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  • Writer's pictureNina Olivier

Time and Space, Sacred and Eternal

Time. A mathematical system applied as a structure to our chaos. Order, measurements, and units designed to give us guidance, a railing to hold on to when our lives become too intense, too insuperable, and too overwhelming.

Time has a different meaning to each and every one of us. Whether it is moments of happiness or pain and suffering; whether it is being in the proximity of a loved one; or facing death or joy, every person has their own, personal time, and every moment is measured unequally. The boring class that never ends in the eyes of the school child. The deep breath of a diver. The eternity of motherhood. The moment of farewell with someone who leaves us.

Time, although a system built as a platform for all of us where we can have a common understanding of it, can never be an objective notion but will always be a subjective one and always in regards to context. Every bit and part of time in our lives makes us what we are. To some, time is something linear, to others something circular. In mathematics, time is relative to space. If we don’t have a space as an anchor, then how can we perceive time? How can we measure a past and a future, without a now? And this now is always connected to the space we’re in.

Sacred Time and Space

In the world of Orthodox icons, time and space are sacred. This means that biblical figures who did not live in the same time can exist in the same depiction. Figures that were nowhere near each other – neither in the same century nor in the same geographical part of the world – will stand side by side in an icon. The fate of someone can be revealed in the very icon describing the highlight of that person’s life.

C.A. Tsakiridou says in his publication Icons in Time, Persons in Eternity (2013) about the icon: “The image exists in the present (now), in the luminance of the holy person it puts forth. But it also exists in eternity (forever), in the luminance of uncreated light in which the angel, saint and martyr subsists – in the time that begins and ends (chronos, nun) and in the time that begins but has no end (aion, aei)” (1).

Sacred time and space will be illustrated below through the icon of the Annunciation. In the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel was sent to tell Mary about the child she was bearing, the child who would become Christ (Luke 1:26-38).

Early Russian icon (1350), Moscow, Wikimedia Commons.

In the icon of the Annunciation (as depicted above) the iconography (image) is an eternal one. The sacred time of the icon has no end, only a beginning. This is twice illuminated in this particular iconography, which depicts the beginning of Christianity. Before the Annunciation, Christianity was not. This is where it begins. But we also see sacred time depicted in this icon in the shape of Mary who is already pregnant with Christ at the same time as she receives the Annunciation. Time is neither cyclical nor stretched out within the icon, it is existential. This is what Paul Evdokimov in his publication The Art of the Icon: A Theology of Beauty (1989) calls the sacred, liturgical time (2).

The physical icon is also a representation of sacred space. “It sanctifies time and space and makes its dwelling place a domestic church” (2). Liturgy connects all levels of creation, every place through the Bible. Liturgy, as here, in an icon, helps us see the sacred space. Moreover, the Annunciation icon depicts Mary who was chosen to be a ladder between heaven and earth, the divine and the human; a vessel through which the worlds open and allow for us to reach Paradise. It can thus be seen as sacred space in more than one dimension, both in itself and in its iconography.

The scene of the Annunciation takes place outside to show that it is set outside of time and space. It moves in the sacred dimensions of infinity, and as theology, it is everywhere and just in front of us (2).

Perceptions of Time

Time in the icon exists in its own sphere and obeys other rules than the ones normally adopted by society. If we dwell on the concept of sacred time and space, should we not see this as a more accurate way of perceiving time?

Looking at our lives, at our own existence, is it not clear to us that we are not an empty vessel? Can’t we look inward and see every person in the past who lived before us and made our lives possible? Can’t we see their struggle and their success in their own time? Are we not a product of our ancestors and their survival?

Before our beginning as fetuses in our mothers’ wombs, we did not exist. Our mothers were already pregnant when our lives and existence began. Someone else was already aware of us before we were aware of ourselves. And don’t we still feel the presence of loved, but diseased ones? Don’t we still hear our fathers’ or mothers’ voices within us, even though they haven’t been with us in life for years? Don’t we look in the eyes of children and see the future? And in them also everyone who went before them? A nuance of a grandmother’s hair, the dimples of a great-grandfather? Are we not, as icons, in a sense also bearers of sacred time and space?

The sacred time and space are around and in all of us, not only in Orthodox icons. We are the past, the now, and the future all in one; in genes, in thoughts, in hopes and dreams, in the whispers of forefathers, in the giggles of our babies.

If we start perceiving ourselves as bearers of a sacred, existential time, can’t we then look inward and be guided by the many who exist within us? And by interlocking the existential time of every individual, could we come together and find the wisdom of infinity all around us and use it for the best of mankind to form one uniform ladder from which we could reach eternity?

Written by Nina Olivier.

Cover photo by Enjy Ashour.


(1) Tsakiridou, C.A. (2013) Icons in Time, Persons in Eternity: Orthodox Theology and the Aesthetics of the Christian Image, Routledge, p. 28

(2) Evdokimov, P. (1989) The Art of the Icon: A Theology of Beauty, Oakwood.

Photo Credit

The Annunciation (Trinity-Sergius Lavra) from Alpatov, Michail V (1978) Early Russian icon painting, Moscow: Moscow Iskusstvo, p. 293, retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.


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