Liturgical Art as Prophecy and Priesthood: Sacred Art and the Restoration of Human Dignity.

By Aidan Hart (1)

This is the text of the presentation given by Aidan, my old friend and former painting teacher, at the Scala Foundation conference in Princeton, NJ on Saturday April 22nd. What a great success the conference and what a pleasure to spend time with Aidan, Jonathan Pageau and everyone who attended!

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 his site,

All the icons shown are painted by Aidan Hart.

idan writes:

Our subject this morning is Liturgical Art as Prophecy and Priesthood: Sacred Art and the Restoration of Human Dignity. I have chosen this title because we act as we see, and, I  believe, worship and its art can profoundly affect how we see ourselves and all creation.

Our relationship with others and with the world at large corresponds with our vision of  who we think we are, and who we think others are. Do I view other people as my competitors? As my enemies? Do I see them merely as a means of my individual happiness? Do I consider them merely as members of a crowd of humanity, nameless numbers among  millions? Or do I see all others as living icons of God, potential saints, amazing and unique  beings, small gods, sons and daughters of the Most High? 

Behind destructive actions are footprints, which if followed back will always lead us to their source, which is false vision and ignorance. False worldviews need to be replaced with  true ones. The Holy Liturgy and all its sacred arts, when healthy, can transform the way we  see the world. Discovering what holy images to live by has been called the art of iconopeia

So if we want change, we must first change the way we see. More particularly, if we want  a flourishing culture, then we must begin with our worship, with our ‘cult’. What we offer  God within the walls of our worshipping community is what we will try to live out beyond the  walls of our worship. 

The prophet Ezekiel had a vision of the temple, and in this vision a river flowed from below  the altar, and wherever this river flowed Ezekiel saw that it brought life. Whatever a culture  worships will, like a river, spread throughout the land either life, or if polluted water, spread corruption. 

Relationships and whole cultures fail because they do not realize the unimaginable dignity  and high calling of the human person. A saint acts with great love and reverence towards all  God’s creatures because he or she sees all others as sons and daughters of the King of Glory.  Every person is created a prince and princess of the Most High, destined, if they wish it, to  become ‘partakers of the divine nature’, as the Apostle Peter writes. If we regard the people  sitting next to us as they truly are, as living icons of God, then we will treat them with  profound respect. 

The importance of getting this vision right is one reason why the art of worship is so  important. If the liturgical art of our microcosm does not accord with God’s intention for all  life, then life beyond the church walls will be disoriented. Without vision the people perish,  as the prophet warns.  

Worship on earth is an icon of, and participation in, the worship of heaven: As the Our  Father prayer puts it: ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’. Since our idea of heaven is  the ideal towards which we strive in our daily lives, we had better get our worship right, or  we are in trouble. Some scholars have, for example, traced our current ecological crisis back  to a faulty theology of matter and to the iconoclastic world view inherent in some Protestant teaching and worship. (2). A worship that denies the capacity of the material world to express  God’s love for mankind, and for mankind to express its love for God, will inevitably affect how  those worshippers treat the material world beyond the walls of their church. Beauty, worship and truth are close cousins. In Greek, the word for dogma, worship and  glory is the same— doxa (δόξα). 

So this morning I would like us to explore in a little more detail what this great dignity and  calling of the human person consists of, through considering both the written and the visual  tradition of the Church. In particular, we shall consider two sources: the written witness of a  great second-century saint, Irenaeus of Lyon, and the visual witness of the Orthodox Church’s  liturgical art, which is the tradition within which I work—although over half of my  commissions come from Catholic and Episcopalian churches and individuals. 

We shall first consider who we are, then what this means, and finally, how we can express  this calling through the ministries and prophet and priest. 



1. The witness of St Irenaeus of Lyon

St Irenaeus wrote much about the nature and calling of the human person. In Irenaeus we  have a reliable witness to Christ’s teaching. Being born around AD 130, we have a man in  close lineage with the apostles themselves. He had heard sermons by no less than Polycarp, a  disciple of the Apostle John. Irenaeus also united in himself the eastern and western arms of  the Church. He was a Greek, born in Smyrna of present-day Turkey, and later became a priest and then bishop in Lyon in Southern France, where he remained until his death around 202.  

Irenaeus affirmed that all people are icons of God, regardless of the right or wrong use of  their free will. He also asserted that we were created with a task, which is to grow into the  divine likeness through a synergy of the right use of our free will and the gift of the Holy  Spirit. Adam and Eve were created pure, but not perfect and mature. They had a task before  them. To be deified and transfigured is therefore humankind’s natural supernatural calling.  Our task is nothing less than to become gods by grace. As Irenaeus write in his work ‘Against  Heresies’: 

Man has first to come into being, then to progress, and by progressing  come to manhood, and having reached manhood to increase, and thus  increasing to persevere, and by persevering be glorified, and thus see his  Lord. For it is God’s intention that he should be seen: and the vision of God is  the acquisition of immortality; and immortality brings man near to God.(3) 

Elsewhere he wrote even more succinctly: 

Our Lord Jesus Christ, the word of God, of his boundless love, became what  we are that he might make us what he himself is. (4) 

In what way then is the human person made in God’s image and likeness? A Gnostic  teaching current in the time of St Irenaeus asserted that the material world and man’s body  was the result of the fall. St Irenaeus countered this by asserting that the human person is in  God’s image not because of his spirit alone, nor his soul alone, but as a union of body, soul  and spirit. The whole person, including the body, is in the image of God, not just a part of him  or her. While some Church Fathers do relate the divine image only to the spirit of man and  not also to his body, Irenaeus is emphatic that it is a composite union that the human person  is in the divine image. It is the whole person, and not just a part of the person, that is in the  divine image. Irenaeus writes: 

Soul and spirit can be constituents of man; but they certainly cannot be the  whole man. The complete man is a mixture and union, consisting of a soul  which takes to itself the Spirit of the Father, to which is united the flesh  which was fashioned in the image of God…men are spiritual not by the  abolition of the flesh…there would then be the spirit of man, or the Spirit of  God, not a spiritual man. But when the spirit is mingled with soul and united  with created matter, then through the outpouring of the Spirit the complete  man is produced; this is man in the image and likeness of God. A man with  soul only, lacking Spirit, is ‘psychic’; such a man is carnal, unfinished,  incomplete; he has, in his created body, the image of God, but he has not  acquired the likeness to God through the Spirit.(5) 

Three things can be highlighted from this and the earlier two passages.  Firstly, a key passage in the quote we have just read is: ‘Through the outpouring of the  Holy Spirit the complete man is produced.’ Man’s deified state, granted through mutual love  and the gift of the Holy Spirit, is man’s calling and his fulfilment. To be a complete human is  to become more than merely human; it is to become a bearer of the Holy Spirit, a  Pentecostal, to be deified, to become gods by grace. So, contrary to the humanist  Renaissance motto, God and not man is the measure of all things.  

Man becomes his true self when he looks away from himself, ‘forgetful of himself’, to  contemplate his divine prototype. Elsewhere Irenaeus writes: 

Where the Spirit of the Father is, there is the living man…flesh possessed by  the Spirit, forgetful of itself, assuming the quality of the Spirit, made  conformable to the Word of God…(6) 

Secondly, if Irenaeus were to highlight any particular aspect of the human person that  makes them capable of such a high calling, it would be their freedom; freedom either to love  and worship God or, tragically, to worship something other than God. Freedom is the  prerequisite of love. He writes that to be glorified man must ‘persevere, and by persevering  be glorified, and thus see his Lord’. Perseverance is an act of free will.  

Thirdly, Irenaeus asserts that man’s materiality is an integral part of his destiny to grow  into the divine likeness of God. He states that ‘the complete man is a mixture and union’ of  body, soul and spirit. He even goes further when he writes of ‘the flesh which is fashioned in  the image of God’. How can the flesh be in God’s image, when God is bodiless, beyond all  limitation or measure? 

There are two reasons. First, Irenaeus believed, like many subsequent Church fathers, that  the Incarnation would have occurred even had not man fallen into sin. If this is the case, then  the human body is in God’s image by being created according to the image of the incarnate  Christ, even though man’s creation preceded God’s incarnation. Christ the incarnate Logos is  the prototype of all humans. The one crucial difference is that Christ is God by nature and  human by grace, while the deified man or woman is human by nature and divine by grace.  

Second, we can say that the human body is made in God’s image because its physical  faculties— such as sight and hearing and touch—all correspond to a higher and incorporeal  reality in God: God sees us, God hears us, God touches us by his Holy Spirit. Divine seeing  preceded human seeing. 

All that we have said means that the saints—transfigured and deified humans—are God’s  intended norm for human existence and not the exception. Every person is born a prince or  princess, and if they progress in virtues, they will eventually reach their coronation and be  anointed as gods by adoption. They will become kings and queens, co-heirs with Christ to  rule under the Holy Spirit.  

We need to pause and try to digest how great this estate is, how splendid and magnificent  are the faculties given to us and to those around us. 

Perhaps we sin not so much because we think too highly of ourselves, but because we don’t think highly enough of ourselves, because we are ignorant of just how exalted a being  God has created us.  

The very fact that some people misuse these faculties to wreck destruction on others is  itself testament to the powers granted to mankind, whether to use or abuse according to  each person’s free will. Beholding the human person with the eyes of the Holy Spirit, we can  declare, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet; 

What a piece of work is a man! how Noble in  Reason? how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable in Action, how like an Angel  in apprehension, how like a God? (7) 

All the woes of this world ultimately come, I believe, from failing to grasp the true  greatness and destiny of the human person, both for ourselves and for all others. Because every fibre of the human person is created for this estate, if we refuse it—or find it too good to believe—we will still crave fulfilment, and therefore look for it in lesser ways. Thence come  wars, factions, crime, unkindness, consumerism, selfishness, ugliness, and brutalism— aesthetic, spiritual and psychological. In short, all the woes of the fallen world.  

But if we believe in and embrace this high dignity and calling, given to us by the  beneficent God, then we shall live with thanksgiving and gratitude to our Maker. We shall  show profound respect for all other humans as living icons of Christ. We shall honour all  creation as an expression of God’s love for us.  

Thus are made cultures that are worshipping communities, cultures worthy of that word,  for ‘cult’ means to worship.  

2. The witness of liturgy

We come now to the witness of traditional worship to help answer the question of who  we are. As a member of the Orthodox Church, I shall here concentrate on its particular form  of liturgical worship. This is an enormously rich seam to mine, impossible to do justice in a  few minutes. So I shall outline just three elements here. 

a) Community and Trinity

To be made in God’s image means that we are made in the image of the Holy Trinity. God is a communion of the three divine persons, or hypostasis to use the Greek theological term.  Human life as God intended it and worship as God intended it, is therefore communal. We  are made in God’s image not primarily as individuals, but as members of a community. This is  one reason why the walls and ceilings of a fully-fledged Orthodox church are covered in  frescoes or mosaics. These icons of the saints and angels affirm that worshippers gather not  only with those on earth but also with those in heaven. There is one single Church, one  worshipping community, a unity in diversity. In this way the tyranny of time and death is  overcome. St Irenaeus is no longer a person of the past, sundered from me by the scissors of  death, but a living being gathered with me around the throne of God.  

(b) Matter and mystery

Traditional worship uses matter crafted by human hands to express the mystery of God  dwelling among his people. Here we have icons, furnishings, incense, bread and wine,  metalwork—a whole orchestra of crafted works united in a symphony of man’s praise of  God, and of God’s revelation to man.  

Here, human mastery of the cosmos is used not to dominate it but to transfigure it, to  make it more articulate in the worship of God. Thus, there is no longer a division between  mankind and the cosmos (what the secular world has wrongly dubbed ‘nature’). In patristic  teaching the cosmos is seen as an extension of the human body, one being necessary for the  other. 

Our ecological crisis began not with technology but in the heart of man, when he  separated himself from the rest of creation—and calling the latter ‘nature’—and then  excluding the Most High as irrelevant. Summarizing the wonderful book by Paulo Mar  Gregorios, The Human Presence, John Kunnathu writes: 

Mastery of nature for oneself is the Adamic sin of refusing our mediating position  between God and nature. The mastery of nature must be held within the mystery of worship. Otherwise we lose both mastery and mystery. We may give nature as our  extended body into the hands of the loving God in Eucharistic self-offering.  

(c) Revelation and creativity

Although human creativity is inevitably involved in the fashioning and enactment of liturgy,  authentic liturgy comes from revelation and not from human invention. We see this union of  revelation and originality in Scripture. The Hebrew cycle of feast and fasts, and the design of  its Tent of Meeting was revealed to Moses upon Mount Sinai. In the New Testament, the  Apostle John is granted a vision of the worshipping heaven, and we see his description of  heavenly worship reflected in the Church’s worship on earth. Artistic creativity is therefore a  fruit, and not the origin of liturgy. Variety comes from people adapting expressions of timeless  truths to particular places. 

A society will flourish inasmuch as it has, and is then guided by, a rich liturgical life. I  stayed for a while on the traditional Greek islands of Sifnos and Evia, and longer still on the  peninsula of Mount Athos. In these places I observed how daily life was profoundly affected  by the liturgical year. What one ate was informed by the Church’s cycle of fasting and feasting. Festal processions around the streets, bearing icons, made the village an extension  of the church. Each home has its own icon corner, with candles, incense, prayer books, thus  making the family home a little church. Cars and buses have icons. Roads in the open  countryside have roadside icon shrines, often with their lamps lit. All these things were created uniquely by individual people, but all manifest the same reality.    


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) 



(1) A talk given at the 2023 Scala conference, Princeton University, USA, on 21st April, 2023.

(2) See for example Paulos Mar Gregorios, The Human Presence: Ecological Spirituality and the Age of the Spirit (WCC, 1977), and Philip Sherrard’s The Rape of Man and Nature (Ipswich: Golgonooza Press, 1987), and his Human Image: World Image: The Death and Resurrection of Sacred Cosmology (Ipswich: Golgonooza Press,  1992; reprinted Limni (Greece): Denise Harvey, 2004). 

(3) Irenaeus, in Adversus Haereses, IV. xxxviii.3, Translation by H. Bettenson in The Early Christian Fathers (OUP:  Oxford, 1969), p.68. 

(4) Ibid. v. praef. (Bettenson, p. 77).

(5) Ibid. (Bettenson, p. 71). 

(6) Ibid. V.ix.2-3 (Bettenson p.85)

(7) Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2/

(8) Ibid. IV.xviii.4,5,6 (Bettenson p.95)

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

(10) Ibid. 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