Thursday, April 19, 2012

Eastern Churches Review: On the Origins of the Iconostasis (Part 3 of 4)

We originally reprinted the first and second part of this Eastern Churches Review article back in August, and I have always intended to publish the rest of it.

Here then is part 3 of 4, reprinted with the kind permission by the copyright holders, the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius. NLM is grateful to them for this.

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The Origins of the Iconostasis [continued]

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

The Iconography of the Iconostasis

The screen not only acted as a physical barrier between the clergy and the laity. It was also an ideological frontier. Within the sanctuary reigned official conceptions of doctrine and worship. Outside were the faithful who, while ready to listen to official doctrine and participate in official worship, retained, perhaps, a preference for their private devotions and beliefs. We have, therefore, not only to interpret correctly the pictures displayed on the screen but also to determine how far the liturgical notions expressed in them were modified by the clergy capitulating to the devotional preferences of the laity.

As far as official doctrine was concerned it would seem that the screen was at first decorated with subjects which were usual in the apse. In the period before iconoclasm Christ was conceived as the Emperor of Heaven, surrounded by his court. The courtiers were the angels and those who had acknowledged his divinity as the Word made Flesh: the Virgin, John the Baptist and the Apostles. To these could be added the prophets who had foreseen his coming and sometimes those who had seen him in a vision after his resurrection. Portraits of these 'visionaries' in medallions appear at the entrance to the apse of San Vitale in Ravenna and around the mosaic of the Transfiguration at Saint Catherine's, Mount Sinai.

It is with these mosaic programmes that I would associate the medallions which decorated the screen in Saint Sophia. It would be quite wrong, to my mind, to see here a Deesis. The Deesis, one of the most widespread themes in later Byzantine art, is composed of the Virgin and John the Baptist interceding for mankind before Christ. It appears also in an expanded form, known as the Great Deesis, incorporating other saints. But in the period before Iconoclasm the Virgin and John the Baptist are not represented as interceding for mankind; they are witnesses of Christ's divinity. They continue to appear as such after the Triumph of Orthodoxy, for example in a chapel in Hagia Sophia where they are represented together with other 'visionaries' like Constantine and the ieonodule patriarchs, who had recognized that an icon of Christ was, as Theodore the Studite put it, the image of the hypostasis of the Incarnate Word.

The intercessory role of the saints had been called in question by the iconoclast Emperor Constantine V Copronymus. It was explicitly stated to be part of the doctrine of the Church at the second Council of Nicaea. Monastic writers encouraged devotion to the saints, stressing particularly the supreme mediatory role of the Virgin. The Virgin was, in fact, given the title of Paraklesis—advocate, and represented as such upon icons, inclining her head and stretching out her arms. The earliest surviving representation of the Virgin in this position is probably in the mosaic over the main door leading from the narthex into Hagia Sophia. It dates from the reign of Emperor Leo VI (886-912), who is himself prostrate at the feet of Christ in the same mosaic. John the Baptist is not represented the other side but an angel courtier. Christ himself appears as Emperor and Pantocrator. Christ's role as governor of the universe was another doctrine which was very much in vogue in the decades following the Triumph of Orthodoxy.

Icons of Christ Pantocrator are extremely numerous. They must have been often coupled with icons of the Virgin Paraklesis, although few of these have survived. However two which evidently have always belonged together are still in the Hermitage of Saint Neophytus in Cyprus (Plates 3 and 4). Other evidence may be cited in support of the view that these icons, symbolizing the principal themes of orthodox doctrine, were the object of widespread devotion. Saint Stephen the Younger, one of the principal iconodule martyrs, is often represented holding a double icon of Christ Pantocrator and the Virgin Paraklesis; one example is in the Theodore Psalter in the British Museum, illustrated in 1066. Further in a picture of the second Council of Nicaea in the Metropolis at Mistra in Greece the emperor, empress and council fathers are represented venerating the same double icon.

We have an example here of devotion, albeit a devotion which was profoundly doctrinal, influencing the decorative programme of the sanctuary. The Pantocrator and the Virgin Paraklesis seem to have regularly figured there. Either they were portable icons or they were painted in fresco on the pillars either side of the choir screen, as at Qeledjlar in Cappadocia or at Lagoudera in Cyprus. A third possibility, as we have already seen, was to fix them to the roof of the baldaquin. An example of the Pantocrator and the Paraklesis flanked by angels and placed in front of the roof of the baldaquin is to be found in the Madrid Skyllitzes, to which I have already referred. The miniature is in bad condition, but I can vouch for the accuracy of the drawing, having examined the manuscript myself in August 1970.

The incident in question concerns the iconoclast Patriarch John the Grammarian who was exiled at the beginning of the reign of the Emperor Michael III (842-867) to a monastery. John Skyllitzes based his account of Michael III's reign largely upon that of the chronicler known as Theophanes Continuatus. According to the latter John the Grammarian saw upon the roof a picture which seemed to be looking at him. Unable to bear the idea of being observed by a picture, he ordered his servant to put its eyes out. The point of the story is double. First it is evidence of the iconoclast's lack of respect for icons; secondly it betrays him as aware in spite of himself of the 'presence' of the prototype in the representation.

John Skyllitzes tells the story with embellishments. He specifies that there were several pictures portraying Christ, the Virgin and the angels. John the Grammarian, according to him, ordered a deacon to climb up and put out the eyes of these venerable images, saying that they lacked the faculty of sight. The Empress Theodora, Michael Ill's mother and a fanatical iconodule, retorted by having John the Grammarian deprived of the same faculty.

In the Madrid manuscript we see a construction which is presumably a baldaquin with the icons set in arcades in a continuous row. It is thus that the icons appear which once ran along the top of the architrave of sanctuary screens at Saint Catherine's, Mount Sinai, Vatopedi on Mount Athos and the Hermitage in Leningrad. In none of these groups of icons do we find the Paraklesis and the Pantocrator. The Deesis has taken their place. Here again we have, perhaps, a sign of popular devotion influencing an official programme, for the Deesis seems to have first figured as a devotional theme before being incorporated into the scene of the Last Judgment in the late 11th century.

The icons which survive from 11th- and 12th-century sanctuary screens have only a limited range of subjects. Those in Leningrad show the Apostle Philip with Saints Demetrius and Theodore and two of the Great Feasts. The saints and the feasts are not from the same screen. Those in the monastery of Vatopedi show Christ flanked by the Virgin, John the Baptist and other saints; in medallions between the arches are angels. At the extremities are two scenes from the Childhood of the Virgin and six of the Great Feasts. Part of this long panel (originally it would have been about fifteen feet from one end to the other) is lost. The Mount Sinai icons also show the Deesis and saints together with the Great Feasts. But in one case the Deesis is flanked with scenes from the Life of Saint Eustratius.

To these should be added the series of six Great Feasts richly decorated with jewels and now incorporated into the Pala d'Oro in Saint Mark's, Venice. These enamels, some of the finest Constantinopolitan work of the 12th century, were brought to Saint Mark's as booty by the Venetians after the Sack of Constantinople. Two hundred years later, on the occasion of the Council of Florence, John Syropoulos saw the enamels in Saint Mark's; he maintained that originally they were in the Pantocrator, the monastery of the Comneni in Constantinople. They would have no doubt been mounted on the screen of one of the three churches built there by Emperor John II Comnenus (1118-1143) and his wife Irene.

To the subjects which should be connected with the sanctuary screen I should add the Annunciation, often represented on the doors. This is a subject which belongs to the sanctuary, often being represented to left and right of the triumphal arch before the apse. The other subjects, however, the great Deesis and the Great Feasts, do not belong particularly to the sanctuary. How did they find their way to the sanctuary screen? They were certainly portrayed on icons which were the object of private or public devotion. The icon of a Great Feast, known as the icon of the proskynesis, would be displayed upon a stand, as we have seen, and Venerated on the occasion of the feast in question. I should suggest that in assembling icons which were the object of devotion in a coherent programme and mounting them on the screen liturgists were attempting to integrate private devotion into the public worship of the Church. The connection between the Great Feasts and the liturgical calendar does not need to be laboured, while the icons of saints would correspond to the invocations in the Litanies used during the Eucharist. Consequently we find the programmes of the sanctuary screen being brought back again into relationship with the sanctuary, for it was at precisely the same period that new programmes were being developed for decorating the apse, which related the Eucharist to the Communion of the Apostles and the Celestial Liturgy and associated in this common worship the canonized bishops of the Byzantine church.

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