The iconostasis or icon screen in St. Michael the Archangel Byzantine Catholic church (located in Pittston, Pennsylvania, USA) seen above, is an ornate wood structure that separates the nave of the church (main body of the church) from the sanctuary (altar area). It is a symmetrical arrangement of icons (religious paintings) displayed in rows, typically present in both Byzantine and Orthodox churches. Through it beauty and elegance, a manifestation of God’s own magnificence, the icon screen inspires the faithful to elevate their hearts, minds, and souls to God, the Mother of God, and the entire communion of saints.
Liturgical Significance and Purpose
In Eastern Churches, the icon screen serves as a visual reminder of God’s Divine presence in the church, particularly in the sacred space of the sanctuary. The sanctuary is the place in which the Holy Eucharist is consecrated on the Holy Table (altar). A sanctuary light (candle) is suspended above and in front of the center of the icon screen. The sanctuary light signifies the eternal presence of God in the church, notably in the Eucharist reserved in the Tabernacle.¹
In these special features found in Eastern churches, anyone entering the church can recognize this is not an ordinary building, but it is God’s Holy Temple. Identifying what is sacred apart from what is commonplace is transformative. Defining sacred space in a sense, defines our approach to God and the special honor we reserve for God alone.
The icon screen is never a barrier to worship. Some may be inclined to think it restricts what can be seen during worship services. Instead, it is a unifying element, bridging the holy sanctuary and the nave. Together, these symbolically and in reality form the Body of Christ, the Church — the Kingdom of God.
As the icon screen signifies this uniting of heaven and earth, in Eastern Churches the priest and faithful also unite their prayers and hymns of praise. Together, they direct their attention to God, towards the altar which faces east. This is the direction cited in Holy Scripture of the Second Coming of Christ. The focus of Liturgy is the divine eternal and timeless sanctity of praise to God, which is why it is called “Divine Liturgy”. The Liturgy is all that has been divinely revealed and accomplished in the past, and all that has already been revealed and accomplished in the future, and all that is mystically present in the moment. The prayers of the Liturgy, including those during the Anaphora ² touch upon this transcendent unity of time and space, sacrifice and praise, heaven and earth.
The form of the Liturgy in combination with all other elements of the church, including the church architecture and icons, serve to accentuate what is present, what is sacred and holy. Every aspect of Liturgy is in its entirety fulfillment of and with God’s plan of salvation. Many parts of the Liturgy are symbolically linked to passages and events in Holy Scripture. The icon screen serves a role in this way since the physical passage of the priest through the doors of the icon screen at various times in the Liturgy symbolizes events in the life of Christ.
In Eastern Churches, this mystical nature of worship is present in many forms. There is a richness seen in the eloquent wording of liturgical prayers, plain chant, and of course, iconography. Through these, thanksgiving and praise is offered to God in union with the whole of creation – with the entirety of the communion of saints, the Mother of God, the apostles, martyrs, angels, and all those whose souls rest in the Lord.
Looking at the row of the apostles in the icon screen, each holding a Gospel book or scroll and looking out to the people, we see before us holy men who walked with Christ Jesus. They were present with Christ and witnesses to all that Jesus taught and did.
Those in the icon screen are present to us visually and present with us spiritually. In acknowledging the life of Christ in the lives of all who came before us, such as the saints and apostles depicted on the icon screen, we are assisted in turning our attention when in church to God and to “set aside all earthly cares”.
Physical Characteristics of the Icon Screen
Icon screens seen in Byzantine churches vary in complexity, height, and appearance. Each is unique, but all follow a standard format of what icons are present in the first level and where the icons are placed. Some older churches have an iconostasis with multiple rows stretching from floor to ceiling. Those screens contain many additional icons, and may include scenes of the life of Christ and the Mother of God. Newer churches may have very simple screens with only a few main icons arranged in a more open symmetrical design. Typically, icon screens have either a natural wood tone (as seen in St. Michael’s sister parish; St. Nicholas Byzantine Catholic Church, Swoyersville) or the screen may have a white marble-like finish.
The center set of doors are the “Royal Doors”. Passage through the Royal doors and passage directly in front of the altar table, is strictly limited to celebrants of the Divine Liturgy. They are called “Royal” because their use is reserved for all of the major parts of the Divine Liturgy, most notably when the priest carries and distributes the Precious Body and Blood of Christ, Holy Eucharist to the faithful. Deacons may only pass through the Royal Doors when accompanying the priest as part of a liturgical service. Otherwise, deacons and other altar servers enter and exit the icon screen through the smaller side doors appropriately called Deacon doors. The Deacon doors contain the icons of St. Stephen and St. Lawrence.
In the Byzantine rite, only those ordained are allowed to stand or walk in the area directly in front of the Tabernacle and the Holy Table. When altar servers need to get to the other side of the sanctuary, they walk around the back of the Holy Table. This shows great respect for God’s presence and further emphasizes the holiness of all that takes place during the Divine Liturgy.
Some other features that are present in most iconostases are the standardized arrangement of icons. The Royal Doors usually contain icons depicting the Annunciation. The icons of Christ and the Mother of God are present immediately to the right & left of the center doors. The icon of Christ is always on the right. The icon of the Mother of God (Theotokos) is always on the left. On each side, moving farther away from the center are icons of two deacons of the early church (St. Lawrence and St. Stephen). And the outermost icons include the church’s patron saint (in this case, St. Michael) and usually another saint, such as St. Nicholas (patron saint of all Byzantine churches).
While the arrangement of icons on the screen is standardized, the stylization of the icons themselves (how the figures are depicted and painted) can vary. In some churches, the icons representing the saints, apostles, Christ and Mary, are painted in a realistic Baroque-like, Western style. In other icon screens, the icons are styled in the traditional Byzantine manner. The latter (icons) are two-dimensional in methodology with the intention of placing greater emphasis on mystical elements rather than on realistic portrayal. Many older churches have screens with the more realistic looking icons in them, while many newer churches have those following the older Byzantine format. The icon style found in various churches is more or less a reflection of the culture and influences present at the time the church was built or when restoration work was completed. Read more about icons on this site’s menu or click here.
Icon Screen in St. Michael the Archangel Church
The icon screen in St. Michael the Archangel Church, Pittston, Pennsylvania was the result of a restoration to traditional Byzantine interior design. To learn more about the history of the restoration at St. Michael Church click here.
The icon screen was created locally by the former Quality Wood Products, Luzerne, Pennsylvania. During its time of operation, the company hand crafted wooden icon screens for Byzantine and Orthodox churches throughout the U.S., including as far away as Alaska. The iconography is the work of Father Theodore Koufos and his studio in Toronto, Canada. The iconostasis and church re-dedication occurred in 1990 in conjunction with the church’s 75th anniversary.
St. Michael’s icon screen prominently features the 12 apostles as the top row. Each apostle is holding a book, representing their role in proclaiming the Gospel, the Word of God. The grape vine and wheat motif are symbolic of the many references to them direct from the Word of God. They also represent the gifts of bread and wine that during Divine Liturgy with the epiclesis (prayer of invocation), through the action of the Holy Spirit, become the Precious Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The Royal Doors are adorned with the image of a peacock, a Christian symbol of immortality.
Reminders of Holiness
The interior of an Eastern Rite Church (whether Catholic or Orthodox) is obviously unique in the way art and structure preserves the tradition of sacred space. The merit of inspiring church design is in elevating our minds and souls to God. Yet, we are reminded that ecclesiastical art and architecture are merely the form of creation that reminds us of what is truly holy. All the elements of worship in combination, including those that are visual, should help lead us in our spiritual journey, that is, our personal call to holiness. Our church buildings serve as manifestations and instruments of the Kingdom of God and the glory yet to come.
The Row of Apostles are:
(LEFT side, left to right):
Thomas, Jude (Thaddeus), James (son of Alphaeus), Matthias, Matthew, and Peter
(RIGHT side, left to right):
Andrew, John, James (brother of John), Bartholomew, Simon, Phillip
¹The Tabernacle in the Byzantine Church is most often as a replica of a small church, which is fitting since Christ is the Head of the Church. To see a photo image of the Tabernacle, go to “Photo Gallery, Virtual Tour” on this site.
²The Anaphora in Eastern Churches corresponds, but is distinct in structure and prayers, to the Eucharistic prayer in the Roman Catholic Church. The Anaphora is the focal point of the Divine Liturgy (the Liturgy of the Faithful) that begins after the Nicene Creed and continues to the Epiclesis — the invocation of the Holy Spirit through which the offerings of bread and wine become the Precious Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The Anaphora concludes with prayers prior to chanting of the Our Father.