How to Make an Icon Corner

3 05 2010

And Create a Domestic Church Beauty calls us to itself and then beyond, to the source of all beauty, God. God’s creation is beautiful, and God made us to apprehend it so that we might see Him through it. The choice of images for our prayer, therefore, is important. Beautiful sacred imagery not only aids the process of prayer, but what we pray with influences profoundly our taste: praying with beautiful sacred art is the most powerful education in beauty that there is. In the end this is how we shape our culture, especially so when this is rooted in family prayer. The icon corner will help us to do that. I am using icon here in the broadest sense of the term, referring to a sacred image that depicts the likeness of the person portrayed. So one could as easily choose Byzantine, gothic or even baroque styles.

The contemplation of sacred imagery is rooted in man’s nature. This was made clear by the 7th Ecumenical Council, at Nicea. Through the veneration icons, our imagination takes us to the person depicted. The veneration of icons, therefore, serves to stimulation and purify the imagination as a means of imaging God’s inspiration. This is discussed in the writings of Theodore the Studite (759-826AD), who was one of the main theologians who contributed to the resolution of the iconoclastic controversy.

In emphasising the importance of praying with sacred images Theodore said: “Imprint Christ…onto your heart, where he [already] dwells; whether you read a book about him, or behold him in an image, may he inspire your thoughts, as you come to know him twofold through the twofold experience of your senses. Thus you will see with your eyes what you have learned through the words you have heard. He who in this way hears and sees will fill his entire being with the praise of God.” [quoted by Cardinal Schonborn, p232, God’s Human Face, pub. Ignatius.]

It is good, therefore for us to develop the habit of praying with visual imagery and this can start at home. The tradition is to have a corner in which images are placed. This image or icon corner is the place to which we turn, when we pray. When this is done at home it will help bind the family in common prayer.

Accordingly, the Catechism of the Catholic Church recommends that we consider appropriate places for personal prayer: ‘For personal prayer this can be a prayer corner with the sacred scriptures and icons, in order to be there, in secret, before our Father. In a Christian family kind of little oratory fosters prayer in common.’(CCC, 2691)

I would go further and suggest that if the father leads the prayer, acting as head of the domestic church, as Christ is head of the Church, which is His mystical body, it will help to re-establish a true sense of fatherhood and masculinity. It might also, I suggest, encourage also vocations to the priesthood.

The placement should be so that the person praying is facing east. The sun rises in the east. Our praying towards the east symbolizes our expectation of the coming of the Son, symbolized by the rising sun. This is why churches are traditionally ‘oriented’ towards the orient, the east. To reinforce this symbolism, it is appropriate to light candles at times of prayer. The tradition is to mark this direction with a cross. It is important that the cross is not empty, but that Christ is on it. in the corner there should be representation of both the suffering Christ and Christ in glory.

Those interested in reading more about these traditions might be interested in a book,  Earthen Vessels, the Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition (pub Ignatius), written by a Swiss Benedictine monk, Fr Gabriel Bunge. He says further:

‘On the right and the left of this sign of the Lord [Christ on the cross], or else beneath it, one can hang icons of Christ (to the right) and the Mother of God (to the left), as well as favourite saints. They make present in picture form our Saviour and those in who “God has shown himself wonderful”[Ps 67], and help the person praying alone to realize that he always prays in the communion of saints. This is reinforced by the burning of incense. The smoke rising represents the prayers of the saints rising to heaven and the fragrance ensures that even our sense of smell is

‘On a prie-dieu or prayer stand the “instruments” of daily prayer should be available: the Sacred Scriptures, the Psalter, or other prayer books that one might need, a rosary…

‘A little oratory of this kind, though it may remain hidden from the eyes of men, is what turns a dwelling of any Christian into a ‘domestic church’! Like a pinch of salt, which seems to disappear in the world, it actually flavours and seasons it.’

An excellent example of an image of Christ in glory which is in the Western tradition and appropriate to the family is the Sacred Heart (the one from Thomas More College’s chapel is shown). From this core imagery, there can be additions that change to reflect the seasons and feast days. On the image corner in my studio, I have coloured cloth draped over the table which I change to match the colours of the priests’ vestments during each liturgical season. This way it becomes a timepiece that reflects the cycles of sacred time.

This harmony of prayer, love and beauty is bound up in the family. And the link between family (the basic building block upon which our society is built) and the culture is similarly profound. Just as beautiful sacred art nourishes the prayer that binds families together in love, to each other and to God; so the families that pray well will naturally seek or even create art (and by extension all aspects of the culture) that is in accord with that prayer. The family is the basis of culture.

A 19th century painting of a Russian icon corner




7 responses

3 05 2010
Brother André Marie, M.I.C.M.

Wonderful post, Mr. Clayton. Your observations about the domestic Church, masculinity, fatherhood and vocations are spot-on.

I’m reading a lot of Dostoyevsky of late. The “Icon corner” as a fixture in the home is an element of Russian life mentioned constantly in his works. I very much appreciate knowing what one looks like, and even how to arrange it. I also appreciate your Benedictine source’s “two-lung” (oriental-occidental) approach to praying with icons.

God bless, Mary keep!

3 05 2010
Brother André Marie, M.I.C.M.

Wonderful post, Mr. Clayton. Your observations about the domestic Church, masculinity, fatherhood and vocations are spot-on.

I’m reading a lot of Dostoyevsky of late. The “Icon corner” as a fixture in the home is an integral element of Russian life mentioned constantly in his works. I very much appreciate knowing what one looks like, and even how to arrange it. I also appreciate your Benedictine source’s “two-lung” (oriental-occidental) approach to praying with icons.

God bless, Mary keep!

3 05 2010
Douglas Bonneville

Wonderful article. The family is the bedrock of culture, and what more powerful way to shape culture than through an icon corner in the home.

This brings up a question, but I’m not sure it’s valid: originals vs reproductions, or high quality reproductions vs extremely cheap reproductions.

I know that original art work has such a strong impact and lasting presence. To me, it’s not much different than live music vs a recording. I’m not asking if the quality of a reproduction or print would ultimately affect one’s prayer life, but I’m thinking of the entire ecosystem of Catholic art, which for the most part, is heavy on low-quality CMYK prints of highly sentimental images that collectively is less than the sum of its parts. Overall, I would think there would be a qualitative, systemic difference on a deep spiritual level if the Catholic devotional art community, along with the direction of the Holy Father and the Bishops, began to favor originals and high quality reproduction vs cheap 3 dollar prints. We live in an age where anyone can own any image at any size, pretty much, on any substrate. But do we value real art, and in turn, do we value the artist, the art object itself, and ultimately our culture and humanity if we are content with and default to art of the least common denominator content-wise and price-wise.

The question is what do cheap prints of low quality art say and do to our interior lives and identity as Catholics? I’d rather have cheap prints than no prints. I’m addressing an issue more about the role of art the lives of Catholics and in the culture in general, a culture that values the shallow or even worse, doesn’t recognize the trite. In our home, we’ve spent what modest budget we have for art on the best we could afford and from what was available. Essentially, even if we wanted to spend more, the range was from $5 to $35 for paper and heavy substrate reproductions, but then it jumped to about $2000 for a “real” icon. Is there nothing inbetween? Giclee at least? Whatever the solution, it’s not present in our local Catholic stores, and very hard to find, if you can find it at all, online.

I realize it’s probably an entirely new topic, but it’s one that we went through when setting up our icon corner. I wanted my kids to see the difference between a cheap prayer card or newspaper clipping and what we hang on our walls for devotion.

3 05 2010

Thank you Douglas. I am just reading through Cardinal Schonborn’s God’s Human Face. In this he outlines the theological developments in the iconoclastic controversy. I plan a longer article on this which will be posted in a couple of weeks in relation to what Catholics believe about icons (eg are they grace filled vessels like relics?) based on this book. (And your point has given a great idea for another posting. Thank you! ). Theodore the Studite, who is the Church father of the Triumph of Orthodoxy that laid to rest the iconoclastic periods, is worth reading here. I need to mull over it, but as I understand him at the moment: icons, do not participate in the essence of the person depicted. Rather, they set up a relationship between observer and saint by virtue of the physical likeness to the person. That does not exist when the icon is not being viewed by the observer, therefore. This means that any style is worth of veneration provide it retains the physical likeness. In principle that means gothic, baroque, and also, yes, photographic representation. If these are inferior (and I know that many are!), it is because they are poor representations, but not by virtue of their being imitations of originals. I guess it would be possible therefore, by inspiration, for a photographic representation to be better than the original!

4 05 2010

We do have a couple of prayer corners at home, and I believe that we will take into consideration some of your more detailed suggestions on how they should be oriented, etc. Great stuff David!

10 10 2010

Nice article. I have an oratory at home. It is centered on an icon of the Divine Mercy with a statue of Our Lady of Mt Carmel. I have a few other icons as well. As to buying cheap reproduction icons or $20000 icons, I think you will be surprised. I bought some original icons from Arlene Tilghman– I am quite happy with them. I hope this helps.

8 03 2011
Praying in Harmony with the Angels – How to Engage the Whole Person in Prayer. The Divine Office III « The Way of Beauty

[…] Engaging our sense of sight: pray with visual imagery and use candles. I light candles to mark the time of prayer (it reminds me that Christ is the Light of the World) . If I pray to as named saint, for example, Our Lady, I turn and look at an image of her as I do so. At home I create and icon or image corner as a focus for prayer. This can be as simple as have a single icon, or become of more sophisticated combination of images changing according to season and day (see earlier article Praying with Visual Imagery). The ideal core imagery for and icon corner, in accordance with tradition, is to have a crucifixion in the centre, which portrays the suffering Christ; an image of Our Lady on the left; and an additional image of Our Lord glorified on the right. (See past article, How to Make an Icon Corner] […]

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