Monday, August 22, 2011

Eastern Churches Review: On the Origins of the Iconostasis (Part 2 of 3)

We now present part 2 of 3 of the article by Julian Walter in Eastern Churches Review, 1971. See the first part.

This article is reprinted with the kind permission by the copyright holders, the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius.

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The Origins of the Iconostasis [continued]

(Eastern Churches Review, Vol. Ill, No. 3. 1971)

The Physical Relationship of Icons to the Iconostasis

Icons were certainly associated with the screen enclosing the sanctuary many centuries earlier than the invention of the classical iconostasis. However, not every kind of representation can be properly considered an icon. We have already noted that even the reticulated panels in the 4th-century basilica of Tyre were lavishly carved. Foliage and vine leaves were a common decoration; so were monograms. 'Zodia'—various kinds of living creatures—also figure upon the panels. Fashions changed; for example there seems to have been an increased liking for lions, harts, winged gryphons and birds from the 9th century onwards. The panels at Torcello, situated in the lagoons to the north of Venice, are certainly Constantinopolitan work of the highest quality dating from the 11th or 12th century. The subjects had a symbolical meaning at the beginning; the peacocks, whose flesh was believed to be incorruptible, are drinking from the Fountain of Life; the lions are guarding the Paradise Tree. However; at this late epoch they are probably there mainly in a decorative capacity (Plate 8).

None of these decorations can properly be considered to be icons. The same is no doubt true of figurative representations—portraits of Christ, the Virgin, angels and saints—which might be carved upon the architrave. These reliefs, the grooves sometimes filled with coloured paste like cloisonne work in enamel, existed from the 6th century onwards. According to Paul the Silentiary there were either round or elliptical portraits on the screen of Hagia Sophia. It is not certain exactly how or where they were placed, but, if the analogy of a consular diptych is relevant, they would have been mounted on top of the architrave. This practice of decorating the architrave with carved portraits of saints certainly continued after the Triumph of Orthodoxy. It would have disappeared when the architrave became a support for a row of paintings on panel.

Are these bas-reliefs to be considered as icons? It depends how one uses the word. Pictorial representations of the saints or of the subject of the great feasts of the Church could be part of the official decoration of churches. They were not then necessarily the object of devotion nor of any special veneration. In some cases they were ex votos in mosaic or fresco. They could be fixed or moveable, and often they included the portrait of the donor or at least an inscription with his name. The practice of placing ex voto pictures in churches was certainly current at an early date. The church of Saint Demetrius in Thessalonika still contains such ex votos in mosaic which are fixed permanently in place. It is significant that towards the beginning of the 8th century they were being placed progressively lower and nearer to the sanctuary.

In one case, perhaps exceptional, they had already invaded the sanctuary in the 6th century. In the church of San Vitale in Ravenna Justinian and Theodora are represented making their offerings in a programme the theme of which is the types of the Eucharistic oblation. It is highly probable that Iconoclasm was in part a reaction against this cluttering of the church with private devotional images. But it was not successful. The practice was revived after the Triumph of Orthodoxy, and much evidence of it still exists in Cappadocia. For instance in the very apse of the rock church of Qaranlep the donors are represented in a Deesis prostrate at the feet of Christ.

But besides these ex votos executed in mosaic or fresco there were also moveable icons on wood. Many of these were ex votos too. They figure regularly in monastic inventories. In the monastery of the Eleousa at Veljusa in Macedonia there were in the sanctuary alone some ninety icons, according to an inventory probably made in 1449. The explanation of their presence seems simple. The sanctuary was the holiest part of the church since there the Eucharist was offered. The donor therefore wished that the icon of the saint to whom he had a devotion should be by his image as close as possible to Christ who was really present in the consecrated species. The donor's religious psychology was similar to that of the Western pilgrim who wishes to enter the grotto at Lourdes in order to be as close as possible to the place where the apparitions of the Virgin occurred.

There was, however, a special kind of icon, the object also of devotion but this time of public devotion. Such icons were venerated not only because the prayers addressed to them passed immediately to the prototype but also because they had a reputation for working wonders. Such an icon was the Hodegetria. It had its special shrine in Constantinople but it did not always remain there. Mounted on three struts which were joined to a pole, it could be taken from its shrine and carried in procession to the monastery of the Pantocrator. Icons of this kind were numerous; they can be recognized by the fact that usually they have a cross painted on the obverse side. The problem arises where these icons were kept when not being carried in procession. Not all of them can have had a special shrine.

The iconodule Patriarch Nicephorus tells us in his Antirrheticus that in his time, the early 9th century, icons were being displayed before the choir screen, on its gates and columns, even before the sacred altar. These icons were not so displayed simply to decorate the building but for devotion, the sanctuary being par excellence the place of prayer. It is evident that some order had to be imposed. For icons which were the object of public devotion it was necessary that there should be a place where they could be easily visible but at the same time protected from the excesses to which devotion sometimes leads. Two ways of doing this would seem to have been current. One was to fix them to the sides of the baldaquin. Such a disposition may be observed in a miniature illustrating the chapter on Prayer in The Heavenly Ladder of John Climacus (Plate 5). These icons may, of course, have been permanently fixed in place. The other was to place the stands for the icons either side of the entry to the sanctuary but just inside the screen in such a way that they were visible above the panels. This was probably the case with the two icons in the Hermitage of Saint Neophytus. They are now fixed, but originally they were certainly processional icons, for they have a cross painted on the obverse side, and traces of the struts may be seen (Plates 3, 4 and 6).

There was yet another possibility. Icons could be set along the top of the baldaquin or the architrave. A number of icons which were so placed are now known. Some are at Saint Catherine's, Mount Sinai; others are at Vatopedi on Mount Athos; yet others from Mount Athos and are now in the Hermitage Museum. They were painted upon a continuous strip of panel. This suggests that already a certain systematization had taken place. The usual subjects of ex voto icons had been united in a continuous programme, which it will be our next task to consider. The best example of a sanctuary screen such as it would have appeared in a Byzantine church in the late 11th or 12th century is perhaps that at Torcello (Plates 9 and 10). All the elements are there: the low panels, the columns, the architrave and the row of icons running along the top.

[To be continued in part 3]

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