One of the iconographic cycles basic to the pictorial schema of an Orthodox church is the Christological or narrative cycle that is a selection of scenes depicting various events from the life of Christ and/or the Theotokos. In a typical, centrally planned, domed church building such scenes are usually placed in the vaults or upper levels of the walls, that is, beneath the image of Christ in the dome but above the images of saints or a saint’s Vita cycle at the lower level of the walls. Often such scenes of the Christological or narrative cycle are referred to as Festal images, since they correspond to the images of the Great Feasts of the Church’s liturgical year, such as the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and so forth. The number and selection of scenes varies within each church depending on the size of the church, the dedicatory name of the church, the role of the patron, and any particular liturgical uses within the architectural spaces.
These scenes from the life of Christ and/or the Virgin serve several purposes. First, they visually proclaim our belief in the reality of Christ’s Incarnation, that God the Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, truly became man and dwelt among us.
In addition, the Christological scenes are meant to transform the worshiping space mystically into the sacred topoi or places of the Holy Land, thus creating a spiritual or liturgical pilgrimage for the believer. As the sainted, eighth-century Patriarch Germanos I of Constantinople wrote in his commentary on the Divine Liturgy, “the church is a heaven on earth wherein the heavenly God dwells and walks. It typifies the Crucifixion, the Burial and the Resurrection of Christ…”
Furthermore, the scenes from the life of Christ and/or the Mother of God give visual expression to the commemorative aspect of the Eucharistic celebration occurring in this very architectural space. As stated in the eleventh-century liturgical commentary of Nicholas and Theodore of Andida, the entire Divine Liturgy signifies and mystically actualizes all of Christ’s plan of salvation for our sake. We are reminded of this when at every celebration of the Divine Liturgy, at the moment of the consecration of the Bread and the Wine, when the priest offers the prayer: “Commemorating this command of our Savior, and all that was endured for our sake, the Cross, the Grave, the Resurrection after three days, the Ascension into Heaven…”
The Eucharistic celebration, therefore, incorporates all of the saving events of Christ’s incarnate life.
The scenes from the life of Christ and/or the Virgin, are sacred scenes, visualizing the story of our salvation, connected to and experienced within the Divine Liturgy. Both the liturgy and the images of salvation-history ‘represent’, in the literal sense of the verb, to re-present, to make present again, divine realities.
These sacred events are experienced also throughout the Church’s liturgical year, in the calendar of Her Great Feasts. The recurring cycle of the Divine Liturgy, the annual return of the celebration of the Great Feasts, the circular movements of the liturgical rites and the cycle of Christological images above us all interweave to proclaim God’s revelation in the past, to enable us to participate and experience these sacred moments in our present, and to prepare and transform us for the fulfillment of God’s promise of our salvation in the future.
The above article is reprinted from the monthly update Newsletter of The friends of St. Nicholas organization.
Bishop Joachim of Amissos is an internationally recognized expert in Byzantine Iconography and is the Director of the Archbishop Iakovos Library and Learning Center at Hellenic College/Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.