The Nature and Purpose of the Home Icon-Corner or Place

The Nature and Purpose of the Home Icon-Corner or Place

In the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, and in the Epistles of the Apostle Paul, we see that in the early Church, Christians used to meet in the homes of the faithful (e.g. Acts 2:46 ; 20:7-12 ; 1 Corinthians 16:19). This tradition of the “House Church” continues until the present in the Orthodox Church. In some writings, the home is often called “the small Church”, or “the Church in miniature”.

In this context, it is important to remember first of all the exhortation of Saint John of Kronstadt. He emphatically stated that under no circumstances ought icons ever to be used as “art”, as mere adornments or ornaments for the benefit of ambience in the home or elsewhere. Indeed, it would be better to have none at all were we to treat them thus. Icons are intended to be used only for prayer. The images of the saints (whether at home or in the Temple) are meant to be our teachers, who lead us on the right way in the right Faith so that we may become true human beings. They are “windows to Heaven” which enable all this and more.

Saint John of Damascus reminds us that we human beings are not spirits only, but spirits dwelling in a body which God created as good. Although we have not, as did the apostles, seen our Saviour Jesus Christ in the flesh, we nevertheless do have experience of Him in His creation, in the words of the Holy Scriptures, in the testimonies of the saints, in icons, and in one another. We receive blessing and joy when we hear His words read from books, and we therefore honour these books. Likewise, when we stand and pray before icons, we encounter the beauty of His bodily form, and we encounter the beautiful and life-giving words and acts which He said and did in the presence of the apostles and others. We begin to taste in some way the glory of His Divinity.

Because we are soul and body, we require physical images to nurture this encounter. Those who are portrayed in icons are those in whom the Lord dwelt and dwells in their love for Him. He assures us that we do not venerate mere wood or stone or paint, but rather our veneration of each image passes on through the icon, through the person or event portrayed, to Him who has made each person holy and each event a sharing of His Grace. In the same way, by encountering such persons in the icons and also in our prayer, we likewise are nurtured in our love for the Lord, and He dwells in us. Saint John likens us in this situation to a red-hot iron which has taken its heat from fire. As Archimandrite Vasilios of Mount Athos reminds us in his similar explanations, light comes from within the icon towards us ; it does not come from without to within.

It has always been customary that Orthodox Christians try to pray constantly, as we were exhorted by the Apostle Paul, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks ; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) wrote that for Orthodox Christians, there is no separation between liturgical services and private prayers. The home, like the Temple, is considered to be a blessed holy place, and the centre of worship in the home is the icon-corner. The main reason that the situation of the icons in a home is usually in a corner is to enable our focus and to avoid distractions during prayer.

For Orthodox Christians, icons have a central place in our life ; and since they are related to the Incarnation of Christ (of the Word taking flesh), they have a prominent place in the home. They have this prominent placement in the home because it is before the icons that a person and/or the family prays to the Lord. Traditionally, the family gathers morning and evening before the icons, and appropriate prayers for that time of day are prayed together under the leadership of the parents. Such prayers are found in standard prayer-books. Intercessory prayers for others are included. This time of prayer need not be very lengthy, but it should include the standard beginning of any prayer (“O Heavenly King” through to “Our Father”).

There may be many icons, or few, perhaps only one if a person is unable to afford more. The one icon may be simply the Holy Cross (which is certainly an icon). The icon (or icons) may be a correctly painted/written one ; it may be a paper icon ; it may be a paper icon laminated or decoupaged onto wood ; it may be in bas-relief or a flat surface. What matters is that the icon or icons be prepared in a theologically correct manner, and in accordance with the directions of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (2 Nicæa, 787).

Icons may be in one or in several places in the home, again depending upon the availability of icons in the person’s personal or financial situation. An icon need not be an expensive one, as long as it is theologically correct. Icons express our theology. They are often called “windows to Heaven”.

It is not unusual that the dining-place (whether it be in a separate room, in the kitchen, or an extension of another room) be a main focus of the presence of icons in a home, since the place where the family eats is related to the Holy Table in the Temple. Both bodily and spiritual nourishment have their focus at the table in the home. Nevertheless, the spiritual nourishment is frequently neglected, delayed or minimised because of perceived pressures of apparent priorities or limitations of time. Both the bodily and spiritual nourishment must be kept in balance. Balance is a main characteristic of the way of life of Orthodox Christians.

Customarily, icons are placed in such a way that when a person enters the home, they are the first things to be seen. Moreover, it has been the custom that when a person comes to the home of another, the icons of the residence are greeted even before the residents themselves are greeted (the Lord, the Theotokos and the saints take priority). This custom is often neglected or forgotten by those living in western environments, but there are people who do maintain this custom. Throughout his pastoral service Archbishop Paul (Olmari) of Finland adhered to this custom with discipline, and he encouraged his flock to do so as well.

Archbishop Paul, in his book The Faith We Hold, in his section on prayer, reminds us that when we pray, we pray with our whole being, body and soul. The overall environment of our life is involved as well. How we pray at home is related to how we pray in the Temple. They are similar, but they are not identical. Both Saint Isaac and Saint John of Sinai consider that prayer may be likened to a ladder, by which we progress towards Heaven. This ascent is supported by the domestic surroundings. In every room of a dwelling, there is usually at least one icon, which reminds us constantly that the Lord is with us everywhere and at all times (see Matthew 28:20). In our homes, we usually have a special place for prayer (see Matthew 6:6), both for our private prayer, and for our family prayer, and the saying of these prayers in the same place and at about the same times every day actually helps us to learn how to pray. The inclusion of readings from the Holy Scriptures nourishes our hearts, and supports this prayer.

The centrality of the icon of the Mother of God holding her Son is a constant reminder that the Lord is with us, and that in His love, he is personally with us, and that His mother is interceding with Him for us. Other icons that are present in the home, and especially in one’s own room, are icons of our closest spiritual friends (it is normal to have such spiritual friends). We invite these friends to join us when we begin our prayers, as we say, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, through the prayers of Your most pure Mother and of all the Saints, have mercy on us”. Alternatively, we may both begin and end our prayers by saying, “Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us”. The Fathers in this case may refer to all those holy persons who have gone before us, and who intercede for us now. Thus, we acknowledge our dependence on the Lord, His Mother, and His Saints.

Archbishop Paul reminds us that we must not neglect even babes-in-arms at the time of prayer, since they come to know through this experience first the love of the parents (and siblings) for the Lord, and then they come themselves to embrace this love. Each one participates in these prayers as the prayers are shared in their reading by each person in turn. The Apostle Paul reminds us that whatever we do, we ought to do everything for the glory of God. (see 1 Corinthians 10:31).

Although it is a custom that icons be assembled in a corner of a room, they are very often arranged simply on a wall. The latter method is common amongst Greek and Middle-Eastern Orthodox Christians, whereas the former method is common amongst Slavs. In either case, despite some contrary opinions, the correct placement for the icons is in such a way that the one who faces them to pray is facing in an approximately easterly direction. It has always been the custom for Christians to face towards the east when praying. This direction is related to the association of the Resurrection of the Son of God with the rising of the physical sun (which is a metaphor of the Resurrection), and with the Last Day. At the Ascension of Christ, the angels said to the apostles, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). (See also Genesis 2:8 ; Baruch 4:36 ; Ezekiel 11:1 ; Matthew 24:27.)

If it is possible, there can be an icon or a group of icons (always with the possibility of the Holy Cross being central amongst them) in every room. Frequently, the bedroom is a main place for icons in the home, since this room can be a principal site for personal prayer, or prayer of a married couple.

Besides the Holy Cross, there is an order which may be followed in arranging the holy icons. Usually, one would try to have an icon of the Saviour, our Lord Jesus Christ (there are many sorts of such icons), and an icon of the Most Holy Theotokos (there are many sorts of such icons also, which usually include her Son). The icons from the crowning of the marriage may be placed here. Icons of the Holy Trinity, the Saviour, the Theotokos, and the Holy Cross must be at the top, and none other should be above them. The icon or icons of the name-saints of the members of the family, or the main saint of the family as a whole may be included. After this, there could be other icons of special significance to the family.

All the icons should be placed in an orderly fashion. If the icons are placed at random, then they will seem to be in a mixed jumble, especially if they are at various heights. It will then always be distracting to those who stand before them to pray, especially since we generally pray with our eyes open. Simplicity and orderliness are the main principles that govern the preparation of the place of prayer and family worship.

There may be a long cloth, preferably a decorated one (in many places it is a decorated towel) draped over the top of a larger or a more significant icon (or icons) for the family. This cloth draws attention to the significance of this icon, and it may be used to carry the icon should there be a procession of some sort. Some such cloths may have an appearance similar to a table-runner.

In some families, photos both of persons who are alive and those who have reposed may be kept amongst the icons. There is not a sharp distinction made between the living and the departed. We pray for them as we offer our prayers, and the photos serve us as reminders.

Particularly in the principal place of family prayer, there would be a larger shelf or a table, on which various items might be placed. Certain persons may have one or more relics of saints. The prayer-corner is the appropriate place for them to be kept : in a separate and prominent spot.

Containers holding portions of Artos from Pascha, the first piece cut from the Saint Basil Bread of 1 January, blessed oil, Holy Water of Theophany, an egg of Pascha, palms/branches of Palm Sunday, and flowers and items from other services are also kept there. It is customary and appropriate that a hand blessing-Cross, a prayer-book or prayer-books and a copy of the Holy Gospels or the Holy Bible be present. Sometimes, marriage-crowns are kept in this place (when they are of the sort made from flowers), although there is a custom to have them framed and to hang them on the wall near the icons.

At the end of a year of being present there, such things as blessed eggs, branches and flowers from certain feast-days may be burnt and the ashes buried in a suitable and undisturbed place. If they are not burnt, they may simply be buried in the same way.

That all these items are customarily kept in the icon-corner or place in the home is a clear indication that this particular site is the focus of the family’s daily prayer and worship together.

Very commonly, a vigil-lamp (lampada) is kept burning either on the table or shelf, or hanging from a wall-bracket, or suspended from the ceiling. It is a very common custom to have a stationary censer or hand-censer (along with a supply of charcoal and incense as well), which allows for offering incense along with prayers. The prayers for the blessing of first-fruits in August indicate that the custom has been to use dried fragrant herbs as incense, although nowadays it tends to be made commercially from resins mixed with fragrant oils.

Icons may well be present in other places in the home, but this one principal place is the main focus. This main focus is, again, usually associated with the place where the family gathers regularly to share daily food. It is this focus which helps to sustain the family as a “little church”, and to provide spiritual nourishment for the family.

Under no circumstance should an icon, even one that has not been blessed, simply be thrown away (including icon-calendars). A holy item, even if it has lost its original appearance, deteriorated, or become damaged, should always be treated with reverence.

If the condition of an icon has deteriorated with age, it should be taken to church to be burned in the church furnace. If that be impossible, it should be burnt at home and the ashes buried in a place that will not be disturbed, e.g., in a cemetery or under a tree or bush in the garden.

There are various sorts of containers designed for burning oil before icons (some use a paraffin or beeswax candle instead). Usually, the container for the oil is made of glass. A very common holder of the wick for the flame is the wick-float which utilises cork to keep the wick and flame floating on the oil. Another sort is a metal holder (with a central hole for the wick) that rests on the edges of the container.

Following is a description of the use and maintenance of an oil-burning lampada.

The glass container is usually one particularly prepared for the purpose. It often rests in a specially-prepared receptacle. However, any low, wide-mouthed glass container may be used. The glass may be clear, or it may be coloured or even decorated. It is practical that the container have the capacity to hold enough oil to last for 10 to 12 hours.

The oil is usually olive oil. Other oils are lighter and they burn at different rates. The use of olive oil for the lamps is a tradition which we have received from the earliest times. Olive oil will burn best if it is left in an open container and allowed time to become rancid before it is used in the lampada.

The wick may be acquired commercially. However, one may make a wick from 100% cotton string (6-ply) which has no coating. We may use a cotton string about 30 cm (1 ft) long. We do not use coated or waxed string. If the wick is first soaked in vinegar and then completely dried, it will burn brighter and cleaner.

The wick should be adjusted in its holder so that the flame is very small (called “passionless” in Greek). The flame should burn steadily, and it should not flicker. Experience is required with regard to predicting the length of time for burning, but it ought to be between six and twelve hours : the longer, the better. This depends mainly on the nature of the oil, but also on the size of the flame, the weather, and other factors. Before relighting the lamp, excess carbon should first be removed from the wick, and the string should be twisted slightly so as to shape the wick to a point.

If a cork float is used for the wick, then many people put a little water in the bottom of the glass so that if the flame is unattended when it nears the end of the oil, it will extinguish itself. The glass should be washed periodically, and the oil should be replaced. Whatever is left before the cleaning should be poured onto the ground in an appropriate place.

That we keep lamps burning in our Temples and in our homes before icons and relics and even on stoves where cooking is done is a very ancient custom.

Saint Nikodemus the Athonite (+1809) wrote that there are four reasons Christians light oil lamps and candles before relics of the saints and icons :

1. To honour and glorify the saints ;
2. When it is night, the light of the lamps diminishes the darkness of the night, to comfort the eyes of those who observe ;
3. As a sign of joy and brightness : specifically for when candles and lamps are lit during the day and the sun is shining brightly ;
4. By the lighting of the lamps, God is gracious to those who offer the lamps.

Saint Nikolaj (Velimirovic) (+1956) of Serbia wrote that we do this :

1. Because our faith is light. Christ said : 'I am the light of the world' (John 8:12). The light of the vigil lamp reminds us of that light by which Christ illumines our souls ;

2. In order to remind us of the radiant character of the saint before whose icon we light the vigil lamp, for saints are called sons of light (John 12:36 ; Luke 16:8) ;

3. In order to serve as a reproach to us for our dark deeds, for our evil thoughts and desires, and in order to call us to the path of evangelical light ; and so that we would more zealously try to fulfil the commandments of the Saviour : ‘Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works’ (Matthew 5:16) ;

4. So that the vigil lamp would be our small sacrifice to God, who gave Himself completely as a sacrifice for us, and as a small sign of our great gratitude and radiant love for Him from whom we ask in prayer for life, and health, and salvation and everything that only boundless heavenly love can bestow ;

5. So that terror would strike the evil powers who sometimes assail us especially at the time of prayer and lead away our thoughts from the Creator. The evil powers love the darkness and tremble at every light, especially at that which belongs to God and to those who please Him ;

6. So that this light would rouse us to selflessness. Just as the oil and wick burn in the vigil lamp, submissive to our will, so let our souls also burn with the flame of love in all our sufferings, always being submissive to God’s will ;

7. In order to teach us that just as the vigil lamp cannot be lit without our hand, so too, our heart, our inward vigil lamp, cannot be lit without the holy fire of God’s Grace, even if it were to be filled with all the virtues. All these virtues of ours are, after all, like combustible material, but the fire which ignites them proceeds from God ;

8. In order to remind us that before anything else the Creator of the world created light, and after that everything else in order : 'And God said, let there be light : and there was light' (Genesis 1:3). And it must be so also at the beginning of our spiritual life, so that before anything else the light of Christ’s truth would shine within us. From this light of Christ’s truth subsequently every good is created, springs up and grows in us.

It has been known that in certain cases with people who have become holy, the lamps are lit by themselves. There are reports from such people that if they fall into the slightest negative judgement of another, this phenomenon immediately ceases. There is nothing “automatic” or even explainable about such a phenomenon. It happens because of God's Grace, and it does not even happen to every holy person.

References :

(Olmari), Archbishop Paul, The Faith We Hold (Crestwood, NY : St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1997). ISBN 10 : 091383663X. ISBN 13 : 9780913836637.

Pravmir article by Sergei Alexeev about icon corners at home

Orthodoxwiki article about the icon corner

Wikipedia article about the icon corner

Wikipedia article about the Seventh Ecumenical Council

Orthodoxwiki article about Saint Nikodemus the Hagiorite (Athonite)

Orthodoxcanada biography of Saint Nikolaj (Velimirovic)