A recent email suggested to me that I might write about the iconostasis (the icon screen) found in Orthodox Churches. Some Protestants in particular have problems with it, feeling on the one hand that they are “shut out” of the liturgy to some extent or that Orthodox practice is restoring the “curtain of the Temple” that Christ’s crucifixion rent in two. Those are not surprising thoughts and are worth some comment.
I have to say up front that some Orthodox Churches have a much larger iconostasis than others, and some have a very minimalist iconostasis that essentially obscures nothing. Orthodoxy, as a dogmatic matter, has no demands in either direction. So what we are discussing here is what you will simply find in many Orthodox Churches (doors and curtains and a very substantial Icon Screen) but not necessarily in every Orthodox Church. Thus I am discussing a very common practice, but not a dogma of the Church. And that’s a very important distinction to make when thinking of Orthodoxy.
The development of the “icon screen” in Orthodoxy is itself the story of an evolution. I might add, that one of the earliest written descriptions of such a use of icons is found, in of all places, Britain, where the Ven. Bede mentions the erection of something like an icon screen by Benedict Biscop. This would have been in the 7th century or so. In the West, the Rood Screen (which exists in very few places at all today) came to serve a purpose somewhat similar to the iconostasis in the East.
As my Archbishop says (and I agree), some things existed in Orthodoxy and disappeared for good reasons, while other things developed and came about for good reason. Orthodoxy is alive and does change (not dogmatically) while, we would say, remaining the same.
Having said all that (whew!) I turn to some preliminary thoughts. And they are not first about icons exactly. My first thought is the memory of an Anglican parishioner I had some 25 years or more ago who objected when I placed a very “Spanish” crucifix over the rear doors of the Church (the exit). A family had brought it back from South America. Like most Spanish crucifixes, it left little to the imagination.
This parishioner was deeply upset by my action and attacked the very idea of having a crucifix in the Church, arguing that “Christ is risen and not on the Cross! I do not want my children exposed to such a hideous thing!” I left the crucifix in its place and she never attacked me again (long story).
But she was wrong theologically. To depict Christ on the Cross (as in a crucifix) is no different than to preach: “Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” What was going on in that particular woman’s mind was something she had been told (incorrectly) about Roman Catholicism and was reacting from incorrect theological information.
In the same manner, to see an iconostasis in an Orthodox Church, and assume that it exists in order to separate people from God is to seriously misread the meaning of the screen and the nature of Orthodox iconography.
The icon screen grew historically and has certainly changed its function over time. Orthodox explanations of the iconostasis have also evolved with that development. The thoughts I offer here are not a dogmatic explanation of the iconostasis (it’s not a matter of dogma) but are common in Orthodox thought.
In some pious commentaries on Orthodox services, the gates of the icon screen are compared to the gates of paradise and their opening and closing to specific actions and moments in salvation history. Thus, the closing of the gates early in the service of Great Vespers is compared to the shutting of paradise to Adam and the priest standing before the gates praying represents our repentance before God.
Such explanations are just what I have termed them, pious explanations. But they are not “incorrect” for being pious explanations. They are ways to think of the actions that are taking place. (Incidentally I could think of nothing deadlier than attending a service and meditating on when a certain practice developed, etc. – that’s not worship – it’s misplaced academics).
Most especially in the Divine Liturgy (Eucharist), the doors can have a very profound meaning (as well as the curtain if one is used). But never are they used to “shut us off from God.” They are used to heighten the sense of drama in the Liturgy and to mark certain moments as particularly “holy” if you will. But the end of the “drama” comes with the curtain and doors opening and the gifts of Christ’s Body and Blood being brought forth to the people! Nothing could be more in harmony with the gospel.
Indeed, this liturgical action is a reminder of the nature of our salvation. It is a gift that is given to us, not a right, nor property common to us all. The action of the Holy Gifts being “brought out” to us is very much in keeping with the Gospel itself.
To be more blunt, we in America have imported our sense of “democracy” into our liturgical sensibilities. We believe that nothing should be secret, nothing hidden, nothing marked off as set apart. We are a nation that witnesses people on Jerry Springer saying things that should only be said in confession. We have no shame.
What remains in Orthodox liturgy (and was once present in Roman Liturgies and even some forms of Anglican liturgies) is a deep sense of the Holy. The movement from Old Testament to New Testament has not democratized worship or destroyed the need for priests (Protestants are quick to speak of the “priesthood of all believers” but end up with no priesthood of any believers). Protestant reform movements that utterly destroyed Rood Screens and the architecture of medieval worship succeeded in a drive to declare that “all things are holy.” But just as the Puritan abolition of Christmas did not succeed in making everyday as holy as that day, such iconoclastic actions succeeded only in creating a secular world where nothing is holy and no day a holy day. Here I highly recommend Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars for an amazing look at the actual details of the Reformation in England.
Our nation very likely needs icon screens or things that function in a way to help us know that the One whom we worship is holy. Knowing that, we know much more fully that the Holy One has condescended to our humanity and gives Himself to us in His humility. The loss of such distinctions has created the growing absence of reverence and even worship itself in our churches. The iconostasis does not separate us from God – it may very well be one of the few teaching tools that allow us to be united to Him.
There is so much more to be said on this subject – but this seems enough for one posting.