Cosmology of the Iconostasis

Julio Cesar Assis
M.A. History of Ideas University of San Paulo, Brazil

Marble iconostasis of the Antiochian Cathedral, San Paulo1

“All that is depicted in the icon reflects not the disorder of our sinful world, but Divine order, peace, a realm governed not by earthly logic, not by human morality, but by Divine Grace. It is the new order in the new creation.”2

Russian Holy Trinity Church, Buenos Aires3

Cosmological Hierarchy4
Creation is “a mystery as unfathomable as that of the divine being”5

Jesus Christ
Incarnate Word of God Prophet, High Priest and Davidic King

Mother of God “More honorable than the cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim”6 Angels “Compared with us, the angel is said to be incorporeal and immaterial, although […] only the Divinity is truly immaterial and incorporeal”7 John the Baptist “There hath not risen among them that are born of women a greater than John”8 Saints Deified human beings

Faithful Virtual saints

Nature Eagles, lambs, fishes and other animals, vines, wheat and trees, water and rocks depicted in the columns and walls besides de iconostasis


The Veil that Reveals The veil of the Jerusalem temple9 evolved to the templon of the IV century Christian churches and after the first millennium to the Roman Catholic rood screen and the Christian Orthodox iconostasis. “Like the church as a whole, this structure is also seen as something akin to a map o heaven, with the angels at the top, the apostles beneath them and then the ordinary saints. This represents the hierarchy that is believed to exist as a fundamental part of the structure of the universe.”10 The Deisis11 is a triptych representing Jesus Christ, the Theotokos at his right side and John the Baptist at his left. It is frequently expanded in the icon screen according to the hierarchical taxis, Greek for “order,” “rank” and “arrangement,” translated by the Slavonic chin or tchin. “The word ‘tchin’ means order. This order came into being by adding to the Mother of God and John the Baptist, standing in prayer before Christ, members of various hosts of heavenly and earthly sainthood: angels, apostles, hierarchs and others.”12 This gospel-based cosmological hierarchy is pervasive not only in iconostases, but also in liturgical prayers and visions. The Dismissal in the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom (347-407) praises the same divine, angelic and human hieratic pattern. “May Christ our true God through the intercessions of His all-immaculate and all-blameless holy Mother, by the might of the precious and life-giving Cross; by the protection of the venerable bodiless powers of heaven; at the supplication of the honorable, glorious prophet and forerunner John the Baptist; of the holy, glorious, and all-laudable apostles; of the holy, glorious and right-victorious martyrs; of our venerable and God-bearing fathers; of our father saint John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, whose liturgy we have celebrated, of the patron saint and protector of this church; of the holy and righteous


ancestors of God, Joachim and Anna; and of the saint whose memory we celebrate today, of all the saints, have mercy upon us and save us, forasmuch as He is good and loves mankind.”13 Christening Dormition At his last hour, saint Sisois (d. 429) witnessed a visitation not only of the monks that were his disciples, but also from his deceased predecessor saint Anthony (c. 250-356), prophets, apostles, angels and even the Christ. The face of the Abba signaled the presence of the successive ranks of this hierarchy by an increasingly brighter Taborian light. “Many elders gathered round the abbot Sisois when the time of his falling asleep came to him. They saw his face shining with a wondrous radiance, and he said to them, ‘Lo, the abbot Anthony is coming to me.’ After a little while he said, ‘The company of the prophets is along with him.’ Then his face shone with a brighter light, amid he said, ‘The blessed apostles are beside me.’ It seemed, then, to those who stood by as if he spoke to someone, and they asked him to tell them with whom he talked. He said, ‘The angels have come to bear away my soul, and I am asking them to grant me yet a little while for penitence.’ Then the fathers said to him, ‘Surely you have no need of penitence?’ But he replied, ‘Verily I say to you that I have never yet grasped even the beginning of true penitence.’ Then they felt that in him the fear of God was indeed perfected. Suddenly his face was lighted with all the splendor of the sun, and he cried out to them, ‘Behold, behold my brethren, the Lord Himself is come to me.’ Then while he spoke these words, his spirit fled, and all the place was filled with a sweet smell.”14 The “smell of sanctity” is explainable by the polar condescension of uncreated grace through the multiple divine, angelic and human levels of being, reaching the physical body of the saint as a temple of the Holy Spirit and through it christening the material world. Saint John of Damascus (c. 676-749): “In the relics of the saints the Lord Christ has provided us with saving fountains which in many ways pour out


benefactions and gush with fragrant ointment. And let no one disbelieve. For, if by the will of God water poured out of the precipitous living rock in the desert15, and for the thirsty Sampson from the jawbone of an ass16, is it unbelievable that fragrant ointment should flow from the relics of the martyrs? Certainly not, at least for such as know the power of God and the honor which the saints have from Him.”17 The relics of the antimension18 and the altar table are necessary for the consecration of Orthodox churches and small reliquaries containing fragments are sometimes attached to an icon.

The rectangular opening to shelter relics in the altar, between the Eucharistic cup and an empty space on the ground that repeats the shape of the chalice19

Living Icons John of Damascus describes the cosmological hierarchy when proposing the veneration of saintly personal beings20. “Let us set up monuments to them, and visible images, and us ourselves by the imitation of their virtues become their living monuments and images. Let us honor the Mother of God as really and truly God’s Mother. Let us honor the Prophet John as precursor and baptist, 5

apostle and martyr, for ‘there hath not risen among them that are born of women a greater than John,’ as the Lord said, and he was the first herald of the kingdom. Let us honor the Apostles as brethren of the Lord, as eye-witnesses and attendants to His sufferings, whom God the father ‘foreknew and predestinated to be made conformable to the image of his Son’ 21 ‘first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly shepherds and teachers.’22

This ordained assembly of personal beings is present also in a decree of the Second Council of Nicaea in the year 787. “We decree with full precision and care that, like the figure of the honored and life-giving cross, the revered and holy images, whether painted or made of mosaic or of other suitable material, are to be exposed in the holy churches of God, on sacred instruments and vestments, on walls and panels, in houses and by public ways; these are the images of our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ, and of Our Lady without blemish, the holy God-bearer, and of the revered angels, and of any of the saintly holy men.” Condescension of Uncreated Grace All dimensions of reality, divine, angelic, human, animal, vegetable and mineral (“earths”) concur in the making of an icon screen, which is more than a simple work of art. The iconostasis do not intends to promote an esthetic pleasure or emotional response, its nature is rather anagogic: “Let us lift up our hearts.”23 The icon screen is the meeting point of the Holy of Holies (altar sanctuary) that is heaven, and the Holy Place (nave of the church), which represents the earthly paradise. As with the cross, the vertical and horizontal lines symbolize respectively the polar descent and solar expansion of divine grace. Saint Simeon of Thessalonica (d. 1429) explains: “The columns on the iconostasis represent the


firmament, dividing the spiritual from the sensory. Therefore the kosmitis24 denotes the union through love between the heavenly and the earthly.”25 Words like art, harmony, arithmetic and rhythm have the same root as rite, an ordered sequence of liturgical actions. The theme of a cosmical covenant is also present in the liturgy: “The priest or the deacon swings the censer first before the icon[ostasis] and then before the congregation, thus paying homage to the image of God in man and uniting in one gesture the saints represented in the icons and the congregation – the heavenly and the earthly Church.”26 Heavenly Ascent of the Iconographer The true Orthodox iconographer is not a painter dedicated to fine arts, but someone who contemplates the logoi27 of the persons and things depicted. “In creating a work of art, the psyche or soul of the artist ascends from the earthly realm into the heavenly; there, free from all images, the soul is fed by contemplation by the essences of the higher realm, knowing the permanent noumena of things; then, satiated with this knowing, it descends again to the earthly realm. And precisely at the boundary of the two worlds, the soul’s spiritual knowledge assumes the shapes of symbolic imagery: and it is these images that make the permanent work of art.”28

Antiochian Cathedral of San Paulo, Brazil29


Alpha and Omega When the Orthodox faithful are not performing devotional activities such as kissing icons, lighting candles and contemplating the entrance processions, during almost the whole Divine Liturgy and other services they keep standing before the iconostasis, which is always inviting them to a heavenly ascent out of time.




The first row, in both a spatial and chronological sense, that originated the other levels of the iconostasis, uses to have at the left side an icon of the Theotokos with the Child, apparently signaling an historical event of the “past.” In the right is Christ Pantocrator at the Parousia in the end of times, the “future.” At the center is the Holy Door that the priest crosses each Divine Liturgy carrying the Eucharist in the present. Since according to Orthodox doctrine, the Father begets outside time the eternal Person that “became flesh and dwelt among us”30 and the incarnation occurs presently in each valid Epiclesis, it is not only an event of the “past”. As


Jesus Christ is present in every Liturgy in which the bread and wine are validly consecrate, the Parousia also is not only an event of the “future” 31: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”32 Apart the necessary architectural frameworks, there is nothing schematic or abstract in the iconostasis. As the orthodox Eucharist is concrete bread and wine, everything is eye-to-eye, face to face, from person to person33. The icons assembled around the Holy Door demand a personal contemplation of their presence. The empirical iconostasis is an historical construction whose source lay outside history, an ordained spatial and temporal cosmologic structure that leads beyond the cosmos and duration, to the principle of space and time, day one 34, which is Sunday. “Thus are joined in the same mystery the first and the eight day, which coincide in Sunday. For the latter is both the first and the eight day of the week, that to the entrance to eternity. The weekly circle closes on Saturday in the divine rest of Shabbat. Beyond that, Sunday, the day of the creation and the recreation of the world, the day of the Resurrection, is like the ‘instant’ of eternity, that of the first and last limit.” 35


1 Ouspensky, Leonid. “The meaning and language of icons”, Ouspensky, L. and Lossky, V. The meaning of icons. Crestwood, 1999, p. 40. 3 4 Oration (logos) on the sacred (hieros) principle (arche) of the ordainment (cosmos). This cosmological approach regards the person of the Word and the angels only in their manifestations in the incarnation and as messengers. 5 Lossky, Vladimir. Orthodox Theology. Crestwood, 1978, p. 51. 6 Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom. 7 “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith”, St. John of Damascus Writings. Washington, 1971, p. 205. 8 Matthew 11:11. 9 Barker, Margaret, Beyond the Veil: the High Priestly Origin of the Apocalypses; Borella, Jean, “The torn veil”, = “Le voile déchiré”, Ésotérisme Guénonien et Mystère Chrétien. Lausanne, 1977, p. 119-126. Pallis, Marco, “The veil of the Temple: a study of Christian initiation”. Schaya, Leo, “The meaning of the Temple”; Davidson, Tom, “And they shall make me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in the midst of them”, 10 Stringer, Martin D. A sociological history of Christian worship. Cambridge, 2006, p. 127. 11 Or Deesis, “prayer”. 12 Ouspensky, L., “The iconostasis”, The meaning of icons, p. 63. 13 Antiochian version. 14 Hannay, James O. The Wisdom of the Desert 15 Exodus 17:6. 16 Judges 15:19. 17 John of Damascus, “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith”, p. 368. 18 A rectangular piece of cloth with a small relic sewn into it. 19 A contemporary rendering of the Holy Trinity icon painted by Russian iconographer saint Andrei Rublev c. 1410 (Genesis 18:1-8). 20 Personal beings are self-conscious, rational, having free will and capable of loving: the Trinity, the angels and human beings are personal; the angelic nature is "rational, intelligent, free”. “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith”, p. 205. 21 Romans 8:29. 22 1 Corinthians 12:28. “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith”, p. 369-370. 23 Anaphora. Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom. 24 Transom or horizontal beam. Architrave. 25 Cf. Ouspensky, “The iconostasis”, The meaning of icons, p. 60. 26 Idem, “The Holy or Royal Door”, p. 68. 27 The “reasons” assembled in their source, the Logos of God, and imprinted in the created things. 28 Florensky, Pavel, Iconostasis. Crestwood, 1996, p. 44. 29 Antiochian Metropolitan Cathedral of San Paulo. 30 John 1:14. 31 Barker, Margaret, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, Edinburgh, 2000, p. 198. 32 Hebrews 13:8. 33 Prosopon pros prosopon, 1 Corinthians 13:12. 34 Genesis 1:5 New English Translation of the Septuagint Saint Basil the Great, Hexaemeron, Homily II, 8. Barker, Margaret, “Creation Theology” Borella, Jean, Le poème de la Création, L’Hay-les-Roses, 2002, p. 26. Boon, Nicolas. Au Coeur de l’Écriture, Paris, 1987, p. 111. 35 Lossky, V. Orthodox Theology, p. 61-62. The original argument is from saint Basil the Great (330-379). Hexaemeron, Homily II, 8.

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