Saturday, May 20, 2006

On Rood Screens and Iconostases: A Quick Look

[Note: this is not a formal study! This is just preliminary look at what can be found on the internet.]

(The "Rood" aloft a traditional English Rood Screen)

Someone had mentioned a few days ago that it would be interesting to look at the parallels between the Eastern iconostasis or icon-screen that divides the sanctuary and altar from the nave of Eastern Churches, to the rood screen or chancel screen found in many medieval Latin rite Churches -- and in particular those in England.

It is interesting to see the visual, as well as symbolic, parallels of the two. While they might seem very different in some ways, a basic look at their architecture does seem to show obvious parallels.

For the sake of a quick, informal look at the subject (and I stress that this is quick and it is informal), I thought I would quickly look up what the 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia had to say about the iconostasis, the rood screen and the chancel. I simply quote it here in the relevant parts.

The Western Rood Screen

"The precise origin of the screen and its connection with the rood is somewhat obscure, and apparently varied in different churches. The custom of screening off the altar is very ancient, and emphasizing, as it did, the air of mystery surrounding the place of sacrifice, was possibly a survival of Judaism; but the placing of a screen, more or less solid, between the chancel and nave -- i.e. between clergy and people -- must have originated from practical rather than from symbolic reasons..."

(Of course, it is worth noting that if the latter is true, this does not detract from its later symbolic association -- and in fact it can be seen as an elaboration on the original ancient separation that is referred to. What may originally have had practical value, such as maniples, or copes as two more examples, later came to have a life of their own which enriched Christian worship and the Christian sanctuary. Symbolism develops and grows with time.)

"The chancel is part of the choir near the altar of a church, where the deacons or sub-deacons stand to assist the officiating priest. It was originally railed off by cancelli or lattice work, from which the name is derived. The term is now generally confined to parish churches, and such as have no aisles or chapels round the choir. In some churches, in addition to the principal chancel, there are others at the ends of the side-aisles. The Latin word cancellus was commonly used for the low screen which marked the separation of the presbyterium and choir from the rest of the church. In a later time the name chancel came to be applied to the presbyterium itself. Very few chancels, however, of the early period have been preserved in place. A clear idea of the normal arrangement can be had in St. Clement's at Rome, where the sixth-century screens of the choir and presbyterium were simply removed from the lower church and set up in the twelfth-century church above. In St. Clement's the chancel screen of the presbyterium coincided with the chord of the apse, and the altar also stood upon this line; the approaches had therefore to be constructed on either side of the altar. The chancels of the presbyterium are surmounted by a light colonnade for the support of curtains. The term was used in England before the Reformation, and the Anglicans still retain it. Among English Catholics it is now little used, that portion of the church near the altar, separated by rails from the nave, being designated the sanctuary. In cathedrals and conventual churches, where space is required to accomodate the canons or the religious, a portion of the church between the sanctuary and the nave is taken for the purpose; it is not, however, called the chancel, but the choir."

The Eastern iconostasis:

"The iconostasis is really an Oriental development in adorning the holy place about the Christian altar. Originally the altar stood out plain and severe in both the Oriental and Latin Rites. But in the Western European churches and cathedrals the Gothic church builders put a magnificent wall, the reredos, immediately behind the altar and heaped ornamentation, figures, and carvings upon it until it became resplendent with beauty. In the East, however, the Greeks turned their attention to the barrier or partition dividing the altar and sanctuary from the rest of the church and commenced to adorn and beautify that, and thus gradually made it higher and covered it with pictures of the Apostles, Prophets, and saints. Thus the Greek Church put its ornamentation of the holy place in front of the altar instead of behind it as in the Latin churches. In its present form in the churches of the Byzantine (and also the Coptic) Rite the iconostasis comparatively modern, not older than the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. It was never used in the Roman churches or any of the Latin churches of the West, and was unknown to the early Church."

"In the early Greek churches there was a slight barrier about waist high, or even lower, dividing the altar from the people. This was variously known as kigklis, grating, dryphakta, fence, diastyla, a barrier made of columns, according to the manner in which it was constructed. Very often pictures of the saints were affixed to the tops of the columns."

"When Justinian constructed the "great" church, St. Sophia, in Constantinople, he adorned it with twelve high columns (in memory of the twelve Apostles) in order to make the barrier or chancel, and over the tops of these columns he placed an architrave which ran the entire width of the sanctuary. On this architrave or crossbeam large disks or shields were placed containing the pictures of the saints, and this arrangement was called templon (templum), either from its fancied resemblance to the front of the old temples or as expressing the Christian idea of the shrine where God was worshipped. Every church of the Byzantine Rite eventually imitated the "great" church and so this open templon form of iconostasis began to be adopted among the churches of the East, and the name itself was used to designate what is now the iconostasis."

The Relationship?

This history of course is only coming from one source, and as such we can't take for absolute granted that what is said there is the final word.

So then, what is the possible relationship between the two?

A quick search on the internet brought up a reference from a Western Orthodox monastery, St. Hilarion's who had this to say (but provided no source references):

"In the West, an iconostasis [they mean a rood screen] ... is documented well before 1000 A.D., and well before such "rood" screens were used in the Christian East.

"Anglo-Saxon churches had a wall between the nave and the chancel. The earliest recorded example of such a screen or wall comes from St. Brigid of Ireland's church at the Oak. Curtains covered the door-openings in the solid wall, and sacred imagery decked the entire wall. The image here shows a very late development of the screen, in regard to its open-ness and the rood sculptures." has this to say:

"The use of the chancel screen continued in the churches of the Byzantine East for many centuries. Vestiges of the chancel screen can be seen today in many ancient Greek churches where the open spaces between the columns and between parapet and architrave, formerly open, were filled in with icons at a later time. Perhaps the best example of an extant chancel screen separating nave and sanctuary can be seen in the Basilica of St. Mark in Venice, Italy.

Similarly the rood screens still in existence in many old English churches served the same function. As precursor to the iconostasis, the chancel screen was often decorated with reliefs of Christ, the Virgin and the saints in the face of the parapet and later by icons attached to the parapet and/or placed on top of the architrave. Therewith began the evolution of the chancel screen to iconostasis, a journey of many centuries."

So far then, if we can take the latter for granted, what we seem to see is that both the current form of the Western rood screen, and the Eastern Iconostasis are developments upon the original separation that was found. However, it would seem, so far as I can presently tell, that the eventual development of a greater screen was found in the Latin West before it was be found in the East; additionally, the Latin form of screen is itself the earlier variant on that smaller screen than the Eastern iconostasis as it is presently found.

Of course, in all this we should never succumb to antiquarianism -- assuming that the more ancient something is, the better it is. Both the Eastern iconostasis and the Latin chancel/rood screen are incredibly beautiful aspects of Catholic architecture.

It does make for an interesting look however at the nature and development of the architecture and liturgy of the Christian church as it was and as it has developed -- and also shows us the common tree from which both East and West come from.

And again, I note, this is not a formal, academic study. Just a quick look based on a user's suggestion. If anyone has any information to round this out, that might contradict the sources presented here, please post it in the comments!

Other examples of Western chancel screens and roods:

A Victorian era iron chancel screen (This is actually for sale)

A detail of the decoration of an English chancel screen

An interesting variation on the chancel screen with the "rood" separated: The chancel screen. And now, the Rood which hangs above.

A traditional English wooden rood screen

A beautiful view looking at a traditional wooden chancel screen, looking from within the sanctuary

A slightly less ornate chancel screen, but still beautiful from Our Lady of the Atonement AU Parish

A reader sent in this picture of a rood with the loft at a church in Paris

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