How To Set Up an Icon Corner, or “Prayer Corner,” at Home
the past, whether on a farm or in the city, every Orthodox
family’s home would always have a shelf with icons, or an entire
home iconostasis, located in the most visible place.
location where the icons were placed and arranged was known as the
front corner, the beautiful corner, the icon corner, the holy
corner, God’s place.
are examples of home prayer corners, or “icon corners.” Click on
images to enlarge:
Traditionally the “icon corner”
was opposite the front door, and thus the first thing one saw when
entering an Orthodox home. When family members saw the icons as
they entered their house, they were reminded that they formed an
Orthodox family and were to treat one another with Christian love.
visitor entered the home of an Orthodox family, he knew from
seeing the icon corner that this was a believing family, a
Christian family, a faithful family. The icon corner was a
“witness” of the faith – a “martyria.”
enemy entered an Orthodox home – think of the atheist Soviets who
persecuted the faithful – the icon corner was an indisputable
proclamation of faith – a “martyria.”
embarrassed or ashamed to have people see icons in our home? This
should be a silly, ridiculous thought. Do we not have Freedom of
religion in our nation? Thank God we are free to express our
faith! Our home must be a “κατ᾽ οἶκον ἐκκλησία” – a “house that is
a church,” a “house church.” Our life, our family, our home must
be proclaim our faith – a “martyria.”
Orthodox Christians, an icon is a sacred image. It is outside
the realm of ordinary reality, it is not to be confused with
ordinary daily life, and it is intended only for communion with
God. Thus, the primary purpose of icons is prayer.
An icon is
not just a depiction of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Mother of God,
the Saints, or events from Sacred and Church History. It is
something quite distinct as a window from our world, the earthly
world, into the world above. It is God’s revelation in form and
way, an icon is not simply a family relic to be passed on from
generation to generation, but a holy and sacred object that unites
all family members during communal prayer. Indeed, genuine prayer
in common can take place only if those standing before the icons
have mutually forgiven one another’s offenses and achieved unity.
quite obvious, and also very sad, that today the television set –
and especially the computer and mobile phone – have taken the
place of icons in the home. Obviously these are windows into the
motley world of human passions and earthly matters. As they have
assumed the purpose of the family icon, the tradition of common
prayer at home, and the consciousness of the family as the “little
Church” have been lost.
What if the
icon was once again the source of viewing reality as it truly is,
as God sees it? What if the icon was our means of communicating
with God, and not the cell phone? What if the icon was our means
of communicating with one another in family prayer, and not the
as Orthodox Christians, we must ask: What icons should I have in
my home? How should they be arranged? Can I use reproductions of
icons? What do I do with old, or damaged icons?
Where should one place icons at home?
a free and accessible place. (The terse nature of such an answer
reflects the realities practicalities of life; there is no precise
or “right,” answer – it will vary from family to family, from home
course, it is preferable to place icons on the eastern wall of the
room, because the “East” as a theological concept has special
significance in Orthodoxy.
And the Lord
God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom
he had formed (Genesis 2:8).
look about thee toward the east, and behold the joy that cometh unto
thee from God (Baruch 4:36).
spirit lifted me up, and brought me unto the east gate of the Lord’s
house, which looketh eastward (Ezekiel 11:1).
For as the
lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so
shall also the coming of the Son of man be (Matthew 24:27).
one do if there are windows or doors on the eastern side of one’s
home? In that case, use the southern or northern walls are
certainly appropriate. We do, however, avoid a western wall since
the west signifies darkness, the place where the dsaily light (the
sun) is swallowed up.
should not combine icons with decorative objects of a secular
nature, such as statuettes, various types of pictures, photographs, etc.
inappropriate to put icons on a bookshelf next to books having
nothing in common with the Orthodox faith or that conflict with
Christian teaching on love and charity.
absolutely impermissible to have icons next to posters or
calendars depicting rock musicians, athletes, or politicians – the
idols of the current age. This not only diminishes reverence for
the holy images to an unacceptable degree, but also puts holy
icons on par with the idols of the contemporary world.
icon corner can be decorated with live flowers. Traditionally,
larger icons are often framed with a religious scarf or towel.
This tradition dates back to antiquity and has a theological
to tradition, an image of the Savior miraculously appeared on a
towel during His earthly life to help a suffering man. After
washing His Face, Christ wiped His Face with a clean towel, on
which an image of His Face appeared. The towel was sent to King
Abgar, who was afflicted with leprosy, in the city of Edessa in
Asia Minor. Upon healing, the ruler and his subjects adopted
Christianity and the Image-Not-Made-By-Hands of Jesus Christ was
affixed to a “permanent panel” and raised above the city gates.
past, August 29 (new style), the day the Church commemorates the
translation of the Image Not-Made-By-Hands of our Lord Jesus
Christ from Edessa to Constantinople in AD 944, was known among
the people as the feast of the “canvas” or “linen Savior,” and in
some places fabric and towels made of homespun yarn were blessed.
richly embroidered scarfs or towels were reserved for use in the
icon corner. Likewise, icons were framed by towels for use during
weddings and the Blessing of Waters. Thus, for example, after the
service for the Blessing of Waters, when the priest sprinkled the
icons with abundant Holy Water, people would wipe the icons with
special towels that they would incorporate into the icon corner.
There is a
tradition that, following the celebration of the Lord’s Entry into
Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), palm branches, bay leaves and/or pussy
willow branches that have been blessed in church are kept near the
icons until the following Palm Sunday.
Russian tradition, it is customary that on Pentecost, the Day of
the Holy Trinity, homes and icons are decorated with birch
branches as a symbol of the flourishing Church, bearing the
grace-filled power of the Holy Spirit.
Which icons should you have at home?
is essential to have icons of the Savior and the Mother of God. The Image of the Lord Jesus Christ, which bears witness to the Incarnation and to the salvation of mankind, and of the Theotokos – the most perfect of those who have lived on earth, who was made worthy of deification, and who is venerated as more honorable than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim – are an essential part of the Orthodox Christian home. The icon of Christ ordinarily selected for prayer at home is a waist-length depiction of Christ Pantocrator.
with room for a greater number of icons in the home may supplement their icon corner with depictions of various revered saints.
Orthodoxy has a strong tradition of special veneration for St. Nicholas the Wonderworker; almost every Orthodox family has an icon of him. One should note that, together with the icons of the Savior and the Mother of God, the image of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker has always occupied a central place in Orthodox Christian homes. People revere St. Nicholas as a saint endowed with special grace. This stems in large part from the fact that, according to the Church’s Typikon, every Thursday, when the Church offers up prayers to the Holy Apostles, is also dedicated to St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, Archbishop of Myra in Lycia.
the icons of the Holy Prophets of God, that of the Prophet Elias holds a prominent place; prominent among the icons of the Holy Apostles is that of the Sts. Peter and Paul, the chiefs among the Apostles.
the images of martyrs for Christian Faith, those encountered most often are icons of the Holy Great Martyr and Trophy-bearer George and the Holy Great Martyr and Healer Panteleimon.
is recommended to have depictions of the Holy Evangelists, of St. John the Baptist, of the Holy Archangels Gabriel and Michael, as well as icons of the Feasts, to make a home icon corner complete.
selection of icons for one’s home is always an individual matter. The best person to help one make these choices is one’s priest – the family’s spiritual father – and it is to him, or to another clergyman, that one should turn for advice.
for icon reproductions and color photographs, sometimes it makes more sense to have a good reproduction than a painted icon of poor quality.
iconographer should maintain a very demanding attitude toward his work. Just as a priest does not serve the Liturgy without due preparation, the iconographer must approach his service with full awareness of his responsibility. Unfortunately, both in the past and today, one often encounters vulgar examples of images that bear no resemblance to icons. Thus, if a given depiction does not evoke a sense of piety and a sense of contact with the holy, or if it is theologically suspect and its technical execution is unprofessional, it would be best not to purchase such an item.
reproductions of canonical icons, mounted on a firm backing and blessed in church, can occupy a place of honor in the home iconostasis.
How and in what order should icons be arranged?
Are there strict rules in that regard?
church, yes. As to the home prayer corner, we may limit discussion to a few principal rules.
example, a collection of icons hung without a sense of symmetry, without a well thought-out arrangement, evokes a constant sense of dissatisfaction with the arrangement and a desire to change everything – something that often distracts from prayer.
is likewise essential to remember the principle of hierarchy: for example, do not place an icon of a locally-venerated saint above an icon of the Holy Trinity, the Savior, the Mother of God, or the Apostles.
as on a classic iconostasis, the Icon of the Savior should be to the right, and the Mother of God to the left.
What should be our attitude toward holy things?
one of the attributes of God (Isaiah 6:3), holiness is also reflected in God’s saints and in physical objects. Therefore, reverence for holy people and sacred objects and images, as well as personal striving for authentic communion with God, are manifestations of a single order.
And ye shall be holy unto me: for I the Lord am holy (Leviticus 20: 26).
Family icons have always been held in particular reverence. Following baptism, an infant was brought before and icon and the priest or master of the house would read prayers. Parents blessed their children with an icon to pursue studies, to go on extended journeys, or to engage in public service. As a sign of their approval of a wedding, parents likewise blessed newlyweds with icons. Moreover, a person’s departure from this life took place in the presence of icons.
is improper to have arguments or to engage in rowdy or otherwise improper behavior before the images of the saints.
should instill proper reverence for holy images in children from a very early age.
What should you do if an icon’s condition has rendered it unfit for use and it cannot be restored?
no circumstance should such an icon, even one that has not been blessed, simply be thrown away. A holy item, even if it has lost its original appearance, should always be treated with reverence.
the condition of the icon has deteriorated with age, it should be taken to church to be burned in the church furnace. If that proves impossible, you should burn the icon yourself and bury the ashes in a place that will not be sullied or disturbed, e.g., in a cemetery or under a tree in the garden.
faces that look at us from icons belong to eternity. Gazing upon them, raise up your prayers to them, asking for their intercessions. We, the inhabitants of the earthly world, should never forget our Savior’s eternal call towards repentance, perfection, and the deification of every human soul.
Adapted from an article by Serge Alexeev, 17 July 2013. See: