Icon Screen

Upon entering a Byzantine Catholic church, one’s gaze is normally drawn first to the iconostasis, or icon screen, that appears to separate the sacred space of the altar from the nave, or main worship space.  It is the most prominent internal architectural feature of a Byzantine church.  There will be some variance in style and composition, but there are certain essentials that are always present – Catholic or Orthodox.

 

Essentially, the iconostasis is a screen covering the opening of the sacred space, the altar or “holy place.” There are three doors and four icon panels at a minimum on the “local row,” the level closest to the people. An icon screen can have up to three other levels, depending upon the space available and other resources. It developed historically from the chancel wall in synagogues, which also served the function to separate the holy place from the gathering space of the people. In churches of the Roman tradition, the chancel wall evolved into the communion rail.  In Byzantine Churches, efforts to decorate the church led to this form of artistic expression, but always first following the theological function before adding artistic form. 

 

The icon screen, thus, is more properly seen as a horizon beyond which sacred things are occurring on behalf of the assembled faithful rather than as a separation as such.  Just as when we view a glorious sunset, heaven and earth appear to join as one in our visual field.  That is the proper manner to contemplate the icon screen. 

 

We, the gathered people in the Nave of the Church, are under the vault of heaven above and experience heaven and earth coming together, with the icon screen our experience of horizon and what potential might yet be just over that horizon.  This understanding determines the ideal placement of icons in the worship space.  Please note, however, that this is not always the case given the physical space and architecture of the church itself.