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Iconography in the Apse
The Plan of a Traditional Apse
In the Church, there is a general plan for the decoration of each wall and ceiling. For example, either the Last Judgment or the Dormition are featured on the Western wall of the nave, since these are images that remind us (on exit) of what is to come in our own lives: standing before Christ on the Last Day and our own natural death.
Orthodox Christianity—overly simplified—is the living out of “God is with us!” And this “God is with us!” is traditionally painted in the Apse—the curved East wall in the altar. We pray facing east since, biblically speaking, Jesus will return in the east, the same direction from which He ascended (How beautiful a link to our parish name: Holy Ascension). In fact, one of Jesus’ Names is “East”: “Orient/East/Sunrise is his Name” (Zechariah 6:12). At weddings we sing: Rejoice, O Isaiah! A virgin is with child; and shall bear a Son, Emmanuel [God with us]: He is both God and man; and Orient is His Name; magnifying him, we call the virgin blessed!
So, this top icon, first seen as we enter the church, is called the “Virgin of the Sign”, in Russian: “Znammeny” (Sign), in Greek “Platytera”. This comes very specifically from Isaiah 7:14: Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanu-el. This fresco shows the Theotokos, flanked by two angels, bearing Christ in a medallion in her womb.
The altar is also the chief liturgical place where the Lord “is with us even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:22). This is true in the Eucharist, where, by the descent of the Holy Spirit, the bread and wine become the very Body and Blood of our Lord. Therefore we paint the Communion of the Apostles—the Mystical Supper, the banquet of Heaven, to which we are invited each time we serve the Divine Liturgy.
Finally, we remember the bishops, theologians, and authors of our liturgies. So, the lower tier will include St John Chrysostom and St Basil the Great, (authors of our regular Liturgies), as well as St Gregory Dialogus (Presanctified Liturgy); St James—the Brother of the Lord (Early Church Liturgy); plus St Athanasius and St Gregory the Theologian .
These three scenes together on the Apse wall paint a united picture that “God is with us!” With us in his incarnation through the Theotokos; with us in the Mystical Supper, in the sacramental form of His Body and Blood; and with us through the words of those most faithful pray-ers whose Liturgies and teaching connect us all to one another in Christ.
God is with us! Understand all ye nations and submit yourselves, for God is with us!