THE IMAGE OF THE SOULS OF THE RIGHTEOUS IN THE HAND OF GOD
IN THE SHRINE OF SAINT NICHOLAS AT GROUND ZERO
By His Grace Bishop Joachim of Amissos, PhD
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.
The narthex of the Shrine of Saint Nicholas at Ground Zero opens to the left and to the right into two candle-room areas, where the faithful and visitors may light candles before entering the nave, as is customary in Orthodox churches. In each of these lateral spaces, at the center of each ceiling is a large, circular, recessed area in which is found the image known as "The Souls of the Righteous in the Hand of God." In each of these identical images, the Hand of God is shown holding the Souls of the Righteous who appear as young, swaddled infants. Each image is identified with the Greek inscription, which in translation reads: the Souls of the Righteous in the Hand of God. This phrase is drawn from the Old Testament book of the Wisdom of Solomon: 3:1, “But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall no torment touch them.” This scriptural verse is read at the Great Vespers of Saturday evening for the celebration for the Sunday of All Saints, the Saints who, as the holy friends of God, are certainly righteous.
Our images of the Souls of the Righteous in the Hand of God are modeled on two 14th-century Byzantine fresco examples: one found on the western arch of the parekklesion (side chapel-here functioning as a funerary chapel) of the church of the Chora in Constantinople; and that located on the west wall of the inner narthex of the church of the Holy Apostles in Thessalonike. In these examples, as well as that of the Saint Nicholas Shrine, the souls of the righteous are rendered as swaddled infants, a visual reference to their innocence. This is also how the soul of the Theotokos is depicted in scenes of the Dormition, where the Lord comes to take the soul of His Mother to Heaven. In Byzantine scenes of the Last Judgment, the souls of the righteous who rest in the bosom of Abraham are usually rendered as small children dressed in white tunics.
It is appropriate that the two images of the Souls of the Righteous in the Hand of God are placed in the narthex of the Shrine of Saint Nicholas. As noted in previous Newsletters, the location of such imagery within the narthex acknowledges the centuries-long Byzantine understanding of the memorial and funerary liturgical function of this space.
This is lived out in the experience of visitors to the National Shrine. When the faithful and visitors enter the narthex of the Shrine they will turn to light their candles, offering up their silent prayers in gratitude to God for their loved ones who have passed on. They will also look up and encounter the dramatic images of the Souls of the Righteous in the Hand of God, recalling all those righteous souls who lost their lives on the tragic day of 9/11. The images will comfort and inspire the beholders as a visual reminder of the promise of salvation for the righteous. These souls are kept within the Lord’s loving embrace and as the corresponding verse from the Wisdom of Solomon proclaims, “…and there shall no torment touch them.”