The Iconostas in Ukrainian Churches

Shortly after the period of iconoclasm in the ninth century, Christians began attaching icons to the gates and the columns of the templon at the front of the nave and even started placing icons in front of the altar. This placement of icons did not yet constitute an iconostas but it would in later centuries evolve into one.

The iconostas in Sts. Volodymyr and Olha Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral in Winnipeg, MB.

In Europe there are some rare instances where altar screens reach as high as seven tiers. In Canada, they tend not to exceed five tiers, even in the largest cathedrals. The following are some of the possible tiers according to standard practice that might be seen in a large iconostas:

  • At the very top of an iconostas may be a depiction of the Crucifixion in a two dimensional iconographic style.  Generally, one will see the cross in the centre with Christ’s mother on His right hand side and St. John the Theologian depicted as a young man on His left hand side. However, in many instances one might only see Christ and the cross.
  • The icons of the uppermost tier (below the depiction of the Crucifixion, if there is one) frequently represent the Old Testament patriarchs, typically having icons of the forefathers from Adam to Moses.
  • The next lower level might be dedicated to icons of the Old Testament prophets, usually depicted holding scrolls representing prophesies of the Divine Incarnation.
  • The next lower tier is usually that of the 12 major feast days (the festal icons).
  • Below the festal icons, one sometimes finds a row of icons forming an extended Deisis. The Pantocrator is in the centre with the Virgin Mary on His right and St. John the Baptist on His left. On each side of these, there are generally images of saints arranged in order of categories of saints.
  • Frequently, one finds a level of the iconostas in Ukrainian parishes that is dedicated to icons of the 12 apostles. Additionally, the apostle’s tier is usually placed above the festal icon tier when it is included on the iconostas instead of the Deisis tier.
  • The final and primary tier, at ground level, always contains the major icons of the iconostas.
The iconostas in St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral in Edmonton, AB

The Primary Tier of Icons

The Pantocrator and Theotokos

Perhaps, in its most rudimentary form, an iconostas might only have two icons. As we face the altar of the church, they would be the image of the Pantocrator, viewed on our right, and the image of the Theotokos, viewed on our left. They are known as the depotikai in Greek or namisni in Slavonic and, in preparation of celebration of the Holy Eucharist, the clergy proclaim specific troparia before them. In the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church (Jaroslav), built in 1903 west of Yorkton, Saskatchewan, one finds such a simple iconostas.

A simple iconostas is in Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Ukrainian Catholic Church west of Yorkton, SK.

Thus the Pantocrator and Theotokos are the two essential icons that never vary on the iconostas. In addition to the large icons of Jesus and Mary on each side of the Royal Doors, one frequently sees miniature icons of the Pantocrator and Theotokos on the door jams.

The Royal Doors

The Royal Doors (tsars’ki dveri) are a set of double doors that are in the centre of the iconostas. They provide a direct entrance to the altar and they represent the doors to Paradise. In many parishes the Royal Doors feature richly carved woodwork portraying vines and leaves. There usually is a curtain hung directly behind the doors. Only members of the ordained clergy are permitted to stand directly in front of the altar and only the clergy are allowed to use the Royal Doors. It seems these doors originate from about the earliest time of the altar screens.

Royal Doors in Holy Ascension Orthodox Church, Skaro, AB

Traditionally, the Royal Doors have a portrayal of the Annunciation in two parts (i.e. an icon of the Archangel Gabriel will be placed on one of the double doors and an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary placed on the other one). This depiction symbolizes God’s plan for the Incarnation of Christ and the salvation of mankind. It emphasises the role of the Virgin Mary and is also a visual reference to the Virgin as the fulfilment of the prophecies contained in Ezekiel 44: 2 (The LORD said to me, "This gate is to remain shut. It must not be opened; no one may enter through it. It is to remain shut because the LORD, the God of Israel, has entered through it.”) and also Zechariah 2: 10 ("Shout and be glad, O Daughter of Zion. For I am coming, and I will live among you," declares the LORD.).

The Royal Doors in St. George Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, Saskatoon, SK, have the traditional six icons

Alternative to the Annunciation, images of the four evangelists may be placed on the Royal Doors. In some instances, each door may only be a grill with no icons at all. In many churches, the Royal Doors have all six icons portraying the Annunciation and the four evangelists. It is uncommon for icons other than these to be on the Royal Doors but it does happen.

The Deacons Doors

Facing the iconostas, on our right, we usually see, next to the Pantocrator, a small door with the icon of the Archangel Michael. On our left we see, next to the Theotokos, another door with the Archangel Gabriel. These are called the Deacon’s Doors (dyiakons’ki dveri) because the persons serving the priest, such as deacons and alter servers, use them during the services. The Deacon’s Doors may also have images of deacons of the Church such as St. Stephen or St. Lawrence. This placement reminds us that angels and deacons are servants of God. Angels serve God in His divine kingdom and deacons serve along side the priest or bishop here on earth in the celebration of the Holy Mysteries.

St. Gabriel on a Deacons’ Door in Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Ottawa, ON

Other Icons at the Ground Level

While one might see any icons to the left and right of the Deacons Doors, there are definite traditions that are frequently followed. In the space to the right of the right Deacons Door, one often finds an icon of St. John the Baptist. This placement underscores the Forerunner’s significance in the company of saints.

St. John the Baptist on the iconostas of All Saints
Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Endeavour, SK

Alternatively, the icon to the right of the right Deacons Door commonly is that of the patron of the parish. So, for example, if the church is the Parish of St. George, then an icon of St. George may be placed here.

Directly, to the left of the left Deacons Door one frequently finds the icon of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. This saint has been extremely popular in Eastern Rite churches for many centuries, as is witnessed by the large number of churches that are named for St. Nicholas. Icons of other saints may be placed in this spot but the icon of St. Nicholas is by far the most common one placed here.

St. Nicholas on the iconostas of Holy Spirit
Ukrainian Orthodox Sobor, Regina, SK

In most iconostases in Canada, there is generally only one icon to the extreme right or left of the Deacons Doors. Nonetheless, there are a few examples where there are two or more icons placed here or in some instances there are no icons after the Deacons Doors.

The Festal Icon Tier

The second tier of the iconostas is generally comprised of a series of smaller icons that portray the major events in the lives of the Virgin Mary and of Jesus Christ.

Three icons in the Festal Tier of the iconostas of St. Mary the Protectress
Ukrainian Orthodox Sobor, Winnipeg, MB

While there occasionally may be additional feast days on this tier, normally one finds the “Twelve Great Feasts” (the Dodekaorton). For Christ, they are the Nativity, the Meeting in the Temple, the Baptism, the Transfiguration, the Entry into Jerusalem, the Resurrection, and the Ascension. For the Virgin Mary, they are her Nativity, the Presentation in the Temple, the Annunciation, and the Dormition. In addition to these are added the icons for feasts of Pentecost and the Elevation of the Cross. In some instances there may be icons depicting the crucifixion and resurrection that together represent Easter. However, some would say that Easter is the Feast of Feasts and that it is therefore greater than all of the major feasts of the Church.

The festal icons should be arranged, from left to right, in the chronological order of the Church calendar, which begins on September 1 and ends on August 31. Therefore, this tier starts with the Nativity of the Theotokos on the extreme left and ends with the Dormition of the Theotokos on the extreme right.

The Mystical Supper

This icon is frequently placed in the “Festal Icon Tier” of the iconostas, if there is room for it there. The placement of the Mystical Supper icon over the Royal Doors symbolizes that by partaking in the Holy Supper we become worthy of entering through the doors of paradise.

The Mystical Supper icon on the iconostas of Patronage
of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church, Winnipeg, MB

The subject of the Mystical Supper icon draws our attention to the sacerdotal office of Christ since this icon expresses in His direct roll as the Priest. The location of the icon of the very first Holy Communion is directly above the area where the communion of the faithful occurs in the Divine Liturgy. As we approach the cup, it reminds us the sacrament continues down to the present and that priests, the successors of the Apostles, now administer this sacrament to the faithful. This unites communicants to one another and raises them up to God, making them partakers of His Body, His Blood, and His Divinity.

The Apostles Tier

A tier of 12 icons dedicated to the apostles is relatively common in Ukrainian iconostasi. Although, in many instances there will be six icons with two apostles on each icon. The apostles’ tier began replacing the Deisis tier by about the 16th century in western Ukraine. In many other Orthodox churches, for example in Greek churches, the apostles’ tier much is less common. A beautiful example of the Apostles Tier is in Holy Ascension Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kobzar) located south of Arran, Saskatchewan. It is not unusual for an icon of Christ to be in the centre of the Apostles Tier, as seen in this example.

Apostles Tier in Holy Ascension Ukrainian Orthodox Church south of Arran, SK

The Remaining Tiers

There are a great many Ukrainian churches in Canada that do not have an iconostas with a tier of icons for the Apostles and there are even a greater number still that do not have icons of the Prophets or Patriarchs. It is especially rare to find the Deisis tier in Ukrainian-Canadian churches.

Prophets illustrated in the upper portion of the iconostas at
St. Mary Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Szypenitz, AB

It is more tradition than hard-and-fast rules that determine the icons on much of the iconostas. In some instances, out of a matter of taste, the upper tiers of the iconostas may be omitted simply because there is a particularly beautiful icon in the apse of the church that otherwise would be obscured if the iconostas was made too tall. In other instances finances may prohibit a parish from installing a multi-tiered iconostas. The iconostas serves the same liturgical purpose regardless of whether it has one level or several levels of icons.

Crowning the iconostas over the centre one may find a cross. In some instances this takes the form of an iconographic representation of the crucifixion in which one sees the Virgin Mary on Christ’s ride side and St. John the Apostle on His left side. While we usually only find the crucifixion at the top of large iconostasi, it is also sometimes found on smaller ones.

Depiction of the Crucifixion at the top of the iconostas of
St. Michael Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Regina, SK