When I entered a Byzantine Catholic Church for the first time, the iconostas took my breath away. Just wow. A glimpse of the beauty and glory of God. Now during Divine Liturgy, I love to reflect upon the images. Particularly, during prayers to the Theotokos I look at one of the icons of Mary. This aids me in thinking about the prayers I am saying. That is, helping me really mean them, and making the prayers personal.
What is an Iconostas?
The iconostas (iconostasis), is screen/stand of icons, which is located between the sanctuary and the rest of the church.
There are a couple separate ways that the iconostas may be set up, but there is a general uniformity. The Royal Doors are in the centre, and they are also called the Holy Doors. These are the “gate to heaven” that the priest opens at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy. On the doors are icons of the four gospel writers, and the Annunciation.
To the right of the Royal Doors is an icon of Christ the teacher. On the left is an icon of the Mother of God. On the other side of these icons are the deacon’s doors, one with St. Stephen the first Deacon and another with a selection of alternative images, such as St. Lawrence or St. Michael the Archangel.
Why An Iconostas?
T. Lozynsky (see below) describes the iconostas as “a barrier that separates the holy altar from the body of the church” but also as “a window and a mirror.” The iconostasis, though structured between the church and the altar, is not a wall between the people and God. It is a window into the heavenly realm made visible by the icons. It is a mirror for the people to see the reflection of their own lives in communion with God. The icons reflect our future with God, and our call to be saints in this life.
The iconostas can have as many icons as the artist can reasonably fit in the space or as few as an image of Christ and the Theotokos. Many have an image of The Mystical Supper (Last Supper) directly above the Royal Doors and icons of the major events of Christ’s life ranging above the main icons. Depending upon which Byzantine Church sui juris you are in, you may also see local tradition saints such as:
- St. Josaphat Kuntsevych in a Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church
- St. Ignatius of Antioch or St. John of Damascus in a Melkite Greek Catholic Church
- Sts. Cyril and Methodius in a Slovak Greek Catholic Church (or any Slavic Byzantine church)
Several images of different iconostasis may be found at http://www.ukrainianchurchesofcanada.ca/iconography/iconostas.html (including Catholic and Orthodox ones).
The purpose of the iconostas is to connect the people to God, and to emphasis points of the Liturgy. The Royal Doors are reserved for use by bishops and priest, or a deacon who is accompanied by a priest. During the Liturgy, during the procession of the gospel and the gifts, the priest exits through the deacon’s door (with an image of St. Stephen the first Deacon) and enters through the Royal Doors with these sacred items. In my article on Easter, I mention that the Royal Doors are left open all through Bright Week.
You can read more about icons and iconostasis in the following books (recommended from our personal home library).
He Dwells in Our Midst: Reflections on Eastern Christianity, edited by T. Lozynsky
The Glenstal Book of Icons: Praying with the Glenstal Icons by Gregory Collins
Icon Painting by John Taylor
And an additional recommendation from my dear Husband: The Rublev Trinity: The Icon of the Trinity by the Monk-painter Andrei Rublev