From Academic Kids

A templon (Greek Tεμπλον meaning "temple", plural templa) is a Byzantine architectural feature first appearing in Christian churches about the fifth century AD and is still found in some Eastern Christian churches. It separates the laity in the nave from the priests preparing the sacraments at the altar. It is usually composed of carved wood or marble colonnettes supporting an architrave. Three doors, a large central one and two smaller flanking ones, lead into the sanctuary. The templon did not originally obscure the laity's view, but as time passed, icons were hung from the beams, curtains were placed in between the colonnetes, and the templon became more and more opaque. It is covered with icons and can be very elaborate. The gate in the center is referred to as the Beautiful Gate and only members of the clergy may pass through it. In the Liturgical Theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church, it is understood that the beautiful gate symbolizes the womb of the Virgin Mary. There is a curtain that is drawn closed at certain times during the services especially during the preparation of communion during the Divine Liturgy. The doors on either side of the beautiful gate are called Angel Doors because the Archangels Michael and Gabriel are usually depicted there; alternatively, they are also called deacon’s doors because the deacons enter and leave through them.



The origins of the templon are curious. It most likely has an independent origin from that of Latin chancel barriers. Josef Strzygowski posits that the templon derives from classical stage architecture . He suggests that during certain times, theater heavily influenced Byzantine painting and sculpture and that ancient drama heavily influenced Orthodox liturgy. Architects then, influenced by stage backdrops dating back to Sophocles, consciously imitated the classical proskenion, copying the multiple columns punctuated by a large door in the middle and two smaller doors to each side. The statues on top of the backdrop would thus be analogous to the icons of the saints looking down . This is unlikely, however. Although classical drama was performed in Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, during the 5th and 6th century when the first templa appear, when Christian liturgy was first being developed, the plays and their architecture had lost their importance and could not have influenced Christian ritual.

A more plausible theory is that the templon models in both form and content the decorative wall of the Torah screen in Jewish synagogues of the second and third centuries . These too had three main divisions, a central door leading to the altar, and smaller flanking passages. The screen was a wall and had a distribution of parts similar to a templon. The Torah screen was probably not the direct prototype of the templon though; it probably derives from the imitation of the Torah screen in the altar of a typical Syrian pagan temple according to Kohl and Watzinger.

The name

The name templon itself is puzzling. The most obvious explanation is that the form of the templon resembles a pagan temple. The steps up to the apse are analogous to the stereobate and stylobate of the temple, the colonnettes arranged in the π shape resemble the columns that surround all four sides of a temple, the architrave looks like the architrave on a temple, and the carved disks on the architrave are analogous to the metopes on the entablature. It has also been suggested that the name templon derives not from the pagan temples but from the Christian idea of the shrine where God was worshipped.

Early templa

Archaeological evidence for an early templon comes from the Hagia Ioannes Studios in Constantinople, a basilica dedicated to John the Baptist, built in 463. The chancel barrier surrounded the altar in a π shape, with one large door facing the nave and two smaller doors on the other sides. There were 12 piers that held chancel slabs of about 1.6 meters in length. The height of the slabs is not known. The chancel barrier was not just a low parapet though. Remains of colonnettes have been found, suggesting that the barrier carried an architrave on top of the columns.

Though there is some architectural and archaeological evidence of early templa, the first and most detailed description of a templon comes from a poem by Paulus Silentiarius (Paul the Silentiary), describing Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. It was composed near the end of Justinian I’s reign and was probably recited on Epiphany, January 6th, 563 AD, celebrating the reinauguration of the church after the reconstruction of the great dome.

Hagia Sophia’s templon surrounded, according to Paulus, “such space as was reserved in the eastern arch of the great church for the bloodless sacrifices” . That is, it stretched the length of the eastern semi-dome, including the apse but excluding the exedrae. Twelve silver-covered marble columns of approximately 4.94 meters from base to capital were arranged on three sides of a rectangular ground plan around the altar . A trabeated entablature rested upon these. Three doors allowed entry to the apse, the central one larger than the other two. Though some scholars have proposed that all columns and all doors were in a single line parallel to the apse, Steven Xydis proposes that the central portal faced out to the nave while the smaller doors were each located on the other sides of the rectangular plan.

In between the columns were slabs of marble covered in silver about 1.00 to 1.10 meters in height. On them had been carved the monograms of Justinian and Theodora (6th century), even though Theodora had been dead for several years, as well as a multi-armed cross in the center. On the center of the architrave was a repoussé medallion of Christ. On either side of Him were medallions of angels, the Prophets, the Apostles, and finally the Virgin Mary. Xydis suggests that the Virgin may have had a position of honor above one of the side doors. The carvings on the architrave were deeply tied to the liturgy. Another templon roughly contemporary to Hagia Sophia’s is that of the church to St. John of Ephesus, rebuilt by Justinian as a domed crucifix. There was an inscription to St. John the Theologian over a side door since the crypt of the saint was within the enclosed sanctuary. St. John the Baptist was probably carved over the other door of the templon of Hagia Sophia, since he features prominently in liturgical writings of the church.

In any case, the majority of templa followed the same basic design. They were usually carved of monochrome marble, though some, like Hagia Sophia’s, were covered in precious metals and others used polychrome marbles. The slabs were often carved with vegetal or animal patterns and the architraves with busts of God, the Virgin, and the saints. Figurative decoration on the templon was mainly concentrated on the epistyle, initially with carved busts. This continued from the time of Justinian into the middle Byzantine period, as shown from a 10th century excavation in Sebaste in Phrygia, which uncovered a marble templon whose epistyle is covered with busts of saints. There is evidence that icons were hung from the columns of the templon prior to iconoclasm. Nicephorus I, Patriarch of Constantinople from 806 to 815 describes portable icons hung from columns and the gate of the templon in his Antirretikoi. Important portable and colossal icons were also placed in front of the templon, as in the 11th century church of Saint Panteleimon in Nerzei.


The templon gradually replaced all other forms of chancel barriers in Byzantine churches in the 6th, 7th, and 8th centuries except in Cappadocia. As late as the 10th century, a simple wooden chancel barrier separated the apse from the nave in the rock-cut churches, though by the late 11th century, the templon had become standard. This may have been because of the veneration and imitation of the Great Church Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, though the trabeated columnar form of chancel barrier does predate Hagia Sophia.

The templon began to change forms to the medieval templon with the attachment of icons and painted scenes to the architrave. Some of the best preserved of these images are from the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mt. Sinai. The late 12th century templon beam shows twelve canonical feast scenes, with the Deesis located in the middle between the Transfiguration and the Raising of Lazarus, linking the scene of Lazarus with the Holy Week images according to liturgical practice. Several epistyles of this form have been excavated throughout the empire, none earlier than the 12th century, indicating a change from busts on the architrave to scenic decoration . Weitzmann explains this new scenic style as representative of the increasing liturgification in Byzantine representational art.

During most of the Middle Byzantine period, the space between the colonnettes was not filled with icons but with curtains. Nicholaos Andidorum describes in his Protheoria “the shutting of the doors and the closing of the curtain over them”. The most widespread image on the medieval templon seems to have been the Deesis. Epstein suggests its popularity arose from not only its simplicity and elegance, suggesting the efficacy of prayer and the threat of the Last Judgment, but also because it could be easily adapted to the patron’s tastes with the addition of secondary scenes and characters, as in the Monastery at St. Catherine’s where scenes from the life of St Eustratios appear on either side of the Deesis on a templon beam. Proskynetaria also played a major part in the decoration of the medieval templon, either as monumental images placed on the piers flanking the templon or as portable images in front of the screen. Proskynetaria of both these types still exist in Cyprus, from Lagoudera, now in the Archbishop’s Palace in Nicosia, and in St Neophytos.

The most hotly-debated aspect of the medieval templon is the presence of intercolumnar icons. According to Chatzidakis, the transition to medieval templon was not complete until icons and proskynetaria were placed in the intercolumnar openings as early as the 11th century ; Weitzman claims there were none until the thirteenth century. Epstein even suggests that intercolumnar icons had no place on the medieval templon until well into the 14th century. The figural decoration thus remained concentrated on the epistyle and not on the columnar area of the templon.

After the reconquest in 1261, carving on the medieval templon approached sculpture in the round. From this period, the first wood-carved templa, or iconostases, were produced. They for most part had a fixed program of icon decoration with three levels: the Local, the Deesis, and the Festival tiers. The iconostasis became standard in the 15th century, possibly because the Orthodox clergy wanted to distinguish themselves from the Latin clergy as much as possible after the failure of the Council of Florence in 1438. However, Epstein suggests the iconostasis owes more to 14th century Hesychast mysticism and the wood-carving genius of the Russians than anything else; the first ceiling-high, five-leveled Russian iconostasis was designed by Andrey Rublyov in the cathedral of the Dormition in Vladimir in 1408.


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