The most characteristic feature of a Byzantine Rite church is the iconostasis (Gr. eikon – image; stasis – stand, support), attracting attention by its artistic composition and design. It is a colorful picture screen that separates the sanctuary from the nave, surrounding the sanctuary with a certain feeling of mystery and protection. Usually, it is an elaborate work of art in which the skills of architecture, woodcarving or metal-work and painting generously concur. Its present form reflects the particular features of Ruthenian art which should be meticulously preserved, since they belong to our spiritual heritage.
1. The iconostasis is the result of a gradual development of the primitive balustrade that divided the sanctuary from the nave of the church and was made with all the resources of art out of rich materials like silver, ivory, gilded oak, etc. Paul the Silentiary, the secretary of Emperor Justinian I, writing in the middle of the sixth century, gives a detailed description of a magnificent silver balustrade of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, which was decorated with arabesques and semi-precious stones, silver screens, connected to twisted columns, supported oval medallions with the icons of Christ, the Blessed Mother, the Prophets and the Apostles. In the center, above the Holy Doors, an imposing gem-encrusted cross was erected. (P.G. 86bis, 2145-2147)
The first Christians, imitating the temple of Jerusalem, used a richly decorated curtain in their churches. (Mt. 27:51) The use of the balustrade came later. In the West, because of barbarian invasions and the decay of art, the balustrades were reduced to a simple railing by the eighth or ninth century. In the East, however, where Christian art continued to flourish, the balustrades developed into a solid closed partition (Gr. hergion or tempion), artistically enriched with exquisite designs and icons, a style still used in the Greek churches to the present day.
The classical form of open iconstasis developed in Eastern Europe where, at the beginning of the 13th century, wooden architecture began to flourish.
The popular art of woodcarving and the golden age of icon-painting among the Eastern Slavs in the 14th-15th centuries tremendously contributed to the development of the wooden, open iconstases which reached their definitive form during the 16th century.
2. In the Carpathian region the poor highlanders had neither the opportunity nor the means to build rich palaces or impressive basilicas, so they had to use their God-given artistic resources in building their humble wooden churches. As a result, artistically speaking, we do not find any two wooden churches exactly alike. They all compete with each other by their attractive form, impressive composition and artistic detail. The iconstases, in a special way, gave our ancestors an opportunity to develop their own national style of the iconostasis, which they called pred’ii (partition), ohrada (enclosure) or even, from the Greek, tempion (chancel). It was only in the 16th century that our ancestors adopted the term ikonostas (iconostasis).
The Slavic form of the iconostasis, especially in the Carpathian region, became much lighter and more open on account of its wooden construction and artistically carved wooden screens. The favorite motif of these wooden screens was the grapevine with long, intertwined branches, wide leaves and numerous clusters of grapes.
Such screens offered a sufficient and artistic support to the icons and, at the same time, contained a deep mystical meaning, symbolizing our union with Christ, Who said : “I am the vine and you are the branches.” (In. 15:5)
In Subcarpathia, iconostases are preserved from the 16th and 17th centuries. The oldest iconostasis is in the village of Kolodne, Irshava County. A complete iconostasis, with all four rows of icons, can be found in Krajnikovo, Chust County (1662). But the most monumental iconostasis, built in 1750, with an accentuated influence of Barocco, can be found in Rus’ska Dolina. In the cathedral church in Uzhorod, the iconostasis was installed by Bishop Andrew Bachinskyj in 1779, and in the Prjashev cathedral by Bishop Joseph Gaganets in 1846, when they were adapting former Roman Rite churches for the use of our Byzantine Rite.
3. The iconostasis basically is composed of three doors and four rows of icons. Today it is the custom, especially here in the United States, to build much lower iconstases, with only one or two rows of icons as in the Seminary Chapel in Pittsburgh, Pa. parish are placed, and to the left, the icon of the Blessed Mother and of St. Nicholas, the Patron Saint of the Byzantine Catholic Church. If St. Nicholas is also the Patron Saint of the parish, the icon of St. John the Baptist, highly venerated in the Byzantine Rite (Mt. 11 :11), is placed on the left corner.
Over the doors, the second row of icons depict the twelve Major Feasts of the liturgical year, which represent the main events of our salvation.
In the center of this row, the icon of the Last Supper, constantly reenacted at the Divine Liturgy, stands out. The central figure of the upper part of the iconostasis is that of Christ in His glory, the Pantocrator, sitting on a throne as the King of the Universe. On both sides of the Christ Pantocrator, in the third and fourth rows, the Apostles, the Prophets and the Patriarchs are picture in an adoring posture.
Finally, the entire iconostasis is topped by the Crucifixion, with the Blessed Mother and St. John the Evangelist standing beneath the cross (In. 19:26-27). It was by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross that the work of our salvation was accomplished, opening to us the gates of heaven.
4. To properly appreciate an iconostasis, we must first understand its liturgical function and meaning.
The iconostasis divides the sanctuary (symbolizing the Triumphant Church) from the nave (representing the Church Militant) and the vestibule or nartex, the place of penitents (denoting the Church Suffering). Thus the iconostasis contributes to the symbolic expression of the mystical union of the Universal Church. It prevents unnecessary traffic in the sanctuary, which is reserved for the Eucharistic Christ who “really and truly” abides with us in the Tabernacle on the altar. According to ABp. Simeon of Thessalonica The central doors of the iconostasis, having two wings and richly decorated, are called the Royal or the Holy Doors. They are called Royal, because the Eucharistic Christ, referred to as the ” King of Glory,” passes through them. They are also called Holy, because only the bishop, the priest, or the deacon, when carrying the “Holy Things” (Gospels or Holy Gifts), can enter through them. The Royal Doors should be decorated with the icon of the Annunciation and the four Evangelists, since the “Incarnate Word of God, our Savior, opened the gates of heaven (the sanctuary symbolizing heaven) , The good news of salvation was first announced by the Archangel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin and then to the entire world by the four Evangelists.” (Fr. Julian Pelesh) The door to the right is called the Deacon’s Door, because it is used mostly by the deacon and formerly led to a diakonikon (replaced now by a sacristy), where the sacred vessels and vestments were preserved. It is identified by the icon of some deacon Saint, usual ly St. Stephen the Protomartyr. On the left is the Service Door, used by the minor clerics or other servers. It is adorned with the icon of an Angel, usually St. Michael, standing with a drawn sword in his hand as the Defender of the Church.
To prevent unauthorized people from entering the sanctuary, the following instruction was given by the Holy See: “Admittance to the sanctuary is reserved to priests, deacons, clerics and servers. Laymen who do not partake in the Divine Worship have no place in the sanctuary, much less women, regardless of reason or their status.” (cf. Ordo Celebr., Rome 1944, n. 7)
The screens between the doors support the four Main Icons (Namistnyi Ikony), which form the first row of the prescribed icons. To the right of the Royal Doors, the icon of Christ the Teacher and of the Patron Saint or Patronal Feast of the (d. 1429), the iconostasis indicates the “presence of Jesus Christ in His glory, surrounded by the Angels and the Saints.” (P.G. 155, 3450)
The iconostasis also serves as a liturgical commodity in helping to properly perform the most beautiful ceremonies of the Byzantine ritual. The mind of the Holy See on this point is very clear: “The altars, as long as they lack their own iconostasis, are not considered properly suitable for the liturgical celebration.” (cf. Ordo Celebr., n. 6b) In addition, the iconostasis, being a characteristic feature of the Byzantine Rite, fosters love and attachment to our own church.
The iconostasis, placed before the eyes of the faithful, projects to their minds the main events of salvation and helps them better to understand the true meaning of history, supports their faith and fills their hearts with a nostalgic mystical experience for which the mind of modern man yearns. The iconostasis also greatly contributes to the prayerful atmosphere of the church and inspires awe, reverence and respect for this holy place, as we are reminded in every Liturgy by the intonation of the priest: “Let us stand in awe – to offer the Holy Oblation [Anaphora].”
Finally, the iconostasis serves as a sacred ornament of our churches, contributing to their beauty and decor. It should, therefore, always be richly furnished, beautifully designed and constructed, and artistically painted. In contemplating the iconostasis, the faithful should be inspired to exclaim: “How awe-inspiring is this place! This is nothing less than the House of God, this is the Gate of Heaven!” (Gen. 28:17)