By His Grace Bishop Joachim of Amissos*
Now that the Consecration of the Saint Nicholas National Shrine is complete, the Shrine will close to the public for a short while, while the installation of the Iconographic Program takes place. The Church must be closed to the public during this time, as there will be an intricate scaffolding erected, to allow Father Loukas and his assistants to place the iconography in all of the appropriate spaces. Father Loukas had already installed some of the icons for the Consecration, but the full complement of images will fill the dome and walls with a coherent iconographic program. A Byzantine/Orthodox church is understood as complete when its interior surfaces are properly embellished. Architecture and iconography work together to create a unified entity. The holy images placed in their specified architectural settings create the sacred space for worship and private prayer, a liminal space where the heavenly and the earthly meet. Below, we refresh our first offering in this Newsletter, which explains why the program for the Shrine, and in particular the life cycle of the Saint, is so important.
The Saint Nicholas Shrine will have an iconographic program that properly takes into account and reflects the visual tradition, theological teachings, liturgical references and needs, and patronal dedication of the temple. All these factors must be aesthetically coordinated to reinforce and enhance the worshipper’s liturgical experience, to create a sacred space, a space that unites celestial and earthly divine worship. For the Shrine of Saint Nicholas at Ground Zero in Manhattan, there is the additional significance of the role of this Saint for the history of the city in general, and his role for the martyric site of this Shrine in particular.
Since the early history of New York, going back to the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, Saint Nicholas, known as Sinterklaas, was the most popular of saints for the Dutch colonists. By 1810, Saint Nicholas was regarded as the patron Saint of the New York Historical Society. In 1822, Clement Moore, a New York resident and professor at General Theological Seminary in the city, composed the well-known Christmas poem, “’Twas the Night before Christmas.” And in 1881, the New York artist, Thomas Nast, created the familiar drawing of Santa Claus (corrupted form of Saint Nicholas) for the New York Harper’s Weekly.
But within the centuries-long Byzantine/Orthodox Tradition, Saint Nicholas was, and is, regarded as one of the most popular saints, venerated for his great intercessory powers, and as recounted in the various texts of his Life, or Vita, he is especially remembered as a holy figure who rescues individuals from dangers and as a great intercessor at tribunals for those who were wrongly condemned. Thus, as scholars have shown, in light of the latter role, he is regarded as a most powerful intercessor for the dead at the Last Judgment. For this reason, as scholars have also demonstrated, various sacred depictions from his life were painted as coherent cycles in numerous historic churches across the Byzantine/Orthodox commonwealth, often placed in spaces where intercessory prayers for the dead were conducted.
The pictorial Life Cycle in the Shrine of Saint Nicholas will include 7 scenes, adapted from various well-known examples from the Byzantine/Orthodox visual tradition: the Birth of Saint Nicholas; the Ordination of Saint Nicholas to the Episcopacy; Saint Nicholas Miraculously Providing Dowries for Three Maidens; Saint Nicholas Rescuing a Drowning Man (Sea Miracle); Saint Nicholas Rescues Three Generals Wrongly Imprisoned; Saint Nicholas Rescues Three Innocent Men from Execution; and the Koimesis (Dormition-Falling Asleep) of Saint Nicholas. Most pictorial Life Cycles of saints begin with a Birth-Scene; that of his Ordination to the Episcopacy visually marks the beginning of the Saint’s public life as the beloved Hierarch and spiritual Shepherd of his flock. Our Cycle then includes four of the most well-known events of Saint Nicholas’ miraculous interventions and rescues on behalf of those who were placed under his spiritual care as well as for those who devoutly called upon his name for intercession. The Cycle concludes, as with other holy persons, with the scene of his Dormition (Koimesis or Falling Asleep) where the Saint is depicted on his funeral bier surrounded by the faithful, both clergy and laity, who gather to venerate his sacred body and who understand that Saint Nicholas will continue to intercede on their behalf.
The visual statement of the iconographic program of the Life Cycle of Saint Nicholas in the Shrine at Ground Zero will serve as a potent reminder and symbol that this same Saint Nicholas is also a refuge and vindicator for those victims of 9/11, interceding for them, and for us as well, now, and at the time of the Last Judgment.
PhD Bishop Joachim of Amissos is an internationally recognized expert in Byzantine Iconography and is the Director of the Archbishop Iakovos Library at Hellenic College/Holy Cross.