Christianity an iconostasis (plural: iconostases) 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
A direct comparison for the function of the main iconostasis can be
made to the layout of the great Temple in Jerusalem. That Temple was
designed with three parts. The holiest and inner-most portion was that
where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. This portion, the Holy of
Holies, was separated from the second larger part of the building's
interior by a curtain, the "veil of the temple". Only the High Priest
was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies. The third part was the
entrance court. This architectural tradition for the two main parts
can be seen carried forward in Christian churches and is still most
demonstratively present in Eastern Orthodox churches where the
iconostasis divides the altar, the Holy of Holies containing the
consecrated Eucharist – the manifestation of the New
Covenant – from the larger portion of the church accessible to
the faithful. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition only men can enter the
altar portion behind the iconostasis.
The word comes from the Greek εἰκονοστάσι(-ον)
(eikonostási(-on), still in common use in
Greece and Cyprus), which
means "icon stand".
2 Placement of icons
4 Theological implications
7 See also
10 External links
Deesis row (center),
Iconostasis in the Cathedral of the
Moscow Kremlin by Theophanes the Greek, 1405
The nave is the main body of the church where most of the worshippers
stand, and the sanctuary is the area around the altar, east of the
nave. The sanctuary is usually one to three steps higher than the
Iconostasis does not sit directly on the edge of the
sanctuary, but is usually set a few feet back from the edge of the top
step. This forms a walkway in front of the iconostasis for the clergy,
called a soleas. In the very center of the soleas is an extension (or
thrust), often rounded, called the ambon, on which the deacon will
stand to give litanies during the services.
The iconostasis, though often tall, rarely touches the ceiling.
Acoustically, this permits the ekphoneses (liturgical exclamations) of
the clergy to be heard clearly by the faithful. In small, modern
churches the iconostasis may be completely absent: in such cases it is
replaced by a few small icons on analogia (lecterns), forming a
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.
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
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
Gabriel is depicted here because he is the "Messenger" of
God. These doors may also be casually referred to as the "side
There are some exceptions where both the side doors depict Archangel
Michael. The most notable exception is of the church of
(Aghios Georgios) inside the Ecumenical
Patriarchate of Constantinople
(in today's Istanbul).
In many monastery churches and chapels (though often not in the
Katholikon, the monastery's main church) one may find iconostases with
only two doors: the
Holy Doors and the North Door. These churches are
used for simpler monastic observances when only a hieromonk would be
Placement of icons
Mid-17th-century iconostasis at Ipatiev Monastery. To either side of
Holy Doors are
Christ Pantokrator and the Theotokos; above them,
the Great Feasts; above them, the Deesis; above that Prophets to
either side of Our Lady of the Sign; above them the Apostles to either
side of the Holy Trinity.
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:
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:
In the center of the
Deisis is a large icon of Christ Enthroned. To
the left and right are icons of
John the Baptist
John the Baptist and the
attitudes of supplication. They are often flanked by icons of the
Archangels Michael and Gabriel, then Sts. Peter and Paul, and then any
Church Fathers that may be desired for inclusion as
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:
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
the Twelve Apostles, often to either side of and icon depicting either
Christ at the
Second Coming or the Holy Trinity.
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
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.
Chapel of the holy icon of
Theotokos of Smolensk in the Assumption
Cathedral in Smolensk.
Moscow Baroque icon screen in the
Trinity Lavra in Sergeyev Posad
There are rules regarding who may enter or leave the sanctuary
(altar), and by which door. Neither the Beautiful Gates (Holy/Royal
Doors – central doors) nor the space between them and the altar
table may be used by laity under any circumstances, although infants
are either carried into the altar through them in the "churching" rite
if they are boys, or if they are girls, the infant is simply presented
at the doors. 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(altar), and only by the side doors. The abbess may enter at
any time, but the other nuns need a blessing to enter.
Holy Trinity Cathedral (Chicago, Illinois)
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/acolytes, church
keepers and vestrymen, etc.
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
These guidelines were developed over the course of many centuries,
with both theologically symbolic and practical reasons for them.
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
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."
A six-row iconostasis at
Uglich Cathedral in Russia. North Deacon's
Door (left) and
Holy Doors (right).
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
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
In early churches, including the "Great Church"
Hagia Sophia in
Constantinople, the altar, at least in large churches, was under a
ciborium ("ciborion": κιβωριου in Greek), usually a structure
with four columns and a domed canopy. This had curtains on rods on all
four sides, which were closed for sections of the liturgy, as is still
performed in the Coptic and Armenian churches. a comparison with
the biblical Veil of the Temple was intended. The small domed
structures, usually with red curtains, that are often shown near the
writing saint in early Evangelist portraits, especially in the East,
represent a ciborium, as do the structures surrounding many
manuscript portraits of medieval rulers. As the iconostasis grew,
the ciborium declined, although some late examples, by now invisible
to the congregation, were produced.
The templon gradually replaced all other forms of chancel barriers in
Byzantine churches in the 6th, 7th, and 8th centuries except in
Cappadocia. The invention of the solid icon screen is traditionally
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.
Fedorov's Deesis, recently added to the retroquire screen at
Winchester Cathedral, England. The differently situated rood screens
of Western medieval churches often achieved an effect comparable to
The rood screens or pulpita that most
Roman Catholic large churches
and cathedrals in many parts of Europe had acquired by late medieval
times occupied a similar position between chancel and nave but had a
different function. The choir was usually east of the screen. Many
survive, often most completely in Scandinavia, and more were built in
the Gothic Revival, particularly in
Anglican churches in England. In
examples in wood painted panels typically only went up to about waist
height, with a section with wooden tracery above allowing a view
through, and then a large carved beam supporting a rood cross
crucifix, often life-size, above. Larger churches had stone screens,
which might impede virtually all view by the congregation.
The baroque three-tier iconostasis designed by Rastrelli. In Saint
Andrew's Church of Kiev, Ukraine
Iconostasis with doors open to sanctuary at St.
Joseph the Betrothed Ukrainian
Greek Catholic Church
Hosios Loukas (Middle Byzantine), Distomo, in Boeotia, Greece
Church of St. Sabbas, Nicosia, Cyprus
Hagia Sophia, Thessaloniki
Marble iconostasis at the Metropolitan Cathedral of St. Gregory
Chapel of the Archangels, Thessalonika
Iconostasis at the Catholicon,
Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Church of the Holy Sepulchre (tomb of
Church of the
Prophet Elias, Yaroslavl
Dormition Cathedral (ru), Astrakhan
Rock church, northern Bulgaria
Cathedral of the
Archangel Michael, Moscow Kremlin
Portion of Iconostas displayed in the Kremlin Museums
A church in Troitse-Sergiyeva Lavra
Holy Doors depicting the Annunciation, Apostles and Saints
Troyan Monastery, Bulgaria
Old Orthodox Church, Sarajevo
Boston, Massachusetts, United States
Poland (Greek Catholic)
St. Stephen Church in Istanbul
Saint Vladimir Skete (Valaam Monastery), Church of St. Ludmila
An improvised iconostasis in St.Dimitrius Chapel on the beach of
Olympiaki Akti, Greece
Vladimir Putin in front of a
Baroque icon screen in Veliky Ustyug
Greek Catholic iconostasis in Hajdúdorog, Hungary
Russian Orthodox Church
Russian Orthodox Church in
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Iconostasis.
Iconostasis of the Cathedral of Hajdúdorog
^ So called because the Emperor used to enter by these doors during
official ceremonies at
Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.
^ Metropolitan PHILIP "Prayers at the Churching of a Mother and her
Child" in A Pocket Prayer Book for Orthodox Christians (Englewood, New
Jersey: 1956) p. 118
^ Matthews, Thomas F. The Early Churches of Constantinople:
Architecture and Liturgy. Pennsylvania State University Press, PA,
1971, ISBN 0-271-00108-9
^ The Orthodox
Armenian Apostolic Church
Armenian Apostolic Church and Catholic Armenian
^ Bock covers the use and decline of ciborium curtains in considerable
detail, though he is an old source.
^ Grove, 2.1
^ Kostof, Spiro (1972). Caves of God: The Monastic Environment of
Byzantine Cappadocia. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Bock, Franz Johann Joseph, The Hangings of the Ciborium of the Altar
(translated section of his Organ fur Christliche Kunst), The
Ecclesiologist, Volume 26, 1868, Ecclesiological Society/Stevenson,
"Grove", van Hemeldonck, G., "Ciborium (ii)." In Grove Art Online.
Oxford Art Online, subscription required, (accessed April 25, 2011).
Efhalia Rentetzi, Le iconostasi delle chiese greche in Italia,
http://www.apostoliki-diakonia.gr/index_it.asp, Athens 2008
Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article
Photo of early iconostasis. Church of the Aposltes, Athens 1000 AD
The Bulgarian orthodox