What do we mean by "Living Tradition"?

We often say that the Orthodox Tradition is a "living tradition."  But what does that really mean? We have to admit that the definition might elude us.  This recent experience led me to think about the phrase and it led me to some kind of "working definition."

About two weeks ago, I arranged for one of my classes at Holy Cross to visit the St. Catherine’s Church in Braintree, Massachusetts. The iconographer, Mr. George Kordis, and his team were working to paint the icons for the church. Mind you, he had not painted on canvases in a studio and was now installing them on the walls (picture a very wallpaper hanging job!) but instead, he and his team were painting the icons (in egg tempera) on the walls themselves – the dome with its Pantocrator, Prophets and angels, the drum under the dome, the pendentives, and the sanctuary apse (the Platyera). In addition, other pieces were being painted as well. In about six weeks all this work would be done to be “unveiled” to the parish at its feast day on November 25.

The students had the opportunity to climb the scaffolding and get very close to many of the pieces. The students also had the opportunity to meet the iconographer, hear how he goes about his work, and his thinking behind it.

Kordis made an interesting observation, which I can only describe as the definition of “living tradition.”  He told the group that he was not just copying older icons and placing them on the walls. Rather he was “creating” icons, relying on the models of the past (Kordis has written and taught extensively about the art of the Church) but fitting the new situation of the new building in order to create a unified vision for the worshipping congregation. This new building had requirements that older buildings did not have, so a new approach to the icons had to be taken. On the trivial side he noted, how does an iconographer work around sprinklers, recessed lights, exit signs, and the particular placement of windows?  The drum supporting the dome created a unique challenge (he has painted miracles of Christ) On a grander side, the pendentives in this structure are enormous and more square than triangular, requiring the placement of other scenes (four scenes from the life of Christ). As he said, placing Evangelists in these four spaces would mean they would have to be so large that they would overwhelm the congregation, thus disrupting the harmony of the whole.

Living Tradition -- Being in faithful continuity to the past while meeting the needs of the present and thinking about the future.


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