Iconostasis .:. The Temple Veil, A Wall of Separation
Part two 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.
After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life. – Genesis 3.24
Human beings were created to dwell with God, but after Adam’s and Eve’s transgression, mankind was separated from God. This separation was best symbolized by the veil which separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the tabernacle. The Holy of Holies housed the Ark of the Covenant, upon which sat the Atonement Cover which served as God’s throne; it was here that God’s glory would appear in unapproachable light. The veil created a wall of separation which no one but the appointed High Priest could breach, and even he could do so only once per year.
“But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance.” – Genesis 3.24
This veil was a potent symbol of God’s otherness, and the separation caused by humankind through sin; God had to be approached with absolute fear and reverence, under strict guidelines. If anyone other than the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies, or did so at the wrong time, or without the proper preparations, they would die as a consequence; this was the consequence paid by Aaron’s sons.
In the book of Leviticus chapter ten, Aaron’s sons “Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. (Leviticus 10.1-2)” Nadab and Abihu, entered the Holy of Holies with an unauthorized sacrifice and as a result they died; they failed to approach God’s presence with the proper reverence and fear. Several chapters later, God ordered Moses to warn Aaron regarding the veil and the Holy of Holies saying, “Tell your brother Aaron not to enter into the Holy of Holies, barging inside the curtain that’s before the Atonement-Cover on the Chest whenever he feels like it, lest he die, because I am present in the Cloud over the Atonement-Cover (Leviticus 16.1b-2).” Thus the veil was truly a wall of separation, what occurred beyond was genuinely a mystery of which almost no one was privy.
Adam’s sin in paradise separated humankind from God’s presence, and the veil served as an icon of that separation. To approach God’s presence without explicit invitation meant certain death. This image of separation however was to serve a greater purpose, God did not intend to keep His people at a distance forever. At Christs; death, God would use this icon of separation as a sign that separation from God had ended; access would once again be granted to God’s presence, and the Holy of Holies would now reside in hearts of God’s people. At the rending of the temple veil, the separation ceased.
Iconostasis: Rent in two, the opening of the doors to paradise
At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. – Matthew 27.51-52
At the death of Jesus Christ, the veil, which long served as a symbol of separation from God, was rent in two. This visual and physical act of tearing the veil from top to bottom formed a new icon God’s presence coming down to dwell among His people. This act made manifest the words of Christ to the women of Samaria: “a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks (Matthew 27.51-52).“ Jesus issued this proclamation in response to the woman’s question regarding the proper place to worship: ‘in Jerusalem or in Samaria?’ Christ’s answer is prophetic; worship of God will no longer be restrained to a building or a single location, God will truly dwell among men and be worshiped in the hearts of believers. The wall of separation had indeed come down. This is what the rending of the Temple veil demonstrated: the doors to Paradise were once again open.
Whereas the Israelites emphasized the transcendence of God – expressed by the veil that separated them from the ark of the covenant, which was considered the dwelling place of Yahweh – the Christians saw God as having come within their reach … By virtue of the incarnation, man had access to God as at no previous time in history. With His crucifixion, the veil separating the Holy (nave) from the Holy of Holies was torn. This means that not only did God fill the Temple with all His glory, but more importantly, there was no longer a separation between Him and His creatures. (Soot, 229-230)
The iconostasis is primarily informed by the rent veil rather than the temple veil proper; the iconostasis does not conceal, nor does it separate, it preaches. The iconostasis is the image of God’s glory come into the world, dwelling among men; it is an image of paradise restored. There are several features of the iconostasis that support its eschatological reality. First and foremost, the iconostasis is generally open, and does not completely conceal the altar. When properly constructed, the iconostasis contains several doors, including a set of large doors in the center known as the Beautiful Gates or the Holy Doors. These doors are often constructed to allow the congregation to either see over the doors or through the doors. They are often low doors with a large opening above them. It is through these doors that the priest enters and exits at appointed times in the liturgical service. Most often these doors are left open offering the congregation a full view of the altar and the priest. Even when closed, they do not fully obscure.+ Traditionally constructed, the iconostasis does not span from floor to ceiling, but rather stops several feet short of the ceiling, allowing worshipers to peer over the iconostasis into the altar. Here the congregation can often see both the icons that adorn the walls of the altar as well as the dance of candle light on the ceiling which adds to the visual symbolism of the altar as being a living and real experience of the mysteries of paradise.
+ Note: Use of a Curtain in the Iconostasis
Many orthodox churches employ a curtain behind the Holy Doors that can be drawn closed during specified moments in the liturgical cycle. While the curtain has roots that predate the iconostasis, the curtain has fallen out of favor with many contemporary Orthodox churches. While churches that continue to use the curtain may explain that its purpose is to conceal, this is not entirely accurate. The true purpose of the curtain is to create a moment of anticipation, thus heightening the drama of the moment. For example, the curtain is often closed just prior to the presentation of the Eucharist, thus elevating the gravity of the mystery.
Read Part 3 – The Iconostasis as the Road-map to the Kingdom
Soot, Mona Karadshche. The Theology of the Placement of Icons in the Church: An Historical Perspective., (Sacred Arts Journal 14.2/3, 1993), 229-230.