The Iconostasis as Road-map to the Kingdom
Part three of a series on the use and symbolism of the iconostasis in the Orthodox Church. Read part one here: Iconostasis – Yoke of Promise – Introduction – Behold, the Dwelling Place of God is with Men, and part two here: Iconostasis Yoke of Promise – the Temple Veil, a Wall of Separation.
The role of the iconostasis is not to conceal a mystery, but rather to make the Kingdom of God known or manifest among the congregation gathered within the walls of the church; this is its incarnational function. Incarnation is not the only function of the iconostasis however, it also affirms three other realities: pilgrimage, community, and deification (Hart, 72). The iconostasis maps out all of salvation history upon its face: past, present, and future. Its prosopon is a road map of, and to, the Kingdom.
This may initially seem like a paradox, the Kingdom is both made present with the iconostasis, yet it also points to it as if the worshiper is not yet arrived. This state of uncomfortable paradox however, is precisely the state that the Orthodox church is most comfortable with. The church fathers continually preach a doctrine of paradox. God is both known, yet remains unknown. God is closer to the human heart than anything else, yet He is also somehow further than anything else. The closer we draw to either extreme, the more evident the other extreme becomes. God is both near, yet far; as St. Nicholas Cabasilas puts it, “He is both the inn at which we rest for the night and the final end of our journey (Ware, 6).” This position of paradox is where the iconostasis dwells. The more the iconostasis reveals that the dwelling place of God is now among men, the more the worshiper realizes that his own heart is yet far from God. The more the penitent comprehends his own falleness and distance from God, the more the iconostasis affirms that God’s presence is with him. By virtue of the Grace of God and the incarnation, God dwells with humankind; and humanity has received its inheritance as the co-heirs of the Kingdom (Romans 8.17).±
The Iconostasis is a Visual Symbol of Reconciliation
Concurrent with the reality of the present Kingdom of God however, is the reality of each person’s own apprehension of it. Every person arrests the reality of the ever-present Kingdom to varying degrees. Competing with the immanent nature of the Kingdom of God is the ever-present reality of sin. Competing for attention in the heart of each person are these two kingdoms: the kingdom of man and the Kingdom of God. To the degree that each penitent apprehends the Kingdom of God and forestalls the kingdom of man is the degree to which each penitent finds himself living in the eschaton, in Paradise. Thus the iconostasis demonstrates that the promise of God dwelling with men is in fact an incarnational reality; yet at the same time it affirms that most men have not yet come to the realization of the truth of God’s presence. “The iconostasis shows ‘the descent of God and the ascent of man’. It shows the congregation ‘the ways of reconciliation between God and man (Ouspensky, 67).”
Thus in order to assist worshipers in comprehending the reality of God’s presence, the iconostasis issues a road map; it does this by following a schema that presents all of salvation history, from the Creation of man to his final rest in God. Through every detail of the iconostasis, the worshiper is reminded that God has always been integral to the salvation of humankind. The construction of the iconostasis often consists of several tiers or levels, and while the number of tiers will vary from church to church depending on the church’s size and wealth, there are five primary tiers on an iconostasis: the patriarchs, the prophets, the festal, the deisis, and the worship tiers.
The Iconostasis as Road-map for Salvation
Beginning with the top tier, the iconostasis shows forth the patriarchs of the Old Testament, Christ’s ancestors according to the flesh. The patriarchs represent the humanity that was subsumed by Christ at His incarnation, they are His familial line, and the humanity with which He clothed Himself. The patriarchs represent both actual human persons who lived in history as well as symbolizing all of righteous men and women since the creation of the earth who awaited the promised hope of the incarnation.
Below the patriarchal tier are the prophets. The prophets on the iconostasis each hold a scroll issuing a prophecy of Christ’s incarnation. These prophets where God’s chosen vessels of grace, pointing the rest of humanity towards the coming promise of hope in the incarnation of God and the salvation of humankind. In the center of the prophets tier is placed the Icon of the Sign. This icon shows the Theotokos with outstreched arms in the Orans prayer position with Christ seated in her lap, or more accurately, in her womb. This icon gets its name from the prophecy of Isaiah “Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign, a virgin will be with child (Isaiah 7.14).” The placement of this icon is another example of how the iconostasis preaches a timelessness within time; while the Theotokos did not physically exist in the time of the prophets, her participation in the incarnation was prefigured by them and by the actions of God in the Old Testament. The Theotokos is seen throughout the Old Testament in the signs of the Burning Bush, the Ark, and the Temple just to list a few. The placement of the Theotokos on the prophets tier testifies that while God works in time (chronos), His actions operate in the pregnant moment (kairos). Thus the Theotokos in some manner exists both in time, and outside of it, in first century Israel but also in the age of the prophets. The iconostasis also operates in this chronos/kairos intersect, both making the reality of God’s Kingdom present, while at the same time pointing to it as a destination to be reached.
The next tier in the iconostasis is the festal tier; these are the icons that the prophets on the previous tier testified too. On this tier are placed the icons of the feasts celebrated by the church. This level connects the old and new testaments, showing the fulfillment of the prophecies. After the Crucifixion and Resurrection, the Church’s twelve feasts are represented: The Nativity of the Mother of God, the Presentation of the Mother of God, the Annunciation, the Nativity of the Lord, the Purification of the Virgin (also called Christ’s entrance into the Temple or the Meeting), the Theophany, Transfiguration, Entrance into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), Ascension, Pentecost, the Dormition of the Virgin, and the Exaltation of the Cross. These festal icons are the consummation of the prophecies testified to in the Old Testament; they are the pregnant moments that God uses to break into time, in order to break man out of it. With the festal tier a direction begins to take shape on the iconostasis, a movement of God from heaven to earth. From the promise to the patriarchs, and the hope of a future through the prophets, to the realization of salvation history in the festal tier, the iconostasis appears to continually be pointing the church towards a final reality: that the dwelling place of God is with men.
On the next tier the work of the church is visualized, the work of intercession. This tier is often called the deisis tier, or the prayer tier. The deisis tier shows John the Baptist and the Theotokos turned towards Christ in prayer with upturned hands. This is the traditional posture of intercession. In addition to John the Baptist and the Theotokos, other saints are often depicted as well, all turned toward Christ in prayer. This tier represents the Kingdom of God, saints who have persevered and now dwell in glory. The “saints depicted on the iconostasis are shown not in their earthly service, though their clothes reference that, but the culmination of all paths, the prayerful standing before the throne of God (Ouspensky, 64).” The deisis tier affirms the unity in love between those in heaven and those on earth. The brethren and angels in heaven do not forget their fellow creatures who are still struggling to complete their course upon earth. In compassion they continue to intercede for them (Hart, 74).
Below the deisis tier is the main tier, the one that comes closest to the earth: the worship tier. It is in this tier where man and God meet on earth and are united. This is the tier that contains both the Holy Doors as well as the deacon’s doors. It is through this tier that man enters the altar for service and that the worshiper can see through. It is through the worship tier that the priest exits with the eucharist to offer the Sacred Body and Blood of Christ to the congregation. It is also the door through which the gospel book enters the congregation to proclaim the word of God.
The Iconostasis and the Doors to the Kingdome (Holy Doors / Royal Doors & Deacon Doors / Angelic Doors)
On this tier are placed the icon of Christ the Teacher, and the Theotokos with Child. These two icons flank the Holy Doors which symbolize the entry way to heaven. On the Holy Doors are placed icons of the annunciation and the four evangelists. The annunciation shows the moment of the incarnation of Christ, by which we are saved; the four evangelists stand as a witness to the Gospel. The worship tier also contains to deacons doors; these are the doors by which anyone wishing to enter the altar must go through. On the deacon’s doors are icons of the archangels, signifying the type of work that is preformed by those who desire to enter the Kingdom of God, that of messengers and servants. Additionally on the worship tier the icon of St. John the Baptist is placed, as the one who prepares the way of the Lord, as well as the church’s patron saint.
“The icons on the worship story are truly the icons of which are said to abide in both heaven and on earth. They are the icons closest to the people, which can be kissed and have candles burning before them (Ouspensky, 64).” The iconostasis shows the descent of God through the Old testament patriarchs, the preparation of the prophets, the feasts that reveal Christ, the dispensation of the Kingdom of God, to the lower level, where God and man meet, and both ascend into paradise.
± NOTE: Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. – Romans 8.17 NIV
Read Part 4 in the series: The Iconostasis as Silent Therapy
Hart, Aidan. Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting: Egg Tempera, Fresco, Secco.
Ware, Kallistos. The Orthodox Way. (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1995).
Ouspensky, Léonide, and Vladimir Lossky. (The Meaning of Icons. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1982).
The iconostasis as the road-map to the kingdom