In the previous article, we explored the Orthodox Church’s inheritance of iconography from ancient Israel. Today, we
will consider three-dimensional iconography in both Israel
and the Church.
The Orthodox Church is rich with icons, both 2D and 3D.
Three-dimensional icons can be traced all the way back to the Tabernacle and the Temple in ancient Israel, and their beauty continues to the present day within Orthodox Christianity.
The word “icon” comes from the Greek word “εἰκών”,
which simply means “image”. An icon can be either a two-dimensional image (portrait), or a three-dimensional image (statue).
In ancient Israel, during the time of Moses, God commanded His people to fill the Tabernacle with icons of angels, both 2D and 3D. The Ark of the Covenant was adorned with three-dimensional cherubim, while two-dimensional images of angels were woven into the tapestry.
Approximately 1000 years before the birth of Christ, the first Temple in Jerusalem was built by King Solomon. This holy construction project included some impressive golden statues:
Inside the inner sanctuary, he made two cherubim standing majestically, each ten cubits high. One wing of the cherub was five cubits, and the other wing of the cherub, five cubits. It was ten cubits from the tip of one wing to the tip of the other. The other cherub was ten cubits; both cherubim were of the same size and shape. The height of one cherub was ten cubits, and so was the other cherub. Then he set both cherubim inside the inner room; and they stretched out the wings of the cherubim, so the wing of one touched one wall, and the wing of the other cherub touched the other wall. Their wings touched each other in the middle of the room. He also overlaid the cherubim with gold. (3 Kingdoms 6:22-27. The Orthodox Study Bible
[p. 395]. Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.)
When we fast-forward to the Christian era, we learn that three-dimensional iconography persisted into the early Church. Eusebius, a fourth century Church historian, tells us that outside the house of the woman in the Gospels with a hemorrhage cured by Christ was “a bronze statue of a woman, resting on one knee and resembling a suppliant with arms out stretched. Facing this was another of the same material, an upright figure of a man with a double cloak draped neatly over his shoulders and his hand stretched out to the woman.” Eusebius says, “This statue, which was said to resemble the features of Jesus, was still there in my own time, so that I saw it with my own eyes” (Church History, Book 7, Chapter 18).
As Fr. Les Bundy has noted, the Seventh Ecumenical Council’s decrees on icons refer to all religious images, including three-dimensional statues. He also points out that Professor Sergios Verkhovskoi, conservative professor of dogmatics at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, affirms that statues are fully Orthodox, and are canonically equal to paintings in every way.
Fr. Les Bundy has also noted that statues were common in Byzantium. One of the most striking images originating from Constantinople is a 10th-century statue of the Virgin and Child. Constantinople was filled with statues, both inside and outside the churches. One author claims that over three hundred classical statues adorned the plaza before the Hagia Sophia.
The balance between 2D and 3D icons was affected in the 8th and 9th centuries, during the iconoclastic controversy. The iconoclasts were heretics who opposed the existence of holy images. Whenever they discovered Christian images of any kind, they commonly broke, effaced, or destroyed them.
As a result, Orthodox Christians frequently hid the images away, in order to protect them. Of course, it is easier to hide a few flat icons under your cloak, than it is to hide statues. So compared to the two-dimensional icons, few statues survived the iconoclastic attack. And even after the empire legalized icons once again, statues remained more costly to create than flat icons, thus keeping them relatively rare.
Tensions between East and West served to further complicate matters. While holy statues made a full comeback in the West, the East increasingly sought to distance itself from anything perceived as “Western”. After the events of 1054
and the subsequent Crusades had rendered the Great Schism complete, anything thought to be uniquely Western was assumed to be heretical. And since holy statues at this time were more common in the West than in the East, some Easterners mistakenly assumed that statues were unorthodox. This perception has unfortunately persisted among some groups of Orthodox Christians even to this day. Hopefully, an honest look at Orthodox Church history will help to clear up any misconceptions.
Thankfully, holy statues have survived in Orthodoxy. Centuries after Rome departed from the Church, a number of Orthodox churches kept three-dimensional iconography alive. Examples of such statuary include a 14th-century Serbian statue of the Theotokos and Christ Child, and a wood-carved statue of St. George found in a church in Greece. Other examples include an Orthodox statue of St. Nicholas of Mozhaisk, a semi-3D iconostasis in St. Isaac’s Cathedral in Russia, and a statue of St. Nicholas in an Orthodox Church in Demre, Turkey.
There are a significant number of modern Orthodox churches which are embracing their heritage via three-dimensional Orthodox iconography. Here to the right is a beautiful Orthodox statue of the Virgin Mary with Christ Child. It is currently in the sanctuary of the Holy Incarnation Antiochian Orthodox Church in Lincoln Park, Michigan. I visited there myself this past spring for Pascha services, and was quite delighted by the entire experience. I am thankful that God continues to inspire His faithful servants to create beautiful and holy icons, whether they be 2D, or 3D.