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Basic Christian Iconography: the “Orant” or “Orans”

November 17th, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie

In this post –as part of the series on “Basic Christian Iconography”– we continue our look at some pagan icons or imagery that were adapted for Christian use.

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Orant posture from the catacomb of Priscilla, Rome

The orant (orans, “one who prays”) was an ubiquitous figure in Roman pagan art, especially in funerary art, and was adopted by the early Christians for the same primary reason. The gesture, however, was a mode of prayer common to many ancient religions.

Ancient Egyptian orant.

Ancient Egyptian orant.

The orant appeared in pagan art as a female figure, sometimes veiled, with arms outstretched and usually bent at the elbow suggesting supplication or pleading. A person’s ‘soul’ in ancient literature was referred to as female and so in a funerary context the female orant image denoted the soul of a deceased person in prayer either pleading for himself or for those still alive.

The pagan orant image also symbolized a more general concept of pious familial devotion and intercessory prayer. Even Roman coins utilized the image on the reverse side of the emperor’s image to suggest the love and devotion of the emperor as he interceded with the gods in behalf of his ‘family’, the people of the empire.

The orant was equally ubiquitous in early Christian art with the difference that a Christian orant reflected the visual characteristics of the deceased person; if the deceased was male the orant image was depicted as male, for example. Other individual characteristics would also be shown.

"Saint Cyprian", SS. Giovanni e Paolo, Rome. Tied to the side curtains are a common presentation of the orant image suggesting a vision of a heavenly reality.

“Saint Cyprian”, martyr. SS. Giovanni e Paolo Church, Rome. Late 4th century. Drawn-to-the-side curtains are a common presentation of the orant image suggesting a revealed vision of a heavenly reality. This is on the wall of the confessio or chapel grave of the saint.*

Today, we commonly understand the orant pose as simply signifying a person at prayer. But, in a Christian

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Saint Apollinares intercedes for the faithful of his diocese. Sant’Apollinare in Classe Ravenna, Italy, ca. 533-49.

context, the orant especially designates intercessory prayer and was often used in early Christian art to depict martyrs offering intercessory prayers in behalf of the faithful still on earth. Early Christian writer Tertullian described the orant pose as that of the crucified Christ thereby identifying the sacrifice of the martyrs with that of the Savior.

300dpi priest_edited-1Most of us will recognize the orant position as the pose of the priest when offering prayers during Mass.

The gesture was less commonly employed in Christian art following the shift to naturalism in the Western Church but is still very much used by priests of the Eastern and Western Churches in the execution of the liturgy.

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Picture Sources:

* Lawrence Nees, Early Medieval Art, Oxford History of Art, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002) p. 120

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11 Responses to “Basic Christian Iconography: the “Orant” or “Orans””

  1. avatar Eliza10 says:

    I was just reading last night, in Maria Valtorta’s monumental masterpiece, Poem of the Man God, and Jesus and the apostles were in a Temple in the synagogue of Nazareth – and the people seemed to have been praying in this position. Here it is described:

    “I see a large square room. I call it a large room, although I realise it is the synagogue in Nazareth (as my internal informant tells me) because there is nothing but the bare walls painted pale yellow and a sort of desk on one side. There is also a tall lectern with some rolls on it. Lectern or bookcase, call it as you wish. It is, in short, a kind of an inclined table, supported by one leg, and on which there are some rolls lined up.. There are some people praying, but not as we pray, they are all facing on one direction, with their hands not joined, but approximately as a priest stands at the altar. Above the desk and the lectern there are some lamps.”

  2. avatar JLo says:

    What I recognize is how small now is the expanse of the celebrant’s arms when praying the Our Father. What I mean is that it used to be that the celebrant spread wide his arms during this prayer, because he was our leader to God. Now, with everyone in the pews standing in orans (??), the priest seems to have shrunk his pose. That saddens me, and I wish people would not stand in that pose. I guess I long for the days the priest prayed the Mass ad orientem, spreading his arms wide as he led us to God. I notice in reading articles here and there that priests are slowly returning to praying the Mass ad orientem. Nice.

    As to the Poem of the Man God, Eliza10, you migh want to read this about it: http://www.catholic.com/quickquestions/what-can-you-tell-me-about-the-poem-of-the-man-god

    +JMJ

  3. avatar Eliza10 says:

    I agree, JLo. I do long for those days, too. There is something that seems wrong about it as it exists in the current way most Masses are. I guess it seems like another attempt to say we are just like the priest. I had to decide what to do when I converted and started attending Masses there in Rochester So at that time, I heard that this is the priests position, and that there is no new rubric saying we should imitate the priest, so I decided it was best to pray in my usual prayer position, so this is what I always do. That means no holding hands, either. (Unless someone insists, by grabbing it. And that happened once! :O )

  4. avatar Eliza10 says:

    As to the link: I love Catholic Answers, like I love EWTN, but there are MUCH better places for information and authority. I am sorry to say, Catholic Answers BEARS FALSE WITNESS in that link you bore. Certainly not on purpose. However, I do think they have neglected their sacred responsibility to research their published opinions, and I think that neglect is SCANDALOUS. Authoritative and thorough answers to all those charges raised are EASY to find on the Internet and VERY difficult to refute when examined.

    Most or all of Valtorta’s work can be read online, and I am certain that no honest person, reading any chapter from anywhere in the work could call it a “badly fictionalized novel”. If one wanted to guess it “a novel”, honesty would compel a person to call it the most astounding, marvelous novel EVER WRITTEN. Which is what esteemed scholarly theologians and princes of the Church have called it – except they don’t call it a “novel”. They say human origin could not be a POSSIBLE explanation, and they explain why. These renowned, faithful theologians say that NOTHING in it conflicts with ANY of scripture OR church teaching. Which is a pretty astounding statement to make of a 25,000 PAGE WORK that is primarily limited to coverage of Our Lord’s three year ministry!

    Pope Pius XVII said of it:

    “Publish it just as it is. There is no need to give an opinion as to whether it is of supernatural origin. Those who read it will understand.”

    Yes. Those who read it understand.

    And no lay person or lower authority can undermine a ruling such as that.

    One can easily find online thorough explanations of the exact circumstances of the above statement by Pope Pius XII concerning Valtorta’s Poem of the Man God, and the witnesses to it and all about their identities, as well as the supporting events of their statements. And also, as I said above: most thorough, convincing, and authoritative refutations of ALL that was said in that link you provided.

    Unfortunately, the vast majority of people would rather go with a little miniature authoritative-sounding statement from a resource that should be reputable and trusted, and so they accept that. And doing so they never get to experience one of the great treasures of our Church, a GREAT GRACE Our Lord has granted us in these difficult days. And for this reason, I say that Catholic Answers, in this case, as well as other well-meaning organizations that reprint excerpts of the same statements while neglecting to give an honest and thorough look at the explicit and thorough refutations/explanations of EACH POINT that are WIDELY available online – when people are looking to them for answers on their Catholic faith, and for them to do the research for them — they BEAR THE GUILT of BEARING FALSE WITNESS. And that is a scandal. 🙁

  5. avatar JLo says:

    I believe it was Bishop Sheen (could be wrong) who said that we should always be reading a biography of Jesus in addition to reading the Bible. I did once start to read “Poem of the Man God”, but cast it aside rather quickly… it’s just not for me. I prefer Bishop Sheen’s “Life of Christ” and Pope Benedict XVI’s three volume work on Jesus, and I have even enjoyed Ann Catherine Emmerick’s work, too. The tone of the series you prefer just personally puts me off. To each his own, Eliza10! May God bless your choices.
    +JMJ

  6. avatar militia says:

    The best way to keep from a controversy over hand-holding (or needless handshakes as well — supposed to be limited to person on either side of us — is to blow your nose loudly and thoroughly just before it happens. Most people don’t grab your hand immediately afterwards. 🙂

    On a more serious note, I don’t think the smaller space orans position that started showing up in the DoR is due to the pew sitters stretching out. What actually happened was that in the rehearsal for Bp. Matano’s installation Mass the priests were drilled on keeping their orans during the concelebration to a position where their hands were aligned with their shoulders. From a practical point of view it minimized the opportunity to whack a brotherly priest to the right or left and be recorded for all time in the proceedings. I think it may have been received also as an instruction for regular celebration of Mass, but I don’t think it was intended that way.

  7. avatar JLo says:

    Good idea, militia, for avoiding those who want to hold our hands! I’ve only very rarely had someone try to grab mine as I stand there with my head bowed, eyes closed, and my hands joined in front of me until the prayer begins.

    As to the small-space orans posture of priests, it for sure predates Bishop Matano’s installation. It’s been going on for years and years and years, and it’s just my observation that the priest’s posture has shunk to a very small, within-shoulder width because in facing us, he’s no longer leading us to Jesus, but merely joining us in prayer to the Lord. It all started when the celebrant turned to face us instead of leading us “East”. I’m probably all wet on this personal observation, but it’s how I see it.

    I’ve only recently read that priests are starting to celebrate even the ordinary form ad orientem, and that is such great news to me! I just know that when a priest faces east, his arms are thrown wide to lead all behind him to the Lord. Forgive me for wanting that symbolism back. I know it’s not the most important thing on our plates in these awful days.

    +JMJ

  8. avatar Eliza10 says:

    “The best way to keep from a controversy over hand-holding (or needless handshakes as well — supposed to be limited to person on either side of us — is to blow your nose loudly and thoroughly just before it happens. Most people don’t grab your hand immediately afterwards.”

    LOL.

    Interesting about the Installation Mass. It does make sense to have a common position designated for a priests standing en massse in a limited space, and the uniformity just makes the special Mass look better. I am curious, WHO did the “drilling” at the Mass? Some Master of Ceremonies?

  9. avatar Eliza10 says:

    JLO, perhaps if I had started in the beginning of volume 1 with Anne at home in Nazareth, and her sadness and resigned sighs at her childlessness I would have been less interested, too, as, I never gave Anne much thought before. To start there, while also facing the daunting length – I might give up too. (Not til you read more do you see the length is a GREAT GIFT). And then there is Mary going to live at the Temple at 3! I had never heard of such a thing! (I have now – its what Emmerich said, among others). This would have made me wary, ESPECIALLY if I also had exposure to that link you provided when I started reading.

    Fortunately for me the person who introduced me to the book suggested I begin later in Volume 1, with the truly wonderful story of “The Adoration of the Shepherds” [http://www.valtorta.org/first_christmas_defaultpage.asp ],and from there I read of “The Adoration of the Wise Men”,[http://www.valtorta.org/magi_adore_the_messiah_defaultpage.asp]. Then I skipped onto Jesus beginning his ministry, to the chapters describing Him going to FIND those same shepherds! – after 30 years! – who had been MUCH persecuted since the slaughter at Bethlehem, yet would NOT stop proclaiming the birth of the Lord at Bethlehem, and had remained filled with joy in remembrance of that night, and of the angle’s words of proclamation. Yes, and then I was hooked!

    But I was exposed to that link you gave, JLo, too. From such a favored source – Catholic Answers, and also at another favored source, also a trusted authority to me. But I needed more answers, so I looked. And I found there are ASTOUNDING proofs – so MUCH irrefutable evidence to back this work.

    One of my favorites are words by John M. Haffert, founder of the Blue Army of Fatima, whom I already much admired. Haffert speaks of the very same thing you speak of here, JLo – the need and desire for a biography of Jesus, in addition to the Bible. Yes.

    Here is what Haffert said: http://www.valtorta.org.au/Poem.html

  10. avatar Eliza10 says:

    Those links did not work, so I will try again.

    The Adoration of the Shepherds:
    http://www.valtorta.org/first_christmas_defaultpage.asp

    The Adoration of the Wise Men:
    http://www.valtorta.org/magi_adore_the_messiah_defaultpage.asp

  11. avatar Eliza10 says:

    Also: error above: Its 3000 pages not 25,000!


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