An earlier post has already discussed the symbolism of the iconostasis, or icon screen, within Orthodox churches. The conclusion there was that iconostasis represents the division of Heaven and Earth, and how the barriers between the two have been broken. Exploring the specific icons used in the iconostasis reveals more about how this remarkable union has taken place.
In a typically Orthodox way, there are numerous conventions for the icons and their positions on the iconostasis, all of which can vary. However the following will be found in most Orthodox churches:
The Sovereign Tier
Click the following link to see close-up views of the icons in the iconostasis shown below.
So-called because it contains the Royal Doors, the sovereign tier is the main part of any iconostasis. Many iconostases will only consist of the sovereign tier.
The Royal Doors are at the centre. It is from out of the Royal Doors that the Gospel is proclaimed, and it is through the Royal Doors that the priest carries the chalice with the body and blood of Christ. And so, in one form or another, the Royal Doors are for the Word of God to enter and exit. Therefore, the Royal Doors are usually decorated with an icon of the Annunciation (showing us the Word of God as the person Jesus Christ) or with images of the Four Evangelists (showing us the written word of God); often, as pictured left, both sets of images are present.
As we look at the Iconostasis, then to the left and right of the Royal Doors are icons of the Mother of God and Christ Pantocrator (Almighty) respectively. The Mother of God holds the infant Christ, and represents the beginning of our Salvation, whereas the icon of Christ Pantocrator, or Almighty, represents the fulfillment, when Christ sits in Judgment at the end of the world.
To the right of Christ is St John the Forerunner and Baptist, whilst to the left of the Mother of God is an icon of the Patronal Saint or Feast, i.e. the saint or feast to which the church is dedicated. In the iconostasis above, the icon is of St Philip the Apostle. The proximity of the two icons to the Royal Doors shows the honour given to St John and the patronal saint or feast of any given church.
Moving outwards from the Royal Doors, we then have the North Door on the left and the South Door on the right, collectively known as the Deacon’s Doors. These doors are used for deacons, other clergy, and anyone else who has a liturgical role, to enter and exit the altar-area, or sanctuary (the Royal Doors are generally reserved for the entrance and exit of the Gospel Book or Chalice). The North Door is liturgically the exit from the sanctuary, representing Heaven, and so often has an icon of the Archangel Michael, fully-armoured and carrying a sword, protecting the gates into Paradise. The South Door is liturgically the entrance into the sanctuary, and so often has an icon of Archangel Gabriel, who announced the coming of the Lord.
Alternatively, both doors may carry icons of sainted deacons, such as Stephen the Protomartyr (on the North Door), St Philip, or St Lawrence (both of whom appear on the South Door). Less commonly, St Dismas the repentant thief may appear on the deacon’s doors (an example is here); as with the Archangels, St Dismas appears because the deacon’s doors represent our access to Paradise.
Space permitting, panels further out from the Royal Doors will show Saints particularly loved by the parish or nation the church is in. Common examples of saints depicted include Ss. Nicholas of Myra, George the Trophy-bearer, Demetrius the Myrrh-streaming, Sergius of Radonezh, or Andrew the First-called. More contemporary saints such as Seraphim of Sarov (+1833), Herman of Alaska (+1837), and St John the Wonderworker (+1966) can also be found on iconostases – which Saints are chosen for these panels is really down to the people rather than convention.
Above the Royal Doors is often an icon of the Last Supper, when Christ instituted the Eucharist.
The Deesis Row
Deesis (Gr: δέησις) means “prayer” or “supplication”, and refers to a type of iconographic depiction of Christ in Glory, seated on a throne, with various Saints standing either side, arms raised, prayerfully supplicating Him. Immediately to the right and left of Christ are, respectively, the Theotokos and St John the Baptist.
On an iconostasis, flanking this basic scene are usually icons of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel the Apostles Peter and Paul, and then other Saints or Church Fathers close to the church, forming a Deesis Row. The image at the top of this blog is of a Deesis Row painted by Andrei Rublev, where each panel is over 10 feet high. Where a Deesis Row is present, the icon of St John the Baptist in the Sovereign Tier may be replaced with another Saint.
Other Rows and Tiers
- The Twelve Great Feasts may be represented as icons in a single tier, often directly above the sovereign tier, in place of a deesis row.
- Higher up, there can be a row of Old Testament Prophets and Patriarchs. In the middle of the row there is an icon of the Mother of God “of the Sign”, the “Old Testament” Trinity, or else another icon (e.g. Unburnt Bush) which features Old Testament prophecies of Christ’s birth.
- The Twelve Apostles often appear either side of an Icon of the Trinity, or Christ enthroned in glory.
Larger iconostases – which reach from the ground to the ceiling of the building – may have even more tiers, depicting Saints or feasts beloved by the church.
And so we have five rows in total, with only the largest churches and cathedrals – usually built in the Russian Imperial age – having all five, or more. All iconostases have the sovereign tier, whilst preference is given to a tier of the Great Feasts or a deesis row if extra rows can be added.
A Small Example
The iconostasis of the Orthodox chapel of the Life-Giving Spring at Walsingham (above) shows that even in the smallest of spaces, the conventions listed above can be followed. The Royal doors are present, and have panels showing both the Annunciation and the Four Evangelists. Either side, in the recesses, are full-length icons of the Mother of God and Christ Pantocrator. There is only room for one Deacon’s Door – the North Door – yet it is still decorated appropriately: with the Archangel Michael. On the opposite side of the Sovereign Tier is an icon of the Dormition, which is an icon dedicated to the Mother of God, just as the chapel is.
To make sure it is prominent, the Patronal Icon – the Life-Giving Spring – is placed at the top and centre of the iconostasis.
Just above the sovereign tier is a typical Deesis Row, featuring some of the Apostles, and the presence of John the Baptist there explains why he is not further down in the sovereign tier.
Christ Pantocrator, the Mother of God, John the Baptist, the Angels, the Apostles, the Fathers and the Martyrs – all are represented upon even such a small iconostasis, reminding us of the great cloud of witnesses (Heb 12:1) that surround us and unite us with the Heavenly realm.
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