One of the most striking aspects upon entering an Orthodox church is the way in which the space is divided into two. The nave, the main body of the church building, is where the faithful gather; to the east of it lies the sanctuary, where the altar is. The nave symbolically represents the earth, whilst the sancturary – usually raised up slightly – is Heaven. Between the two is the Iconostasis or Icon Screen (Gr: τεμπλον; Ru: Иконостас). Without experiencing the services of the Church, it seems as though the iconostasis represents a “barrier” between the heavenly sanctuary and earthly nave: a throwback to Jewish Temple worship and a concept opposed to the Gospel. Yet when seen “in action”, the iconostasis is seen to reaffirm the Good News that Christ is in our midst.
The division of the sacramental space between that representing earth and all creation, and that representing heaven, God and the angelic realms, is not meant to indicate a barrier between these two realms. The division of space is meant to realise symbolically their encounter. It is by having the altar separated from the nave by the iconostasis that this wall can be used to symbolise not just a divide, but also a breaking of the divide.
At the centre of the iconostasis are the Royal Doors, usually with a veil behind it, and it is the opening and closing of the doors, the drawing and opening of the veil at certain times of the Church’s services, which show us the reality of Christ’s work in bridging the heavenly and the earthly.
The best example, but not the only, is found in the Divine Liturgy. First, the doors are opened and the priest walks through holding the Gospel Book, into the nave, to read to the people. The Word of God coming down from Heaven to the world is presented to us through the word of God, the Scriptures, being brought through the Royal Doors to be heard by all. Then, later in the service, comes the time when the bread and wine is blessed to become the Body and Blood of Christ. Immediately prior, the Royal Doors and the veil are shut, and what goes on inside is hidden, except through hearing the priest’s prayers. We are “shut out” from these mysteries in a way, but only to heighten our longing for what comes next…
Moments after the elevation of the gifts, where the priest shouts: “the Holy things for the holy…!”, the veil and doors are opened wide. The priest carries the chalice bearing the Body and Blood of Christ out into the nave for the people to take communion. That Christ comes out to us, rather than we going to Him, hardly needs stating in words when it is shown so clearly in action.
During Bright Week, the week after Easter, all the doors of the iconostasis are left wide open at all times. The doors on either side of the Royal Doors, through which deacons and servers enter the sanctuary, are almost never left open and so to see them all open makes an immediate impact. The services of Bright Week make clear what these open doors show us: the gates of Paradise are opened; and also: Christ did this!
Whether it is because physical beings need physical signs, or whether our fallen nature requires us to be presented with something tangible in order to comprehend the spiritual reality, I don’t know. Yet it is self-evident that the opening of the doors communicates to us the unity between Heaven and earth through Christ far more powerfully than if there were no doors to open in the first place. And so the iconostasis is needed to show us the nature of Heaven’s unity with the created world.
Keeping the seals intact, O Christ, you rose from the tomb…and have opened to us the gates of Paradise.
– from Ode 6 of the Paschal Canon
Two more pieces on the Iconostasis, both much better than mine:
I borrowed heavily from the latter piece by Fr Irenaeus, completely without permission (Lord have mercy). His comments on the use of the iconostasis in vespers (the last paragraph) are particularly good.