AskDefine | Define iconostasis

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  1. a wall of icons between the sanctuary and the knave in an Eastern Orthodox church


a wall of icons

Extensive Definition

In Eastern Christianity an iconostasis (the plural is iconostases), also called the templon, is a wall of icons and 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 iconostasis evolved from the Byzantine templon, a process complete by the fifteenth century.
The word comes from the Greek (still in common use in Greece and Cyprus), which means "icon stand".


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 to either side. The Beautiful Gates are sometimes called the Royal Doors, but that name more properly belongs to the central doors connecting the narthex, or porch, to the nave. They remain shut whenever a service is not being held. Modern custom as to when they should be opened during services varies depending upon jurisdiction and local custom. 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. Icons of sainted deacons are often depicted on these doors (particularly St. Stephen the Protomartyr and St. Ephrem the Syrian). Alternatively, they may be called Angels' Doors, and the Archangels Michael and Gabriel are often depicted there. The South Door is typically the "entrance" door, and Michael is depicted there because he is the "Defender"; the North Door is the "exit", and Gabriel is depicted here because he is the "Messenger" of God. These doors may also be casually referred to as the "side doors".

Placement of Icons

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:
  1. 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 (often Pantokrator), which symbolizes his Second Coming and on the left side is an icon of the Theotokos (Virgin Mary), symbolizing Christ's incarnation, and entrance into this world. Therefore, all things take place between Christ's first and second coming. Other icons on this tier beside those on the doors themselves usually include depictions of the patron saint or feast day to which the church is dedicated, St. John the Baptist, St. Nicholas, one or more of the Four Evangelists etc. Above this are two interchangeable tiers: the Deisis and the Twelve Great Feasts:
  2. 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 Theotokos 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.
  3. The Feasts tier contains icons of the twelve Great Feasts of the liturgical year. Above this, the top two tiers are also interchangeable with each other:
  4. The Old Testament Prophets and Patriarchs—the latter including the twelve sons of Jacob—often to either side of an icon of Our Lady of the Sign; and
  5. the Twelve Apostles, often to either side of and icon depicting either Christ at the Second Coming or the Holy Trinity.
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 Last Supper, and by extension 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 rules regarding who may enter or leave the sanctuary, and by which door. Neither the Beautiful Gates nor the space between them and the altar may be used by laity under any circumstances, although male infants are brought into the altar through them in the "churching" rite. Bishops may enter through the Beautiful Gates at any time; priests and deacons may do so only at specific times during the services when the Gates are open (but during Bright Week they always enter and exit through them). All others enter the sanctuary through the side doors.
In a convent only the abbess and elder nuns are permitted to enter the sanctuary, and only by the side doors. The abbess may enter at any time, but the other nuns need a blessing to enter.
Male members of the laity who are usually allowed to enter the sanctuary include those involved in the running of the particular church, i.e. cantors and choristers, altar servers, church keepers and vestrymen, etc. Entering the sanctuary for no good reason or without a blessing is forbidden even if no religious service is being held at the time.
In the Romanian tradition, on the day of the consecration of the altar in the church, the laity, including women, are permitted to enter and venerate the altar up until the beginning of the Vespers of Consecration.
These guidelines were developed over the course of many centuries, with both theologically symbolic and practical reasons for them.

Theological implications

The Iconostasis does not really "separate" the nave from the Holy of Holies; rather, it brings them together. The Iconostasis is the link between heaven (the Holy of Holies) and the nave (The Holy Place). Therefore everything is symbolic upon the Iconostasis. The Icons of Christ the Theotokos and various saints and feasts are there because Christ, the Theotokos, the saints etc., lead us and guide us into the Holy of Holies. Therefore the personages on the Icons upon the Iconostasis guide us into heaven, and therefore the Iconostasis connects not separates. The Icons upon the Iconostasis also are windows and bridges into heaven (although all icons, no matter where, are windows and bridges into heaven). Therefore, in a sense the Iconostasis represents Christ, who is the connection, the door, between both realms. The perfect explanation for the Iconostasis, and its uniting purpose, is seen in Hebrews 10:19-20, "Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is through his flesh."


Archaeological evidence from the St. John of Stoudios monastery in Constantinople suggests that the Iconostasis evolved from the early templon. A basilica dedicated to John the Baptist was built in 463 AD. In it 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. Twelve piers held chancel slabs of about 1.6 meters in length. The height of the slabs is not known. The chancel barrier was not merely a low parapet (a short wall); remains of colonnettes have been found, suggesting that the barrier carried an architrave on top of the columns.
The templon gradually replaced all other forms of chancel barriers in Byzantine churches in the 6th, 7th, and 8th centuries except in Cappadocia. Sacred tradition ascribes the invention of the solid iconostasis to Saint Basil the Great.
As late as the 10th century, a simple wooden chancel barrier separated the apse from the nave in the rock-cut churches in Derinkuyu, 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 columnar form of chancel barrier does predate Hagia Sophia.
In recent years, especially in the diaspora, there has been a liturgical movement favouring a more open style of Iconostasis. These Iconostases may be only one or two tiers, with a wide opening for the royal doors.
The rood screen found in some Roman Catholic and Anglican churches and cathedrals in many parts of Europe (particularly in England) in late medieval times, occupied a similar position but had a different function.

Oriental Christianity

The Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches which follow Oriental rites differ among themselves about the use of the iconostasis. The Armenian and Syriac churches often use a curtain, but not a solid iconostasis. The Coptic and Ethiopian churches use an iconostas which is sometimes made of lattice work so that it is semi-transparent.



See also

iconostasis in Bulgarian: Иконостас
iconostasis in Czech: Ikonostas
iconostasis in German: Ikonostase
iconostasis in Spanish: Iconostasio
iconostasis in French: Iconostase
iconostasis in Croatian: Ikonostas
iconostasis in Italian: Iconostasi
iconostasis in Georgian: კანკელი
iconostasis in Dutch: Iconostase
iconostasis in Japanese: イコノスタシス
iconostasis in Norwegian: Ikonostasis
iconostasis in Norwegian Nynorsk: Ikonostas
iconostasis in Polish: Ikonostas
iconostasis in Portuguese: Iconóstase
iconostasis in Romanian: Iconostas
iconostasis in Russian: Иконостас
iconostasis in Slovak: Ikonostas
iconostasis in Serbian: Иконостас
iconostasis in Finnish: Ikonostaasi
iconostasis in Swedish: Ikonostas
iconostasis in Ukrainian: Іконостас
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