Meaning and Purpose of the Iconostasis
Part five, the conclusion of a series on the use and symbolism of the iconostasis in the Orthodox Church. Read partfour here: Iconostasis as Silent Therapy
Iconostasis: My Yoke is Easy and Burden is Light
The iconostasis is not merely a decorative feature of the church. It is not a wall meant to conceal the actions behind it either. Rather, the purpose of the iconostasis is to reveal and to invite. By serving to awaken its viewer, and testify to the realities of incarnation, community, pilgrimage, and deification, the iconostasis makes known truth: that God now dwells among men. The eschaton is both there and here, it is both then and now. The iconostasis is a nexus point for time and eternity, chronos and kairos. Isaiah cried, “If only You would tear the heavens open and come down (Isaiah 64.1).” The iconostasis is the image of this cry revealed, God did indeed tear heaven open and come down to dwell among the people made in His image. The iconostasis makes symbolic reference to the temple veil rent in two, from top to bottom at the Crucifixion of Christ. The tearing of the temple veil was a dynamic symbol that God Himself was revealing His Kingdom from top to bottom; the Kingdom of God was descending to earth. The iconostasis visualizes this decent of God in its tiered structure, from the patriarchs of the Old Testament, down through the Saints of the New Testament to the present hour where the gathering of believers meet God in the pregnant moment.
The iconostasis however does not leave the worshiping body of believers in a static state of reception, rather, the iconostasis calls forth the believer to a journey up to the Heavenly realms with God, through communion with the saints. Through the iconostasis, the congregation participates in the eschatalogical liturgy where “the future life overflows and mixes with the present life (Evdokimov, 22).” Without the presence of the iconostasis, liturgy easily becomes a mere pageant, a rote ritual bereft of gravity, a state whose long-term consequence would be the loss of meaning, vitality, and purpose. The iconostasis serves as a bulwark against the onslaught of liturgical banality by reminding the militant church of its union with the church triumphant. The iconostasis yokes those two realities together through visualization. “The heavenly liturgy of Revelations gives form and structure to the earthly liturgy; the heavenly celebration confers on the earthly its character of being an icon of the celestial liturgy (Evdokimov, 38).” The earth bound church must become an icon of the heavenly church; the iconostasis calls it forth to active participation and community with the heavenly church..
The primary purpose of the icon is to reveal the process of transfiguration, a journey from darkness to light. The iconostasis prompts this journey and goads it along through a continual dialogue of projection and reflection. The iconostasis projects the reality of theosis, demonstrating the attainability of deification for humanity, while at the same time reflecting the penitents current inadequacy. Through this dual-play of projection and reflection, the iconostasis simultaneously convicts the penitent and calls him forth. The purpose of the calling forth is communion, to become like God by becoming a member of the community of saints whose images dwell upon the iconostasis.
The Meaning and Purpose of the Iconostasis
The iconostasis is the visual yoke of promise, the union of heaven with earth, the Kingdom of God with the kingdom of man. Whatever a person yokes themselves to they become. The iconostasis invites its viewers to yoke themselves to Christ, who promises: “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light (Matthew 11.29-30).” The iconostasis is the face of this yoke, a yoke that promises restoration and communion with the Godhead.
Evdokimov, Paul. The Art of the Icon: A Theology of Beauty. (Redondo Beach, CA: Oakwood Publications, 1990).