The iconostasis represents one of the most important architectural features of Orthodox churches. It is an unbroken screen, composed of icons, separating the Sanctuary, where the sacrament of the Eucharist is celebrated, from the central part, the nave, where the congregation stands. It is well known that the original iconostatsis in the form of a screen between the Sanctuary and the nave has existed in Christian churches from very ancient times. We find information about ancient screens in the writings of Church Fathers.
The Royal Doors are at the centre. It is from out of the Royal Doors that the Gospel is proclaimed, and it is through the Royal Doors that the priest carries the chalice with the body and blood of Christ. And so, in one form or another, the Royal Doors are for the Word of God to enter and exit. Therefore, the Royal Doors are usually decorated with an icon of the Annunciation (showing us the Word of God as the person Jesus Christ) or with images of the Four Evangelists (showing us the written word of God); often, as pictured left, both sets of images are present.
As we look at the Iconostasis, then to the left and right of the Royal Doors are icons of the Mother of God and Christ Pantocrator (Almighty) respectively. The Mother of God holds the infant Christ, and represents the beginning of our Salvation, whereas the icon of Christ Pantocrator, or Almighty, represents the fulfillment, when Christ sits in Judgment at the end of the world.
To the right of Christ is St John the Forerunner and Baptist, whilst to the left of the Mother of God is an icon of the Patronal Saint or Feast, i.e. the saint or feast to which the church is dedicated. In the iconostasis above, the icon is of St Philip the Apostle. The proximity of the two icons to the Royal Doors shows the honour given to St John and the patronal saint or feast of any given church.
Annunciation of the Theotokos
Six months after John the Forerunner's conception, the Archangel Gabriel was sent by God to Nazareth, a town of Galilee, unto Mary the Virgin, who had come forth from the Temple a mature maiden (see Nov. 21). According to the tradition handed down by the Fathers, she had been betrothed to Joseph four months. On coming to Joseph's house, the Archangel declared: "Rejoice, thou Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women." After some consideration, and turmoil of soul, and fear because of this greeting, the Virgin, when she had finally obtained full assurance concerning God's unsearchable condescension and the ineffable dispensation that was to take place through her, and believing that all things are possible to the Most High, answered in humility: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word." And at this, the Holy Spirit came upon her, and the power of the Most High overshadowed her all-blameless womb, and the Son and Word of God, Who existed before the ages, was conceived past speech and understanding, and became flesh in her immaculate body (Luke 1:26-38).
Bearing in her womb the Uncontainable One, the blessed Virgin went with haste from Nazareth to the hill country of Judea, where Zacharias had his dwelling; for she desired to find Elizabeth her kinswoman and rejoice together with her, because, as she had learned from the Archangel, Elizabeth had conceived in her old age. Furthermore, she wished to tell her of the great things that the Mighty One had been well-pleased to bring to pass in her, and she greeted Elizabeth and drew nigh to her. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, she felt her six-month-old babe, Saint John the Baptist, prophesied of the dawning of the spiritual Sun. Immediately, the aged Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and recognized her as the Mother of her Lord, and with a great voice blessed her and the Fruit that she held within herself. The Virgin also, moved by a supernatural rejoicing in the spirit, glorified her God and Savior, saying: "My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour," and the rest, as the divine Luke hath recorded (1:39-55)
Saint Olga, Equal-to-the-Apostles, Princess of Kiev
Saint Olga, renowned for her wisdom and sobriety, in her youth became the wife of Igor, Great Prince of Kiev, who ruled during the tenth century. After her husband's death, she herself ruled capably, and was finally moved to accept the Faith of Christ. She traveled to Constantinople to receive Holy Baptism. The Emperor, seeing her outward beauty and inward greatness, asked her to marry him. She said she could not do this before she was baptized; she furthermore asked him to be her Godfather at the font, which he agreed to do. After she was baptized (receiving the name of Helen), the Emperor repeated his proposal of marriage. She answered that now he was her father, through holy Baptism, and that not even among the heathen was it heard of a man marrying his daughter. Gracefully accepting to be outwitted by her, he sent her back to her land with priests and sacred texts and holy icons. Although her son Svyatoslav remained a pagan, she planted the seed of faith in her grandson Vladimir (see July 15). She reposed in peace in 969.
Nicholas the Wonderworker, Archbishop of Myra
This Saint lived during the reign of Saint Constantine the Great, and reposed in 330, As a young man, he desired to espouse the solitary life. He made a pilgrimage to the holy city Jerusalem, where he found a place to withdraw to devote himself to prayer. It was made known to him, however, that this was not the will of God for him, but that he should return to his homeland to be a cause of salvation for many. He returned to Myra, and was ordained bishop. He became known for his abundant mercy, providing for the poor and needy, and delivering those who had been unjustly accused. No less was he known for his zeal for the truth. He was present at the First Ecumenical Council of the 318 Fathers at Nicaea in 325; upon hearing the blasphemies that Arius brazenly uttered against the Son of God, Saint Nicholas struck him on the face. Since the canons of the Church forbid the clergy to strike any man at all, his fellow bishops were in perplexity what disciplinary action was to be taken against this hierarch whom all revered. In the night our Lord Jesus Christ and our Lady Theotokos appeared to certain of the bishops, informing them that no action was to be taken against him, since he had acted not out of passion, but extreme love and piety. The Dismissal Hymn for holy hierarchs, The truth of things hath revealed thee to thy flock ... was written originally for Saint Nicholas. He is the patron of all travellers, and of sea-farers in particular; he is one of the best known and best loved Saints of all time.
All images © Mark Fiorenzo Photography.