The Tradition of Household Shrines


Perhaps you have in quiet times felt a touch of the divine.  The light through shade, the morning when home is washed in rose, in evening when rooms glow gold.  There is something in light, the intangible tangible by which body moves mind to a common ecstasy.  Perhaps you have in silence heard the voice, that still silent voice that advises what and what not to do.

House Shrine Herakles Herm Dedicated by Philiades son of Neon Messene III B.C.

Herakles Herm, dedicated by Philiades, son of Neon, Messene, III Century B.C.

Socrates in trance would often hear the still voice, as when barefoot, silent in snow beneath the moon in watch for marauding Spartans.  Just now you might in quiet hear the voice, the guide that speaks to you of what is true, what not.  This voice, “The Logos”, you might say, idea that precedes form.  In all things, as in the universe, as in a computer, as in an altar, first the word, then the thing, then the act.

At home with Xanthippe and the boys, Socrates kept a rustic herm to guard his garden, to urge it into bloom.  Likely, Socrates, son of a sculptor, with simple craft would have carved the herm himself, poor man that he was.  Others, Alcibiades, for instance, would have at his grand estate a sacred herm, severe in classical mastery, alike the supremely equable Apollo of Olympia.


Alma Tadema Sappho and Alcaeus 1881 showing garden herms at entrance to the precinct.

Alma Tadema, Sappho and Alcaeus, 1881, showing garden herms at entrance to the precinct.


Picture the Greek garden with its wealth of olive, its draping vines of grape, its exotic flowers, perhaps an amaron, an ithyphallic herm, noble uncle to dissolute Priapos, hear the music of the lyre or fancy kithara, hear the many chants of worship, of praise to gods, and here the household altar sacred to Hestia, virgin goddess of the hearth.  Yes, our forms have changed, yet we are consistent in nature.

House Shrine House altar for the Lares et Penates Herculaneum

House Shrine, House altar for the Lares et Penates, Herculaneum.

The Roman shrine was temple-like, a place to kneel in prayer before the household gods and ancient ancestors.  Not unlike a doll’s house, the Roman altar would sport figurines, little statuettes that tell a god’s purpose and power.  For instance, virgin goddess Diana wears a halfmoon headband, symbol of moon’s monthly rise and pass.  Messenger god, light-footed Hermes sported winged sandals.  Father Zeus might hold lightning in his hand, symbol of power and quick justice.

At Pompeii and Herculaneum, altar shrines almost intact, the boldly painted scenes yet visible.  Picture at these altars togate Romans kneeling in prayer, lighting incense, pouring a libation of sacred oil, hear the whispered incantation in word and accent exact.  The god will want propitiation in the proper form, correct in tradition of father and fathers before.  That daily ceremony of morning praise, of prayer, of sharing in benediction, a greeting quite unlike the “have ah goot un”.


Pompeii Housed Shrine

Shrine of the household gods in the House of the Vettii, Pompeii. credit: Werner


The early Christian altar was a household table made sacred in blessing by precise ceremony universally repeated.  Here, commonly, a picture or rude carving of Christ’s symbol, the shepherd bearing sheep.  This shepherd, ancient in origin, preceded and succeeded the herm … when the symbol of care and compassion succeeded the symbol of Nature’s generating lust, the human became humane.

House Shrine Saint George Crete c. 1760

Saint George, Crete, c. 1760.

Household shrines of Renaissance prince and peasant remembered the symbolic wedding of Greece and Rome, ignored the vast immensities and vengeances of the Hebrew.  A new Christian beauty was born of Greece and Rome, ambitious to succeed its parents, certain of Christ’s supremacy over Zeus, as Zeus was supreme over Cronos.  Renaissance house shrines were exuberant, confident, celebratory, richly gilded on red Armenian bole, tinctured in lapis and other colors rare and dear.

An Italian, Spanish, or French Renaissance home might boast the masterwork of some local craftsman or artist of renown who pictured a saint of the town or saint of the owner’s heritage, a reminder of life in virtue, model of goodness and truth in the way of God.  Keeping company with the saint, an illuminating candle, rosary and other household riches.  Then, as now, censorious reformers and iconoclasts urged the burning of statues, the melting of idols and icons, a seemingly good idea until actually accomplished, as was accomplished by Savonarola in the Bonfire of the Vanities.  Always these bonfires end the same way … soon, Savonarola was burned upon the spot where he caused the beautiful, almost holy, pictures, statues, books, object d’arts to be burned.  That, a pitiful auto-da-fay.


Pooja Mandir House Shrine

XX Century Pooja Mandir.


Each Puritan house was a church, a sacred place, its head-of-house the minister, the object of worship, the Bible, from which the Word, the lessons of God. And inscribed with the lessons, the family histories, the births, marriages, deaths remembered in fine handwriting, a craft worthy of a sacred book.  Twice daily the family would read, hear, and consider the word of God.  The family’s ritual service was conducted in a house simply appointed, humble and honest, a home where each useful thing was suited to its place, a place unfriendly to excess and vanity.

Geneva Bible title page.

Geneva Bible title page.

The Pooja Mandir, the Hindu household shrine is a richly ornamented temple in miniature, an ornate station, a space to welcome positivity, peace, and presence of the gods.  And here might be a bright painted picture, an intricate statue of color and concept extreme, and other sacred symbol of beauty, silence and peace.

The Hebrew house will have upon its eastern wall the decorative Mizrach.  And here the orthodox will face to pray, the traditional will ceremonially acknowledge heritage, the progressive will fashionably recall the family from whom they ascend.  In absence of memory we cease to be.  Our stories tell us who we are.  The orthodox progressives will have us forget into the future, alike a void where all of nothing can be.


Mishrach Household Shrine

XIX Century Misrach.


The Greek and Russian Orthodox are likely to settle icons upon shelves of each room, sometimes artistically grouping icons in a corner.  Most often, a saintly icon(s) is skyed upon a wall, and hung below are pictures or photos of family.  As you know, an icon contains the spirit of the pictured saint, much as does a relic bone contain a saint’s spirit: both icon and bone are made not by hand, but come to us from Heaven, from mind.  And so, the icon is an object of veneration, an idea, a spirit in physical form … notice that the saint’s pictured face is calm and quiet, that space around an icon is pregnant in silence.

House Shrine Greek Orthodox

Greek Orthodox household shrine.

The classic Catholic household shrine is most often a place for Holy Mary, for Christ the Redeemer, for a cross and rosary.  And with these, sympathy, nostalgia, lace and the feminine, the candle and some quaint talisman of family.  These days, seldom does the man take the man’s part, leader of a family, instead he worships at another altar … from his softening, reclining throne he adores into a screen the transient deeds of grunting, costumed men, and this while drinking deeply the libation of common beer … and that upon a Sunday … and you wonder why our traditions are passing from earth into obscurity.

In the New Age you might find a dreamcatcher hung with fetishes, dubious of native ancestry, and you will find river rocks painted with happy banalities, and you will find objects of distant relevance, prompts, symbols of acceptance, ideas in things that bring the mind to peace, to subjugation.  The Greek, the Roman, the Hebrew, the Hindu, the Italian are much like we Americans, because they are, in fact, we Americans, a people united in Liberty under God.


Catholic Household Shrine

Catholic household shrine.


 Christian Precedent of America’s Religious Freedom


In this month of American Independence we are reminded that all men are created equal, that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Thomas Jefferson, author of The Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom (1777 – 1779), knew that all religions inculcate good (and said so), that each man is responsible for the care of his soul.  And too, President Jefferson edited a Bible that distilled the thoughts, phrases, words of Christ so that he, Thomas Jefferson, by exacting excellence of scholarship might become a more perfect Christian.

House Shrine Monticello interior East Wall Entrance Hall

Monticello’s Entrance Hall: Praetorium and St. Jerome above Indian armaments.

Jefferson pursued perfection, an exemplary architecture in his ideal villa, Monticello, designed upon the French model in a Roman Doric Order, a temple-house formed in veneration of Classive Civilization, a home where is found the best of what has been thought, done, said.  And here are pictures of Salome, The Holy Family, Saint Jerome, The Penitent Magdalene, each a telling picture.  Here, beautifully, autobiographically, the most telling of the pictures chosen by Jefferson, Jesus in the Praetorium, id est, Jesus in the Roman Governor’s Residence at King Herod’s Palace, a picture inspired by Luke 23:1-5 (here from KJV):


1 And the whole multitude of them arose, and led him unto Pilate.
2 And they began to accuse him, saying, We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, saying that he himself is Christ a King.
3 And Pilate asked him, saying, Art thou the King of the Jews? And he answered him and said, Thou sayest it.
4 Then said Pilate to the chief priests and to the people, I find no fault in this man.
5 And they were the more fierce, saying, He stirreth up the people, teaching throughout all Jewry, beginning from Galilee to this place.


House Shrine Monticello interior

Monticello’s Parlor: Magdaline, left; Salome, right.


In the first sentence of Jefferson’s Declaration, our Declaration, he writes of the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle us, and this, with “all men are created equal” is the cause of America’s universal suffrage, the cause of Anglo-American liberty wherever our influence holds sway.  Sure, there are 40 million slaves in the world today, a number that daily increases with the rise of China, China’s funding with American debt, and international corporatism’s supine surrenders, even so, Jefferson’s words continue to influence, because true.

jeffersons First Inagural Address 1801.

Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address, 1801.

Less well known than the Declaration’s acknowledgment of God and God’s divine order, is Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address, 30 April 1801, where Jefferson expands upon our courage and confidence, our attachment to union and representative government, and the liberty to pursue our federal and republican principles.  Jefferson’s Address tells true the character of the people we were, of the people we are, hos epi to polu, and of the people we might become if true to first principles.  After acknowledging that we are too high-minded a people to endure the degradation of others, Jefferson writes:


…possessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation, entertaining a due sense of our equal right to the use of our own faculties, to the acquisitions of our own industry, to honor and confidence from our fellow citizens, resulting not from birth, but from our actions and their sense of them, enlightened by a benign religion, professed indeed and practised in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude and the love of man, acknowledging and adoring an overruling providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here, and his greater happiness hereafter; with all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people?  Still one thing more, fellow citizens, a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.  This is the sum of good government; and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.


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Featured image: House Shrine, Laurie Beth Zuckerman’s My Father’s Altar 1996-2011, Laurie Zuckerman.

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