Recognizing the Deesis

Story and photos by Phillip J. Shifflet

This past summer, I was assigned to live and work at a parish in my home diocese.  The rectory was adorned with different pieces of art, the legacy of a previous rector.  The dining room was particularly beautiful.  It was adorned with several icons and a large Belgian tapestry.

On the west wall of the dining room, right behind the head of the table, were seven icons.  I must have looked at them at least once a day over the summer and never thought much about them, but as I was sitting and eating breakfast one day over Christmas break in that same dining room, I had an exciting realization.

The dining room in the rectory with the icons at the head of the table.

I had taken Sister Hilda's History of Art class at Mount Angel Seminary in the fall, and as I sat looking at these icons, I realized I could now say something meaningful about them.  In fact, with glee one morning, I told the pastor all about their significance.

I noticed that these icons (which actually turned out to be prints of icons set against a wooden board) were a specific row of the iconostasis, the screen of icons in Eastern churches separating the sanctuary from the congregation. Specifically, they were the second row called the Deesis.  In the middle is an icon of Christ enthroned, surrounded by the Blessed Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, and other important figures.

Christ Enthroned

John the Baptist

The Mother of God

The figures to the left of Christ Enthroned

Sister Hilda has written more about the Deesis on Incarnate Beauty.

In my final reflection for Sister Hilda's class, I wrote: "Given what I have learned this past semester, I feel that I am now able to speak somewhat intelligently about art at a cocktail party.  Of course, not just at a cocktail party, but in a variety of circumstances."

Little did I know, one such circumstance would occur no more than two weeks after the semester ended.

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Phillip Shifflet is a seminarian for the Diocese of Orange and a student at Mount Angel Seminary.