SAINTS, CHINS, AND PUSSY RIOT: ICONS OF THE ICONOSTASIS

The Russian female music group Pussy Riot got in the news (and in considerable trouble) in 2012 by staging a protest prayer to Mary to save Russia from Vladimir Putin (a request with considerable validity, given Putin’s subsequent actions). Video clips were shown on the major news networks, and it was reported along with the video of the event that the young women “danced on the altar” in the Spasskiy Cathedral (Cathedral of Christ the Savior) in Moscow.

It was a reporting error, and I wonder how many news sources bothered to correct it. Anyone familiar with the layout of Russian Orthodox churches could see from the video that though the group did make their protest in the church, it was in front of the large icon screen, not behind it, where the altar is always to be found.

Because this was obvious in the video coverage of the event, it was rather careless reporting, but it did show how unfamiliar the media were with Russian Orthodoxy. In a Protestant church, the raised area in the front is where one finds the pulpit in evangelical churches, and often both the pulpit and altar in such denominations as Lutheran and Episcopal. But in Russian Orthodox churches, that is where one finds the large screen inset with many icons — the иконостас — ikonostas — as Russians call it.

The word is adapted from Greek, in which it means simply “icon stand,” and that is what an iconostasis (the usual spelling used in English) is — just a large and wide wooden framework into which rows of icons are set. In a small church it is small, but in a large church the iconostasis can be very large and high. In Western terms, it separates the congregation in the nave from the altar, being placed in the sanctuary and forming a wall behind which the altar is hidden from the congregation by the Royal Doors.

Not only is the iconostasis found in Russian Orthodox churches, but also on icons. In its icon form, the iconostasis may be painted on a single wooden panel, or it may be painted on multiple panels that may all fold together for easy transport and use in travel or “field.”

To get an idea of the arrangement of an iconostasis, let’s look at an example painted as an icon:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

We are looking at a cut-away view of a Russian church. That is why we see the domes of the church at the top, though they are of course not part of the icon screen (nor are the added saints in the outermost borders and corners). But below the domes we see the screen itself, divided into rows or ranks (row is ряд (ryad) and rank is чин (chin). I will spare you a pun about iconostases with multiple chins.

So beginning just below the domes, the sixth and highest row of icons we see comprises scenes from the Passion of Jesus. These are not found in all iconostases.

In the next row down, the fifth, we begin a look at the biblical history of the “plan of salvation”; so here is the sequence followed from that point:

Fifth row: праотеческий (praotecheskiy): A praotets is a forefather, and so this is the row of the “forefathers,” the patriarchs of the Old Testament from Adam to Moses. In the very center one finds a Trinity icon. Some examples use the Old Testament Trinity type showing the Trinity as three angels, others use the New Testament Trinity, with God the Father depicted as an old man, Jesus either as the youth Emmanuel or as the mature Christ, and the Holy Spirit as a dove.

Fourth row: пророческий (prorocheskiy): A prorok is a prophet, so this is the row of the prophets, who in Eastern Orthodoxy are seen as predictors of the role of Mary and of Jesus. In the center is usually a Marian icon showing the Znamenie Mother of God, or as it is generally called in English, the “Sign” Mother of God, but in some examples it is replaced by a different (but generally similar) icon, such as the Pecherskaya Mother of God.

Third row: праздничный (prazdnichnuiy): A prazdnik is a festival, so this row depicts major church festivals from the Birth of Christ to the Elevation of the Cross.

Second row: деисусный (deisusnuiy) : The Deisus or “Deisis” is the icon type showing Christ on his throne in the heavenly court, with rows of supplicant saints approaching from both sides.

Here is an icon of the Martyr Lavr (Laurus) from the Deisis chin.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

First and lowest row: местного (mestnogo): Mesto means “place,” (often called the “local” rank in English) so this row shows various icons favored by a particular church in a given locale, consequently these vary. Nonetheless, in the center one always finds the “Tsar Doors” that give entrance to the altar hidden behind them. Above the Tsar Doors is an icon of the Тайная вечеря (Tainaya Vechera) — the “Mystic Supper,” which is the name given in Eastern Orthodoxy to what in the West is called “The Last Supper.” The Tsar Doors themselves are ornamented with icons, which, from top to bottom, are:
1. The Annunciation, with the Archangel Gabriel on the left and Mary on the right;
2. Icons of the four Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Sometimes these are replaced by two icons of the creators of the Eastern Orthodox liturgies, Basil the Great and John Chrysostom.

To the left of the Tsar Doors one customarily finds an icon of Mary, and to the right an icon of Jesus. To the right of Jesus is found the icon that depicts the church’s namesake icon or “temple icon” (храмовая икона —khramovaya ikona); for example, a Transfiguration icon shows that the church in which it is found is named for the Transfiguration, etc. In the icon shown above, the “temple icon” is the Dormition of the Mother of God.

The number of icons in the “Place” or local row varies according to the size of the church. There is a second door found on the left side in this row that is called the “Northern” Door, and another on the opposite side called the “Southern” Door. These secondary or “deacons'” doors are usually ornamented with icons of deacons or of the archangels Michael and Gabriel. In some iconostases they are merely curtained doors.

Of course the number of ranks and type of icons present in an iconostasis will vary depending on the size and nature of the screen. A very large iconostasis may follow the description just given rather closely, but a church may also have an abbreviated and far less elaborate icon screen.

Here is an example of a portable iconostasis:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Here is another portable iconostasis:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

The high icon screen is a creation of Russian Orthodoxy; in Greek Orthodox churches the icon screen was and is typically much lower. And of course even a very small Russian Orthodox Church will have room only for a rather low screen with barely a handful of icons, but in a large cathedral the iconostasis may seem gigantic, giving somewhat the grand impression one gets in large Spanish Catholic churches by the carved, gilt, and image-set reredos behind the altar.

The Spasskiy Cathedral in Moscow, in which the Pussy Riot protest took place, has an icon screen of particularly unusual form, appearing somewhat like an icon-decked, eight-sided temple placed within the large building.

The Cathedral was built originally to commemorate the saving of Russia from the armies of Napoleon. Stalin had it destroyed, and for a time the site was a public swimming pool; but with the fall of Communism it was rebuilt and was consecrated again in August of 2000. It was notably the site of the “glorification,” that is, the official recognition as saints, of the last imperial Russian family –Tsar Nicholas II and his wife and daughters. An Orthodox priest once commented to me on hearing of Nicholas spoken of as a saint, “How can they say a man who had a mistress is a saint?” No doubt those who know the history of Nicholas and his disastrous incompetence as Tsar would have similar views.

So when Pussy Riot made their protest against Putin in the cathedral, they chose a site significant in Russian history and significant also for making an elaborate statement about the post-Soviet re-establishment of the traditional alliance of Orthodox Church and State and the power of religion-backed autocracy in Russia. They paid for it by being sent to prison, which serves only to confirm their view of Putin.

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