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?


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.

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