The word orans literally means “one who prays.” It comes from the Latin word “oro”–meaning to pray, beg, supplicate, or beseech. The orans posture is considered one of the oldest bodily attitudes for prayer. It was common among both Jews and Gentiles of the ancient world. The posture is described as standing with arms to the side, elbows bent, and hands opened upward.
For the early Christians in the 2nd-6th Centuries, a figure in the orans position was symbolic of the soul. Frescos of human figures in this position are represented 153 times in the Roman Catacombs. Some of the figures are distinctly Old Testament characters such as Noah, Moses, and Abraham. Others are more abstract and considered representations of the soul of the deceased.
(The Roman Catacombs are miles of underground tunnels containing ancient Christian tombs. During the persecutions (before 313 AD) they were used as secret hiding places for Christians and places to worship. Today, many of the Catacombs can be toured. This map gives you an idea of the extent of these elaborate underground passages beneath Rome. http://www.catacombsociety.org/maps.html)
Besides being a figurative imitation of Christ on the cross, offering himself as a complete and willing sacrifice, the orans posture is also symbolic of the risen Christ. Therefore the the orans figures found the Roman Catacombs have been interpreted as symbols of faith and even of the Church itself.
In I Timothy 2:8, Paul says, “I want peoples everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing.” The orans gesture signifies one who is ready to receive the divine gifts for God. It is also considered a gesture of peace, as it is non-defensive and non-threatening.
Lately, there has been some controversy in the Roman Catholic Church about the use of the orans position in worship by the laity. Before pews were installed in churches, the orans stance was the norm. One thing one notices when entering an Orthodox Church is that there are not any pews. For the Eastern Orthodox Churches who use the Byzantine rite, the standard stance for prayer is in the orans position.
The Theotokos of the Virgin Mary standing in the orans position is very well known and pictured in most if not all Orthodox churches. In Greek, “Theotokos” literally means “she who is more spacious than the heavens.” For Orthodox Christians, they consider the Theotokos to be one of the great paradoxs of the Christian faith. Mary contained within her womb a divinity which cannot be contained–God.
These icons of the Virgin Mary are also sometimes referred to as the “Icon of the Sign.” This title is taken from the Prophet Isaiah’s message, “Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign. The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel (meaning–God with us.)” Isaiah 7:14
During the Reformation Period, the use of icons in the Western Church dwindled, but Eastern Christian churches held on to the belief that icons were “windows to heaven” and instruments of inspiration to the faithful of God’s divine intervention in this world. Consequently, many of these beautiful pieces have been preserved for centuries in Orthodox Churches.
Iconography flourished in the early Byzantine Empire. Along with the art preserved in the Orthodox churches, many bronze artifacts have been found by archeologists, giving us evidence of the faith held by the people at that time.
Origen, a 3rd Century philosopher and Father of the Church, includes instructions for the posture of prayer in his writing “Origen on Prayer.” An article in the newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin, summed up Origen’s thoughts well.
Even more that stretching out the hands to heaven, one must lift up the soul heavenward. More than raising up the eyes, one must lift up the spirit to God. For there can be no doubt that among a thousand possible positions of the body, outstretched hands and uplifted eyes are to be preferred above all others, so imaging forth in the body those directions of the soul which are fitting in prayer. (1)
1. The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Diocese of Green Bay, Patricia Kasten, associate editor, July 27, 2001 (http://www.thecompassnews.org/compass/2001-07-27/01cn0727f1.htm)