Iconostasis: Barrier or Revelation?

Mount Sinai, Mount Tabor, and the Holy Altar each form the summit of a progressive ascent, we could say: a hierarchy. Hierarchy is the ladder by which the lower is uplifted by the higher. Hierarchy is the mountain upon which we experience true theology: the vision of God. Thus, the unfortunate result of liturgical democracy is theological obscurity. Yet, since its earliest history, the Christian community has withstood many voices, which have protested against the Church’s established hierarchy and the necessity of Her sacramental mediation. In recent times, a renewed conviction has grown that any appearance of a mediating hierarchy invariably forms an alienating barrier for the laity. Ornately vested priests, whispering prayers behind closed doors and a fortress-like icon screen can make this impression completely understandable. This paper seeks to address this pertinent concern through the lens of the Corpus Dionysium, applying Dionysius’ concept of hierarchy specifically to the architectural fixture of the iconostasis. It argues that, rather than forming an obscuring barrier, the iconostasis acts as a veil through which the unknowable can be known and the unperceivable, perceived.

From Martin Luther’s 95 Thesis to Carl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, our modern age has been marked by an ever-increasing distaste for hierarchy. Modern Christianity has not been immune to the spirit of our times. Karl Barth, one of the 20th century’s most influential theologians, expressed an unmistakably democratic view of the Christian assembly in an article published in the German Journal Werk, in 1959. He writes, “Neither the ministry of the Word nor the celebration of the sacraments is the prerogative of the clergy. They both belong to the community.” To reflect this conviction, Barth envisioned an architectural space that was markedly un-hierarchal. He proscribes, “The communion table should not be an altar placed in front of the congregation, but a real table around which the community joins together.” Barth’s conception of the Eucharist as a concelebration of the entire Christian assembly was expanded in Andre Bieler’s volume, Architecture in Worship. In this work, Bieler suggests a circular meeting space, thereby emphasizing the full participation of everyone present around a common table, for a common meal. This architectural reorientation, radically opposed to all concepts of hierarchy was highly influential in church architecture of Europe and the United States, especially during the 1960’s and 70’s, at the height of the liturgical reform movement.


The architectural hierarchy of an Orthodox temple runs quite against the grain of this modern sentiment. Entering through its outer doors, one enters the narthex, a space for many centuries occupied by catechumens and penitents. Passing through another series of doors, perhaps with its own curtain or veil, one enters the main sanctuary, the nave. Here the faithful, the laity, the readers, and the monastics stand to worship. At the front, built upon a raised platform and gained by a series of steps is the upper sanctuary or the holy of holies. This area was originally guarded by a chancel or low screen but is now almost entirely hidden by a solid wall of icons. Behind the iconostasis and through yet another set of doors is the holy altar and behind it is the high place, the seat of the presiding hierarch or bishop. In all, we can observe three distinct levels in the architectural hierarchy of the Orthodox temple. Each level is divided by a barrier and a door and is reserved for a distinct group of worshippers. Rather than a model of liturgical concelebration around the altar, there is a clear image of liturgical ascent to the altar.

Each architectural model reveals a distinct understanding of the Eucharistic assembly. If the modern model suggests the image of a common meal, what does the Orthodox model suggest or reveal about its purpose and evolution? Critics would suggest that the hierarchal structure of today’s Orthodox temple—and specifically the iconostasis—manifests a gradual shift from the early Church’s experience of the Liturgy as the “Eucharist of the Assembly” to a vision of the Liturgy as a rite of mystery and a cult of priests. Based upon extant archeological, pictorial, and textual evidence, it appears that for the first twelve-hundred years of Christianity, the laity had a largely unobstructed view of the altar area. The iconostasis—as a visual barrier—first appeared in Russia, only in the 14th century. The rood screen or choir screen emerged in the West at about the same time. Before then only a low wall or series of pillars—known as the templon—created a line of demarcation between the nave and the sanctuary, but in no wise obstructed the view of laity.


Those seeking to prove that the contemporary iconostasis, which can measure anywhere from eight to a twenty-four feet high, was not fundamentally different from the templon, do not readily disclose that the ancient sanctuary barriers rarely measured more than three or four feet high and were largely transparent. Robert Taft argues that the byzantine templon existed for no other purpose than to keep the crowds flocking to the Liturgy—after the legalization of Christianity—from impeding the liturgical movements of the celebrants. Elizabeth Bolman, in her article “Veiling Sanctity in Christian Egypt,” reviews evidence for sanctuary barriers in recently excavated Egyptian churches. Indeed, many show signs of having a templon screen or wall, though these typically measure only 1 to 1.2 metres high.

Some churches show no evidence of having such a barrier at all. Not until the late sixth or eighth centuries is there any sign of a higher, opaque screen that would have limited visibility. Thomas Matthews, in his book Early Churches of Constantinople, argues convincingly that in the churches of the Great City, not even a curtain was hung about the sanctuary enclosure until well into the second millennium. What then was the cause of such a radical departure from the time-honored visual participation of the laity in the “Eucharist of the Assembly?” What billowing wave buffeted the ecclesial ship, causing her to shift from a position of balance and equality, to one of pitched hierarchy?


George Fedotov, in his study The Russian Religious Mind, sees the appearance of the iconostasis in 14th century Russia as directly related to a loss of Eucharistic consciousness among the laity. He relates, “Closing of [the royal doors] doors creates a high wall which separates the Holy of Holies from the place of prayer for the laity and emphasizes the dreadful ominousness of the mysteries. But what are these mysteries? Of course, the Holy Eucharist, the core of the Christian Liturgy, the core of the church life. And yet, the creation of the iconostasis veiled the mystery so deeply that for many it ceased to be understood or even perceived.” Fedotov posits his argument on the supposed infrequency of lay participation in the Eucharist, concluding that such must be directly related to the visual barrier of the iconostasis.


Maria Cheremeteff, in her article “The Transformation of the Russian Sanctuary Barrier and the Role of Theophanes the Greek” suggests that the influx of hesychastic teachings bore direct influence on the evolution of the chancel into a high barrier. She writes, “By favoring contemplation and veneration of icons, hesychasm reaffirmed the effectiveness of icons in prayer and their usefulness for the exposition of the liturgy to the faithful. The monastic tendency to hide the mystery of the Eucharist from the faithful obliged them to visualize the liturgical symbolism of icons and their arrangement on the iconostasis.”

In other words, the hesychasts allegedly replaced the Body and Blood with icons, active participation with prayerful contemplation, and left the Mystery of the Eucharist behind closed doors and an impenetrable iconostasis.

However, any attempt to argue that a fundamental change in orientation occurred within the Church, fails to take into account the overwhelming continuity of her liturgical vision. Fedotov and Cheremeteff—among others—attribute the rise of the iconostasis to a decline in Eucharistic consciousness in the wake of the hesychast movement. But this assumption is not supported by several hesychast documents, written concurrently with the development of the iconostasis and which strongly encourage Eucharistic participation. Kallistos and Ignatius of Xanthopoulos, writing in their Directions to Hesychasts, “The greatest help and assistance in purification of the soul, illumination of the mind, sanctification of the body and a Divine transformation of the two . . . is frequent communion in the holy, pure, immortal and life-giving


Documentary evidence suggests that St. Symeon of Thessalonika spent considerable time under the direction of Sts. Kallistos and Ignatius, and was a direct inheritor of the hesychastic tradition of these elders, in addition to being a great admirer of St. Gregory Palamas. Thus, it is significant that in St. Symeon’s Liturgical Commentaries, he seems to take for granted that all those present at the Liturgy would participate in the Eucharist. He writes, “For each partakes of the mysteries according to his own rank. For the Lord, being righteous and direct, provides Himself to us all in righteousness.” Symeon, at the same time, clearly perceives a hierarchy and division, in both the ranks of the faithful and in the church building. He envisions, “The narthex being the earth, the nave heaven, and the most holy sanctuary that which is above the heavens.” Symeon sees the sanctuary curtain and templon screen as an image of “the heavenly tabernacle around God, where the hosts of angels and the repose of the saints are.” He adds, “By means of the [templon] screen, or the pillars, it represents the difference between sensible and spiritual realities.”


Thus, any attempt to link the appearance of iconostasis with a loss of Eucharistic consciousness in the wake of the hesychast movement is simply not supported. Symeon displays no surprise at the appearance of a screen and sanctuary curtain, nor fear that such a visual barrier would impede the full participation of the laity in the Eucharist. If there was such a radical shift in orientation—as some scholars would have us believe—we may ask why this shift went virtually unnoticed? In Symeon, there is nothing novel. There is instead a striking continuity of thought that links him—and the entire hesychast movement—with the liturgical vision of Church since her genesis. That vision has always embraced both the understanding of the Church as the living Body of Christ, where there is no division but the fullest measure of participation available to all, and the conviction that this participation occurs only when all things are done “in order,” and according to a divinely revealed hierarchy.

This vision is most eloquently, though sometimes elusively, described in the Corpus Dionysium. No other work stands as a greater influence to the liturgical vision of subsequent writers, both in the Orthodox East and the Roman Catholic West. Symeon and the great defender of hesychasm, St. Gregory Palamas, show a close reliance and thorough adoption of the Corpus Dionysium, as did St. Maximos nearly a millennium earlier in his commentary on the Liturgy and the architecture of the temple. It is only by gaining a greater appreciation of the CD, that we can begin to comprehend how the iconostasis is an appropriate expression of the Church’s unchanging liturgical vision. Our next article will explore the understanding of Hierarchy in the writings of the elusive and enigmatic figure of Dionysius the Areopagite.

For Further Reading:

Jacqueline Jung, “The Gothic Choir Enclosure as Frame,” in Thresholds of the Sacred. Dumbarton Oaks, 2007.

Karl Barth, Werk No. 8, 1959 in A. Bieler Architecture in Worship, Oliver & Boyd, 1965.

Pavel Florensky’s Iconostasis, SVS Press, 1996.

Robert Taft, “Decline of Communion in Byzantium and the Distancing of the Congregation from Liturgical Action: Cause, Effect, or Neither?”, in Thresholds of the Sacred.

E. Bolman, “Veiling Sanctity in Christian Egypt: Visual and Spatial Solutions, in Thresholds of the Sacred.

T.F. Matthews, Early Churches of Constantinople: Architecture and Liturgy, State College: University of Pennsylvania, 1971.

George Fedotov, The Russian Religious Mind, Vol. IV. Nordland. 1975.

Maria Cheremeteff, “The Transformation of the Russian Sanctuary Barrier and the Role of Theophanes the Greek,” in The Millennium: Christianity and Russia: 988-1988, SVS, 1997.

Robert M. Arida, “Another Look at the Solid Iconostasis in the Russian Orthodox Church.” SVTQ 52:3-4 (2008).

Kallistos and Ignatius of Xanthopoulos, “Directions to Hesychasts, in a Hundred Chapters,” in Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart. Faber & Faber, 1951.

Steven Hawkes-Teeples, St. Symeon of Thessalonika: The Liturgical Commentaries, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2011.


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