Understanding the great blessing of our Iconostas

March 12, 2015

The iconostasis has been an integral part of the liturgical life of the Christian Church in Ukraine since its official reception from Byzantium in 988. Its role is structural: it separates the body of the church representing life on earth from the sanctuary, representing the Kingdom of God or Paradise. Its role is theological: it presents to the people of God - the life of Christ, the Mother of God and the saints as truths of the faith based on Sacred Scripture and holy tradition. Its role is spiritual: it calls on the people of God to look through these iconographic “windows” into paradise and live out their lives according to the gospel mandate as they journey towards the Kingdom of God.

To help us understand why the iconostasis and other liturgical traditions are important, a document was issued in 1996 that presents the theology of the icon. This was issued by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Eastern Churches and is entitled: Instruction for Applying the Liturgical Prescriptions of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches. Again, it is intended for all Eastern Catholic Churches, and is meant to support the specific traditions and usages of each of these Churches. In paragraph 104 it discusses the sanctuary:

In the Eastern Churches, sacred space is divided into various functional areas organically connected. It is an image of the Church of God, sacred convocation of faithful pilgrims toward the Promised Land. Each member occupies a specific place, corresponding to his or her mission. The sanctuary is separated from the nave by a veil, gate or iconostasis, because it is the most sacred place: it contains the altar on which the Divine Liturgy is celebrated and the Oblation is offered. Only those who are entrusted with the sacred ministry can enter the sanctuary to complete the sacred acts. Processions and other movements establish a relation between the nave and the sanctuary, gradually and pedagogically directing the faithful toward the altar. The Gospel always remains on the altar, from which it is solemnly taken for the celebration of the Word. It is to the altar that the gifts are brought at the beginning of the Eucharistic part of the celebration to be offered to the Lord. Then, from the altar, the same gifts will solemnly leave the sanctuary to be communicated to the faithful, signifying the raising of the veil which covers the mystery of God, in revelation and, especially, in the incarnation and Paschal Mystery of the Son. 8

The Iconostas in Canada

From the moment the Ukraine settlers landed here in Canada they were encouraged by the First Ukrainian Catholic Bishop, now “Blessed Hieromartyr” Bishop Nykyta Budka, to keep and preserve their Christian faith. Bishop Budka worked quickly and held a meeting with all the Ukrainian Catholic Priests, the outcome, the 1915 publication “Norms of the Ruthenian Catholic Church in Canada” in which it sates:”

Each community is to endeavour to have an iconostasis in the church, for which, however, they must obtain separate approval of the [Bishop] Ordinary. Where it is not permissible to erect an iconostasis, it is necessary at least to construct the holy and diaconal doors and stationary icons between them. Above the holy doors is to be placed an icon of the Last Supper, and beyond the diaconal doors (on the walls), on the right, an icon of the patron saint, and on the left, an icon of St. Nicholas; if not, then [at the] side holy table with these same icons. [1]

In fact the Iconostasis is such an important part of our Ukrainian Catholic make up that it was discussed again in the 1930’s, again in 1962 at the First Provincial Synod of Winnipeg with Metropolitan Maxim Hermaniuk, CSsR where sections 143 & 144 read:

The sanctuary is to be separated from the nave by an iconostasis, outside of which is located the so-called solea. Two large candles, lit during all religious services are to be placed on the solea before the stationary icons. The iconostasis is so integral to churches of the Ukrainian rite that a church (and chapel) without one is considered unfit for divine worship. Where one is lacking, the pastor is to see to it, and encourage the faithful, that it be erected. No other partitions (banisters) can substitute for an iconostas.

And again at the second Vatican council held in Rome from 1962-1965, where the need to preserve the Eastern Catholic rites was an important subject. The Decree on Eastern Catholic Churches was developed and states:

The sanctuary is to be separated from the nave by an iconostasis, outside of which is located the so-called solea. Two large candles, lit during all religious services are to be placed on the solea before the stationary icons. The iconostasis is so integral to churches of the Ukrainian rite that a church (and chapel) without one is considered unfit for divine worship. Where one is lacking, the pastor is to see to it, and encourage the faithful, that it be erected. No other partitions (banisters) can substitute for an iconostas.( paragraph 6)

The Holy Eucharist Iconostas

So after 96 years of Holy Eucharist Ukrainian Catholic Parish’s inception we have fulfilled our goal of becoming whole with our Eastern rite patrimony. The Blessed Iconostas that we have acquired was originally erected in a monastery in Woodstock, Ontario and it seems to have been made specifically for Holy Eucharist since it perfectly fits with the rest of the style and structure of the Church’s interior. The woodwork was all done by Vladimir Barac, a Serbian born, 4th generation woodcarver. The basic frame which holds the Icons and the unique carvings took Barac approximately 8 months to complete working with two assistants who did all the rough work from early sun rise late into the evening. Barac did all the ornate wood work by hand and by himself and was said to have over 200 chisels in his workshop on Steele St. in Toronto, Ontario. Barac noted that 4000 lbs of Philippine mahogany was used and that the wood was first kilned, dried twice and then de-humidified before work could commence. The “Royal Doors” where made of many strips of individual pieces of wood glued together to prevent any type of warping. Barac’s style incorporates his many direct influences from the different environments in which he lived. Barac lived in France for many years studying structures and works there, as well being born Serbian had a Greek style influence which can be seen in his works. What some in the field would call “Byzantine Contemporary”. Barac constructed sixteen (16) Iconostases in his lifetime and was said to be concerned about this Iconostas and the quality of craftsmanship due to the fact that he was losing sight from cataracts. Barac died shortly after its completion.

The Iconography

The actual Icons that grace our Iconostas were “written” (i.e. painted) by Studite monk Deacon Christopher Kutz born in Volyn, Ukraine. He studied under renowned iconologist and iconographer Father Juvenalij Josyf Mokryckj whose works can be found in St. Sophia in Rome and the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family in London, England. Deacon Christopher was considered a kind, generous man with a beautiful singing voice and his iconography reflects that of his personality. His works reflect lightness and have more gentle features which differ from those of his teacher Father Juvenalij. Deacon Christopher’s Icons are a perfect match with Barac’s woodcarvings because they complement each other’s works since they encompass the same style, “Byzantine Contemporary”. Deacon Christopher was once told when he was a younger man that he would die when he was 76 years old or in 1976 which, after many years, he could not remember the story. So when he was reaching his 70’s and had a chance to go to Rome, presumably for the last time, he jumped at the chance but thought he should bring the last two remaining panels with him to complete in case the story came true, and which may explain why the 12 festal Icons are actually not in the right order. Deacon Christopher did finish the last two panels in Rome and brought them back to Ontario where, shortly after, he also died due to complications caused by tuberculosis which he had contracted from his many years spent in Germany. It is unknown at what age he was at his passing but he died in the mid 80’s.

Makeup of the Iconostas

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. They usually have images representation the Annunciation (of the Angel to Mary) and the four Evangelists.

The “Deacon Doors” facing the iconostas, on our right, we usually see, next to the Pantocrator (Gk “Ruler of All”), a small door with the icon of the Archangel Michael. On our left we see, next to the Theotokos (Gk. “Birth-giver of God”), 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 altar 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 alongside the priest or bishop here on earth in the celebration of the Holy Mysteries.

The “Festal Icons”. 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. While there occasionally may be additional feast days on this tier, normally one finds the “Twelve Great Feasts” (the Dodekaorton) of the Church year. For Christ, they are the Nativity, the Meeting in the Temple, the Baptism, the Transfiguration, and 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.

Carlene Deptuch

Principle Source: Huculak, Metropolitian Lawrence OSBM, The Iconostasis and the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Canada.


[1] Early name for “Ukrainian”




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