Iconostasis (Gr. eikonostasion, eikonostasis, picture screen, from eikon, image, picture, and isteui, I place), the chief and most distinctive feature in all Greek churches, whether Catholic or Orthodox. It may be said to differentiate the Greek church completely from the Roman in its interior arrangement. It consists of a great screen or partition running from side to side of the apse or across the entire end of the church, which divides the sanctuary from the body of the church, and is built of solid materials such as stone, metal, or wood, and which reaches often (as in Russia) to the very ceiling of the church, thus completely shutting off the altar and the sanctuary from the worshipper. It has three doors: the great royal door in the middle (so called because is leads directly to the altar upon which the King of kings is sacrificed), the deacon’s door to the right, and the door of the proskomide (preparation for Mass) upon the left, when viewing the structure from the standpoint of a worshipper in the body of the church.
Two pictures or icons must appear upon every iconostasis, no matter how humble, in the Greek church; the picture of Our Lord on the right of the Royal door, and that of Our Lady upon the left. But in the finer churches of Russia, Greece, Turkey, and the East the iconostasis has a wealth of paintings lavished upon it. Besides the two absolutely necessary pictures, the whole screen is covered with them. On the royal door there is always the Annunciation and often the four Evangelists. On each of the other doors there are St. Michael and St. Gabriel. Beyond the deacon’s door there is usually the saint to whom the church is dedicated, while at the opposite end there is either St. Nicholas of Myra or St. John the Baptist. Directly above the royal door is a picture of the Last Supper, and above that is often a large picture (deisus) of Our Lord sitting crowned upon a throne, clothed in priestly raiment, as King and High-priest. At the very top of the iconostasis is a large cross (often a crucifix in bas-relief), the source of our salvation, and on either side of it are the pictures of Our Lady and of St. John.
Where the iconostasis is very lofty, as among the Slavonic nationalities, whether Orthodox or Catholic, the pictures upon it are arranged in tiers or rows across its entire length. Those on the lower ground tier have already been described; the first tier above that is a row of pictures commemorating the chief feasts of the Church, such as the Nativity, Annunciation, Transfiguration, etc.; above them is another tier of the twelve Apostles; and above them a tier containing the Prophets of the Old Law; and lastly the very top of the iconostasis. These pictures are usually painted in the stiff Byzantine manner, although in many Russian churches they have begun to use modern art; the Temple of the Savior, in Moscow, is a notable example. The iconostasis in the Greek (Hellenic) churches have never been so lofty and as full of paintings as those in Russia and other countries. A curious form of adornment of the icons or pictures has grown up in Russia and is also found in other parts of the East. Since the Orthodox Church would not admit sculptured figures on the inside of churches (although they often have numerous statues upon the outside) they imitated an effect of sculpture in the pictures placed upon the iconostasis which produces an incongruous effect upon the Western mind. The icon, which is generally painted upon wood, is covered except as to the face and hands with a raised relief of silver, gold, or seed pearls showing all the details and curves of the drapery, clothing and halo; thus giving a crude cameo-like effect around the flat painted face and hands of the icon.
The iconostasis is really an Oriental development in adorning the holy place about the Christian altar. Originally the altar stood out plain and severe in both the Oriental and Latin Rites. But in the Western European churches and cathedrals the Gothic church builders put a magnificent wall, the reredos, immediately behind the altar and heaped ornamentation, figures and carvings upon it until it became resplendent with beauty. In the East, however, the Greeks turned their attention to the barrier or partition dividing the altar and sanctuary from the rest of the church and commenced to adorn and beautify that, and thus gradually made it higher and covered it with pictures of the Apostles, Prophets, and saints. Thus the Greek Church put its ornamentation of the holy place in front of the altar instead of behind it as in the Latin churches. In its present form in the churches of the Byzantine (and also the Coptic) Rite the iconostasis is comparatively modern, not older than the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. It was never used in the Roman churches or any of the Latin churches of the West, and was unknown to the early Church. The modern chancel rail of the Latin Rite correctly represents the primitive barrier separating the altar from the people. In the great Gothic cathedrals the choir screen or rood screen may be said in a manner to be the analogue of the iconostasis, but that is the nearest approach to it in the Western Church. None of the historians or liturgical writers of the early or middle Greek Church ever mention the iconostasis. Indeed the name today is chiefly in Russian usage, for the meaning of the Greek word is not restricted merely to the altar screen, but is applied to any object supporting a picture. The word is first mentioned in Russian annals in 1528 when one was built by Macarius, Metropolitan of Novgorod.
In the early Greek churches there was a slight barrier about waist high, or even lower, dividing the altar from the people. This was variously known as kigklis, grating, druphakta, fence, diastula a barrier made of columns, according to the manner in which it was constructed. Very often pictures of the saints were affixed to the tops of the columns. When Justinian constructed the “great” church, St. Sophia, in Constantinople, he adorned it with twelve high columns (in memory of the twelve Apostles) in order to make the barrier or chancel, and over the tops of these columns he placed an architrave which ran the entire width of the sanctuary. On this architrave or cross-beam large disks or shields were placed containing the pictures of the saints, and this arrangement was called templon (templum), either from its fancied resemblance to the front of the old temples or as expressing the Christian idea of the shrine where God was worshipped. Every church of the Byzantine Rite eventually imitated the “great” church and so this open templon form of iconostasis began to be adopted among the churches of the East, and the name itself was used to designate what is now the iconostasis.
Many centuries elapsed before there was any approach towards making the solid partition which we find in the Greek churches of today. But gradually the demand for greater adornment grew, and to satisfy it pictures were placed over the entire iconostasis, and so it began to assume somewhat the present form. After the Council of Florence (1438) when the last conciliar attempt at reunion of the Churches failed, the Greek clergy took great pleasure in building and adorning their churches as little like the Latin ones as possible, and from then on the iconostasis assumed the form of the wall-like barrier which it has at present. As its present form is merely a matter of development of Church architecture suitable and adapted to the Greek Rite, the iconostasis was continuously used by the Catholics as well as by the Orthodox.
ANDREW J. SHIPMAN