Iconography: The Communion of the Apostles


By Bishop Joachim of Amissos
Bishop Joachim of Amissos is an internationally recognized expert in Byzantine Iconography and is the Director of the Archbishop Iakovos Library at Hellenic College/Holy Cross. 

Among the three sacred images found on the eastern wall of the sanctuary of the Shrine of Saint Nicholas at Ground Zero is that of the Communion of the Apostles, identified here by its accompanying Greek inscription, ἡ Μετάληψις (the Partaking of the Elements of the Eucharist). Although images of the Communion of the Apostles can be found as early as the 6th century in manuscripts and on liturgical patens, scholars have shown that the scene does not appear in the central apse of Orthodox church sanctuaries until the 11th century, reflecting a period that witnessed a greater interest in depicting liturgical ceremonies. From this point onward, this image become a standard feature in sanctuary iconographic programs. The scene of the Communion of the Apostles has its roots in the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper (Matthew 26:17-29; Mark 14:12-26; Luke 22: 7-23; and John 13: 1-30). It emphasizes the divine institution of the sacrament of the Eucharist by Christ but presented within a liturgical context.

In the icon of the Communion of the Apostles, Christ stands behind an altar, as a celebrating hierarch, blessing the sacred Eucharistic Elements as the Apostles approach to receive Holy Communion. The altar table is supported by 5 marble columns (4 at each corner and one in the center) as an actual Byzantine altar. Above the altar and the figure of Christ is a marble ciborium (canopy), a common liturgical furnishing of Byzantine sanctuaries. In his Commentary on the Divine Liturgy (Historia Ecclesiastica), Saint Germanos, the 8th-century patriarch of Constantinople, wrote that the ciborium symbolizes the holy place where Christ was crucified, buried, and resurrected and at the same time it refers to the Ark of the Covenant and Holy of Holies of the Old Testament Temple (Exodus 25). The paten and chalice on the altar table recall Byzantine examples.

The placing of the image of the Communion of the Apostles is significant. Above it is that of the Mother of God with the Christ Child, a clear reference to the Incarnation-Christ taking on His flesh from His Mother, the same flesh that is present in the Divine Eucharist. Below the scene of the Communion of the Apostles are four liturgizing hierarchs holding scrolls bearing texts from the Divine Liturgy, visualizing the celebration of the Eucharistic rite. These three images and their location within the sanctuary immediately behind the altar provide the context for the Church’s profound, pictorial, theological message regarding Holy Communion: that the Sacrament of the Eucharist was divinely instituted by Christ Himself, as recounted in the Gospels; that the Eucharist is His True Body and Blood, the true humanity He received via the Incarnation from the Theotokos; and that this same Eucharist is revealed and made present in every liturgical celebration of the Divine Liturgy. By participating in the Divine Liturgy and partaking of the Holy Eucharist, the faithful avail themselves of the transformative power of Christ’s Body and Blood, that join them to Him Who leads the faithful into Paradise, as the image of Christ’s Ascension, placed at the summit of the sanctuary wall-above all three images, proclaims.