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Icon Screen: Full or Not-so-much?

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Written by Basil on 10/3/2003 2:00 PM. Filed under:

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A digression from answering the questions in my interview by Karl.

As a parish we are contemplating what our future icon screen should look like. Well, kind of. Father D. has made it abundantly clear that he will make the final decision based on a number of factors, mostly what is needed for spiritual formation and orderly worship. However, he has asked for our opinions, if they are particularly strong. Dmitri asked if I was writing about the iconostasis, the Greek word for an icon screen; I said, “I’m just doodling.” Don’t think of this meditation as opinionated; it’s just doodling.

Allow me to begin by examining of the history of the icon screen and its context within history, the developing liturgical rite, and the physical shape of the temple. My examination here will be general, and I unfortunately do not have the resources to footnote my claims. (Some of it can be found briefly outlined in Fr. Robert Taft’s The Byzantine Rite: A Short History.) A diligent search, however, will support the outline that I set forth here. It will be nothing shocking to readers already well-informed in the subject. Where I am wrong, I hope gentle readers will correct me with appropriate haste.

The earliest icons are in the catacombs, the graves of early Christians, where the divine liturgy — the eucharistic offering — would be celebrated over the sarcophagi of the martyrs. They are also found in house churches. There is no evidence of even the beginning of an icon screen at this point. The Church of this period is persecuted, gathering in small, tight communities in hidden, secluded places. The iconography of the period reflects this: It highly symbolic, almost a code-language. The imagery is rarely ever explicit. Examples include fishes and loaves, the good shepherd, and the orans — a figure, usually a woman, with hands uplifted in prayer. Evidence from this period is very scanty. The persecuted Church was marked by its reluctance to skyline itself. Everything was highly mobile, thus very little has survived.

The fourth century is marked by radical changes in the Church and the Empire. Constantine the Great converts to Christianity and thus establishes it as the Imperial religion. Suddenly we have Christian temples. What was hidden is brought forth into the light. Additionally, thousands of people throng to the Church. The tight community that was once able to identify members by sight is now faced with a throng of strangers. Catechesis of this period is uneven and necessarily more superficial than in the preceding centuries. Where once all the faithful knew explicitly how to act in the household of God, a new situation arises. The Church is forced by this new circumstance to create new practices that protect the holiness and mystery of the Church, notably the eucharist. New forms communicate the same, unchanging meaning.

It is during this time of upheaval that we see the first conciliar definitions of Christian dogma, and the communion spoon takes the place of receiving the gifts in one’s hand. In the same spirit of protecting the mystery, simple partitions of the nave from the sanctuary appear. In Palestine, the first curtains make their appearance. In Constantinople, we find low, simple rails — at first with no icons at all, then eventually with small icons.

Constantinopolitan churches have separate buildings for the skeuophylakion — the predecessor of the prothesis — the chamber for preparing the offering, and the diakonikon, the chamber for the mundane elements of the deacon’s work: incense, candles, oil, wicks, etc. Constantinopolitan churches are massive, and their architecture reflects the popular use of stational processions — parades around the city and into the church — that were incorporated into the liturgy. These stational processions, in fact, are the origin of the antiphons at the beginning of the Eastern liturgies, as well as of many processional elements of the divine offices — albeit in a comparatively shrunken form.

In the Palestinian churches, these chambers are housed in apses off of the main nave. Palestinian churches are smaller. The fuller icon screens seem to develop in part so that the work of preparing the gifts and incense and candles, etc., can be done discretely, without distracting the prayer of gathered worshippers.

Initially, there was an equal interplay between Imperial capital and holy land: Constantinople pilgrims went to Palestine and holy land clergy visited the capital, each returning with reports of church architecture and liturgical rite. Eventually, though, the monasteries of Palestine eventually supplanted — both in rite and architecture — the practice of the Imperial capital. This primarily happened during the Iconoclast Controversy, in which Constantinople and the state goverment of the Empire favored iconoclasm, initially for political reasons. The monasteries became the protectors of Christian orthodoxy. Here we see another reason for the increase in the size of icon screens: What better way to proclaim which side of orthodoxy one was on? Monastery churches had large screens with many icons. These monasteries, particularly the Monastery of St. Sabbas, eventually became the model for new churches in the rest of the empire after the victory over the iconoclasts, and so did their liturgical rite.

So, what conclusions do we draw from this?

In the context of most churches built today, we are still following, architecturally, this Sabbaite model. Furthermore, we are also following this model in terms of liturgical rite, as well. The full icon screen developed organically in this context; eschewing it for the older example of Constantinopolitan churches only makes sense in a context where, architecturally and liturgically, we are able to revive the practice of the Great Church. The Monks of New Skete, for example, have a blessing to do this; that is why their icon screen in the Temple of Holy Wisdom works so well. Liturgically and contextually, they are imitating an older model, that of the Great Church, Holy Wisdom, in Constantinople.

We must also dispel one misconception — the sanctuary, the holy table, the icon screen, the curtain and the work accomplished therein pertain entirely to the church as the assembly of the faithful. Categories of witness to unbelievers and non-orthodox Christians — that is, of evangelism and propagation — are no more relevant in discussions about these areas than in discussions about who enters them to do the work or what work is actually accomplished therein.

It is sometimes thought that the icon screen is a barrier either for the faithful or for inquirers. Note these remarks from his grace, Tikhon, Bishop of San Francisco and the West (OCA), “The following rationale has been put forward by some, and I understand it. It goes like this,” says his grace, Tikhon. “The Iconostasis [icon screen], the Doors and the Curtain do not protect the Holies from observation by the profane: they protect the profane from the Holies, which are a light to the Faithful, but a burning flame to the profane.” He also says,

On the contrary we teach that the icons on the iconostasis [icon screen], including those on its doors, open Reality to us, open Heaven to us, and do not separate us from anything but join us more intimately to what is behind them, whether it is the Kingdom of Heaven or the Holy Altar of our Temple, where not only our clergy, but the Angels and Saints are serving. To abolish the iconostasis or make it of no substance is to, in fact, put dark glasses or even blinders on the eyes of the Faithful. Not having an Iconostasis makes the Holy Actions LESS accessible and LESS subject to the participation of the Faithful, not more so.

Icons reveal and manifest what is unseen yet invisibly present to us. One popular aphorism calls them “windows into heaven.” Perhaps one could say, the more windows onto heaven our icon screens have, the better!

Now, what could we say about those who follow the ancient practice of a more open icon-screen — well-illustrated at New Skete? I used to be whole-heartedly in favor of this older practice, even though I did not espouse — as most do not — the even older practice of using the curtain as specified in the Typikon (the book of church order, cf. Apostle St. Paul, 1Cor 14.4).

There is certainly a tension here. It is the age-old tension between ancient and new, tradition and innovation. Only the most fundamentalist believers believe that nothing at all has changed in the practice of the Church. Obviously, if we want to be safe, we will not err by following with exactness the practice that has been passed on to us. However, if we want to be coworkers with God in the task of saving souls, we will have to meet people where they are, as God did with the Patriarch Abraham — and indeed throughout the entire history of salvation’s economy.

Without the corresponding revival of architecture and liturgical rite, it seems to me that a traditionally full icon screen is better suited to our architecture and liturgical rite than the older, more open screen. It has taken me a long time to agree that this is the case. There was a time when I would have never admitted it — for us, locally, as a parish.

However, we have almost no icon screen currently. I see Fr. David vesting, preparing the gifts, and communicating. I see servers discussing which incense to use, lighting charcoals, and generally doing the messy part of “smells and bells.” Without a separate vestry, a separate chamber of preparation and a separate chamber for deacons and servers, an open icon screen seems fairly counter-intuitive to good order and beautiful worship. Further, we currently do not have the freedom to attempt a revival of ancient Constantinopolitan practice — as attractive as it may seem. The tradition that is being passed on to us is primarily 19th century Russian practice, and these circumstances do not appear likely to change anytime soon.

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2 Responses to “Icon Screen: Full or Not-so-much?”

  1. alana Says:

    As usual, I’m a half a step behind all the cutting edge developments in our parish, but as I was muddling along on Sunday morning, I had a strange LONGING for there to be an iconostasis…and an actual one at that. It’s time.

    I’m not a very aesthetically minded person, and I know my opinion matters not, so I have not formed one, but I really appreciate your addressing the subject.

  2. Huw Raphael Says:

    The Episcopal parish I used to attend (with their close friendship with the Monks of NS) was very fond of processions! I still ove them greatly!

    Orthodoxy doesn’t often go-back, although this is one that I find interesting. Of course the ultra traditionalists requite an icon screen that goes floor to roof and might as well as a time lock on both the door and the curtains.

    But there are 1,000 year old churches in Eretz Israel that have, basically, altar rails (albeit with more recent curtains).

    Although I greatly love the screen, I would have no problem with a return to the older forms, provided the *liturgical practices* were also revived: full processions in the streets. Processions are fun. Hymn Singing as a the Marching Army of God through the streets is also fun. It annoys the heathens to no end.

    But unless the one is restored, the other is pointless, as your post indicates. If we are still vesting, still preparing, still doing stuff back there that should be done off site, let’s leave the wall. The claim that simply seeing these actions would be evagelistic seems odd, if the real evanglisms of parades every Sunday is not also used.