Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Spiritual Seeing in the Byzantine and Orthodox “Temples”

March 25th, 2013, Promulgated by Bernie


…and the glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai. For six days the cloud covered the mountain, and on the seventh day the LORD called to Moses from within the cloud. (New International Version, ©2011)

The church building in both the Eastern and Western traditions is a metaphor for the Heavenly City or the New Jerusalem and physically laid out similar to the layout of the Jerusalem Temple.

(Click on pictures to see larger, clearer images)

Eastern church diagram  2

Picture Source Picture has been edited.

We considered the Western interpretation previously, here. In this post I would like to describe or explain the Eastern understanding of the role of the Iconostasis screen in the Byzantine Catholic and Orthodox “temples”.

The Eastern or Byzantine church layout is similar to the Western in the progression of spaces that works as a metaphor for movement from the earthly to the realm of the heavenly: from the atrium, narthex, sanctuary (the Holy Room of the ancient Temple), chancel, and finally to the altar (Holy of Holies in the Temple).  The closer we approach the altar the higher “up” we go. But both Eastern and Western liturgical ceremonials also stress an interior movement of ascent to the heavenly realm. Some believe that the movement is more obvious in the Byzantine liturgies and church buildings than in the Western, helped along by a stimulation of the senses to, ironically, experience leaving the visible and sensory world behind and ascending to the invisible and spiritual. The Iconostasis screen is just one aspect of the Eastern churches that facilitates the ascent.

cross in square plan_simple 2_edited-2

The altar (or chancel) in the Byzantine church has, according to Pavel Florensky,four different interpretations.2 Each of the interpretations involves the movement in a broad sense from what we can see to what we cannot see: earthly to heavenly, mans’ body to his soul/psyche, the visible man to the invisible God, and the comprehensible to the incomprehensible.

The Iconostasis screen, a physical material structure, allows us to see the invisible. The irony is striking. The icon screen is a material obstacle that is in the way of seeing the altar. How could it possibly aid us in seeing the invisible heavenly altar? How can that which hides, reveal?

Florensky explains that the icon screen is a boundary that, like the cloud enveloping Mt. Sinai3, reveals the spiritual realm on the other side by appealing to our consciousness. The cloud around Mt. Sinai signaled, to those below, the presence of God. They saw the invisible by way of a visible cloud. If the cloud were not there they would not have been able to see –spiritually see.

If the realities pointed to in the liturgy and sacred art were totally spiritual we would not –given our weak nature—be able to see them. The icon screen and incense and other material aids in the liturgy are the boundaries that, like the cloud enveloping Mt. Sinai, reveal the spiritual realm by indicating the crossing over point. Tear down the Iconostasis screen and the heavenly altar disappears leaving us with a merely physical table. Remove the screen and you build an impenetrable wall to the spiritual; it blocks our spiritual sight.4

In addition, Pavel Florensky points out, the Iconostasis screen is not just a screen or wall but also a “cloud of witnesses”5 that surrounds the altar. They work on our consciousness as a “unified row of saints” proclaiming the mystery, “proclaiming that which is from the other side of mortal flesh.”6

The saints of the iconostasis screen

…dwell simultaneously in two worlds, combining within themselves the life here and the life there. And their upward gaze bears witness to the operation of God’s mystery, for their holy countenances in themselves bear witness to the symbolic reality of their spiritual sight –and, in them, the empirical crust is completely pierced by light from above.7


1 Pael Florensky, Iconostasis, (Cretwood, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996)

2 Florensky, 59; one view sees the entire temple in Christological terms as Christ the God-man. In that view the altar/chancel is understood as the invisible God and the temple as man. Another understanding is cosmological and sees the altar as heaven and the temple as earth. A third understands the altar and temple in anthropological terms: the altar represents man’s (invisible) psyche and the temple as his body. Theologically understood, the altar represents the incomprehensible mystery of the Trinity while the temple signifies what can be comprehended in earthly terms.

3 Exodus 24:16

4 This is, of course, why liberal liturgists insist on removing barriers between the congregation and the altar. They want to remove anything that directs attention away from the here and now. God is not to be found “up there” but, rather, only among those gathered around the table. The concept of deification/sanctification is anathema to the liberals. Orthodox teaching understands the Incarnation as God descending to us so that we –as the Church and people of God– might ascend to God. In liberal thinking, God descends and we stay put, stuck here, confirmed in the “way we are”. “God accepts me for who I am!” It’s a depressing scenario, in my opinion.

5 Hebrews 12:1

6 Florensky, 62

7 Florensky, 62


One Response to “Spiritual Seeing in the Byzantine and Orthodox “Temples””

  1. Bruce says:

    Well done on this! Thanks!

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