On my tour through Ukraine a couple years ago I became familiar with what is known as the iconostasis (plural iconostases) that is found in almost every Eastern Orthodox Church. This is a thin wall or partition that separates the nave, where the lay worshipers reside, from the sanctuary in the church, where the priests prepare the sacraments at the altar. As one enters a church, the iconostasis is the most visual object, and center of focus, at the end of the nave. The iconostasis most likely evolved from the early chancel screen or templon, another form of the partition still used in Western churches, templon being from the Greek word meaning “temple,” deriving “from the Christian idea of the shrine where God was worshipped”1.
Some of the most distinguishing features of the iconostasis are:2
- “Icon stand” (the literal interpretation of iconostasis) – many icons of Christian worship are placed upon this partition, often in many layers or tiers guided by rubrics of placement, and symbolically representing many figures in the gospel.
- Divides the sanctuary and the altar from the nave, or the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies.
- Rarely reaches the ceiling, allowing for the “liturgical exclamations” of the clergy in the sanctuary to be heard by the laity in the nave. The early templon was much lower, and the laity could see the priests at the altar performing the sacred rites.
- Typically has three sets of doors, the Beautiful Gates or Holy Doors (sometimes Royal Doors) in the center through which only the bishop may pass anytime and the priests and deacons at certain times in the service, and the North and South Doors or Deacon’s Doors where the deacons and other clergy often pass.
- The laity may never pass through the Holy Doors.
- The sanctuary is a protected area where only certain clergy and others with certain rights and blessing may enter. Entrance otherwise is forbidden.
- The Armenian and Syriac churches often have a curtain, instead of a solid wall.
The iconostasis serves as a symbolic representation:
The Iconostasis does not really “separate” the nave from the Holy of Holies; rather, it brings them together. The Iconostasis is the link between heaven (the Holy of Holies) and the nave (The Holy Place). Therefore everything is symbolic upon the Iconostasis. The Icons of Christ the Theotokos and various saints and feasts are there because Christ, the Theotokos, the saints etc., lead us and guide us into the Holy of Holies. Therefore the personages on the Icons upon the Iconostasis guide us into heaven, and therefore the Iconostasis connects not separates. The Icons upon the Iconostasis also are windows and bridges into heaven (although all icons, no matter where, are windows and bridges into heaven). Therefore, in a sense the Iconostasis represents Christ, who is the connection, the door, between both realms. The perfect explanation for the Iconostasis, and its uniting purpose, is seen in Hebrews 10:19–20, “Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is through his flesh.”3
The King James version of the Bible renders the Hebrews scripture thus:
This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them. . . .
Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest [Holy of Holies] by the blood of Jesus,
By a new and living way [covenant?], which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil [curtain], that is to say, his flesh;
And having an high priest over the house of God [temple];
Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience [no evil or unkind feelings allowed], and our bodies washed with pure water [purification rites are always required].4
All these things are interesting to the Latter-day Saints, and it brings up a question. If the iconostasis is serving symbolically as a bridge between earth and heaven, why are only the clergy allowed to pass through it? What about the rest of the laity?
Latter-day Saints believe that we can all become a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6), and indeed in the Church all male members twelve years old and up are either deacons, teachers, priests, elders, high priests, seventies, bishops, patriarchs, apostles, or prophets. In the LDS Church, there is no lay member that does not have the right to the priesthood. As President Joseph Fielding Smith and others have taught, in the temple men are made kings and priests, and women are made queens and priestesses5. All are allowed, both men and women, into the most holy place in the temple, the celestial room, symbolic of the highest degree of heaven (D&C 132).
Many more examples of the iconostasis can be seen on Wikipedia.Notes:
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Templon [↩]
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iconostasis [↩]
- ibid. [↩]
- Hebrews 10:16, 19-22 [↩]
- Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, vol. 4, 61. See also Revelations 1:6, 5:10 [↩]