Symbolism in the Iconostasis

The symbolism of the iconostasis

There are those among us who have put no real thought into what the iconostasis is. We know that it separates the altar from the nave, but what is it really?

Iconscreen

Using the image above, we will be focusing on numbers 1, 2, 5 and 9.

Number 1: This is usually the icon of the Theotokos. More accurately, this is an icon of the Mother of God holding the Incarnate Word, Christ.

Number 2: This is almost always an icon if Christ, enthroned in some variation; the resurrected God-man, holding the Gospels.

Number 5: These are the royal doors, the gateway to the Holy of Holies. The doors will normally contain icons of the four evangelists. And above them will be an icon of the Annunciation, the announcement of the virgin’s conception. This is the bridge between Number 1 and Number 2 as told by Luke (1:26-38 KJV):“ And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. For with God nothing shall be impossible. And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.”

Number 9: This is the image of the Mystical Supper. The whole of the Church is built upon this belief; that what we partake of is in fact the body and blood of Christ. We are participants in His life.  As the priest says in the Eucharistic prayers: “Holy and most Holy art Thou in Thy glorious majesty, Who hast so loved the world That Thou gavest Thine only-begotten Son, That whosoever believeth on Him Should not perish but have everlasting life, Who, when He had come And had performed all that was appointed for our sakes, In the night on which he was given up, or In which, rather, He did give himself For the life of the world, Took bread in His holy and pure and sinless hands And when He had given thanks, and blessed it, and sanctified it, He gave it to His holy disciples, saying: Take, eat, this is my Body which is broken for you For the remission of sins. And in like manner, after supper He took the cup, saying: Drink ye all of this: this is my Blood of the New Testament, Which is shed for you, and for many For the remission of sins…..Remembering this commandment of salvation And all those things which for our sakes were brought to pass, the Cross, the Grave, the Resurrection on the third day, The Ascension into Heaven, the Sitting on the right hand, The Second and glorious Advent- Thine own of thine own we offer unto Thee, In behalf of all and for all…”

All of these icons, together, are reminders of the Incarnation of the Word. But, more importantly, for the faithful Orthodox, they are a reminder that we, the people, are living, breathing and experiencing, in this very day, and throughout all of time, the Incarnation.

“God became man so that man might become god.” -St. Athanasius

What are some of the ramifications of God becoming human?

When The Son became human and shared in our life, He shared His Life with us -the life of God. Sanctifying humankind by His incarnation, passion, resurrection, and ascension, Christ then sends the Holy Spirit, the Giver of Life. We begin our prayers by calling on the Holy Spirit and stating He is “everywhere present and fillest all things.” If we were always conscious of this belief, what changes would be wrought in our lives?

We experience God in His Energies, not only in the spiritual realm, but in the material world. In the Church’s mysteries or sacraments (from the root word Sacred), such as the Eucharist or Baptism, we experience Grace in and through material means (oil, water, bread and wine). Following this same model, we venerate relics and take pilgrimages. We kiss icons and venerate the saints. As St. Silouan the Athonite (1866-1938) said “The Lord so loved man that He gave the Holy Spirit, and in the Holy Spirit man became like unto God. Those who do not believe this, and do not pray to the Saints, have not learned how deeply the Lord loves man and how He has exalted him.”

Through the Incarnation and the descent of the Holy Spirit we become partakers in the Life of God here in this world – in this body . “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” 1 Corinthians 6:19.

Let us remember Genesis 1:31 “God saw all that He had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning – the sixth day.”

– שְׁמוּאֵל

A Note on Modern Day Iconoclasm

IncarnationWhen we speak of iconoclasm in Christianity, we think of the 8th century condemnation of icons and their veneration, its being made heretical at the seventh Ecumenical Council and the eventual Triumph of Orthodoxy.

But what does that have to do with our current living arrangements in the 21st century?
To a certain degree, the answer could simply be: nothing. But if we ruminate on what the icon is, the image and likeness of the God-man, then the reality becomes clearer. Because of the Incarnation, we can venerate the icons of our beloved saints, who are the image of Christ. And just as they are the image of our Lord, so, too are we; for we are called to become saints. Let me reiterate that all of mankind, through our very existence, are icons.

Our actions towards one another are a direct result of our belief in the Incarnation. Too many times we forget that we are the image of God. This is evident in our gossip, back talking, name calling, envy, gloating, slander, our pride, and manifests itself in numerous other passions as well. And when this happens, we become the epitome of iconoclasts. We deny the very existence of the Incarnation in our lives.

Remember, that icons are open books to God. As taught by the Church in the seventh Ecumenical Council, icons are necessary and essential because they protect the doctrine of the Incarnation to its fullest. When we venerate an icon, the honor and love we are showing, passes directly to the person depicted in the icon, be it the Theotokos, a saint, or Christ, Himself. And when we honour one another, that too is honouring the icon of Christ.

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Jared Hall is a convert to Orthodoxy and a struggling sinner. He is married to a wonderful, natural-minded, woman and together with their two toddler boys, they are trying to make sense of this world. For this reason he chose St Brendan as his patron. He is a blue collar libertarian and passionate about birth rights, raising backyard chickens, a good scotch, and great conversations. You can follow him on Facebook and Instagram.