By JD Beall, Matheus Bagatin Lopes, Brendan Loftus, Riley Fraser, Livi White
Portraying Eastern Christian Beliefs: The Power of St. George’s Iconography
Who is Saint George Melkite Greek Catholic Church?
From the outside, no one would suspect the rich visual beauty portrayed inside St. George Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Birmingham, Alabama. St. George was founded in 1921 and erected its current building in a Modernist style in 1957. It is one of only forty-five Melkite churches in the United States. St. George is best known in Birmingham for hosting an annual festival, featuring baked kibbee, spinach pies, baklawa, dancing, and church tours. While other Birmingham churches have Mediterranean food festivals, St. George is the only Melkite church in all of Alabama.
The Melkites are Byzantine-rite Catholics of Middle Eastern origins. Like Eastern Orthdox Christians they follow the Byzantine, or Greek, tradition of liturgy and spirituality. Like Roman Catholics and other Eastern-rite Catholics they recognize the authority of the bishop of Rome, the pope. Globally, they are led by the Melkite Patriarch of Antioch. The Acts of the Apostles indicates that Antioch as one of the chief centers of the early Christian movement. It was there that followers of Jesus were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). Their chief bishop in the U.S. is the Eparch of Newton, Massachusetts. Like other Byzantine-rite Catholics they follow a liturgical calendar and liturgy that is different from Roman Catholics.
The Eastern Christian traditions emphasize iconography. The iconography in the Melkite church is beautiful, but more importantly it is used to portray the message of the gospel. “Sacred art is decorative, but it is also liturgical, because it works in harmony with the liturgy to communicate the past (salvation history) according to an organized hierarchy” (Denysenko 2017, 3). St. George’s church is an ideal medium to understanding Melkite beliefs and traditions through the church’s layout of icons, the way that Jesus and Mary are portrayed in the iconography, and the lessons that are taught from the descriptive icons.
If you enter St. George Melkite Greek Catholic Church you will be instantly affected by a feeling of sobriety and peace. On a normal day the main room will be slightly dimmed, as most of the natural light channels through the stained glass windows overheard. This lighting activates a perfect setting to take in the vast number of icons that cover almost every area of the church’s walls. On first glance, it seems that the church has an innumerable amount of icons. Covering the walls are different icons ranging from what the average person would describe as a simple portrait to detailed, colorful icons meant to depict complex stories from the Bible.
Rose, the knowledgeable tour guide at the 2019 festival, explained that the entrance into the church is considered the earth but once you walk through the main archway, you have entered into heaven. In this main hall, or nave, the first icon that a visitor would notice is the large image of Mary with Jesus sitting in her lap. Mary holds both of her hands out in the traditional Eastern Christian form of worship. Mary has a halo around her head to emphasize her sainthood. The Greek letters “MP-ΘΥ” are written above her as an abbreviation for “Mother of God” (Nes 2004, 49). She seems to be presenting Jesus to the church. On either side of Mary and Jesus are angels and the evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The angels and the saints face Jesus and Mary in adoration.
Above the image of Mary and the newborn Jesus is a large icon of Jesus Christ as an adult. This well-known icon is commonly referred to as “Christ Pantocrator,” (Nes 2004, 23). Around Jesus’ head is also a halo, but unlike Mary’s it includes the cross. The cross that is etched around Jesus’ head refers to his sacrifice through his crucifixion on the cross. The Greek letters inside the cross spell the present tense of, “to be.” This can be more expansively translated as, “the abiding one or the one who is” (Nas 2004, 23). This is in reference to God’s statement to Moses in Exodus 3:14, “I am who I am.” The use of the verb “to be” in the inscription of the cross signals that Jesus is one with God. In every icon in St. George, Jesus is shown garbed in red with a blue cloak on top. The red is symbolic of divinity and the blue is a sign of humanity. Jesus is consistently depicted wearing both of these colors to highlight his simultaneous divine and human nature (Watson 2018). This icon portrays what the Eastern Catholic church believes to be at the core of who Jesus is: his humanity and divinity, his sacrifice on the cross, and his oneness with God.
Hand Sign Significance
In every icon in St. George, Jesus holds one of his hands up with his fingers crossed or clasped to form signs. In most his fingers are spelling IC, XC. This symbol is shown when the pinky and ring finger are held down by the thumb and the index and middle finger point upward. IC XC is a well-known abbreviation for IHCOYC XPICTOC, meaning “Jesus Christ” (Esparza, 2016). Jesus is shown with his hands in this formation to emphasize his divinity, not only as Jesus the man, but Jesus as the divine Christ. This same hand sign can be used to represent God the Father in iconography, as the use of imagery of God the Father is forbidden in the church. To portray God’s presence, a hand making this sign can be seen descending from above.
The Baptism of Jesus
Immediately to the left of the entrance of the church is a small baptistery with an octagonal font. In the Eastern Catholic tradition, baptism is always by immersion and usually of infants. This room has three different icons on the walls, each with separate emphasis on the meaning of baptism. One icon depicts Jesus’ baptism at the hands of John the Baptist. This icon is incredibly important as it is a written portrayal of the Trinity as Jesus is presented as God and the Son and the Holy Spirit is represented with a flying dove above the scene. Although God is not pictured in this select iconography, this passage of the Bible is used to characterize the Trinity most often. In Matthew 3:16-17 the Holy Spirit descends as a dove and God is depicted through his voice when he says, “This is my son,” The Baptism of Jesus is commonly used as a referenced example of the Manifest Trinity. Jesus is portrayed with his usual reverence, looking strong and impressive, and holding his hand in a blessing. The angels to his right keep their hands covered in reverence, showing that they are in service to Christ (Nes 2004, 67). This icon is incredibly important for two reasons: it represents the story most commonly associated with the Trinity (the three persons of God) and it reaffirms the importance of baptism in the Christian church.
The iconography in St. George’s Melkite Greek Catholic Church is a living testament to the beliefs of the Melkite church. Birmingham is incredibly lucky to have such a richly cultured hub of Eastern Catholic traditions.
St. George Melkite Greek Catholic Church
Address: 425 16th Ave S, Birmingham, AL 35205
Congregation Organized: 1921
Current Site Opened: 1957
Affiliation: Melkite Eparchy of Newton, Melkite Greek Catholic Church
Sources for Further Information
“About Us.” Saint George Greek Catholic Melkite Church. 2019. https://www.saintgeorgeonline.org/about-us
Denysenko, Nicholas. Icons and the Liturgy, East and West. Notre Dame, Indiana. University of Notre Dame Press. 2017.
Esparza, Daniel. “What Do the Hand Gestures in Icons Mean?” Aleteia. July 12, 2016. https://aleteia.org/2016/06/12/what-do-hand-gestures-in-icons-mean/
Jesserer Smith, Peter. “Melkite Eparchy Celebrates 50-Year Milestone of Evangelizing in America.” National Catholic Register. August 15, 2016. http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/melkite-eparchy-celebrates-50-year-milestone-of- evangelizing-in-america
Nes, Solrunn. 2004. The Mystical Language of Icons. Grand Rapids. Eerdmans
Watson, Gordon. “Mary in Blue; Jesus in Red; Why so Symbolic?” Newsbook. December 23, 2018. https://newsbook.com.mt/en/mary-in-blue-jesus-in-red-why-so-symbolic/
Published December 17, 2019.