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” ((http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Templon)).
Some of the most distinguishing features of the iconostasis are: ((http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iconostasis))
- “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.” ((ibid.))
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]. ((Hebrews 10:16, 19-22))
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 priestesses ((Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, vol. 4, 61. See also Revelations 1:6, 5:10)). 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.
I am always fascinated by how much temple imagery is preserved in the Orthodox church. We can gain great insight by studying their liturgy, art, and architecture.
Margaret Barker, in her book “The Great High Priest: The Temple Roots of Christian Liturgy” gives some great details regarding the significance of the veil. Interestingly, she notes that priests passing through the veil would remove their colorful priestly clothing (made of the same colors as the veil and representing the flesh), and after passing through the veil would put on white linen garments, signifying that they have passed into the heavenly realm and had put on their garments of light–they had become angelic/divine (Barker, p. 190). Only then were they prepared to “officiate” in the priestly duties performed in the Holy of Holies.
Thanks, Bryce, for another great post.
Interesting insight. I hadn’t heard about that book before. I’ll have to see if I can pick it up. Thanks!
Hey Bryce – As an Orthodox (“Eastern” Orthodox) Christian, I would like to thank you for your very well-researched and respectful presentation of the Orthodox iconostasis. I am very familiar with the LDS church and have also been quite surprised by the many similarities between these two faiths which, on the surface, seem so 100% different from each other. Very few Orthodox (or Mormons, I’m sure) have any idea of this, but it’s true. Most of our people get their info on the LDS church from anti-Mormon sources, so I’m sure most would not necessarily be receptive to this idea.
One small correction: the iconostasis pictured in your post is from the Holy Trinity OCA (Orthodox Church in America) cathedral in Chicago. This church was once part of one of the largest “Russian Orthodox” denominations in the US 30-40 years ago, so that is probably where the confusion comes from. Another interesting point: if you look closely at the “ambo” in the picture (the table holding the icon in front of the Royal Doors) you will see the parish’s “patronal” icon: a depiction of the Trinity with a physical God the Father and Son, and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. This is very common in Orthodox churches in the US that were built at the end of the 19th /early 20th century. It was canonically not allowed, but it was the “popular” view of the Trinity as it was passed on to us from the old country. We do not believe that God the Father has a physical body, but, again, it’s a bizarre similarity and emphasizes the “threeness” in the Orthodox view of the Trinity.
Unfortunately, a few of our Christian brothers and sisters tend to view us as “idolaters” because of our use of icons. Thanks again for your respectful presentation of the icon screen, the “window into heaven”: the iconostasis.
Thank you for visiting Temple Study and commenting! I enjoy hearing from people of other faiths. I too am more surprised every day by the number of similarities I find between the LDS and Orthodox faiths, many more than even in the Catholic tradition. If only all faiths could look more to what we have in common than what our differences are, we would have a much different world. I’m glad you understand that anti-Mormon websites are clearly not the best source of reliable information on LDS Church doctrine and practice. As Krister Stendahl, a prominent Lutheran, once said, the first rule in interfaith learning is to ask members of the faith directly, not their enemies or their critics, for to do so would be a breach against the commandment to not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
Thank you for the correction on the photo. I got the photo from Wikipedia, so it must have been wrong there. I will correct it here.
That is interesting about the icon on the ambo. Is the icon only on the one table in front of the Holy Doors, or is it split between the three tables? What exactly was not “canonically allowed”? How should the Trinity be depicted in Orthodox icons if not in physical form? But that is interesting that they are depicted separately, emphasizing their “threeness” as you say, just as the LDS believe. As I’m sure you know, the LDS believe that God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost are three separate and distinct personages, two of them in physical human form, one as a human spirit, but which all together make what we call the Godhead.
I don’t believe you are idolaters. As long as an “icon” or picture is used only to remind one of the real thing that it depicts, then I see no harm in it. It is when the icon itself is worshiped that I believe there is danger. Indeed, in all our LDS chapels and temples there is an abundance of paintings and imagery of Jesus Christ and His gospel. These we use to facilitate remembrance.
Thanks for stopping by!
All three tables in front of the Royal Doors are there to hold icons for the faithful to venerate (make the sign of the cross and kiss). The icon on the right usually has an icon of Christ, on the left, it is usually the Theotokos. The “ambo” is the table in the middle. It holds an icon relating to the theme or saint of the day from the church calendar, or, the parish’s “patronal” icon, which depicts the event/saint for which the church is named. In the case of this church, it is the Holy Trinity.
The Trinity is always depicted in iconography as “three”, from the three “angels” who visited Abraham and he referred to as “Lord”. What was canonically not allowed (or so I am told) was to picture God the Father with a human body, like an old man. The icon in this picture does that. As I mentioned, this was very common 100+ years ago as the first Orthodox immigrants started arriving on these shores. The depiction one generally now sees is that of the “angels”, but this icon is still very, very common. Thanks!
Thanks Corey for the clarification.
It’s interesting that you mention the three angels who appeared to Abraham, as there are also three angels depicted in some Orthodox frescos as visiting Adam and Eve after they were cast out of the Garden of Eden to teach and comfort them. I’ve been told there is a good example of this in one in the oldest churches in Novgorod Russia, but I have been unable to locate the name of it, or the identity of the fresco. This visitation is also attested to in several pseudepigraphal works such as the Combat of Adam and Eve with Satan.
Fascinating, Bryce. I have never heard that! Lent just began for us tonight at sundown, so there will be a lot of church in the next 7 weeks. I’ll keep this in mind and ask some priests or iconographers that I may run into who might know something about it. I’ll drop you a note if I learn anything!
Another minor correction. It’s not just the clergy that go behind the iconostasis, usually any male person (like altar servers) can go back there with the priest’s blessing, but they must be Orthodox. As for women, there are a few women like readers (who have to be past child bearing age) that can be blessed by the bishop, and I’m pretty sure certain nuns can. It can vary from church to church.
Fr John Chagnon
I appreciate your interest in the iconostasis but it should be noted that its not about separating the “priests” from the “lay people”. In Orthodox Christianity all Christians, including women and children are priests (that is they are people who can and do offer worship and service) but only a few are clerics. When an Orthodox Priest serves the liturgy he is doing so as a Priest leading priests and, in fact, in traditional Orthodox churches there are no pews as everyone stands with the Priest at the altar, some nearer, some closer, but all fulfilling their ministry.
This is one of the most beautiful and enlightening discussions about the iconostasis. I have always viewed the iconostasis as the ‘descendant’ of the division between the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place in the original Temple in Jerusalem, but this article also gave such a beautiful meaning to it, not just as a ‘division’ but as a ‘bridge’, a ‘mediator’ or an ‘opening’, in other words, the very role of Jesus Christ, who bridges the heavenly and earthly realms.
It would be interesting to note that the counterpart of the Eastern Christian iconostasis in European or Western Christianity is the Catholic communion rail, a low railing of stone, wood or metal grillework, which was where the laity would kneel to receive Communion during Mass. Is this derived from the iconostasis also? Before reforms of the Second Vatican Council did away with the communion rail, worshippers would kneel by this railing as the officiating priest bestowed on them a sense of the divine via the communion wafer.
Hey Handel – I am no expert on this, but my understanding is that there was a least a type of iconostasis that was used in the West prior to the schism between the churches. My understanding is that, yes, that morphed into the altar rail in the West over time. Although I have not seen it with my own eyes, i have heard that St. Mark’s in Venice still has an iconostasis in front of it’s altar.
Hi Corey, thanks for the added info! I’m not that knowledgeable myself, but my understanding is that St. Mark’s Basilica was actually based on the Byzantine form of Christianity, which was definitely Eastern. The basilica itself was said to have been patterned after the Church of the Holy Apostles or something like that in Constantinople. After the Great Schism, Venice naturally fell under the Western Church or the Church of Rome. But again, I’m no expert too…
Sacred Symbolic » Blog Archive » Church as an Aaronic Priesthood Temple - Part 1: Structure & Ordinances
[…] It occurs on an altar, in front of the entire congregation. The altar is often set at the height of, and by extention, behind the divider that sets the stand appart from the general assembly area. This divider is a symbolic veil, following the tradion of the iconostasis in Orthodox Christianity as well as a similar divider in Catholicism (for a great discussion on the Iconostasis, see this article at TempleStudy.com). […]
Hello! I must share in this very nice discussion about this Iconostasis in The Holy Trinity Cathedral in Chicago, IL. There are two types of styles of Icons you will see on OCA Iconostasis, Western and Byzantine. The style we see in the photo is western. Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia demanded all of Russia to conform to “the western style”, thus the Icons on the Iconostasis in Russia changed from the Byzantine style to western. Because the roots of the OCA were Russian, by tradition, most Iconostasis was in the western style. Today some OCA churches are changing their Iconostasis Icons to the Byzantine style, while some remain in tradition. Both are beautiful and in no way am I saying one is better than the other, I just wanted to share this history with all of you. Also as a kid I was told that the Royal Doors were a gift from the Nicholas II the last Tsar of Russia. (Not sure if I remember that 100%)
I will admit now that I grew up in this beautiful church, The Holy Trinity Cathedral in Chicago IL. And I must brag that my Grandfather Adam built those three wooden tables (ambos) you can see in the photo. Again I just wanted to share some history about this photo. Thank you for using this picture!
You asked if the iconostasis is serving symbolically as a bridge between earth and heaven then why are only the clergy allowed to pass through it? What about the rest of the laity? This again is a throwback to the Hebrew Temples whereby only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies. The Orthodox do believe in the priesthood of all believers but they’ve kept some of the old Temple traditions.