NEW YORK — The first thing Maggie Downham does when she enters the inner sanctuary of the Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection is kiss the icons.
Encased in a simple wooden frame on a pillar directly in front of the iconostasis, the wall separating the nave from the altar, is the icon of the day.
Downham stands before the small table propping up the image and makes the Sign of the Cross. Three fingers to the forehead, brought down to the stomach, taken over to the right shoulder and then to the left. She bows with her waist, her right hand open and touches the carpeted floor. Rising back to her upward position, she gently touches the contours of the icon and kisses first the feet and then the hands of the subject.
“The icon represents the presence of the sainthood, of a cloud of witnesses,” she said.
Icons can vary in length – the two-dimensional paintings plastered onto the iconostasis stretch upwards of several feet – but this one is the size of a framed family photo. It does contain a family of sorts. Beneath the glass, with the light of the surrounding candles flickering off its golden-hued glint, are dozens upon dozens of figures with haloes. In the center is a Russian Orthodox cross with its three crossbeams, and the background is filled with the domes of the Cathedral of the Dormition in Moscow. Its title: “Russian martyrs of the Soviet era.”
Once Downham has finished, she drifts off to the outer reaches of the church, repeating her metania, the series of prostration described above, before kissing other icons.
“We have a personal devotion to particular saints,” she said. “I try to center myself in front of the Virgin. But as I walk around, I go to whatever icon I feel connected with.”
The veneration of icons is considered by Eastern Orthodox Christians as a form of prayer and a conduit to deeper forms of spiritual reality.
“When worshippers pray in front of an icon, fundamentally they are looking at a mirror of themselves because we all share in the image of Christ,” said Richard Schneider, professor of iconology at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Yonkers.
Icons have been central to the Christian imagination since at least the 3rd century CE. Yet throughout the early centuries of Christianity, there was constant tension between the distinction of venerating an icon or actually worshipping it.
“We don’t worship icons. They’re representations, like sermons. They open up to us understanding of the mystery. Because you also arrange them in the church, that order reveals a theology and a point about time,” Schneider said.
The icon of each day is pegged to the Orthodox liturgical calendar which typically celebrates the feast days of different saints. This cycle of change is contrasted with the plastered icons on the iconostasis, images which remain unchanging and eternal.
For Juliana Federoff, icons act as reminders.
“Icons are the connecting point between my worship on the weekend in the church and during the week at home. In both places I’m surrounded by them, and they help me understand life itself as worship to God.”
Even though Downham tends to venerate the icons near the beginning of the service, many will wander towards the images during other parts of the service.
This is because behavior at Orthodox services is much less scripted. “It’s strangely loose. It’s very respectful, but it doesn’t have a rigidity to it,” Schneider said.
Given the central role of icons in Orthodox worship – of how the images are touched, kissed, nudged, and felt – there aren’t many from Byzantine times and most in circulation were created in the 19th and 20th centuries.
But Schneider is okay with the predicament.
“There’s a lot of competition between churches and museums about who gets to keep the icons. The curators say they’ll get ruined, they’re kissed all the time and candles are burning. But icons are like people. They’re born, they flourish, and they die. Just like people.”