrhbearers discovered the empty tomb, and eventually would meet the Risen Lord ‘early on the first day of the week’.(Jn. 20:1) This was the ‘eighth day’ of the week – the Day of Resurrection – the Day of the New Creation, in a sense, where the notion of time is re-set to the pattern of fulfillment in Christ. The ancient baptismal fonts were often formed in an octagon shape to remind us that baptism enables our entry into this New Day and New Creation by our being joined to the Death and Resurrection of Christ. Hence, the dome vault proclaims the fulfillment of this new creation in Christ, the Risen Lord, and Pantocrator, through whom the world was made (in Genesis) and through Whom the New Creation emerges (theosis).
The schema for iconography at various levels and places has generally developed to a rather standard pattern, starting with Christ in the Dome as Pantocrator, and the cloud of witnesses (saints) at the lowest level of the church structure. The level right below the Pantocrator is that of the holy prophets, inspired by the Holy Spirit to see and foretell the coming of Christ into the World. In this sense, they reveal the working of God
in the midst of humankind – particularly through the saving work of Christ. The arrangement in our dome, using the octagon, allows us to group the prophets (according to what they proclaim on their scrolls) into four separate groups of four prophet iconsEast Grouping (toward the altar) – speak to the identity ofChrist Pantocrator as Lord Almighty, the Lord over all creation. Their sayings elicit the notion of the grandeur of God and his utterly awesome glory, which sets the right (Orthodox) understanding of creation/matter in light of this.
North Grouping – speaks to the infinite condescension of the Son of God in the Incarnation. The prophets foresaw and foretold the coming of Christ, to be born of a Virgin and become Man, for the life of the World.
South Grouping – speaks to the saving work of Christ accomplished by His Cross, Death and Resurrection, and the sending of the Holy Spirit, that humankind might participate in His divine life, death and resurrection unto our salvation. West Grouping – typically the west of the Church focuses on the Second Coming of Christ and the Last Judgment. These prophets ‘complete the circle’ of God’s immersion into our world in its fulfillment in the Restoration of theWorld and its final purification from sin (recreation) as foretold in the Book of Revelation (and also Matt. 23-25)Christ the Pantocrator is also the same Christ born as an infant of Mary, the Suffering Servant foretold by Isaiah, and the whose return was prophesied by those such as Amos. It is in this way that the schema speaks to these fundamental dimensions of the foundations of our faith in Christ – in all that He has done on our behalf.