Iconostasis

From Academic Kids

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Iconostasis_in_Yaroslavl.png
Iconostasis of Prophet Elias church, Yaroslavl. The Beautiful Gates are in the center.

In Eastern Christianity an iconostasis (the plural is iconostases, whose last syllable rhymes with ease) is a wall of icons, religious paintings, separating the nave from the sanctuary in a church. Iconostasis also refers to a portable icon stand that can be placed anywhere within a church. The modern iconostasis evolved from the Byzantine templon in the fifteenth century.

In these settings, the nave is the main space where most of the worshippers stand, and the sanctuary is the area around the altar, east of the nave. It is rarely ceiling-high and in small churches it may be completely absent: in such cases it is replaced by a few small icons on stands, forming a virtual divide. The iconostasis typically has three openings or sets of doors; the Beautiful Gates or Holy Doors in the center, and the North and South Doors at or near either end of the iconostasis. The Beautiful Gates are sometimes called the Royal Doors, but that name more properly belongs to the central doors connecting the narthex, or porch, and the nave. They remain shut whenever a service is not being held. Modern custom as to when they should be opened during services is varied. In some places they are nearly always open and are closed only at specific times; in others they are nearly always shut and are opened only at specific times.

The North and South Doors are often called "deacons' doors" because the deacons use them frequently; often, icons of sainted deacons are depicted on these doors (particularly St. Stephen Protomartyr and St. Ephrem the Syrian). Alternatively, Angels' doors is also an appropriate term since the Archangels Michael and Gabriel are often depicted there. They are often casually referred to as the "side doors".

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Iconostasis in the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary in Smolensk

A number of guidelines or rubrics govern which icons are on which parts of the iconostasis, although there is some room for variation. In its fullest Slavic development it comprised five tiers of icons.

The bottom tier is sometimes called Sovereign. On the right side of the Beautiful Gates (from the nave facing forward) is an icon of Christ, and on the left side is an icon of the Virgin Mary. Other icons on this tier beside those on the doors themselves usually include depictions of the saint or feast to which the church is dedicated, St. John the Baptist, St. Nicholas, one or more of the Four Evangelists etc.

Above this is are two interchangable tiers, the Deisis and the Twelve Great Feasts. In the center of the Deisis is a large icon of Christ Enthroned. To the left and right are icons of John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary in attitudes of supplication. They are often flanked by icons of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, then Sts. Peter and Paul, and then any other important Church Fathers that may be desired for inclusion as space allows. The Feasts tier contains icons of the twelve major liturgical feasts.

The top two tiers, which are also interchangable with each other, depict the Old Testament Prophets and Patriarchs, the latter including the twelve sons of Jacob. Occasionally one may find yet more tiers of smaller icons depicting saints of specially fervent local devotion. It is also not uncommon to find an icon of the Mystical Supper, which depicts the Communion of Saints in the Kingdom of God, somewhere above the Beautiful Gates.

The Sovereign tier is always present, but all the others may be omitted. Preference is given to the Deisis or the Feasts tiers if only some of them can be included. Only the largest and most elaborate iconostases include all five.

There are also rules for who should enter or leave the sanctuary by which door. Neither the Beautiful Gates not the space between them and the altar can be used by laity under any circumstances. Bishops may enter by the Beautiful Gates at any time; priests and deacons may do so at specific times during the services when the Gates are open. All others enter the sanctuary through the side doors. Laity usually allowed to enter the sanctuary include those involved in the running of the particular church, i.e. cantors and choristers, altar boys, church keepers and commissioners, etc. Entering the sanctuary for no good reason or without a blessing is forbidden even if no religious service is held at the time. These guidelines were developed over the course of many centuries, with both theologically symbolic and practical reasons for them.

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