Ruth Meredith writes about the set of Altar Icons she created for liturgical use at Canterbury:
Christian Icon painting is rooted in the theology of the Incarnation (Christ being the eikon of God). During most of Christian history, most people could not read, and icons served as teaching tools. The images tell the story of salvation and the people who can serve as models for a Christian life. In the Orthodox Church, icons are held in the same reverence as the written gospels. According to Saint John of Damascus, one of the early Church Fathers, the theology behind icons is closely tied to the Incarnational theology of the humanity and divinity of Jesus. So, attacks on icons were considered to undermine the Incarnation of Jesus himself making the iconoclastic position heretical. In the Orthodox Tradition, images must be flat because the Church fathers believed that statues were too close to the ‘real’ thing and so might cause confusion in the weak minded.
Ruth Meredith, 2020
This Advent Icon shows the baby Jesus still in Mary’s Womb. This image of Mary is based on the Mary of the Magnificat. When the pregnant Mary greeted Elizabeth, the baby leapt in her womb. [Luke1:44-56] Her hands are raised in the orans prayer posture that is like the position a priest takes during the prayer of consecration in the Eucharist. It signifies the openness and receptivity necessary to receive God into one’s life. She is surrounded by a body halo (mandorla) like resembling the one around Our Lady of Guadalupe, another depiction of the pregnant Mary.
The image of the Theotokos goes back to the First Council at Ephesus in 431BCE which approved devotion to the Virgin as Theotokos, which most accurately translated means God-bearer. Its use implies that Jesus, to whom Mary gave birth, is God. The early Church Fathers saw Mary as the “new Eve” who said “yes” to God as Eve had said “no.’
The icon for Christmas depicts the primary mystery of the Christian faith—the union of God and a human man. The baby Jesus was “begotten not made, of one being with the Father.” [Nicene Creed] This icon depicts that central mystery by showing not the usual innocent baby but a child who would grow up to be crucified. Jesus is wrapped swaddling clothes (Luke 1:6) which resemble the wrappings of a mummy signifying that God took on mortal flesh. The halo around the baby’s head contains a suggestion of the crown of thorns as does the baby’s posture. The prayer shawl draping the his head and shoulders reminds us that Jesus was born a Jew. He is lying on a pile of straw whose shape suggest a body halo (mandorla) like that around his mother in the Advent icon. Roses adorn the straw referring to the roses that entwine the Communion of Saints icon that ends the church year. Two angels attend his birth and welcome the shepherds.
This icon for Epiphany represents the divine Christ Child rather than the mortal baby, Jesus. His right hand is raised in a traditional gesture called the hand of blessing while in his left he holds the scriptures with the Dove of the Holy Spirit perched on them. He is accompanied by a goat and a sheep which prefigures the Last Judgment.
The image of Emmanuel is one of the earliest icons of the Christ Child. It is based on Matthew 1:23 Behold a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring froth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel. This verse is citing Isaiah 7:14 which is a prophecy of the coming of the Messiah.
Other images of the Christ Child are the Infant of Prague and the Santo Nino de Atocha.
The Stations of the Cross are the major icons for Lent.
This Lenten image is related to the Easter Icon. Like that icon, the Sacred heart is at the center of the cross surrounded by a Crown of Thorns. At Saint Thomas of Canterbury, we use an actual Crown of Thorns to represent the descent into Holy Week where the Stations of the Cross tell the story of Jesus’s sacrificial death. In contrast to the colorful icons representing the seasons of the church year, the stark black and white of the image represents the dynamic tension between opposites that characterizes the Lenten Season.
The Easter icon uses the iconography of the Sacred Heart and the the Eucharist which forms one of the most ancient rituals of the church. In this icon. The symbols include the chalice, wheat and grapes of the Eucharist. Roses like those on Mary’s gown twine around the rough wood of the cross. The Sacred Heart is centered on the cross representing the intersection of the Sacred (vertical) with the Human (horizontal) dimensions of spiritual life. The heart itself contains the spiral of change surrounded by a crown of thorns. Blue hands suggest the communion of saints while the two doves at the bottom represent the presentation of the baby Jesus in the Temple. At the top in the smoke of burnt offerings or incense rising from the heart, an image of the Holy Spirit stretched out hands to embrace the world.
In the Pentecost icon, the flaming phoenix rises triumphantly from the skull/egg of Lent. Its fiery rebirth signifies the fires of the Holy Spirit that descend on the disciples at Pentecost transforming them in Apostles who fearless spread the Gospel.
In the Middle Ages, the immortal Phoenix rose from death by igniting a funeral pyre of fragrant woods. This cycle of death and resurrection was seen as a symbol of a representation of Christ rising from the dead on the third day. It also symbolizes the rebirth of the soul of the believer. For me, this image is closer to my experience of the transforming fire of the Holy Spirit than the more traditional white dove.
The Season after Pentecost icon is the Tree of Life which represents the season of growth using abundant flowers, and butterflies. The three branches of the tree are cruciform and suggest uplifted arms at prayer as depicted in the Advent icon. At the top of the tree an angelic face signifies the presence and action of the Holy Spirit within history. At its center is the Lamb of God, an image that connects the tree of life not only with the Pascal mystery but with the Jewish feast of Passover. Seven doves nesting on tree signify the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit to the church [wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord]. These Gifts reveal the presence of God working in the Church. They can also represent the fruits of the Spirit [faith, hope, love, prudence, justice, courage, and temperance] which are personal attributes that characterize the sign of virtue for individual believers [Galatians 5:22-23].