Friday, August 19, 2011

Eastern Churches Review: The Origins of the Iconostasis

Awhile ago, I came across this article in Eastern Churches Review (vol. Ill, No. 3. 1971) and I thought it would be of interest to reprint here. Due to the length of the article I am going to separate the article into two. For the sake of expediency, I would also note that I have not reproduced the footnotes. The original Greek references have also been transliterated into Latin script.

This article is reprinted with the kind permission by the copyright holders, the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius. NLM is grateful to them for this. (Readers may also like to know that you can purchase and download scanned editions of Eastern Churches Review for a very reasonable price off their website -- including this particular article.)

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The Origins of the Iconostasis

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

THE LAST DECADES of the disintegrating Byzantine Empire were, culturally and spiritually speaking, far from being its least glorious. Among the great names of that epoch Bishop Symeon of Thessalonika has a place by reason of his liturgical commentaries. Appointed bishop sometime between 1410 and 1420, he died in September 1429, six months before the Turkish army led by Murad II conquered the city. We are concerned here with his mystagogical commentary on the Sacred Temple and particularly with what he had to say about the screen which separated the sanctuary from the nave:

The chancel signifies the distinction between the sensible and the intelligible; it is, as it were, a firm barrier between material and spiritual things. Being in sight of the altar, that is of Christ, its columns are those of the Church itself, signifying those who strengthen us by their witness to Christ. Above the chancel the columns are joined by an unbroken decorated architrave signifying the bond of charity, which is the communion in Christ between earthly saints and heavenly beings. This is why a picture of the Saviour is placed here in the middle of the sacred images. His Mother and the Baptist are on either side of him with angels and archangels, the apostles and the rest of the saints. This signifies Christ in heaven with his saints, Christ as he is with us now and Christ who will come again.

In the West we are accustomed to call this screen which is such a distinctive feature of churches of the Byzantine rite an iconostasis. Bishop Symeon would hardly have understood the word in this sense. Its significance for him can be realized by reading a passage in an imperial Book of Ceremonies composed in the 14th century. According to this the emperor remained in his apartments on 24 December, the Vigil of the Nativity, instead of going out as was his usual custom. Towards the end of the morning an [eikonostasion] was set up there, upon which were displayed icons of the Nativity with one or two others. There followed a ceremony of veneration. An [eikonostasion] was therefore quite literally an icon-stand upon which an icon to be venerated was displayed. We may see the equivalent today in any church of the Byzantine rite.

Strictly, therefore, it is wrong to call the screen separating the sanctuary from the nave in a Byzantine church by the name of iconostasis. The term is rejected in the most recent Greek encyclopedia, which prefers the word [templon]. The confusion in words, like several others in Eastern religious terminology, is probably to be attributed to the Russians. They, in fact, accept responsibility not only for the word but also for the object. The erudite Russian icon-painter, L. Uspensky, says that the iconostasis acquired its classical form in the 16th century, when it became one of the most important parts of the Orthodox church. From Russia it passed to Mount Athos, and from there during the Turkish invasion it spread to Greece and the Balkans.

The iconostasis in its classical form is a high screen completely obscuring the sanctuary from the congregation in the nave. It is decorated with icons permanently fixed in place. These, set out in five rows, reveal the divine dispensation. In the topmost row are the patriarchs with the prophets below them. Underneath the prophets are the festival icons and below these is the great Deesis, where the Virgin, the Baptist and other saints turn towards Christ the Judge to intercede for mankind. On the doors are represented the Annunciation, and either side are two icons usually of the Pantocrator and of the Virgin and Child. A number of variants are possible according to the elaborateness of the iconostasis and local custom.

I do not propose to go into the question whether the iconostasis in its classical form originated in Russia. This theory, difficult of proof or disproof, is glibly handed on from one generation of scholars to the next. The iconostasis certainly took on a particularly elaborate form in Russia, but, as L. Uspensky says, it was the result of a gradual development. The history of this development has been studied in detail by specialists, but their articles are sometimes difficult of access to other specialists, let alone to the ordinary reader. What I propose to do here, therefore, is to give a brief general account of the origins and development of the iconostasis, indicating as I go along where a more detailed study of each aspect may be found. I start by a consideration of the iconostasis as part of the architectural structure of the church of the Byzantine rite. Then I pass to the physical relationship of icons to the iconostasis, finishing up with a consideration of the iconography of the iconostasis.

The Iconostasis as Part of the Architectural Structure of the Church

In any large public building some kind of barrier is necessary in order to separate the crowd of ordinary people from official dignitaries. The most efficient barrier is about waist-high. It is used successfully today in Saint Peter's for papal ceremonies, keeping all but the most intrepid in their place without obscuring their view. Such barriers were used in antiquity to protect the emperor from the crowd on public occasions. They may be seen on the bas-relief of the base of the column of Theodosius, which still stands in the middle of the Hippodrome at Constantinople. The emperor is seated with his two sons and his nephew in the imperial box; to either side of him are courtiers. In the foreground are kneeling captives presenting the emperor with gifts. Between them and the imperial box is a low reticulated barrier (Plate 1).

An equivalent disposition in a church may be found in Eusebius's description of the basilica of Tyre, built in the 4th century. In this church, he tells us, were placed very high thrones to honour those who presided. Benches were also placed there in rows for the inferior clergy and in the middle was the holy altar. In order that this should remain inaccessible to the multitude it was surrounded with barriers in reticulated wood. They were delicately carved all the way up, offering to the spectator an admirable sight.

Eusebius's description is confirmed by the findings of archaeology. The low panels separating the clergy from the laity are a regular feature of the early Christian church whatever the shape of the sanctuary. The panels might be placed between the last columns of the nave, so separating it from the body of the church. Alternatively the sanctuary might be an independent structure projecting into the body of the church. This disposition was invariable when the church had transepts and customary in any large basilica. Each panel would be separated from its neighbour by a low pillar. On the western side of the sanctuary facing the congregation there might be a triumphal arch crowning the entry. There could be a series of higher columns carrying an architrave running along the front and possibly along the sides of the sanctuary.

For the simple kind of sanctuary without columns two examples may be cited from Roman churches. That which probably more closely resembles the primitive disposition is in Santa Sabina on the Aventine. But the one in San Clemente, for all its elaborateness, recalls faithfully enough both the disposition and the purpose of the primitive jutting sanctuary closed in by panels. It seems more than likely that the sanctuary at Saint Peter's was surrounded by the kind of barrier which was surmounted by an architrave. A good case has been made out for supposing this to be represented on an ivory reliquary from Pola in Istria. The coffer is somewhat damaged (Plate 2). However, the low barrier can just be distinguished below the twisted columns carrying an architrave. Even if this is not a representation of the sanctuary in Saint Peter's, it does give us a faithful idea of how such a sanctuary would have appeared. Arched architraves above the entrance to the sanctuary are also known in the West, for example in the chapel of San Prosdocimo at Padua and in the chapel of Santa Maria Mater Domini at Vicenza.

Evidence for Constantinople is less abundant. We have, however, an example of a jutting sanctuary represented in a miniature illustrating the 9th-century manuscript of Saint Gregory Nazianzus' Homilies in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. Here the panels are supported by low square pillars; there are no columns nor architrave. The miniature is quite possibly a copy of a pre-Iconoclast original, for it seems that this kind of sanctuary went out of fashion after the Triumph of Orthodoxy.

There was also a jutting sanctuary in the Great Church of Hagia Sophia. Many attempts have been to reconstruct its imposing screen. The principal evidence is a highly rhetorical descriptive poem by Paul the Silentiary. Unfortunately in composing it he did not have future archaeologists in mind, any more than the pilgrims did who have left us an account of their visit to Constantinople. Pilgrims were more intent to venerate icons or relics and to be present at the liturgy than to examine minutely the structure of the choir screen. All that Anthony of Novgorod tells us, for example, is that the doors of the sanctuary were left open when Mattins were sung.

However, it is clear from Paul the Silentiary's poem that there was an architrave at least across the front of the sanctuary. It was wide enough to admit of a lamplighter passing along it in order to have access to the candelabra which stood upon it. Twice six silver columns supported the architrave. Why twice six? My guess would be because the columns were doubled, probably in depth. This is not, in fact, a mere guess. Columns supporting a low panel are doubled in depth in the tribunes of Hagia Sophia. Further, by being doubled, they would allow for what was evidently a wide architrave. These columns survived, it seems, until the arrival of the Latins in 1204. Then early one morning, so the Chronicler of Novgorod tells us, they broke down the doors, entered the sanctuary and destroyed the twelve silver columns.

It might be as well to dispose at once of a quite gratuitous hypothesis to the effect that this 6th-century choir screen in Hagia Sophia resembled the classical iconostasis. A German scholar, K. Holl, at the beginning of the century advanced this hypothesis, comparing the choir screen with the antique proscenium. Although a number of scholars have called Holl's hypothesis in question by pointing out that there is no archaeological evidence that any sanctuary in the 6th century was completely obscured from the nave, it is still sometimes repeated as if it were acceptable.

In fact a positive piece of evidence shows that the choir screen in Hagia Sophia conformed in the 9th century to the pattern which was normal at the time when it was built. This is to be found in another Book of Ceremonies which was drawn up by Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus. In the first chapter he describes the protocol to be observed when the emperor took part in a ceremony in the Great Church. When the emperor and the patriarch exchanged the kiss of peace, the patriarch took up position on the right hand side of the sanctuary inside the screen. The emperor then came forward to meet the patriarch but gave him the kiss of peace from outside the screen. This would obviously have been impossible if there had been a high screen between the sanctuary and the nave. Later the panels of the screen came to be known as [stēthia], from [stēthos] meaning chest. The obvious inference is that the low panels inherited from antiquity remained in use as the most practical means of separating the sanctuary from the nave.

They continued to be used in this way in the middle period of Byzantine architecture (864-1204). The sanctuary no longer jutted into the nave. It was contained in the central apse at the eastern end of the church and connected with the side apses to north and south which came to be known as the prothesis and the diakonikon. An example of this kind of low screen with doors in the centre may be seen in the illuminated chronicle of Skyllitzes now in the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid. The event illustrated is the attempted assassination of the Emperor Leo VI (886-912) in the church of Saint Mokios. To the left stands a group of courtiers behind a crude representation of an ambo; to the right the patriarch with other bishops is celebrating the liturgy. The emperor stands behind him within the sanctuary. In front of them runs a low barrier with two higher doors in the middle. This miniature is probably a copy made in Sicily of an 11th-century original. A similar screen may be seen represented in the mosaic of Christ giving communion to the Apostles in the church of Saint Michael in Kiev. This church was founded in 1108, and the mosaics date from 1111-1112. Perhaps, however, the best pictorial example occurs in the Menologion of Basil II, in the miniature which illustrates the Commemoration of Saint Peter in Chains. This dates from about the year 1000. We see here all the elements of the sanctuary: the benches for the clergy, the low panels separated by pillars, the gates and also the baldaquin (Plate 7). Although the baldaquin is not part of the screen, it has a certain relevance to the subject which I am treating, as I shall show shortly.

The monumental examples of the screen which have survived usually include an architrave mounted on columns running directly across the front of the apse. Sometimes this stone construction still remains in place although hidden by a classical iconostasis added later. Such is the case in the catholicon of many Athonite monasteries. In 1930 the two French Byzantinists Louis Brehier and Gabriel Millet were able during the course of a visit to the Holy Mountain to penetrate behind the iconostasis and to observe the remains of the earlier choir screen. Brehier notes particularly those at Iviron and at Xenophon. Remains of others survive in the parecclesion of Saint Nicolas at Vatopedi and in the Protaton at Karyes. Brehier concludes that at the time of their foundation the older Athonite monasteries all had this same kind of screen in the catholicon.

Examples may be multiplied from other churches. The most imposing is perhaps that in the church of Hosios Loukas in Greece. The ikons now fixed in place do not belong to the original construction. Other good examples are those of Staro Nagoricino and Nerezi in Macedonia. I note also the choir screen in the Hermitage of Saint Neophytos in Cyprus. Again the aspect has been falsified by fixing two icons into the apertures above the panels to left and right of the doors. However in this humble sanctuary there remain the original elements dating back to its construction in the 12th century (Plate 6). This sanctuary has a special interest by reason of its two icons, as I shall also show shortly.

We have, then, a fairly exact idea of the structure of a sanctuary screen in Byzantine churches in the 11th century: low panels running across the apse, surmounted by columns carrying an architrave. It was not normal for a permanent screen to obscure the sanctuary entirely from the view of the congregation. Only one case of such a construction is known to me. It occurs in a church in Cappadocia. Even here the masonry screen is pierced by apertures; moreover this may have been a later addition. However, curtains certainly hung from the architrave running above the panels. These could be drawn when the members of the clergy wished to be hidden from the eyes of the laity.

[To be continued in a second post]

Copyright the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius. Reprinted with permission.

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