River of Fire: The Iconostasis, East and West

Thresholds of the Sacred: Architectural, Art Historical, Liturgical, and Theological Perspectives

by Sharon E.J. Gerstel
2007 Dumbarton Oaks, 400 pages, 65

“The Christian sanctuary is a type of the places beyond the heavens, containing the throne of the immaterial God.” – Saint Symeon of Thessalonike1

The “threshold” of the sanctuary has been called the chancel barrier, templon, choir screen, lettner, jubé, rood screen, iconostasis, and tramezzo. Thresholds of the Sacred, a compilation of papers dating to the 2003 Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Studies Symposium, remains a crucial reference for the development and the application of these sacred barriers in church architecture.

Joan Branham describes the sequence of barriers within Herod’s Temple. First, the Huldah gates at the south entry to the Temple, followed by immersion in pools, then the Soreg lattice-fence around the Temple courtyards, the Nicanor gate into the Court of the Israelites, then twelve steps to the sanctuary porch, through folding wooden panels and a curtain into the Hekal and Devir, or Holy of Holies. The High Priest would enter the Devir at Yom Kippur with the blood of sacrifice from the altar area, and utter the four-letter name of God.

According to Robert Taft, SJ, the beginning of the Christian sanctuary enclosure can be traced to the mid-fourth century, with the construction of a triumphal arch at the sanctuary platform to distinguish the sanctuary from the nave. Two reasons for the enclosure highlighted by Taft are security and decorum. He cites Saint John Chrysostom’s remarks on the lack of piety among faithful who approach for communion: “We don’t approach with awe but we kick, we strike, we are filled with anger, shoving our neighbors, full of disorder.”2

Urs Peschlow discusses the division of the side aisles from the nave in early Byzantine churches, which may have its roots in the screens found in secular basilicas and imperial construction: The Palace of Diocletian in Split had screens between columns in the three-aisled open peristyle. Peschlow does not find a consistent practical use for the aisle screens. Either they served to separate pilgrims venerating relics at martyria churches, or the screens merely provided another surface to decorate with crosses and foliate patterns.

Iconostasis, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. Photo: wikimedia.org

Sophia Kalopissi-Verti discusses the Proskynetaria, the large scale icons which often flanked the screen or templon at the sanctuary. These icons often depicted Christ, the Mother of God, or the patron saint of the church. According to pseudo-Sophoronios in his Commentarius liturgicus, the templon is compared with the enclosure of Christ’s tomb, and the Solea or threshold between sanctuary and nave, as a river of fire separating sinners from the just.

Saint Symeon of Thessalonike, cited by Nicholas Constas, wrote Dialogue Against Heresies which provides the theological meaning for veils in the liturgy. The earthly liturgy differs from the heavenly in that the heavenly does not have veils and symbols. The liturgy is proper to each place, and “because we are enveloped in this heavy and mortal load of flesh” we partake of the liturgy differently while on earth. Constas also describes the symbolic value of the veil as firmament, positioned between the heavens and the earth, concealing the visible mysteries of the universe and the invisible mystery of God.

Jacqueline Jung explains the Gothic choir enclosure, and contends that the framing of the view toward the sanctuary at the gate of the rood screen provided an even more profound experience of the Mass for the lay people in the nave. She boldly suggests that the framing effect of the rood screen informed framed compositions in paintings into the fifteenth century, including in works by van Eyck, van der Weyden, and van der Stockt.

Marcia Hall concludes the symposium’s compilation with a piece on the Italian tramezzo, most often found in mendicant churches in order to maintain clausura. Also included in many of these churches was a secondary tramezzo, also called an intermedia, to separate the chiesa delle donne (women) from the chiesa di sopra. While the Council of Trent did not specify the dismantling of tramezzi, many churches had them removed in the second half of the sixteenth century, including Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce in Florence.

With the use of a plethora of primary sources and beautiful illustrations, the text explains the meaning of sacred barriers and their historic role in delineating the sacred precinct in churches.