Thursday, May 18, 2023

Liturgical Art as Prophecy and Priesthood: Sacred Art and the Restoration of Human Dignity (Part 2)

This is the second part of the presentation given by Aidan Hart, my old friend and former painting teacher, at the Scala Foundation conference in Princeton, New Jersey, on Saturday, April 22nd. The first part was published on Tuesday. All the icons shown here are by him. 

Through this talk he traces the development of culture through the right worship of God. In order to make this argument he establishes and anthropology of man as body, soul and spirit who, through grace, partakes of the divine nature. He talks of how important sacred art is in this dynamic and closes by makes concrete suggestions as to how such artists might be trained.

I would like to give a shout-out for the liturgical art school that Aidan has established in Chichester, England. The teachers are Aidan, who is Orthodox, and two other Masters who were his apprentices, Martin Earle, who is Catholic and James Blackstone, who is Anglican. They are accepting apprentices from the USA and the UK and if anyone wishes to make a donation to help an apprentice then please contact me and I will put you in touch with Aidan or you can go to .


We have examined how St Irenaeus shows us that all people are made in God’s image, but are also given a task, to grow in Christ’s likeness through deification. We have seen how these things entail the whole person, body, soul and spirit. We have seen how these principles are applied in worship, namely that man is made to be communal, that the destiny of the cosmos is inextricably intertwined with man as a eucharistic animal, and how worship is an icon and participation in heavenly life. As above, so below.

We shall now zoom in a little more to consider what this means for liturgical art, and explore some ways that we can live out this life. I have chosen to focus on the two ministries of prophet and priest.

Man as prophet

One is prophet (that is, Christ); some are prophets (those called specifically to this ministry, like Elijah or John the Baptist); and all are prophets, since every Christian is called to discern God’s voice in their daily lives. An integral part of man’s progress into deeper union with Christ is to discern his voice in every place and situation.

The ascetic tradition of both Eastern and Western Christendom identifies three stages in spiritual growth, and the middle one is prophetical. The first stage is purification (practical theology in Greek); the second is illumination (or natural theology); and the final is union, or mystical theology.

Purification opens the spiritual ear of the seeker to hear the divine logos speaking through each person and thing. This eventually prepares them for a more direct encounter with the Logos himself, which is mystical theology. Prophets are also called seers, ones who see, and so this intermediate stage can also be described as beholding the Lord in creation, as did Moses when he saw the bush that burnt, but without being consumed.

This leads us to the form or ‘style’ of liturgical art, as distinct from its subject matter. The way things are painted can help us to see the divine fire within and through them. The music with which psalms or hymns are sung has a profound effect on the soul of the hearer. This music, if good, will amplify the logoi of the words and open our hearts to their deepest meaning. We have all experienced the profound effect that great chant can have on our souls. If the music is poor, it will attract attention to itself and away from the words.

The visual arts of worship can assist our initiation in a similar way that good chant does. In the icon tradition, for example, we find that the lines of perspective often converge in the viewer, and not in a fictitious horizon within the image. The lines of this ‘inverse perspective’ thus enter the actual liturgical space in front of the icon, and engage the viewer with the saint depicted. They invite us to interact with the saint.

This so called ‘inverse perspective’ also presents the world from the point of view of the holy subject rather than of ourselves; we cease to be the centre of the universe. It gives the praying viewer a sense that the saint is contemplating them, as much as—or indeed, more than— they are contemplating the saint. Over the years of being exposed to these images, we gradually come to see that God is the prime activator in life, and our role is to respond to this. We learn to look and listen first, and then act and speak.

The way the icon is painted has thus assisted a turn from I to Thou. This is the essence of repentance, for which the Greek word is meta-noia, a change of nous. This nous is best described as the eye of the heart.

The movement from seeing to hearing to action is eloquently described in Moses’ encounter with God in the burning bush, described in Exodus chapter (3). Moses is about his daily work as a shepherd, then he sees ‘a great sight’, a bush that burns without being consumed. He draws near ‘to see why the bush is not burned up.’ Many people have this experience when they first encounter icons, a perplexity why they are painted the strange way that they are.

Then God calls to Moses by name: ‘Moses, Moses.’ The experience of divine beauty is not a mere aesthetic feeling, but always leads to personal encounter with the Lord. Moses replies: ‘Here I am!’ A dialogue is opened. Moses could have fled, just as Mary could have fled from the Archangel Gabriel and not accepted to bring forth God into the world. But Moses chooses to stay and to respond, ‘Here I am!’ Liturgical art is likewise always ecclesial in the literal sense of that word, as a work of the people; it always entails reciprocal work or synergy between God and the human person.

God then replies to Moses: ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ So, while liturgical beauty attracts and reveals, it also veils, draws lines, and affirms what is inaccessible. It simultaneously says and unsays. It is sublime and awesome as well as attractive.

And then God gives Moses a mission. God tells him that he is filled with compassion for the suffering of his people, and he wants Moses to deliver them. ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings …So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’

So worship and its liturgical beauty is not solipsistic. Liturgy is not a private club for intellectual or aesthetic delectation. If it does not rebound to compassion for people on the street, then we have not worshipped in truth.

Man as priest

We come now to the second ministry, that of priesthood. While the emphasis of the prophetic ministry is to receive, that is, to hear and see God, the emphasis of the priestly ministry is to offer, to give. Irenaeus describes it in this way:
We are bound to make our oblation to God and thus to show ourselves in all things grateful to him as our Creator… We offer to him what is his own, suitably proclaiming the communion and unity of flesh and spirit… We make then, our offering to him, not as if he stood in need of anything, but giving thanks to his sovereignty and sanctifying his creation...He takes to himself our good endeavours to the end that he may repay us with his good things…(8)
There are three elements to this passage of St Irenaeus: offering; thanksgiving; and endeavour. We offer not grapes and wheat, but wine and bread, the fruit of man’s endeavours acting upon God’s gifts. We saw earlier how Irenaeus wrote of man’s journey into ever deeper union with God. Man also has a task to journey deeper into creation, not to get lost in it, but to fashion it into an Edenic garden in praise of its Creator. Our priestly interaction with the material word can be described as fashioning a hymn of praise, using not words but matter. Leontius of Cyprus (556-634) put it very boldly in this way:
The creation does not venerate God directly by itself, but it is through me that the heavens declare the glory of God, through me the moon worships God, through me the stars glorify him, through me the waters and showers of rain, the dew and all creation venerate God and give him glory.(9)
The essence of Adam and Eve’s fall was their failure to do just this. They took the raw material of God’s gifts, but instead of thanking the Giver for these, they turned their back on Him and tried to enjoy these gifts for their own sake. If, by contrast, they had given thanks for all the good things received, and ‘worked the Garden of Eden and taken care of it’, then in good time God would have granted them to partake of the tree of life, which is deification.

One way to understand the tree of knowledge of good and evil is that it is the whole created world, which if received and worked with thanksgiving to its Maker rebounds to knowledge of good, but if grasped for its own sake, rebounds to knowledge of evil and to death.

This is one reason why the central act of the Christian Church is the Eucharist, the service of thanksgiving. It is a microcosm of how we ought to live in paradise. Man offers bread and wine as the first fruits of his cultivation in Eden, and gives thanks for all God’s gifts. God in return offers to man the fruit of the Tree of life, which is the Holy Spirit.

I make liturgical art in a variety of media, such as painting icons and frescoes, carving in stone and wood, and mosaic. In all this I am acutely aware that I am, in a small way, participating in the priestly, prophetical and royal role incumbent on us all —that is, to fashion creation into an even more articulate hymn of praise to God and to offer it back in thanksgiving.

Consumerism is simply the repetition of Adam and Eve’s sin. It is the capital sin of our age. Ingratitude increases the spiritual hunger of the consumer, and steals food from the hungry. Consumerism is the antithesis of a eucharistic life. The billions of tons of rubbish we vomit back upon our earth each year proves that this consumerism does not satisfy.

But it need not be ever thus. Christ has gathered up this rotten way of life of ingratitude and buried it. He has become the second Adam and begun a new race through the Holy Spirit. In the phrase of Irenaeus, Christ has recapitulated all of humanity and returned it to the divine likeness:

He was incarnate and made Man; and then he summed up [anakephalaio] in himself the long line of the human race, procuring for us a comprehensive salvation, that we might recover in Jesus Christ what in Adam we had lost, namely, the state of being in the image and likeness of God.(10)

This is the Good News. It has already happened. Christ has ‘summed up in himself the long line of the human race.’ We just need to become what we already are in Him.

Christ’s transfiguration upon Mount Tabor is the most graphic visual expression of this recapitulation. Not only was his person transfigured (and in him, all of human nature), but so also were his garments. His garments represent all the cosmos, for cosmos means adornment in Greek. Inanimate matter was able to participate in Christ’s transfiguration because Christ had lived a prophetic and priestly life in the world. He had been master of his body and appetites, and continually gave thanks to the Father for all things. This obedience to the Father released divine grace back into the material world. As an Orthodox hymn of Transfiguration expresses it:
In His own person He showed them the nature of man, arrayed in the original beauty of the image….You were transfigured, and have made the nature that had grown dark in Adam to shine again as lightning, transforming it into the glory and splendour of Your own divinity. (Aposticha of Great Vespers)
Metaphorically, the liturgy is another Mount Tabor. The rituals, architecture and furnishings of authentic worship are Christ’s garment, tailored to the shape of His body. As the people are transfigured through the Eucharist, so too is the material cloth of liturgical art transfigured. This is why, in Saint Paul’s words, the cosmos eagerly awaits ‘the revealing of the children of God’, for thereby:
the creation itself will be set free from its enslavement to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (Romans 8:21)

So far we have considered the grand scheme of things, viewed the Everest that we are called to ascend. I would like to finish with a brief discussion of some practical steps we take on this journey.

Education in liturgy

To repeat our opening words, we act as we see. The first step is therefore education, not education merely to swell our head knowledge, but to check, and if necessary, recalibrate, our vision of the world and of our worship. Such institutions can suggest ways that we can deepen and improve our liturgical life and thereby inspire personal and cultural repentance. Education in the fullest sense of the word is the beginning of repentance. It should stimulate wonder.

A vital early step on our journey is therefore to create networks and centres that teach this patristic vision of the world. The liturgy itself is, or should be, the highest source of such education—not just sermons, but the hymns and liturgical art. However, often the quality of liturgical art has become impoverished and itself needs educating. The establishment of teaching organisations such as Scala, the Orthodox Arts Journal, the Institute of Sacred Arts at St Vladimir’s Seminary, and the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge, England are all good exemplars of this recalibration by returning to patristic sources. They aim to revive a patristic vision of our life in this world and provide a platform for discussion.

Training centres of liturgical art

A parallel need is to establish centres or networks that offer professional and specialist training in the making and performing of liturgical arts: church architecture; iconography (including wall painting, mosaic, and carving as well as panel painting); lighting design; furniture design; chanting, and so on. These need to offer training to a high level.

This training also needs to integrate these different disciplines so that they unite to create the most profound liturgy possible. Each medium is an instrument in an orchestra, not a soloist. I shall discuss some possible models for such training networks in a minute.

Why should we expend energy and resources on such training? Surely the Holy Liturgy is holy regardless of the skill with which it is executed? However, its effectiveness in transforming people’s lives is inhibited by lack of skill. Holy texts sung out of tune tend not to transform us as well as those sung beautifully. We all know the profound effect that St Andrey Rubliof’s icons have had and continue to have on people’s lives, and the story of how ancient Rus converted to Christ through the beauty of Hagia Sophia’s worship. We have surely all experienced that short journey from head to heart when we hear sacred music, or perhaps when we have entered a frescoed church.

The more I study medieval churches and their iconography, the more I realize how profoundly well the ancients knew their art, and how crude we moderns are by comparison. Scholarly and scientific studies are revealing ever more clearly how masterful were these architects and artists. Our hubris has assumed an inevitable improvement with time, while these studies show that, in reality, we lack the refined and integrated knowledge that these liturgical artists possessed. My spiritual father on Mount Athos, Archimandrite Vasilios of Iviron, often said to me that there are epochs where it is difficult to get things wrong, and there are epochs where it is difficult to get things right. We are certainly of the latter.

That this is so has been borne out by recent collaborative studies, such as those led by Bissera Pentcheva, in particular her book Hagia Sophia: Sound, Space, and Spirit in Byzantium, (11) and by Sharon Gerstel.(12) Professor Pentcheva has shown just how skilful the Byzantine architects were in creating ideal acoustics.

She also discusses how the marble revetments were chosen for their water-like veining, to harmonise with the water symbolism used in the hymnography. She also suggests that some hymns were created for the particular resonance of Hagia Sophia, so that the cathedral itself partook of antiphonal singing.

Sharon Gerstel and her team’s collaborative work on Byzantine churches in Thessaloniki has shown that the architects created in the ambo (where readings are intoned) the short resonances that are ideal for speech, and the longer resonances in the choir that are ideal for chant.

Wassim Jabi and Iakovos Potamianos (13) have shown in their studies just how precisely the architect of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople—Anthemius of Trallis—designed the windows around the base of the great dome to maximise the even reflection of light onto the dome.

They used computer modelling to adjust the angle of the windowsills and found that the best angle is the one used by Anthemius. In this way he maximised the mystical effect of light.13 These new centres and networks for training liturgical artists need also to offer courses to future commissioners. Courses for seminaries and church leaders are needed to convince these leaders of the importance and methodology for commissioning liturgical art. It is no use training people to make things if their skills are not then commissioned. In fact, for Byzantine writers the word usually translated as maker—ktitores— refers not to the artist but to the commissioner. Without a commissioner, nothing is made.

With regards to training liturgical artists, I would like to end by describing three models for training, based on my own experience in the United Kingdom and from what I know of courses elsewhere.


There is no doubt that the best way to learn a craft is by apprenticeship. When I began my ministry as a liturgical artist forty years ago, in 1983, there was no formal way to learn the necessary skills, so I had to organise my own learning path. I had no other choice, but the journey of the autodidact tends to be much slower than that of an apprentice.

Over the past ten years I have had two full-time apprentices, Martin Earle and Jim Blackstone, and through this training they obtained in six years a level of skill that had taken me twelve years to reach.

I had been a professional sculptor before becoming a member of the Orthodox Church, which proved a good foundation for my sacred art. And my university training in Maths as well as English literature has helped me to be analytical, which helped me unearth the secrets behind masterpieces. However, this self-training was a very slow and arduous way to study this most difficult of arts. Apprenticeship is a much quicker, more in-depth and efficient way of learning.

The apprenticeship method is by and large self-funding, with the master employing the student, at low rates while they are learning, and then higher rates as they improve. Having said that, the learning process is greatly facilitated if there are scholarships. Martin, for example, received a three-year grant from the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust (QEST) so he could dedicate each Friday to iconographic studies without financial stress. Jim had saved money from his previous employment so he could concentrate on his apprenticeship studies.

We are currently seeking more such scholarships to assist the training of other such liturgical artists.

Full-time or part-time schools

In traditionally Orthodox countries, such as Russia and Greece, there are full-time accredited courses in liturgical arts such as icon and wall painting. St Tikhon’s Orthodox University in Moscow, for example, runs a five-year degree course in iconography.

But such full-time courses are at present probably too ambitious for the Americas and Britain. Part-time but still serious versions are a more viable starting point. For the past fourteen years, for example, I have been running a three-year part-time course in icon painting, under the auspices of the Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts. We meet seven times a year for three intensive days, and home studies are given which take around five to eight hours a week.

Though not of sufficient length to train students fully, this part-time programme does provide a solid but affordable foundation to people. One key advantage is that it is manageable for those who might have full-time jobs or family commitments. It is self-finding from fees of £2,700/year, which includes meals while on the course. A number of these students have since gone on to be full-time iconographers. These courses usually include one or two students from the USA, and up to three from Europe, as well as British residents.


Two years ago I was contacted by the Chancellor of Chichester Anglican Cathedral, Canon Dan Inman, asking if I could help the Cathedral to establish a liturgical art centre. The Chichester Workshop of Liturgical Art (CWLA) has subsequently been founded. It is a sort of collective organised under the auspices of the Cathedral.

The CWLA’s mission has two aspects: it offers apprenticeship training in the liturgical arts, and education in the theology and need for liturgical arts for seminarians, clergy and other interested people.

The practical training is offered by a group of self-employed artists who work in a studio nearby, although soon they will move to a purpose-built studio in the Cathedral precincts. The two current masters are my qualified apprentices, Martin Earle and Jim Blackstone. We hope to add more. They offer training in icon painting, wall painting, mosaic, and stone and wood carving. They are developing a range of apprenticeship programmes, such as top-up courses for people already skilled in their craft but who need help to adapt this for liturgical art.

Each master is self-employed, supporting themselves primarily from commissions. The funding mechanism for apprenticeships varies depending on the job at hand. For example, Martin has just run a four-week internship in mosaic while making a large mosaic commissioned by a church. Martin was paid a pre-agree fee from Cathedral funds for the hours he spent teaching the intern one-to-one. When the intern was sufficiently trained, after a week or two, Martin was then able to pay her a wage of £10.50 per hour for a total of seventy hours. This wage was funded from the payment Martin received from the commissioner for the mosaic they were working on.

Martin, Jim (who has a doctorate from Cambridge in theology) and I are now working on the educational side, preparing a series of podcasts, publishing articles, running study days, and in particular, developing modules for seminaries.

The Workshop’s vision and theology for liturgical art is rooted in the Orthodox tradition, but this is being applied and adapted across the board to Anglican and Catholic churches. Martin is Roman Catholic, Jim is Anglican, and I am Orthodox. The Cathedral is Anglican, and the seminaries we are currently working with are Anglican, and we are hoping to do the same with Catholic seminaries. CWLA’s vision is to raise the standard of liturgical art to the highest possible level, and to explore ways of expressing the timeless principles of the tradition to our particular epoch and in the particular space of each commission.


Before questions and discussion begin, I would like to end by reading a passage from the letter to the Hebrews. This passage affirms so graphically that when we come to Christ, we come to the whole worshipping community. It is this city of the living God which our liturgical art and our vision for the world should orient towards:
…you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant… (Hebrews 12:22-24)

(8) St Irenaeus op. cit., IV, xviii 4,5,6 (Bettenson p.95)

(9) St Leontius of Cyprus, PG, xciii, 1604AB (transl. Kallistos Ware).

(10) St Irenaeus op. cit. III.xviii.1 (Bettenson, p. 82)

(11) The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017.

(12) ‘Soundscapes of Byzantium’, Spyridon Antonopoulos, Sharon E. J. Gerstel, Chris Kyriakakis, Konstantinos T. Raptis, and James Donahue (Speculum 2017 92:S1, S321-S335).

(13) W. Jabi and I. Potamianos, ‘A Parametric Exploration of the Lighting Method of the Hagia Sophia Dome’, in The 7th International Symposium on Virtual Reality, Archaeology and Cultural Heritage VAST (2006). Accessed 2023.4.16:

Chichester Cathedral, England

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: