The narthex is the point of entrance into a traditional Orthodox church building. It is the liminal, or transitional zone, where one steps from the outside world in order to prepare and reflect, before entering into the nave. The nave is the principal space where the sacred services take place that enable us to participate with the ongoing Heavenly Liturgy.
Traditionally, a narthex contained special iconographic programs that reflected the church’s particular saintly, patronal dedication, or the donor’s interests or role, or various, non-Eucharistic liturgical rites or ceremonies that occurred in such spaces. In the case of the Shrine of Saint Nicholas at Ground Zero, all of these aspects will find their visual counterparts in the Shrine’s narthex.
Within the narthex, one will find an image of Saint Nicholas, flanked by figures of Christ and the Theotokos who present the Saint with the emblems of his episcopal office: the Gospel Book and omophorion (the bishop’s stole). This icon immediately indicates that Saint Nicholas is the patron Saint of the Shrine. The iconography of this image is based upon an episode recorded in the Life of Saint Nicholas: before his ordination to the episcopacy: Saint Nicholas had a dream foretelling his future role as a bishop in which Christ and the Virgin appeared to him, presenting him with the emblems of the hierarchical office, the Gospel Book and the omophorion, respectively.
Another image to be found in the narthex is one depicting His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew presenting a model of the Shrine to Saint Nicholas. Such presentation imagery has a centuries-long history within Orthodox iconographic tradition. Two very well-known examples: the 10th-century mosaic in the southwest vestibule of Hagia Sophia depicting the saintly emperors Constantine I and Justinian I offering models of the City of Constantinople and of Aghia Sophia to an enthroned Theotokos and Christ Child; and that of the 14th-century mosaic in the inner narthex of the church of the Chora in Constantinople, showing Theodore Metochites offering a model of the church to Christ, the namesake of the church. In our example, the image of the Ecumenical Patriarch embodies all the Orthodox as a Patron. On behalf of all the faithful-clergy and people, His All-Holiness presents our international Shrine to the Saint who is the Heavenly Patron of that Shrine.
Finally, within each of the two candle rooms, there will be the image known as ‘Souls of the Righteous in the Hand of God,’ (based upon an image in the Chora church, one of the architectural inspirations for the Shrine). This iconography is a visual reference to the Old Testament text: Wisdom of Solomon 3:1, “But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God and the torments of death shall not touch them.” The text will be inscribed around these two images. This image makes a clear connection to all those who lost their lives during the tragic events of 9/11. It reminds us of God’s loving care for those who were needlessly killed that day and offers visual solace to grieving survivors. These images are placed where the faithful and visitors will light their candles, offering their own prayers for their deceased loved ones. And the placement of such imagery within the narthex acknowledges the centuries-long understanding of the memorial and funerary function of such spaces.
Here, image, liturgical action, and dedicatory space are integrally united to create a transformative focal point. Saint Nicholas, regarded as one of the most powerful intercessors, especially for the dead at the Last Judgment, is presented with a model of his Shrine, a sacred space for prayer, by His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. The Ecumenical Patriarch represents all who call upon this great Saint’s intercessions, where those who tragically lost their lives are perpetually remembered, and where we the living are comforted and find hope for our salvation as well.
The above article is reprinted from the monthly update flyer of The Friends of St. Nicholas Church and National Shrine. Bishop Joachim of Amissos is an internationally recognized expert in Byzantine Iconography and is the Director of the Archbishop Iakovos Library at Hellenic College/Holy Cross.