The Iconography of the Russian Iconostasis

Lisa Kies (Ska Sofya la Rus)
ISU Honors Project
Spring 1996

Since the conversion of the Kievan Rus' to Christianity in the 10th century, the Russian Orthodox church has been one of the primary influences in Russian life. Icons are an important part of Orthodox rites, and the conversion of Rus' coincided with the peak of Byzantine development of icons. This brought the tradition of iconography into Russia where it was developed further as an expression of faith and a tool for instructing the faithful. The iconography of the iconostasis was particularly well developed by Russian Orthodoxy.

The iconostasis is an ancient part of the structure of an Orthodox church and divides the Sanctuary where the Eucharist is celebrated from the nave where the congregation stands. The Sanctuary symbolizes the spiritual man and the Divine world, while the nave represents the physical man and the human world, so the iconostasis represents the boundary between the two, showing the division between them and showing how they can be reconciled. The columns of the iconostasis represent the firmament dividing the spiritual from the sensory, while the horizontal beams represent the union between the heavenly and the earthly through the love of God. (Ouspensky and Lossky 1982.)

The early forms of the iconstasis varied from a solid low wall about chest high to a high latticework with a curtain on the Sanctuary side that was opened or closed during certain parts of the services. Later a triptych was added above it, consisting of a set of three icons: Christ flanked by the Virgin and John the Baptist. This was the form of the iconostasis that came to Russia. In Russia it developed further, until the 16th century, through the addition of more icons and more tiers until it reached it's present five-tiered form. (Ouspensky and Lossky 1982.)

The top tier is called the Patriarchs Tier or Forefathers Tier. It includes icons of saints from Abraham to Moses flanking an icon of the Old Testament Trinity (discussed below) and represents the original Old Testament Church, presaging the New Testament Church.

The Old Testament Trinity shows the first appearance of God to man in the visit of three Angels to Abraham by the oak of Mambre. It signifies the beginning of the promise of redemption and so is tied in with the events of the Descent of the Holy Spirit in the Church Feasts Tier. The Angels are shown sitting at a table under the oak with Abraham and Sarah serving them in the foreground and a servant killing the fatted calf in Their honor. The Angels are shown sitting side-by-side as equals, partaking equally in Godhood yet still distinct. (Ouspensky and Lossky 1982.)

The next lower tier is the Prophets Tier. It consists of icons of the Old Testament prophets with open scrolls inscribed with their prophecies concerning the coming of Christ centered on an icon of the Virgin of the Sign and represents the Church of the Old Testament paving the way for the Church of the New Testament. (Ouspensky and Lossky 1982.)

The Virgin of the Sign represents the fulfillment of prophecy, particularly Isaiah's prophecy, "Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; behold a virgin shall conceive in the womb, and bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Emmanuel." (Isaiah 8:14.) This connection is so strong that Isaiah's icon is often omitted from the Prophets Tier. Her hands are in a traditional position of prayer and the image of Christ on her breast represents the fulfillment of the Divine Incarnation. The presence of the angels in the icon emphasizes the Virgin's exalted position - higher than the angels. The three fibula - the golden jeweled emblems on the Virgin's shoulders and forehead - symbolize her chastity before, during, and after bearing Christ. (Ouspensky and Lossky 1982.)

The middle tier is the Church Feasts Tier. It consists of icons of the primary church Holy Days depicting events of the New Testament Church and, particularly, the lives of Christ and the Virgin. They represent "the principal stages of Divine Providence in the world" and the fulfillment of what was foretold by the upper tiers. (Ouspensky and Lossky 1982.)

The Birth of the Virgin is drawn from apocryphal sources. Her parents are Joachim and Anna and the ending of their long sterility is a prefiguration of the Resurrection. In addition, St. Anna's freedom from sterility to bear the Mother of God symbolizes the freeing of human nature from sterility to bear the fruits of grace. (Ouspensky and Lossky 1982.)

The Raising of the Cross commemorates the discovery of the True Cross in Jerusalem by St. Helen, the mother of Constantine the Great (who is also depicted in the icon.) Here, St. Marcarius, Bishop of Jerusalem, is presenting the true Cross to the people in from of the basilica of the Resurrection which was dedicated by Constantine shortly before the discovery.. This represents the fact that the "feast of the dedication" came to be intertwined with, and then superseded by, "the feast of the raising of the cross." The cross is important because it was the means of man's redemption and represents the victory of Christianity over the hostile forces of the world, giving it Constantinian political overtones. However, more universally, since Christ is the New Adam, then the Cross is the new Tree of Life. (Ouspensky and Lossky 1982.)

The Presentation of the Virgin is also drawn from apocryphal sources. It depicts the Virgin consecrating herself to the service of God. She is welcomed by priest Zacharias who was the eventual father of John the Baptist. He allowed her into the Holy of Holies, violating mosaic law, because she was the new Ark, the "living Ark" of the covenant. (Ouspensky and Lossky 1982.)

In the Nativity of Christ, the cave represents the sinful world into which Christ, "the Sun of truth," appeared and shone forth. In addition, the cave, manger and swaddling clothes prefigure His death and burial - the tomb and the burial clothes. The ox and ass are depicted to represent the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy, "The ox knows its owner, and the ass his master's crib: but Israel does not know Me, and the people has not regarded Me." Mary is pictured as the new Eve, the Mother of renewed mankind. Her posture varies depending on whether the emphasis is on the divine of human nature of Christ. When she is half-sitting, it indicates the absence of the usual travails of childbirth and, hence, the Divinity of Christ and the Virgin birth. More commonly, Mary is shown lying down as if tired, indicating Christ's human nature. The shepherds represent simple, common, uneducated people, with whom God can communicate directly. The wise men represent the educated people who can only come to know the divine truth indirectly through their studies. In addition, the shepherds represent the Jewish church, while the wise men represent the Gentile church. Joseph is shown separated off to one side to emphasize his non-paternity, and is shown being tempted by the devil to doubt the Virgin birth. (Ouspensky and Lossky 1982.)

The Baptism of Christ represents another depiction of the Holy Trinity. God the Father spoke, God the Holy Spirit descended as a dove and God the Son was immersed, establishing the sacrament of Baptism. The appearance of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove recalls the Old Testament flood when a dove was sent forth from the Ark to see if the earth was ready for the renewal of life. The rite of Baptism symbolizes death, burial and rebirth and thus the cave in the icon foreshadows Christ's tomb. (Ouspensky and Lossky 1982.)

The Presentation of Christ or Candlemas depicts the consecration of Christ as the first-born son and the traditional sacrifice for the purification of the new mother, the Virgin Mary. The hands of the Virgin and St. Simeon, who is holding the Christ child, are covered as a sign of respect. Joseph carries the offering, two doves which symbolize the two testaments, Old and New, and the two churches, Jewish and Gentile. (Ouspensky and Lossky 1982.)

The Annunciation is such an important event that it also appears on the Royal Door of the iconostasis. The Archangel is in a very active pose, as if intent on fulfilling his divine mission, carrying a staff symbolizing his role as a messenger. Mary here stands attentive to God's command, while in other icons she may be depicted sitting down to emphasize her superiority over the angel. Her head is bowed in consent and submission to the will of God. This is vital, because the Divine Incarnation could not have been the result of God's will alone, but also of the free will and faith of the Virgin. (Ouspensky and Lossky 1982.)

The Entry to Jerusalem fulfilled the prophecy of Christ as the coming King bringing victory over His enemies - but through spiritual salvation, not secular war. The adult Jews, who are depicted honoring Christ with palm branches symbolizing joy and feasting and used to welcome those of high rank and recognize the valor of conquerors, misunderstood this. This is in contrast with the sincere rejoicing of the children who had no ulterior motives of earthly power. They are very important in the icon and are shown cutting palm branches from a tree, and spreading palm branches and garments in Christ's path. In fact, only the children are spreading garments, fulfilling the Scripture "Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast thou perfected praise." (Psalms 8:3.) (Ouspensky and Lossky 1982.)

The Spice-bearing Women at the Tomb is one of two Easter Icons used in the Orthodox Church. (The other is the Anastasis or Descent into Hell.) Since the Gospels are silent about the actual moment of Resurrection, neither Easter Icon attempts to depict it. The Icon of the Spice-bearing Women depicts what was seen by those who came to the tomb after the Resurrection. The difference between the Gospel accounts concerning the number of angels and the number of women is reflected in the variation between icons. The Resurrection took place on the morning after the seventh day of the week, therefore early Christians called it the "eighth day" and considered it the prefiguration of the future eternal life of the believer. The first day of Creation represented the beginning of days IN time, and likewise the Resurrection represented the beginning of days OUTSIDE time, the kingdom of the Holy Spirit. (Ouspensky and Lossky 1982.)

The Ascension represents the completion of the events of Christ's life on earth His birth, passion, death and resurrection and thus, salvation consummated. The icon, just like the Scriptural accounts, emphasizes the place of the Virgin and the Apostles more than Christ and the actual Ascension. The importance of the Ascension is its significance for those left on earth representing the new Church. This is why the Apostle Paul, who couldn't have been at the actual Ascension, and the Virgin are included in the group to represent the whole New Testament Church. The Virgin is the personification of the Church, the earthly temple of the incarnate Word. By depicting Christ in the act of blessing, the icon emphasize His continuing work on earth in watching over the Church. And the angels next to the Virgin are messengers of the Divine Providence, and reminders that Christ will return one day in glory. (Ouspensky and Lossky 1982.)

The Descent of the Holy Spirit was the making of the new covenant by God with the Church, the new Israel, and occurred fifty days after the Resurrection during the Feast of Pentecost, the Old Testament commemoration of God's original covenant with Israel. This icon, like the Ascension, is an idealization of the historical events. In order to represent the unity of the New Testament Church, the Apostle Paul is again included even though he wasn't there. The calmness and order shown in the icon depict the point of view of believers which contrasts with the Biblical account which describes the noise and chaos seen by unbelievers at the event who did not understand what was going on. The empty space at the top of the bench between Peter and Paul is the spot reserved for the invisible Head of the Church, Christ. The figure at the bottom center of the icon was explained in the 17th century as follows: "The man [stands] in a dark place, since the whole world had formerly been without faith; he is bowed down with years, for he was made old by the sin of Adam; his red garment signifies the devil's blood sacrifices; the royal crown signifies sin, which ruled in the world; the white cloth in his hands with the twelve scrolls means the twelve Apostles, who brought light to the whole world with their teaching." (Ouspensky and Lossky 1982.)

The Transfiguration was the manifestation of the Divinity of Christ to His disciples, Peter, John and James. In fact, the brilliance of the Divine Light overwhelmed the disciples and they fell back and attempted to shield their eyes. This viewing of the glory and majesty of the Lord helped the disciples later, during the Passion and Crucifixion of Christ, to understand the magnitude of His voluntary sacrifice. The presence of Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration has been explained three different ways: 1) They represent the law (Moses) and the prophets (Elijah); 2) Both had had secret visions of God, themselves; 3) Moses represents those who have died in the faith, while Elijah, taken up to heaven directly, represents living believers. (Ouspensky and Lossky 1982.)

The Dormition celebrates the Death and Burial of the Mother of God, as well as her Resurrection and Assumption. Her glorification as the first to participate in the final deification of the believer balances the voluntary humiliation of her Son, made incarnate through her, and foreshadows the joyous destiny of all the faithful. The Virgin is depicted on her deathbed surrounded by the Apostles, miraculously summoned from all corners of the earth, with her white-clothed, child-like soul received in the arms of her glorified Son. (Ouspensky and Lossky 1982.)

The next tier is the Tchin or Deisis Tier. It grew out of the original triptych of Christ, the Virgin and John the Baptist. Deisis means "prayer" and, accordingly, the Virgin, John the Baptist and the other saints are shown standing in prayer before Christ. Tchin means "order" and thus the addition of the angels, apostles, Church Fathers and others to the original three figures is meant to reflect the proper order of the world in the fulfillment of the New Testament Church - united in common movement toward Christ in prayer in a strict orderly succession, interceding on behalf of the sins of the world. The Deisis Tier is the most important part of the iconostasis and represents the goal of every church service - prayerful standing before the throne of God. (Ouspensky and Lossky 1982.) Christ is usually depicted in the Deisis Tier in the form of the icon called Christ Pantocrator. It represents Christ enthroned as the Creator and Redeemer presiding over the destinies of the world. He is depicted in a circle, called a mandorla, representing His divine glory and surrounded by two squares which form an eight-pointed star symbolizing the "eighth day" - the future life. (Ouspensky and Lossky 1982.)

St. John the Forerunner and Baptizer of the Lord hold a special place in the canon. He is the greatest "among them that are born of woman" yet still the "least in the kingdom of Heaven is greater than he," because his work is the last to belong to the Old Testament in preparing for the coming of Christ. His long hair and shaggy beard signify his life in the desert as a messenger of penitence. (Ouspensky and Lossky 1982.)

St. Nicholas, the Miracle Worker of Myra, as seen as the personification of the role of bishop as shepherd of the flock, the defender and intercessor for the Church. As Bishop of Myra, he was known for his compassion which was strong enough to work miracles, even after his death.

St. Basil the Great takes his place in the Tchin among the other bishops who, as successors of the Apostles, follow them in the order. Over his chasuble (robe) he wears an omophorion wrapped around his shoulders, signifying the lost sheep of the flock that, when found, are carried home on the shepherd's shoulders. (Ouspensky and Lossky 1982.)

St. George wears the red cloak traditional for a martyr. Sometimes he is depicted on horseback, striking down a dragon or as a warrior on foot, but in a Tchin such martial attire is never found. The Tchin is supposed to depict the normal proper order of the universe, the order of the life to come where there is no place for enmity - and thus no place for arms. In general, martyrs are not depicted with symbols of the actual events of their martyrdom. The emphasis is not on how they died, but what they died for - not their earthly suffering, but the eternal peace and joy which is their present reward. (Ouspensky and Lossky 1982.)

St. Demetrius was another warrior martyr. Soldiery was not considered incompatible with Christianity. It was not a social or political doctrine, but acted on a level deeper than that of human institutions. (Ouspensky and Lossky 1982.)

The bottom tier of the iconostasis is Worship Tier. Its name came from the ancient practice of removing the current feast day icon or the icon for the current month from there to the pulpit for worship and the fact that these icons are more accessible to the worshippers for veneration: kissing, candle-burning, and meditation. It is more varied and local in character than the other tiers of the iconostasis. The Worship Tier consists of various icons and three doors: the North Door which leads to the sacrificial table, the Royal Door which leads to the Sanctuary, and the South Door which leads to the deaconry. Usually an icon of the Virgin and Child and one of Christ flank the Royal Door, but on occasion the icon of Christ may be replaced by an icon of the particular saint or holy day that the church is dedicated to. (Ouspensky and Lossky 1982.)

The Royal Door represents the entrance to the Holy of Holies of Jewish tradition, the Sanctuary. Only the clergy may enter through it and only at certain points in the church service. It represents the entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven and thus, the announcers of the kingdom are depicted on it: the four Evangelists and the icon of the Annunciation. The icon of the Last Supper above the door represents the establishment of the sacrament of the Eucharist and depicts Christ's role as priest. On one side, the bread is being given and on the other, the wine. North Door and South Door are depicted with the two archangels or sainted deacons as servitors of the Mystery. (Ouspensky and Lossky 1982.)

A common icon of Christ to be placed in the Worship Tier is The Savior "made without hands" or "the icon of the Lord on the cloth." The legend is that Abgar, the king of Edessa, had a portrait of Christ painted from a piece of linen on which Christ had pressed His face and then sent to the envoy of Abgar. Thus, this icon represents the dogmatic principle of iconography in that the sacred art of icons cannot be the arbitrary creation of the artist but must follow the divine inspiration of Orthodox tradition. The Greek letters on the cross inscribed on Christ's nimbus form the Divine name as revealed to Moses - "I am" or "The Being" - the name of Jehovah. (Ouspensky and Lossky 1982.)

Smolensk Mother of God is the Russian icon that is closest to the original Byzantine Hodigitria. According to Byzantine tradition, it was first painted by St. Luke. The formal character of the poses of the Mother and Child focused outward to the world emphasize not the mother-child relationship, but the Divine nature of the Incarnation in bringing to earth the means of the salvation of the entire world. The Mother of God makes a gesture of formal presentation, showing the Christ-Emmanuel to the people He will save. (Ouspensky and Lossky 1982.)

Boris and Gleb were early Kievan princes (sons of Vladimir I who converted Russian to Orthodox Christianity) who were killed by their older brother in a struggle for the succession. Their humility and the faith they displayed in facing their killers, led to their veneration as the first Russian saints to be canonized. (MacKenzie and Curran 1993.)

The icon of Elijah Being Taken up into Heaven is more common in Russian Orthodoxy than elsewhere and represents a possible blending of pagan Slavic beliefs with the rites of Christianity. The cult of the Prophet Elijah is associated with the cult of the Slavic god of thunder and fire, Perun, and that association is easy to see in the image of Elijah being taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot. (MacKenzie and Curran 1993.)

The richness and depth of Russian iconography and the layers of meaning behind the Russian iconostasis is unbelievable and can only been hinted at in a paper of this length. The amount of information encoded in the images made them excellent aids for instructing often illiterate congregations in the tenets of the faith. In addition, the detail and beauty of the art and symbolism assist the meditation of the Divine Mysteries they represent.


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Alpatov, M. B., Early Russian Icon Painting, Iskusstvo Publishers, Moscow, 1974.

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Gerhard, H. P., The World of Icons, Harper & Row Publishers, New York, Evanston, San Francisco, London, 1971.

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MacKenzie, David and Curran, Michael W. A History of Russia, the Soviet Union and Beyond. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1993.

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