(Gr. eikonostasion, eidonostasis, picture screen, from eikon,
image, picture, and histemi, 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 it 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 Liturgy) 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 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 Saviour 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 Russian 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 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 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 way 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 work 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, dryphakta, fence, diastyla, 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 crossbeam 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 church 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
Transcribed by Michael C. Tinkler
From the Catholic Encyclopedia, copyright © 1913 by the
Encyclopedia Press, Inc. Electronic version copyright © 1996 by
New Advent, Inc.
Taken from the New Advent Web Page (www.knight.org/advent).
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