Tuesday, April 24, 2012

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

We now conclude our reprint of the article, "On the Origins of the Iconostasis" published in Eastern Churches Review, 1971.

(See here for the first, second and third parts -- published with the permission by the copyright holders, the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius.)

Comment: As you shall see below, the concluding statements of the author contains some rather debatable points, but we present it, as is only proper, for the sake of completing the article. Evidently as well, we must remember the particular time and climate in which these statements were written. In our own time, while we might well see some healthful consequences to some of the liturgical initiatives of the 20th century which the author refers, we are also quite likely to point out some other not so healthful consequences coming from the same period.

* * *

The Origins of the Iconostasis [continued]

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


We are thus back where we started. The text which I quoted from Bishop Symeon's mystagogical commentary describes the Byzantine sanctuary screen just at the time when it was about to be transformed into the classical iconostasis. The earlier elements would remain. Two icons, the Pantocrator and the Hodegetria or Eleousa replacing the Paraklesis, would continue to be particularly venerated. They were fixed to right and left of the door to the sanctuary. The Deesis and the Great Feasts also remain, but incorporated into a more far-reaching programme embracing the whole divine dispensation. The icons, particularly those executed in Russia, would rapidly grow in size. The Deesis attributed to Andrei Rublev which forms part of the choir screen at Zvenigrad is over three feet high.

Multiplication of themes, increase of size, and perhaps also the impulse of Hesychast piety, which favoured the contemplation and veneration of icons, partly explain these later developments. I do not propose to go into them here but rather to pause in order to ask a question which seems to me to be of ecumenical significance. Is it not the case that in both East and West a progressive separation occurred between clergy and laity, particularly in liturgical celebrations, which is not a reflection of Christ's teaching nor of the Apostles' practice? This separation, now of long standing, did not, of course, come about in the same way in East and West. Practically speaking, however, the result in both cases was that the Eucharist became the preserve of the clergy in their sanctuary, while the laity, unworthy creatures, were kept at a distance. Their way of seeking communion with Christ was rarely by participation at the Eucharistic meal. They performed private devotions, and meditated upon the truths of faith which these devotions set forth.

It must be added that during long centuries, in the Roman and Byzantine rites at least, the laity did not particularly resent this separation. However in the West there has been a reaction, abetted by the clergy themselves, which reached considerable momentum at the time of the Second Vatican Council. I do not know whether there has been a similar reaction among Christians of the Eastern rites. If so, I hope, having observed the healthful consequences of renewal in the West, that it will also gain in momentum. Once this momentum is gained it will necessarily sweep away the classical iconostasis. This was, as I hope I have made clear in the course of this short essay, a late development in Byzantine tradition.

Presenting the faithful with a sensible representation of the divine plan, it has the disadvantage of hiding from them the intelligible mystery which is the Eucharistic celebration itself. No doubt there will always be devout Eastern Christians who would rather venerate an icon than participate actively in the Eucharist, just as there will always be devout Roman Catholics who would rather tell their beads. They will not easily accept the removal of the iconostasis from its place before the sanctuary, where it has become, falsely, the focal point of the Byzantine church, and the less easily since it is something of great spiritual beauty. However there is no room for doubt. The iconostasis bars the way towards the intelligible mystery, towards the Incarnate Logos, in whom all mankind—clergy and layfolk from East and West—will ultimately be One.


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