Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church


Breathing With Both Lungs

March 22nd, 2014, Promulgated by Bernie

There are many differences between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches but usually it is a difference of emphasis rather than (in my view) serious substance. Most often the differences are complementary. We need both views to understand more completely.

The most common subject dominating the apse wall behind or over an Orthodox altar is the Holy Virgin of the Sign or a slight variation of it –the Madonna holding the Christ Child in her lap. In Western (Catholic) churches the single most used subject is the crucifixion. Protestant churches almost always employ the plain cross.

view toward apse and iconostasis screen cropped

Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit, Rochester

Saint Stanislaus Catholic Church, Rochester

Saint Stanislaus Catholic Church, Rochester

The different imagery reveals the different emphasis each places on the same economy of redemption and salvation.

In the East it is the Incarnation as a whole that effects redemption. Man was redeemed when God took on human flesh, lived a human life in all respects except sin, suffered the worst death, and resurrected and ascended back to the Father. With the Incarnation, human flesh became capable of deification (sanctification). It became possible for man to enjoy eternal life with God in heaven.  The icon of the Incarnation in the East is the Virgin of the Sign or the Holy Virgin holding her Son in her lap. It is the Eastern iconic image of redemption.


“Mother Of God The Sign”

The Western Church does not believe something different but she most often chooses a specific moment, the moment of Christ’s horrible death, to symbolize the redemption. Catholics and Protestants emphasize an atonement theology as part of the Incarnation; that Christ paid for our sins through His sacrificial death. This is especially true in Protestant churches.


Westminster Presbyterian Church, Pierrefonds

Catholic churches, in addition to the crucifixion, have a very rich tradition of highlighting other images of redemption (including images of the “Virgin of the Sign”) behind or above the altar, such as scenes from the life of Christ and images of the sanctified –the saints.

"The Conversion of Saint Paul" Caravaggio, 1610, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome. Besides the Crucifixion Catholic chancel imagery often displays snapshots from the history of redemption or salvation.

“The Conversion of Saint Paul”, Caravaggio, 1610, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome. Besides the Crucifixion which is the most represented subject, Catholic chancel imagery often displays snapshots from the history of redemption or salvation. Here we see an analogy to that history; brilliant Divine light pierces the darkness of Paul’s pre-Christian life as Christ’s Incarnation deified fallen flesh.

The Eastern Church chooses to display as its most important icon in the church building an image that views redemption as a whole piece. In the Western tradition redemption appears as a crescendo climaxing in the sacrifice of the cross. Neither emphasis diminishes the importance of the other. We should see them as complementing each other  –“breathing with both lungs”.

We Westerners, especially Protestants, may be puzzled or even scandalized by the prominent emphasis of the Holy Virgin in Eastern Orthodox or Byzantine Catholic churches until we realize the meaning behind the icon.


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4 Responses to “Breathing With Both Lungs”

  1. avatar y2kscotty says:

    Very informative. I can’t help but note that the icons of Mary show her with Jesus, her Son. Frankly, I do not like our “western” depictions of Mary without her showing us Jesus. Please note Our Lady of Walsingham which shows Mary holding Jesus. Am I right in thinking that Mary without Jesus in our art is a theological aberration?

  2. avatar Bernie says:

    Mary is often depicted in both the east and west as “Saint” Mary, like other saints she is sometimes depicted alone. The oldest images of Mary, however, are of her holding the child Jesus in her lap (the very earliest comes to us from a 4th c. catacomb). Following on the heels of those earliest images came Mary depicted with her child visited by the three wise men of the east. There are, of course, scenes of her assumption and her dormition without the child, and cultic images(“Our Lady” of this or that) sometimes holding the child Jesus and sometimes not. Mary has her own holiness conferred on her at her conception and through her own sinless life. More than any other saint Mary is entitled to separate iconic imagery. She’s in a class of her own! Recall that saints are “in heaven” –they are totally conformed to Christ, they are deified/sanctified. What we see in an icon of them is an image of Jesus Christ who, in turn, is the image of the Father.

  3. avatar Ben Anderson says:

    True Devotion

    10. And yet in truth we must still say with the saints: De Maria numquam satis : We have still not praised, exalted, honoured, loved and served Mary adequately. She is worthy of even more praise, respect, love and service.

  4. avatar christian says:

    And is not accurate to say:
    Mary leads us to her son, Mary points to her son Jesus.
    The saints point us to Jesus.
    Jesus points to His Father.

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