The most striking feature in the Byzantine Church is the iconostas, which is symbolic of the Temple veil in the Old Testament. The iconostas is a large screen or wall that separates the altar from the nave of the church. It consists of four rows of icons. The bottom row has three doors. The large double doors in the middle are called “royal doors,” because Christ enters through them symbolically and actually in the Mystery of the consecrated Holy Gifts, as the priest brings the Precious Body and Blood to the congregation. They remind us that Christ alone is the door leading to communion with the Father: “No one comes to the Father, but by Me” (John 14:6). One of the icons on the royal doors depicts the Annunciation, reminding us that Christ’s coming, that is, the Incarnation, is the gateway that admits us to the sanctuary of God’s presence. The four other icons are those of the Evangelists, the writers of the four Gospels. The two doors on either side of the royal doors are called the “deacon’s doors,” on which the icons of St. Stephen and St. Lawrence are depicted. To the right and left of the royal doors are icons of Christ, the Teacher, and of the Mother of God. To the extreme right is the icon of the patron saint of the Cathedral, St. Josaphat, and to the extreme left is St. Nicholas.
Immediately above the royal doors, in the second row, is the icon of the Last Supper. To the right are six icons depicting the major feasts of the Mother of God and to the left the major feasts of Christ. These serve as a visual Gospel to worshippers.
The central part of the third row has a large icon of Christ, as the centre of history, and on both sides are the twelve Apostles who first brought the Gospel of Christ to the world.
The fourth row shows us the prophets of the Old Testament; they were the great leaders of the Jewish people before the coming of Christ. At the very top is Christ crucified; the price He paid for our salvation.
Each icon in the iconostas has its proper place according to a definite theological scheme that is used for inspiration and instruction. Christ used His physical body to communicate to man, so the Church uses icons to make God known to man.
Icons in the Church
The church is the meeting place between God and man. It is here we experience God’s Presence. Within the church, the icon is a visible sign of the relationship between God and man. Christ, the fullness of this relationship is THE ICON, “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). It is He Who leads us to the Father. The icon screen, placed between the sanctuary and nave, is another expression of this unity of God and man. The images of Christ, the Mother of God, and the Saints, remind us that we are created in the image of Christ. They are an invitation to come into His Presence.
The Icon – Our Invitation to Prayer
We stand in silence before the icon and grow in appreciation of its expression. Reading about icons is not enough; prayerful effort is required to sense inwardly the holiness of the icon. Much like meditation, silence begins to speak to us. As the icon is a spiritual form of art, it carries us beyond physical matter into the presence of the person depicted. It raises our consciousness to a new level, to the level of the Kingdom of God, where we begin to see according to the spirit and not according to the flesh. In this manner we are able to speak about the icon bringing us into the presence of God.
We are called to venerate the holy icons. We bow before them and reverently kiss them. The teaching of our Church tells us that we are to venerate them with the same honour that is shown to the Book of the Holy Gospels, and the Cross; the honour that we show toward them passes to the PERSON who is represented. They are the symbol of our relationship with god, and the reverence we show to them is passed over to God.