Lessons Found in a Traditional Russian Icon Corner

In the Eastern Christian spiritual classic, The Way of a Pilgrim, the author speaks about how "in the devout Russian's room the icon will hang or rest on a shelf diagonally across a corner... and a reverence will be made to it by a person entering or leaving the room."

There is no great mystery about what this is: this is a devotional space placed in the home, not only in Russia, but also Eastern Christendom more broadly. There is a Western counterpart to this of course: the home altar.  It is not as though this idea is somehow unique to Russia or the Christian East but I have always found there to be something particularly appealing in the basic concept and traditional approach to the 'ikon corner' by comparison.  For one thing, I appreciate its purposeful arrangement in a main room, placed in a corner (for greater visibility and setting it apart from the other objects on the walls) to create a certain prominence -- this is the domestic equivalent of placing the tabernacle in the heart and centre of the parish church.

My own sense is that the icon corner, as traditionally manifested and ornamented, has a much more ecclesiastical and liturgical feel to it than many home altars I have seen. Part of this comes by virtue of the great beauty of the icon generally of course -- we begin from a point of strength as these works don't suffer from the typical 'Saint-Sulpice' issues of sentimentalism that became so popular in the past century in the West. Very often too these can be seen to be either authentic original works, or at very least high quality reproductions that utilize gold leaf and so on. (The contemporary Eastern Christian may be beginning to slip into some of our own faults however, as mass production has now flooded the market with low cost, low quality 'icons' and I have begun to see a number of contemporary icon corners that are absolutely cluttered with them and it defeats everything of which I am speaking here, for reason of both the quality and the clutter.)

In addition to the greater quality and beauty of the central object itself, part of this greater ecclesiastical and liturgical feel is founded upon the 'lights' (lamps and/or candlesticks) and such that are placed beside them devotionally. There is a purposeful intent to mirror the ecclesiastical and liturgical here by utilizing objects that are either specifically ecclesiastical in design or which at least mirror them closely. The candlesticks, for instance, are not just any old sort that you might find in a department store; they are often made of brass and more often than not also use the devotional and aromatic unbleached beeswax tapers you would find in many an Eastern church. Or a hanging lamp might also be used, exactly of the sort you would find in churches before an icon, whose wicks are changed and whose fragrant oils are filled up for the lighting of the lamp -- an image straight out of a Prudentius hymn.   The incense burner is not of the 'dollar store' variety and neither is the incense; the incense is proper church incense burnt in a small home-sized incense burner made for Christian use. Even the linens used are often of the sort found in their churches and willow branches or cut flowers also make an appearance, particularly in those times when the wildflowers are in bloom.

Obviously you will find some variation in all this, and as I've already said I have begun to see a number of contemporary icon corners that can make one cringe just as much as the sight of plastic rosaries on a home altar might, but the general approach remains solid at its core.

My reason for bringing this up is not to advocate that everyone should replace their home altars with icon corners -- though if you do wish to establish an icon corner I would heartily encourage you to do so. (An icon corner is essentially a home altar for intents and purposes anyway.)  My reason for bringing it up is (1) as a reminder and (2) to draw out some general principles.

First, the reminder.  All of this serves to remind us of the importance of drawing these sorts of elements into our homes -- what has been called the 'domestic church.' This very much aligns to our past consideration of the power of the Divine Office for penetrating our days with the liturgy. By the same token, something such as this helps to further focus that attention but in a way that is much more visual and incarnate.  We realize this power in our churches, so why not in our homes? It is a teaching tool and a reminder.

In the second instance though, it raises some important general principles related to quality. It is immensely important that when we do these things that we do them right: that is to say, with quality, nobility and beauty. This too teaches something. It applies to our churches and it applies to our homes.  Whatever you are setting up, make it an echo of the sacred liturgy and not rather an echo of (if you will forgive me) the 'dollar store.'   This applies not least of which to the primary devotional object, be that an icon, statue or other holy image. Let it be an object of quality and beauty.

The implementation of quality has a few great foes of course. One of them is the desire to simply 'be done' with your project as quickly as possible. Corners inevitably get cut and compromises made. We have to be realists: obviously one might have to save up for that hand carved, linden wood statue for your home, or for that original icon; there is nothing wrong with that, just utilize the best you can in the meantime and keep your eyes fixed on that goal.

Another foe of quality is quantity.  One of the most appealing things in these various images of traditional icon corners that I am showing is that they have a tight focus. Some have only a single icon; others have two or three. Let it be remembered that seldom will the words have ever been uttered, "look how cluttered it is; how beautiful."  Keep your focus reasonably tight and avoid making your home altar or icon corner appear like a collection of nicknacks. This is not only not beautiful, it also serves to distract from what should be primary.  Personally, I would recommend either a single icon, or if you must have more, make it three at most in a triptych like fashion.

In the case of a more Latin rite style application, icons can certainly be part of this as, after all, they did formulate a part of the universal corpus of Christian art in the first millennium, but it could also be manifest in a beautifully carved and painted statue. If you can source them out, many antique shops are unfortunately cluttered with old side altar candlesticks that were dispensed with in the 1970's and 80's and reclaiming those to this use (if not to church use) would certainly be a worthy repurposing. Another noble practice I have seen is that some layout their missal (even an old altar missal) on their home altars and each day turn the page to the proper of season of the feast of the day, helping keep liturgical time placed before their eyes.

However you choose to go about it, I would simply recommend you keep these principles of nobility, simplicity, beauty and harmony in mind and make the liturgy of the Church that which guides your every decision here so that your own domestic church may be a very clear and worthy echo of it.

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