15 June 2024

A new icon screen has
been put in place in the
Greek Orthodox Church
in Stony Stratford

The new iconostasis or icon stand installed in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford in recent weeks (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024; click on images for full-screen viewing)

Patrick Comerford

Over the past few weeks, I have visited the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford regularly, as I watched the erection of a new iconostasis (εἰκονοστάσιον) or icon stand in the church, along with new but traditional seating or pews (στασίδια, stasídia), new steps leading into the sanctuary area, and a new candle stand and a new polyelaios (πολυελαιος) or liturgical chandelier.

They all give a new yet a traditional look to the church, and after weeks of hard work and renovation they were blessed last Sunday morning (9 June 2024) by Father Gregory Wellington during the Divine Liturgy in what was an emotional and uplifting service.

The Greek Orthodox Community in Milton Keynes was founded 35 years ago on 7 December 1989 to meet the needs of Greek Orthodox people in in the rapidly city, seeking to support their religious, educational and cultural needs and to provide space to practise their language and traditions.

The church is dedicated to Saint Ambrosios and Saint Stylianos, with a small part of the church set aside as a chapel dedicated to Saint Mary of Vlachernae.

The Greek Orthodox Parish Church of Saint Ambrosios and Saint Stylianos on London Road, Stony Stratford … designed as an Anglican parish church by Sir George Gilbert Scott (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The community’s first home was in in Saint Martin’s Church, Fenny Stratford, for 20 years until the former Church of Saint Mary the Virgin on London Road in Stony Stratford became available. The former Church of England parish church was designed by the architect Sir George Gilbert Scott and was built in 1864. It had ceased being a place of worship in 1969, and for many years was a community centre.

With generous and substantial support from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the community was able to offer to buy the church in Stony Stratford in September 2006. The late Archbishop Gregorios of Thyateita and Great Britain officiated at the first Vespers in the church on 14 September 2008. The purchase was finalised on 11 May 2009, and it became a Greek Orthodox Church officially that year.

The community also acquired the parish hall beside the church, designed by the Stony Stratford architect Edward Swinfen Harris and was built in 1892. The hall was renamed the Swinfen Harris Church Hall in 2010, keeping alive the link with the town’s architectural heritage.

Father Gregory Wellington presides at the Divine Liturgy in Stony Stratford last Sunday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Over the next few weeks, I plan to look at the icons in the church, particularly in the newly installed iconostasis (εἰκονοστάσιον, ikonostásion), in my prayer diary on my blog each morning, beginning tomorrow morning. But this evening it is worth looking at the theological and meaning and liturgical significance and the traditions of an iconostasis.

In Eastern Orthodoxy, an iconostasis is a traditional stand or screen of icons and religious images in a church that separates the nave and the laity from the sanctuary or altar area where the priest presides at the Eucharist or the Divine Liturgy.

The nave is the main body of the church where most of the worshippers stand, and the sanctuary is the area around the altar at the east end the church. The sanctuary is usually one to three steps higher than the nave, with the iconostasis usually set a few feet back from the edge of the top step. This forms a walkway in front of the iconostasis for the clergy, called a soleas. In the very centre of the soleas is an extension, often rounded, called the ambon, on deacons stand to recite litanies during the services.

The iconostasis is often tall but rarely touches the ceiling. This allows the ekphoneses (liturgical exclamations) of the clergy to be heard clearly by the people. In small, modern churches the iconostasis may be completely absent: in such cases it is replaced by a few small icons on analogia (lecterns), forming a virtual divide.

The lower, first tier of the iconostasis, with the Holy Doors and side doors, is sometimes called Sovereign (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The iconostasis typically has three openings or sets of doors: the Beautiful Gates or Holy Doors in the centre, and the north and south Doors to either side.

The Beautiful Gates, sometimes also known as the Royal Doors, remain shut whenever a service is not being held. Customs vary to when they are opened during services.

The north and south doors are often called Deacons’ Doors because the deacons use them frequently. Icons of sainted deacons are often depicted on these doors, such as Saint Stephen the Protomartyr and Saint Ephrem the Syrian. Alternatively, the side doors may be called the Angels’ Doors, with images of the Archangel Michael as the Defender and the Archangel Gabriel as the Messenger.

Traditionally, in large churches with elaborate, tall icon stands, there are five tiers: 1, the icons to either side of the Holy Doors are of Christ Pantokrator and of the Theotokos; 2, above them are images of the 12 Great Feasts; 3, above them, the Deesis; 4, above them, Prophets to either side of Our Lady of the Sign; and 5, above them, the Apostles to either side of the Holy Trinity.

The lower, first tier is sometimes called Sovereign. On the right side of the Beautiful Gates facing forward is an icon of Christ, often as the Pantokrator, representing his second coming, and on the left is an icon of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary), symbolising the incarnation. It is another way of saying all things take place between Christ’s first coming and his second coming. Other icons on this tier usually include depictions of the patron saint or feast day of the church, Saint John the Baptist, one or more of the Four Evangelists, and so on.

An icon of the Mystical Supper above the Beautiful Gates and the feasts tier with 12 icons of the liturgical year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

An icon of the Mystical Supper or the Last Supper is usually seen above the Royal Doors or Beautiful Gates.

Above this are two interchangeable tiers: the Deisis and the Twelve Great Feasts. In the centre of the Deisis is a large icon of Christ Enthroned. To the left and right are icons of Saint John the Baptist and the Theotokos in prayer. They are often flanked by icons of the Archangel Michael and the Archangel Gabriel, then Saint Peter and Saint Paul, and then, perhaps, other important Church Fathers.

The feasts tier contains icons of the 12 Great Feasts of the liturgical year: the Nativity of the Theotokos (8 September),the Exaltation of the Cross (14 September), the Presentation of the Theotokos (21 November), the Nativity of Christ (25 December), the Baptism of Christ (6 January), the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (2 February), the Annunciation (25 March), the Entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), the Ascension, Pentecost, the Transfiguration (6 August) and the Dormition (15 August).

Above this, the top two tiers are also interchangeable with each other.

The Biblical Prophets and Patriarchs – including the 12 sons of Jacob – are often placed on either side of an icon of Our Lady of the Sign, while the Twelve Apostles may be seen on either side of an icon of either Christ at the Second Coming or the Holy Trinity.

However, only the largest and most elaborate iconostases have all five tiers. Many modern Greek iconostases only include the bottom (‘Sovereign’) tier, and on occasion a second tier of smaller icons, usually depicting either the Great Feasts or the Apostles, with an icon of the Mystical Supper, or occasionally the Hospitality of Abraham, above the Beautiful Gates. The iconostasis is often surmounted by a central cross, often with a depiction of Christ Crucified, flanked by the Theotokos and Saint John the Evangelist at the foot of the cross.

When the Beautiful Gates are open during the Divine Liturgy, all can see the altar and the sanctuary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

There are traditions about who may enter or leave the sanctuary and by which door. Neither the Beautiful Gates nor the space between them and the altar table are used by the laity; bishops enter through the Beautiful Gates at any time; priests and deacons do so only at specific times during services; all others enter the sanctuary through the side doors.

But it would be misleading to describe the iconostasis as separating the nave from the sanctuary. In truth, it brings them together, and the iconostasis is the link between heaven and earth, bringing the holy out into the world and inviting the world into the heavenly through Christ and the story of salvation. In other words the iconostasis connects rather than separates, and the doors open both ways between both realms. The rood screens in western mediaeval churches have served the same purpose liturgically and theologically.

The new iconostasis, steps, stalls and candle burner in Stony Stratford were built and installed over the past few weeks by a traditional team of church furnishers from Athens. At present, the spaces for the icons are arranged in the traditional or customary way, but are currently filled with prints. In time, the plan is to replace the prints with original, hand-made icons. So this is a project that involves considerable fundraising efforts and commitments on behalf of the Greek Orthodox Community in Milton Keynes.

The church already has a number of beautiful icons, and in the coming months and years to come I hope to see this project grow and develop.

Meanwhile, why not join me in my prayer diary each morning over the next few weeks as I look at the traditional icons in the iconostasis and throughout the church in Stony Stratford?

Continued Tomorrow

The former, informal iconostasis in the Church of Saint Ambrosios and Saint Stylianos in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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