The altar, as in the ancient Christian temples, so also in those of today, has always been divided from the rest of the temple by a special barrier. In ancient times this was but a railing or colonnade with a cornice and a single row of icons above itself.
From this originally low barrier there gradually developed a high wall, covered entirely by several levels of icons, which received the name iconostasis. St. Symeon of Thessalonica, who in the XIV century wrote a special com-position on the temple, as of yet mentions nothing concerning the contemporary high iconostasis. From this it has been concluded that the current high iconostasis appeared no earlier than the XV — XVI centuries. There is, however, a tradition that rather high iconostasi were already intro-duced by St. Basil the Great, so that the prayerful attention of the clergy might not be distracted. In the iconostasis, as in the ancient altar barrier, three doors are set: the wider middle doors, which are called “holy” or “royal” (for through them, in the Holy Gifts, enters Christ, the King of Glory), and the more narrow north and south doors, which are called diaconal, since through them during the divine services the deacons continually come in and go out. Through the royal doors, or “gates,” only solemn exits take place. The iconostasis itself today consists of five tiers.
In the first, lower row, to the right of the royal doors, the icon of Christ the Savior is set, and to the left, that of the Mother of God. At the right of the icon of the Savior the icon of the feast or saint to whom the temple is consecrated — the temple icon — is set. These are called the “local icons.” On the two panels of the royal doors are set images of the Annunciation of the Most Holy Theotokos, and of the four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — two on each panel. On the north and south doors are set images of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, or of the Archdeacons Stephan and Phillip. The upper part of the iconostasis is called the “tab-leau.”
In the second tier, immediately above the royal doors, an icon of the Mystical Supper is placed, as though teaching that those who desire to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, which is symbolized by the altar, must be made worthy to eat at the table of the Lord, which is prepared further inside the altar on the holy table and is offered to the faithful from within the royal doors. On either side of the Mystical Supper, along both sides of the second tier, icons are placed of all of the twelve feasts of the Lord and of the Theotokos.
In the third tier, above the Mystical Supper, an icon called the “Deisis,” which means “prayer” (or “Deisus,” as the name has been corrupted in colloquial speech) is placed. The “Deisis” depicts the Lord Jesus Christ and, at His sides, the Mother of God and St. John the Forerunner, turning to Him with prayerful attitude of body. On each side of the “deisis” are placed the icons of the twelve Apostles.
In the fourth tier the Mother of God is depicted at the center with the Pre-eternal Infant, while along the sides are the Old Testament Prophets who foretold the incarnation of the Son of God. They are depicted with the same signs by which they prototypically portrayed the mystery of the incarnation: Aaron with the rod that blossomed, David with the golden ark, Ezekiel with the sealed doors, and so on.
And, finally, in the very highest fifth tier, the God of Sabbath is depicted with His Divine Son in His bosom at the center and the Old Testament Forefathers along either side. The apex of the iconostasis is crowned with the Holy Cross — the image of the sign by which eternal salva-tion was given to men and the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven were opened. On the inside of the altar, before the royal doors, a curtain is hung — in Greek, the - which, in liturgical books, in relation to the royal, as it were, outer doors, are sometimes called the “inner curtain,” “high doors,” “inner door,” or, sometimes, the “zaponi” (curtains). The opening of the curtain signifies the revealing of the mystery of salvation to the world, just as the opening of the royal doors themselves symbolizes the opening to the world of the entrance to the Kingdom of Heaven.
The iconostasis, which separates the altar from the central part of the temple, is set at the same elevation as the altar. This elevation does not end with the iconostasis, but extends forward into the central part of the temple, and is called the “soleass” (in Greek, the “soleas” — “elevation). In this way the soleas is as it were a continuation of the altar outside. The area of the soleas that lies opposite the royal doors is usually made in the form of a semicircular ledge, and is called the — the “ambon” —, which in Greek means “ascent.” On the ambon the Gospel is read, the deacons’ prayers, or litanies, are pronounced, and sermons are read. Therefore the ambon symbolizes the mount, the ship, and in general all those elevated places to which the Lord ascended to preach, that the people should hear Him the better. The ambon likewise signifies the stone from which the Angel greeted the myrrh-bearers with the glad tidings of the Resurrection of Christ. In ancient times the ambon was set in the center of the temple and was reminiscent of our contemporary lecterns; they were made of stone or metal. At the sides of the soleas places called “clirosi” are set for the readers and singers. Readers and singers, having been chosen in ancient times by lot, comprise the “lot of God” and, being set apart from the rest of the faithful for special service to God, are called “clerics” (from - “cliros” — “lot”). In liturgical books, the right and left clirosi are also called “choirs,” for the singers standing on them represent the choirs of Angels singing praise to God.
Near each of the clirosi there usually stands a gonfalon. This is an icon hanging on a shaft in the form of a military banner. It is, as it were, the banner around which the warriors of Christ rally, waging war with the enemies of our salvation. These are usually carried at the heads of processions during church feasts.
Around the clirosi a railing is usually placed, separating those performing the service from those standing in the temple. Here also the torch is usually placed, which is carried with a lighted candle at the head of processions.Tags: iconography, icons, church, altar