Pr. Jim Roemke has graciously allowed me to share some of these images of his home altar, and has written an explanation of how he chose to set it up. So without further ado, here is Pr. Roemke. 🙂
Many people view art as a purely subjective medium. If you like it, if a piece speaks to you or makes you feel good, etc., then it is perceived to be “good art.”
This may or may not be accurate; I am no art critic or scholar. I am a theologian and steward of the Sacred Mysteries, a called and ordained servant of Jesus Christ. My view of art, especially sacred art, is going to be necessarily shaped by my vocation. Sacred Art, that is, iconography, is anything but subjective. The very nature of sacred art is that of confessing objective truth. The level to which sacred art confesses the unchanging truth of God’s Word determines how good or poor it is.
For this reason, it is vitally important for the Christian to understand the proper devotional usage of sacred art, both in the Church and in the home. Art has a way of shaping our perception, thus, bad sacred art will shape in us bad theology, just as good sacred art will help to instill good theology.
I appreciate having this opportunity to share on the CLEAR blog my own use of sacred art for devotional use in my own home. For several years, the use and maintenance of a home prayer altar has been an important part of my family’s piety and my formation and growth as a pastor. Below I will share pictures of my own home altar with explanation for placement of icons, why they are important and how they help strengthen my faith and the confession of that faith from a confessionally Lutheran perspective. This kind of thing certainly is not commanded by Scripture and I would never look down my nose at someone who would not find such a thing helpful. I am a poor, miserable sinner who needs constant reminders of what I believe. I am also, like most people, very visual. The things I see are important to me. I pray this will be a helpful instruction for you in your own devotional use of sacred art.
For ease of explanation, I have labeled the various parts of my prayer altar with numbers. The below numbers will go into detail about each piece.
1. Christ and Him crucified was all St. Paul decided to know amongst the Corinthians (2 Cor. 2:2). It is the sacrifice which atones for the sin of the world. It is God’s love writ large across the ages, from Adam and Eve, to the last man and woman who will take their breath on this earth. As Christ willingly stretches out His arms in love and embraces the scorn and shame of the cross, He has reconciled us to the Father. During the Lenten season, a violet cloth hangs behind the crucifix, during Eastertide, it the crucifix is hung with a white sash and a crown covers the titulus. Before the crucifix hangs an ornate oil lamp, a reminder that the light of Christ shines in the darkness, even the darkness of death, and the darkness has not overcome it. This holy, perfect and pure sacrifice of God is adorned by the Holy Angels, who hold the mystery in wonder. It is for Christians, the icon of God’s love, painted in the Blood of the Lamb. The icon at the foot of the cross is a triptych of the Resurrection. During Lent, its doors are closed. This is a reminder of Christ’s ultimate victory over death through His own death.
2. As mentioned above, the Holy Angels worship and adore Christ and His holy Passion. Our Lord was announced at His nativity by the angel hosts, He was ministered to by them after His Baptism, when He fasted 40 days and was then tempted by the devil. An angel from heaven strengthened Him in His agony and prayers in Gethsemane. So the two Holy Archangels, Sts. Michael and Gabriel, stand in awe and wonder on either side of His holy Passion. Their icons are a reminder of Christ’s divinity, His loving-kindness, and His kingdom, which is reigned from the wood of the cross. The icons of the seraphim harken back to Isaiah’s vision when the seraphim surrounded the throne of God, proclaiming “Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord God of Sabaoth!” God’s holiness, power and might are nowhere more clearly seen than upon the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.
3. and 4. On either side of the Passion are the icons of His nativity (3) and The Holy Supper (4). In these icons we see the progression from humanity (the Nativity) to the cross, from the cross to us (the Supper). This is a confession of Christ’s humanity given for us. The same body and blood that was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Blessed Virgin, crucified for my sins, adored by the Holy Angels and risen from the dead is given to me in the Eucharist. This truly is the mystery of our religion.
5. The Church is never just about one person and God. So these icons of the blessed Apostles reminds me that Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever. I am baptized into the communion of saints. These men are my brothers by virtue of the blood of Christ. I am not free to make things up, or go rogue with my faith. It is the holy faith, once for all delivered to the saints. I am surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses and my prayers arise with theirs throughout time as we await the resurrection of all flesh and the new heavens and the new earth.
6. This icon is entitled “Follow Me” and has vignettes of the disciples being called to follow Christ, who is the vine and we the branches. This vine/branches motif is carried out in icons 7 and 9.
7. and 9. Here we see Christ, enthroned in the flesh of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the center of a great vine, sprouting from the root of Jesse. He is the fulfilment of the Holy Prophets, who form the branches and fruit of the Old Testament promises which see their fulfilment in the birth of the Christ Child. Icon 9 also has the same concept, except it is now the grown Christ who has endured His Passion and is resurrected, holding in His bosom the Word which endures forever, which He is. The Apostles are the branches and fruit of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, into which I have also been grafted.
8. One of my very favorite icons is this one of Christ, the Good Shepherd. He fiercely holds the feet of what appears to be an unwilling sheep in His nail-scarred hands. The cross is behind Him. He has come through the valley of the shadow of death for me, His unworthy sheep. This icon is a powerful reminder of His holy Passion and if fittingly placed beneath the crucifix.
10. Here is an icon of the Trinity, in which we are taught that God is one in three. The Father holds the Son upon His lap, His hands held up in blessing. Through the sacrifice of the Son, we have been reconciled to the Father. By virtue of the blessings of Holy Baptism, we have been grafted onto the Vine, and are given the Holy Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
11. On this lowest level of the icons, we see the Blessed Virgin, tenderly holding her Son and facing the central icon of this level, the Resurrection of our Lord. I like icons of the Blessed Virgin and the Christ Child. They are a powerful reminder of God’s love for us shown in His humiliation. The Blessed Virgin is a constant reminder to hold Christ dear to our hearts.
12. This is an icon of Holy Wisdom, which is only found in Christ. As I pray, I am reminded by this icon to seek Holy Wisdom in God’s Word and in Christ alone.
13. Another icon of the Trinity, this time with an Old Testament theme. Here we see the three visitors of Abraham. These three are identical to each other, and a whole book could be written on this replica of Andre Rublev’s famous icon. Suffice it to say, this icon reminds me to prayerfully devote myself to the One True God who has revealed Himself in Holy Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, in the same way: One in Three and Three in One.
14. Another one of my favorite icons, the Resurrection of our Lord. He stands over His own grave, victorious over sin and death, holding the cross for all the world to see, surrounded by heavenly light and the praise of the Holy Angels on the new morning of the eighth day. But He has not done this for Himself only. He tenderly reaches down to the Old Man and Woman, Adam and Eve, and lifts them from their graves as well, along with all who put their faith in Him, including Kings David and Solomon, the prophets, the Blessed Virgin and St. John the Baptist and Forerunner. During Lent, the cross on the Bible is hung in front of this image.
15. This icon is entitled “Deisis” which means invocation or prayer. Here Christ is enthroned after His Resurrection and Ascension and is the praise of all saints, represented by the Blessed Virgin and the Forerunner. The triptych of these icons (numbers 13-15) confess the enduring promise of a Savior (Abraham’s visitors), the fulfillment of the promise (the Resurrection) and the reality of Christ’s exaltation, in which we share (Deisis). This icon is again seen in number 22 and in greater detail in number 16.
16. As the icon “Deisis” portrays Christ as the center of all invocation and prayer, so the various icons that surround the image of the Resurrection instill that truth and presents it for prayerful meditation. The Holy Angels and Saints are gathered around the Resurrection of our Lord, all directing the prayers of the penitent to the crucified and risen Savior. Here are the holy archangels, the Blessed Virgin, the Forerunner, Sts. Peter and Paul, Holy Wisdom and our own guardian angel. This is who they all bear witness to and who we also are called to bear witness to in prayer, praise and thanksgiving.
17. This is an icon of Christ the Teacher. He holds His Holy Word out for all. These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.
18. Another icon of Christ enthroned, it complements the icon of Holy Wisdom (12), which is only found in the Word made flesh.
19. The crucifix lays upon an open Bible. This is where I do my sermon preparation. The Bible is open to the text to be preached upon, at the top of the Bible stand an icon of Christ the Teacher. As a preacher of the Word, I must always proclaim Christ and Him crucified, rightly dividing the Law and the Gospel. How else am I to do such a thing if I am not taught by Christ?
20. An icon of Pentecost is hung behind a large candle, a reminder of the tongues of fire that descended upon the disciples and the visible beginning of the Holy Christian Church, of which I am a part and am participating in by my prayers.
21. An icon of the Baptism of Christ is hung behind a large crystal bowl with water. Before I pray, I am reminded of my Baptism by making the sign of the cross with this water. Through Christ’s Baptism, I am brought into the household of eternity.
22. Another, expanded icon of the Deisis hangs above all of this, reminding me that Christ sits at the right hand of the throne of God, making intercession for me to God the Father. My prayers are offered up with the prayers of all believers in Christ’s holy name.
23. This icon of Christ the High Priest hangs to the left of the crucifix and is a confession of Christ, the only mediator between God and man. He stands, in His flesh and blood, the perfect offering for our sins, thus making us holy saints before God by His sacrifice.
24. Another icon of Christ standing at the door and knocking reminds me that Christ is always eager to hear and quick to answer my prayers. He does not desire the death of a sinner, but has given His life that I might live.
25. The violet curtains hangs between the altar and the bench I sit on. It reminds me to come to God in repentance for my many sins because the curtain of the Temple has been torn in two by the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ.
26. The golden cloth hangs behind all the icons, a symbol of the joys of heaven and the precious nature of the gift Christ has purchased for me by His blood. I may go before the mercy seat of God because of Christ and what He has done. He has become the mercy seat of God by His passion.
27. The white cloth is placed on the altar during the Easter season. I have “paraments” for all the seasons of the Church year, thus reminding me that my prayers are never alone, but are a part of the Holy Christian Church in all times and places.
28. An icon of St. John the Baptist and Forerunner of our Lord is next to the Bible. This reminds me, as a pastor, to be preparing the way of the Lord. I must be ever decreasing that He might increase in the hearts and lives of the souls that I have been entrusted with.
29. An icon of St. Joseph is on the other side of the Bible, another reminder to me of my vocation as a pastor and father. As St. Joseph tenderly holds and cares for the Christ-child, so must I tenderly hold Christ before His people, to my family and my flock.
30. Finally, a censer sits in front of the Deisis icon. Let my prayers rise as incense along with the prayers of all the saints in heaven.
Some other minor details that bear mentioning are all the candles. These, of course, serve the practical purpose of giving light so I can see, but symbolically and theologically, they represent the Light of Christ. I have a lot of candles and oil lamps in my prayer altar.
Symmetry is important to me. I suppose I could make some theological argument for it, but it is just something I like.
I did not use any measurements in constructing my prayer area. I hung things by eye, so much of it is off center, not quite lined up, etc. I did this on purpose, having in mind Exodus 20:25: “If you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones, for if you wield your tool on it you profane it.” I may be taking this verse too far, but it serves another important reminder to me as I pray. When I notice the imperfections I am reminded yet again that my prayers are not heard before God because of my own merit or worth, not because I have an elaborate prayer altar in my home, but because of Christ who died for my sins and rose again for my justification.
I encourage all Christians to consider the intentional use of sacred art in their devotional life. Be thoughtful about it and above all, find sacred art that is a true confession of the Holy Christian faith!
You may reach me for questions at firstname.lastname@example.org