History of the Iconostasis
Iconostasis at Sts. Cyril and Methodius
Byzantine Catholic Seminary, Pittsburgh, PA
One of the more notable features of the interior design of Eastern Christian churches of the Byzantine liturgical tradition is the icon screen, or iconostasis (iconostasion) which separates the area within which the clergy celebrates the Holy Mysteries from the area occupied by the faithful. Many Eastern Christians would be surprised to learn that the iconostasis in its present form is of relatively recent origin - hardly a matter of Holy Tradition, but rather the product of evolution in design and liturgical function over the history of the Church.
The earliest or first Christians were Jews well aware of the practices of the Temple in Jerusalem and of the synagogues in the diaspora, which separated the officiating priesthood from the believers through use of veils and/or other barriers. The first Christians had no churches in the form of separate buildings dedicated to public worship, but met on the first day of the week in the houses of the faithful to celebrate the Eucharist and to enjoy the agape meal which followed. Roman Emperor Constantine's Edict of Milan in 313 freed the Church from sporatic persecution and established it as beneficiary of the favor and support of the Roman state. The old domicilial church yielded to the expectations and needs of the new age in accomodating large numbers of converts as well as the new role of the Church in society. The Emperor insisted that the churches of the new order resemble in dignity and splendor the best of public buildings of that age. Toward that end, Christians began to appropriate for their use the only architectural design suitable for accomo dating large numbers of worshipers, namely the basilica, a style of construction used in the Empire for functions of state. Pagan temples, which housed idols, had no need to accomodate large numbers of devotees. Accordingly it provided no model for Christian uses. The basilica, on the contrary, was eminently suited for public worship. In the early 4th century, the basilica consisted of a long, timber roofed hall which terminated at one end in a apse elevated above the rest of the interior for the accomodation of public magistrates serving in their official capacities. Such a structure created sufficient interior space to meet the needs of the Church ab that time and consequently it became the design of choice for many centuries.
4th Century Basilica
The basilica was easily adapted to the purposes of the new religion. It could be divided into three functional areas - 1) the narthex or entrance area in which the baptisms took place, 2) the main part of the basilica, called the nave, for the accomodation of large numbers of worshipers, and 3) at the raised apse end the holy place or sanctuary, also called bema or chancel, for the celebration of the Holy Mysteries. There is neither archiological evidence nor testimony from the Church Fathers which would support the currently faddish notion in some quarters that clergy and people were a single entity or “community” justifying the elimination of distinctions between the two either functionally or structurally. From earliest times in all of the ancient Churches the difference between the divine and the mundane, clergy and laity, was recognized and facilitated through real and symbolic barriers. That reality has been reiterated time and again through the traditional practices in church construction and is reaffirmed again in Section 104 of the INSTRUCTION FOR APPLYING THE LITURGICAL PRESCRIPTIONS OF THE CODE OF CANONS OF THE EASTERN CHURCHES, which states in pertinent part as follows: “The sanctuary is separated from the nave by a veil, gate or iconostasis, because it is the most sacred place: it contains the altar on which the Divine Liturgy is celebrated and the Oblation is offered. Only those who are entrusted with the sacred ministry can enter the sanctuary to complete the sacred acts.”
Byzantine Chancel Screen
In the ancient Byzantine churches and for several centuries thereafter the clergy and the people representing respectively heaven and earth were separated by a low wall about four feet high called a chancel screen. This was not a solid barrier such as the modern Russian iconostasis, but a low parapet set between taller, free-standing columns which carried an architrave at a higher level resting on top of the columns. At no time was there any attempt through use of this structure to exclude the faithful from a full view of the clergy celebrating the Holy Mysteries. On the contrary, the visual access through the chancel screen was actually improved by the elevated platform of the sanctuary which provided the faithful with a good view of the sacerdotal proceedings behind the screen. Not even in Emperor Justinian's Great Church, Hagia Sophia, where the Emperor himself participated quasi-sacerdotally in the celebration of the Divine Litrugy, was an attempt made to shield him from the eyes of the faithful. The chancel screen in the Great Church differed from the usual only in the fact that it enclosed the altar like a three-sided rectangle, i.e. the long side proceeded across the front of the altar and the two arms along each side.
The use of the chancel screen continued in the churches of the Byzantine East for many centuries. Vestiges of the chancel screen can be seen today in many ancient Greek churches where the open spaces between the columns and between parapet and architrave, formerly open, were filled in with icons at a later time. Perhaps the best example of an extant chancel screen separating nave and sanctuary can be seen in the Basilica of St. Mark in Venice, Italy. Similarly the rood screens still in existence in many old English churches served the same function. As precursor to the iconostasis, the chancel screen was often decorated with reliefs of Christ, the Virgin and the saints in the face of the parapet and later by icons attached to the parapet and/or placed on top of the architrave. Therewith began the evolution of the chancel screen to iconostasis, a journey of many centuries.
The iconoclastic heresy of the 8th and 9th centuries rent the Eastern Church as no other. The Emperor had been persuaded that the popular cult of icons had degenerated into heathenish idol worship. From about 717 AD until 843 AD there reigned in Constantinople emperors known by the orthodox as iconoclasts (icon smashers) who forbad the pictoral representation of Christ, the Virgin and the saints. The imperial decree was not every where enforced. In outlying parts of the Empire and in many monasteries orthodox believers resisted the will of the emperor and his patriarchs. The Seventh Ecumenical Council was summoned to resolve the matter. The supporters of the veneration of icons prevailed. On March 11, 843 the Empress Theodora led a solemn procession of the orthodox to celebrate the victory of the true faith over the philistines, an event which became an annual feast celebrated on the first Sunday of Great Lent and known as Sunday of Orthodoxy in the typikon of the Churches of the Byzantine liturgical tradition.
With the restoration of orthodoxy, the veneration of icons grew in subsequent centuries and therewith the evolution of the chancel screen, which had served so well for the purpose intended, from a parapet into the iconostasis which we know today. Eventually the symbolic barrier between heaven and earth became the visibly impenetrable wall between clergy and people limiting the latter's opportunity to participate more fully in the celebration of the Divine Mysteries. In Holy Russia where this development raised the barrier from floor to ceiling, protests were heard, most notably from St. Nil Sorsky in the 17th century followed by St. John of Kronstadt in the 19th, but to no avail. So formidable has this wall in Russia become, that, except for the Royal Doors, the uninformed would be hard put to imagine that there is anything going on behind it.
The latter day evolution of the chancel screen into the iconostasis as a solid wall is not without its detractors. Among the Orthodox and the Greek Catholics there is movement to render it less of an exclusionary barrier and to restore its symbolic function in the Divine Liturgy as the defining point between heaven and earth by opening it up sufficiently to allow the faithful a glimpse into the holy of holies and at the same time maintaining a barrier between nave and sanctuary. Thus many modern icon screens allow the faithful to view the celebration of the Holy Mysteries while reminding them effectively of their proper place in the liturgical scheme of things.
Iconostasis of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral
of the Annunciation, Atlanta, GA
The iconostasis has achieved a fairly uniform structure in Byzantine Christendom. It passes before the altar at the line of demarcation between sanctuary and nave. In the middle are the Royal Doors, so called because the clergy bearing the King of Glory passes through. There are also two other doors, one on the right and the other on the left, called the Deacon's Doors, through which the deacons pass in performance of their duties. Facing east toward the Royal Doors one sees on the right the icon of the Lord and on the left an icon of the Virgin with Child. Others depicted may be the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, sometimes St. Steven, St. Lawrence and St. John. Higher tiers of icons may depict other saints and sacred events. As more tiers are added, the possibilities for the proliferation of images abound.
From the time of the Second Temple in Jerusalem until the present day, priesthood and people have been separated by real and synbolic barriers. While the iconostasis in its later evolution cannot be said to derive directly from ancient and venerable tradition, the separation of clergy and people upon which it is predicated existed in Apostolic times, being directly inherited by the Church from the Temple. None of the ancient, Apostolic Churches challenges this practice. From veil to reiling to chancel screen to iconostasis the intent and purpose has remained the same; only the form has changed. The iconostasis of today is merely the continued manifestation of the ancient belief and practice that the holy of holies is to be reserved exclusively for those who are ordained to celebrate the Holy Mysteries.