Iconostasis .:. Behold, the Dwelling Place of God is with Men
A Five Part Series on the Iconostasis
Over the next several weeks I will be exploring the nature of the Iconostasis, and its purpose within the Orthodox Church. For those who are unaware, the Iconostasis is a wall containing several doors, that is placed between the altar and the nave in the Orthodox sanctuary. Upon the iconostasis are placed images of Christ, His mother the Theotokos, the Saints, and the angels. The placement of these images, called Icons, follows a strict schema designed to preach one message: the dwelling place of God is among men.
The Iconostasis as a Visual Nexus
It is common, even among Orthodox Christians to view the iconostasis as a wall separating the congregation from the altar, and obscuring the work of the priests from their gaze. Contrary to popular misconceptions however, the iconostasis is not a wall of separation dividing the nave from the sanctuary, rather, the iconostasis is a nexus, visually expressing the union of heaven and earth in the person of Christ. The iconostasis symbolizes the assumption of human nature by God, and through Him, its deification. The iconostasis, “does not conceal from the believer some sharp mystery; on the contrary, the iconostasis points out to the half blind—the Mysteries of the altar, opens for them an entrance into a world closed to them by their own sickness (Florenskii, 62-63).” The iconostasis is not merely a decorative screen either, but rather an integral component of liturgical life. The iconostasis makes known the mystery of adoption into the Kingdom of God, bringing forth the reality of sonship and deification. Removing the iconstasis from the church has the effect of erecting a spiritual barrier, for without the iconostasis, the mind mired in sin and materiality is no longer able to witness the heavenly realm. Rather than being called forth into the sacred mystery, the absence of the iconostasis leaves the worshiper earth-bound, viewing the liturgical act as a mere recital as opposed to an authentic experience. The Church is not a collection of people who worship a God who is separate from them, the Church is the union of God Himself with His people; this is the reality that the iconostasis makes known.
“The iconostasis affirms four realities: incarnation, deification, pilgrimage, and community (Hart, 72).” From the beginning of scriptural history, God has made it His aim to dwell with His people. In Exodus, shortly after Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and into the wilderness, God issued forth a command: “let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them (Exodus 25.8).” This command was a promise, that God would dwell among men. While God did indeed dwell among the Israelites in the Tabernacle, this was only a shadow of the full promise to come, where God Himself would dwell among all men; this promise dawned at the incarnation, but will receive its fulfillment in the eschaton, “And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be with them, and be their God (Revelations 21.3).” This is the reality that the iconostasis makes known, that man is the tabernacle of God, and that God dwells in them and with them. The iconostasis reminds the worshiper that the liturgy occurs outside of time, where the fullness of the promise has come to fruition.
The Visual Necessity of the Iconostasis
The apostle Paul testifies to the necessity of the iconostasis when he states: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known (1 Cor. 13.12).” By virtue of humankind’s placement within time, and his material nature, it is difficult for all but a few to remain mindful of the eschatological consummation of the promise; those few who manage to remain ever-mindful of this reality, the church calls saints, for the rest of humankind, physical reminders are required. “For great ascetics like St. Macarius, all of life simply becomes a single act of seeing God and worshiping Him (Hart, 27),” for everyone else, a reminder such as the iconostasis is required.
It is important however to understand that the iconostasis in not a reminder in the abstract sense, it does not recall in the same way that a note on a calendar does, nor does it simply bring to mind an idea or an event. The iconostasis spiritually connects the worshiper with the reality of the eschatalogical promise; it yokes the viewer to God. The iconostasis helps to open the spiritual eyes of its viewer so that for a moment, the worshiper can see the reality ‘face to face’, to be ‘know, even as he is known.’ “Christ together with all the icons of the saints and the angels on the screen of the iconostasis represent the kingdom of God, the gathering of the sons and daughters of God who bear within themselves the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of adoption (Hart, 74).” The iconostasis is the portrait of a family; it beacons its viewers to place their image on it along side their brothers and sisters.
Read Part two: Iconostasis – The Temple Veil and the Wall of Separation
- Florenskiĭ, P. A. Iconostasis (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 2000), 62-63.
- Hart, Aidan. Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting: Egg Tempera, Fresco, Secco. (Leominster, Herefordshire: Gracewing, 2011), 72.
Exodus 25.8, Authorized King James Version. (Philadelphia: National Publications, 1978.)
Revelations 21.3, Authorized King James Version.
1 Corinthians 13.12, Authorized King James Version.
Hart, Aidan, (August 2012). Beauty and the Gospel.
Hart, Aidan, Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting, 74.