An introduction to Greek Orthodox iconostases

Thanos Andronikos, graduate in Arts Management and owner/manager of Heartbeat Gallery, Sheffield, describes the evolution of some of the world’s largest frames of sacred works.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the rituals related to the liturgical service are expressed through ecclesiastical sculptures and other works of art – for example, the pulpit, the throne, the altar and the icons; but mainly through the iconostasis which separates the sanctuary from the nave. The iconostasis is a vast screen, related to the rood screen of English mediaeval churches, but unlike them it is a closed and solid structure. In the iconostasis, which in Greek means ‘icon stand’, architecture and sculpture collaborate on a large scale, forming a gigantic sculptural frame, like the frame of a Western polyptych.

The early Christian templon

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATemplon of the Church of Panagia (with modern icons), Monastery of Hosios Loukas, c.959-63, Distomo, Boeotia

The iconostasis developed from the Byzantine templon, which had appeared during the 5th and 6th centuries AD, and which may have been influenced by the proscenium in classical theatre, or by the barrier before the adyton (sanctuary) of a Greek temple[1]. This structure was diffused through the Christian world of the near East from its centre in Byzantium, with local variations such as the seminal Cretan iconostasis. The latter can be traced back to the island’s Second Byzantine Period (961-1204): after the liberation of Crete from Muslim rule in 961 by Nikephoros II Phokas, later Emperor of Byzantium, many Byzantine families migrated there, and inaugurated a period of artistic and religious growth.

From an altar rail with an open vista to the altar itself, the templon evolved in parallel with the Western rood screen, sprouting colonets which supported an overhead architrave carrying a crucifix. It diverged from the rood screen when icons were hung from the architrave, and then when curtains were installed between the colonets, providing a flat background for the icons, but cutting off the nave from the inner sanctuary. The curtains were eventually replaced by a permanent and solid wall, in which the icons could be set, and doors closed the vista to the altar. Over the years this solid structure evolved a formal arrangement of tiers, according to a liturgical hierarchy.

The structure of a Greek iconostasis as it developed from the 16th century

Templo parts smImage: Dimitris Stamelos, Νεοελληνική λαϊκή τέχνη, Gutenberg, 1993

A typical arrangement of elements in an iconostasis; this may be slightly modified in its details

1)   The base

Thorakion: an oblong panel which, whether wood or marble, may be carved or painted

3) Staphyle (or grapevine): a narrow strip decorated with carved grapevines ( ‘I am the true vine…’, John 15)

4) Lower ketabes (probably from the Turkish): a rectangular board which is frequently used as support for icons

5) Tier of ‘Despotic Icons’ (from ‘despotes’, Greek for Lord, or Christ): six icons comprising, usually from left to right, the archangel Michael, a patron saint or important event, the Virgin Mary, Christ, St John the Baptist, and the archangel Gabriel

6) Upper ketabes

7) Kemeri (from the Turkish for belt): an arcade with carved or painted decorations; in the central arch is The Last Supper

8) Columns, which separate the ‘Despotic icons’ and their auxiliary elements (2-6), and form the supporting structure of the iconostasis

9) Peristera (literally ‘pigeon’, as in a bird’s beak moulding), protruding decorative area where hanging candle-holders are usually attached

10) Orea Pyli (the Beautiful Gate) consists of two hinged doors with carved decorations and miniature icons attached on their surface. They are considered to be sacred and may only be entered by ordained clergy.

11) The Holy Grail crowns the doors: not the Sangraal of legend, but the cup of the Eucharist.

12) The canopy above the doors is composed of carved decorations, usually depicting horrifying scenes: gorgons or dragons being slain

13) A representation of the Tree of Jesse, showing the ancestry of Christ

14) The Twelve Feasts: scenes from the life of Christ, representing the main feast days of the liturgical year (the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Presentation in the Temple, the Baptism of Christ, the Transfiguration, the Entry into Jerusalem, the Raising of Lazarus, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Ascension, the Assumption into Heaven, and Pentecost). These may vary as to order & number.

15) Miniature icons, usually of prophets or apostles, surrounded by carved floral decorations

16) The Crucifix

17) A flying dragon, representing Satan in the form of a serpent

18) Cherubs enclosing icons of the Virgin (left) & St John (right); these may also be supported on the dragon’s tail

Generally the parts of an iconostasis are categorized into three zones: the ‘Despotic icons’ (1-12), the miniature icons (13-15) and the ‘Coronation’ or crest (16-18).


The task of the wood carver or stone mason who executes an iconostasis is to unite the earthly and the divine, so that the world he creates on his great wall of wood or marble is peopled by humans, saints and animals, existing in harmony amongst fruit, flowers and foliage, and in harmony with God. The liturgical subjects, themes and treatment required by the Church restrict his hand in many ways; yet in the design of the carved ornament which holds the icons in each tier, borders and twines about the dividing areas, and overflows onto the gates and their canopy, the craftsman’s imaginative and stylist freedom is uncontrolled. The divine mingles with naturalistic local detail, and blends the style of Byzantium with the Baroque or Rococo.

Regardless of the material used and the style of an iconostasis, this monumental frame symbolizes the union of Heaven and Earth, and the conversation between God and human. In the Orthodox tradition, during the divine liturgy God comes down to earth and blesses the worshipper, and the templon is a ladder through the hierarchy of saints where the prayers of the faithful can climb up to heaven.

 The iconostasis from the 16th  to 18th century

Carved wooden iconostasis signed ‘1721 Χατζή Δημήτρη και Χατζή Λιονή’ 1721 Hatzi Dimitri & Hatzi Lioni Church of Panagia Agiogalousaina St Galas ChiosCarved wooden iconostasis, signed ‘1721 Χατζή Δημήτρη και Χατζή Λιονή’ (1721, Hatzi Dimitri & Hatzi Lioni), Church of Panagia Agiogalousaina, St Galas, Chios

Carved wooden iconostasis signed Nikolaos Nomikos 1824 Church of St George of Pyrgos Volissos Chios smCarved wooden iconostasis, signed ‘Διά χειρός Νικολάου Νομικού’ (by the hand of Nikolaos Nomikos), 1824, Church of St. George of Pyrgos, Volissos, Chios

A major architectural element with specific requirements, regardless of the material from which it is constructed, an iconostasis is closely linked to the life and fate of its church, and generally retains more information than any other sacred artwork, through inscriptions which record the time of creation, the sculptor (above), and the donor (below).

Mitrofani Monk Magitianos & Andreas Igireos Galatoulas 1711 St Thaleleos St Galas Chios smDetail of a carved wooden iconostasis, inscribed: ‘ΑΝΑΚΙΝὶΘΙ ΤΟ ΠΑΡΟΝ ΤὲΜΠΛὸΣ ΔΙὰ ΧΙΡΟΣ ΜΙΤΡΟΦὰΝΙ ΜΟΥΝὰΧΟΥ ΜΑΓΙΤΙὰΝΟΥ ΔΙὰ ὲΞΟΔΟΥ ΑΝΔΡὲΑ ΙΓΙΡὲΟΣ ΓὰΛΑΤΟΥΛΑ Κὲ ΚΤΙΤΟΥΡ –ΕΝ ΕΤΙ ΑΨΙΑ’ (sic), or ‘This templon was built by the hands of Mitrofani Monk Magitianos, paid by Andreas Igireos Galatoulas in the year 1711’, Church of St. Thaleleos, St Galas, Chios

The modern iconostasis evolved during and after the Ottoman conquests of the sixteenth century. More specifically, a fracture in the history of Christian art in the Aegean was precipitated by the end of Venetian rule in 1537-38, when the Turkish admiral Barbarossa Hayreddin conquered nearly all the islands of the Archipelago. Conflicts between Venice and the Ottoman Empire continued until 1750, but the Turkish navy slowly conquered the islands – Chios in 1566, Cyprus in 1570-71, Crete in 1669, and Tinos in 1715.

Iconostasis Chapel of St Nicholas Katapoliani Paros 1Iconostasis of white marble, parts possibly dating from the 16th century, with a Virgin Eleoúsa, Dimitrios, 18th, & Christ Panocrator, 17th century; Chapel of St Nicolas, Panagia Katapoliani, Parikia, Paros. Photo: Ekatontapyliani 

During Ottoman rule, Orthodox inhabitants of the islands were granted special privileges (aktinamedes), as the Osmanides sought to have the population on their side, and to prevent Greek co-operation with the Venetians. The most important aktinames given to Orthodox islands was that of 1580, according to which the repair or building of Orthodox churches was permitted. Following this charter many monasteries and old churches were renovated, and numbers of small churches and chapels were built in the Aegean. After the aktinames of 1580 the earliest group of marble iconostases begins to appear in in large churches and monasteries; for example, in the church complex of Panagia, Katapoliani, on Paros (above), and in the Monastery of Panachrantos on Andros. These are the direct ancestors of the stone, wooden and plasterwork iconostases we see today.

The multicoloured marble iconostases of churches on Chios were praised by the French monk André Thévet, who visited them in the 16th century, and the French geographer Nicolas de Nicolay, who stayed in Chios in 1551 [2]. Unfortunately, ecclesiastical marble sculptures from that period are now very scarce, since the island was devastated by the Turkish invasion of 1822, and what remained was destroyed by a powerful earthquake in 1881. However, Chian sculptors and wood carvers travelled outside Chios to work in other cities, and sell their skill in other markets, especially during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Icons painted directly onto marble 1744 Stavros Church Pirgos Tinos smIcons painted directly onto a marble iconostasis, 1744, Stavros Church, Pirgos, Tinos

Icons painted on marble iconostasis 1744 Stavros Church Pirgos Tinos detail smIcons painted on marble iconostasis, 1744, Stavros Church, Pirgos, Tinos, detail

The common factor in all the earlier iconostases is that the stone is worked like wood, with apparent linearity in design patterns, characteristic ‘wooden’ cuts, sharp edges as if it is carved with a scalpel, and woodwork joints, even though stylistically there are links to marble reliefs of the time. Typology and construction suggest models in woodcarving, and follow patterns used to decorate wooden items. ‘It is clear that the iconostases have been sculpted by marble masons who previously worked on wood,’ says N. Gaitis [3]. The impression of woodwork is occasionally emphasized by icons being sometimes painted directly on the marble.

Icons painted on marble iconostasis 1817 Metamorfosi Church Pirgos Tinos sm Icons painted directly onto a marble iconostasis, 1817, Metamorfosi Church, Pirgos, Tinos

Another important centre of religious art in the late 16th and, even more, the first half of the 17th century, is Heraklion, on Crete. Crete was one of the most important artistic centres of the post-Byzantine era; and, until its conquest by the Turks in 1669, painting, woodcarving and literature all flourished there. Notaries’ documents from the first half of the 17th century bear witness to the diffusion of Cretan woodcarving throughout the Near East: in Egypt, Palestine, Sinai and Mount Athos [4].

Iconostasis Ch of Holy Sepulchre Jerusalem smColoured marble iconostasis of 1808, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

Craftsmen from Heraklion carved the original large 17th century iconostasis for the Basilica of the Resurrection in Jerusalem (the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as Western Christians know it), which was replaced after a fire in 1808 by version in Baroque style by the Greek architect Tzelepis Komnenos [5]. An iconostasis, coeval with the first templon in Jerusalem, was made by Cretan sculptors for the Portaiitissas church in the Holy Monastery of Iberians in Mount Athos, as was the large cross of Saint Nicholas in Cairo [6].

Iconostasis Basilica of Nativity Bethlehem sm Gilded iconostasis, 1764, Basilica of the Nativity, Bethlehem.

They also created the astonishingly rich iconostasis in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem[7]. As well as this and other examples in Palestine, Cretan iconostases were exported by ship to Mount Athos, Alexandria, Patmos, and Sinai.

1744 Ch of Annunciation Armolia Chios sm Polychrome and parcel-gilt carved wood iconostasis, unknown artist, 1744, Church of the Annunciation, Armolia, Chios

In Chios, Lesvos and Samos in the early 18th century we meet the first wooden iconostases in the Baroque style signed by Chian carvers.

Iconostasis Stavros fr Chios 1800 Ch Virgin Mary Plakotousaina Nenita Chios sm Carved wooden iconostasis, by Stavros from Chios, 1800, Church of Virgin Mary Plakotousaina, Nenita, Chios

Ch Virgin Mary Plakotousaina Nenita Chios detail thorakionChurch of Virgin Mary Plakotousaina, Nenita, Chios, detail of thorakion

Ch of Virgin Mary Plakotousaina Nenita Chios detail canopyChurch of Virgin Mary Plakotousaina, Nenita, Chios, detail of canopy

Iconostasis Church of the Panagia Lesbos Greece Photo Toby Garden smIconostasis, 1815, Church of the Panagia, Agiasos, Lesbos. Photo: Toby Garden The glazed box in the foreground contains a 4th century icon, reproduced in the 12th century silver-gilt icon set in the iconostasis immediately above it

The carving of an iconostasis was a complex job which required a great deal of preparation and patience. In the case of a wooden structure, the master builder and his assistants first looked for suitable wood from straight cypress trees, and cut it in January, on the days of the waning moon. The bark was stripped from the trunk – xechontrisma – with an adz, and the bare wood was then dried indoors. When it had been seasoned like this, it was then sawn up; the planks were sprinkled with olive or flaxseed oil, and were planed smooth, with a ρουκάνα (roukana).

Iconostasis Fragoulis Volisianos & Petros 1836 Ch St George Sikousis Chios smIconostasis of carved wood, signed by Fragoulis, Volisianos and Petros, 1836, Church of St George Sikousis, Chios

Iconostasis Fragoulis et al1836 Ch St George Sikousis Chios detail smIconostasis, Church of St George Sikousis, Chios, detail

Iconostasis Nikolaos Nomikos 1840 St Demetrios Armolia Chios detail 1 Beautiful Gate and Despotic icons, polychrome and parcel-gilt carved wood iconostasis, Nikolaos Nomikos, 1840, in Baroque style, St Demetrios, Armolia, Chios

Iconostasis Nikolaos Nomikos 1840 St Demetrios Armolia Chios detail 2The Twelve Feasts, St Demetrios, Armolia, Chios, detail

The carving of a whole iconostasis could take months; however, Cretan woodcarvers avoided signing their names on their work – partly out of humility, but also because they thought that it was sinful. Because of this, the identification of the sculptors of Cretan iconostases is not always possible. In some cases, the creator’s name has only been discovered from the contracts signed with the clients.

In the case of Greek iconostases more generally, we can deduce from these same contracts, and from the fact that signed iconostases carry only one name (or, rarely, two – see above for the example of 1721 in the Church of Panagia Agiogalousaina, St Galas, Chios), that a single craftsman would design, carve and decorate (i.e. paint and/or gild) the whole structure, although almost certainly employing assistants to help him. He would also enjoy relatively more credit for his work (where he was named and known) than many carvers and gilders of comparable Western European works, since the name associated with the creation of an iconostasis is the craftsman of the framing structure, not the painter of the icons which filled them. The iconographers were credited separately for their work; but an important templon is celebrated for its carving, rather than for its icons.

Methods of ornamentation were used which were peculiar to the region and period; for example, columns were carved roughly from tree trunks, wrapped in rope and then gilded. The gilding itself might also apparently be enhanced with goats’ hair; this seems to mean either that the gesso layer on which the gilding was applied, or the size which was used, employed goats’ hair in some way to strengthen the eventual finish.

Iconostasis Theodoros Papargyros 1869 Ch of Taxiarhis Anavatos ChiosIconostasis of carved wood, parcel-gilt & painted white, Theodoros Papargyros, 1869, Church of the Taxiarhis, Anavatos, Chios; detail, showing the Despotic icons and Twelve Feasts

In the early 19th century there are very impressive plasterwork iconostases, which use a combination of Baroque, Rococo and classical motifs. According to local tradition, the craftsmen of Chios copied Baroque and Rococo motifs from the work of Italian sculptors, who had been commissioned to execute the marble ornament in the first phase of the construction of the Old Royal Palace in Syntagma Square, Athens, in 1843.

Iconostasis Lazaros Mperantakos Ch St Markella of Chiopolitida Chios White marble iconostasis, inscribed above the gate ‘ΔΙΑ ΧΕΙΡΟς ΛΑΖΑΡΟΥ ΜΠΕΡΑΝΤΑΚΟΥ’ (by the hand of Lazaros Mperantakos), 1870, Church of St Markella of Chiopolitida, Chios

According to oral information given by the marble carver Yiannis Filippoti of Pyrgos, Tinos, to Alexandra Goulaki Voutyra & Giorgos Karadedos in 1990, the craftsmen of Tinos likewise learned to produce lifelike or naturalistic floral and foliate decoration from Italians in Romania, where many worked in the second half of the 19th century. Indeed, Italian stuccoists, including Ferdinando Iasevoli (who completed the interior plasterwork the Cattedrale di Acquaviva in Puglia), worked from c.1863-73 on the interior of the Church of the Annunciation in Braila, Romania. Many Tinian craftsmen were also employed in Braila, as well as in other Romanian cities such as Bucharest, Galaţsi and Iaşi, so it is more than likely that they learned elements of pattern and design from migrant Italians.

Iconostasis Georgios & Isidoros Fragakis 1895 Ch Neos Taxiarhis Mesta ChiosPlasterwork iconostasis, Georgios and Isidoros Fragakis, 1895, Church of the Neos Taxiarhis, Mesta, Chios, detail

According to further oral information from the painter and stuccoist Fotis Vangelakis, plasterers in Mesotopos on Lesbos also possessed original Italian designs. It has long been known that there was direct trade with Italy: for example, the iconostasis of Tourliani in Mykonos was made in Florence in 1775; also that Italian craftsmen introduced the Rococo style to both Russia and Constantinople.

Iconostasis Stavros from Chios C19 detail crest Evangelistria Vouno ChiosCarved wooden iconostasis, parcel-gilt and white, Stavros from Chios, second half of 19th century; detail with dragons on the crest; Evangelistria,Vouno, Chios

The iconostasis in the 20th century

C20 Church of St Achilles Larisa 1990s BWhite marble iconostasis, 1990s, Church of St Achilles, Larisa, detail. Photo: the author

Greek woodcarving and sculpting still continues, in a tradition uninterrupted for the last one-&-a-half thousand years; although in the 20th century the methods used may have changed slightly, to include mechanical aids such as the pantograph[8]. This process will probably soon have moved on itself to CAM, or computer-aided manufacturing. The detail (above) of the modern marble iconostasis in St Achilles, Larisa, reveals that the carving is relatively shallow, relying on piercing and engraving, and is much less plastic than in earlier examples. Although it was produced by mechanized carving processes, it is still opulent in its materials and decoration, vying with those of the 17th-19th century.

C20 Wooden Church of St Velisarios Larisa 1980to90s B Wooden iconostasis, 1980s-90s, Church of St Velisarios, Larisa. Photo: the author

Wooden iconostases are also still produced; again these are carved with the help of mechanical processes, and again this has not impinged on the opulent scrolling foliate and zoomorphic decoration used in more traditional templa. The modern examples in St Velisarios, Larisa, and St Riginos, Skopelas, are – like the marble templon in St Achilles – much flatter and less sculptural, but their ornament still seeks to blend the earthly and the divine, and to celebrate the natural world.

C20 Wooden Church of St Riginos Skopelos 1980to90s B Wooden iconostasis, 1980s-90s, Church of St Riginos, Skopelos, detail. Photo: the author

C20 Church of St Achilles Larisa 1990s AWhite marble iconostasis, 1990s, Church of St Achilles, Larisa, showing carved barrier forward of the templon. Photo: the author

One contemporary trend is for iconostases in Greece to become lower in height, returning to the forms and scale used in the Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia, and allowing the natural light and the spacious layout of the church full play. The templon in St Achilles, Larisa, is relatively low compared with the height of the dome. This ioconostasis is also notable for incorporating a second carved barrier in front of the first; a low pierced wall of carving which recalls the low altar rail of the early Byzantine templon. In these modern versions of an ancient structure, style and format appear to be circling around and renewing themselves from their roots.


Article and images based on Αλεξάνδρα  Γουλάκη – Βουτυρά, Γιώργος Καραδέδος,Χίος, Λέσβος και η εκκλησιαστική γλυπτική στο Αιγαίο, Μέθεξις, 2011, 502 σελ, ISBN 978-960-6796-20-3

(Alexandra Goulaki-Voutyra & Giorgos Karadedos, Chios, Lesvos and Ecclesiastical Sculpture in the Aegean 16th – 20th Century, Thessaloniki 2011, Methexis Publications)

The author would like to thank Yannis Karadedos and Methexis Publications, for permission to adapt text & information and to republish images; also Andronis Andronikos, Olga Andronikos, Larisa Gorina and Valeria Sapegina for all their help and support; and Lynn Roberts for editing.

An Introduction to Greek Orthodox Shrines > here


[1] ‘Adyton’ means ‘cannot be entered’. Interestingly, although ‘iconostasis’ is a Greek term, the objects themselves are referred to in Greece as ‘templa’ from the Latin for temple.

[2] Αργέντης-Κυριακίδης Η Χίος παρά γεωγράφοις και περιηγηταίς, 1974, τ. Α ́, pg. 17, 46, 60 και τ. Γ ́, 1339.
Γουλάκη-Βουτυρά/Καραδέδος/Λάββας, Η Εκκλησιαστική μαρμαρογλυπτική στις Κυκλάδες από τον 16ο ώς τον 20ο αιώνα, 1996, pg. 59, σημ. 81.

[3] N. Gaitis , Γραψίμματα, 1982, p.42.

[4] Μ. Καζανάκη, Εκκλησιαστική ξυλογλυπτική στο Χάνδακα τον 17ο αιώνα. Νοταριακά έγγραφα (1606-1642), 1974, pp. 251-283; and 
G. Gerola, Monumenti Veneti nell Isola di Creta, 1908, Venice

[5] Architect of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

[6] See the notaries’ documents of 1640-42, quoted by Μ. Καζανάκη, Εκκλησιαστική ξυλογλυπτική στο Χάνδακα τον 17ο αιώνα. Νοταριακά έγγραφα (1606-1642), 1974, pp. 251-283; and M. Chatzidakis, ‘Iconostas’, Reallexikon zur byzantinischen Kunst, 1973, Stuttgart , pp. 326-353

[7] See note 6.

[8] For use of the pantograph for carving, see this video of the sculptor, C.S. Jagger, reproducing a half-size clay model of a sculpture from a smaller maquette with the use of a pantograph.