An iconostasis is the screen or wall in a church that separates the sanctuary, presbytery, or bema, restricted to the clergy, from the naos, or area of the laity. It developed in the fourteenth century in Byzantine areas, earlier in Egypt. The Arab word for it is hijab, which literally means “curtains.”
The spatial separation of clergy from laity began in the early church, where low cancelli (see above) shielded the sanctuary but did not hide it from view. In the sixth century in Byzantine areas the cancelli developed into the templon, a more ornate screen with curtains above it, which concealed the acts carried out at the altar from the view of worshipers. It is not known exactly when such concealment was considered necessary.
A similar effect was achieved when curtains were added above the cancelli in Western churches, first mentioned in the seventh century in Liber pontificalis (Duchesne and Vogel, 1955-1957, p. 375). About the same time, the western wall of the khurus, a room between the naos and the sanctuary, was performing the function of concealment in Egyptian churches. The wall had a central opening, which might be narrow and provided with wooden doors, as in the churches of Dayr al-Suryan and Dayr al Baramus in Wadi al-Natrun, which have doors from the tenth century (Evelyn-White, 1972, pp. 187-90, 197-200). If the central opening was wide, as in the Church of Saint Mercurius in Dayr Abu Sayfayn, Cairo, columns were inserted in it and the space between them was provided with a wooden framework probably to hold a curtain.
During the Middle Ages the west wall of the khurus became more solid and elaborate. Made of wood or stone, it was taller than a man and contained a main entrance that could be closed by a wooden door that was sometimes richly carved (see WOODWORK, COPTIC). There were also side entrances or windows. The stone khurus was usually an undecorated wall surmounted by a simple cornice, but the wooden khurus was frequently elaborately carved.
In the Fatimid period (tenth to twelfth centuries) a series of panels with figurative and ornamental carving, sometimes inlaid with ivory, were joined in a continuous framework. In the Mamluk period (thirteenth to sixteenth centuries) the khurus wall was artfully constructed of different colored wood and ivory panels, as can still be seen in churches in Cairo. Meanwhile the khurus room itself was opening into the sanctuary and gradually disappeared. The function of the west wall in hiding the sanctuary was then served by the iconostasis, a solid wall pierced by doors, which is covered with paintings of holy persons called icons. These are arranged according to a fixed pattern of subject matter and add greatly to the spiritual meaning and decorative effect of Coptic churches.
- Burmester, O. H. E. The Egyptian or Coptic Church. Cairo, 1967. Chatzidakis, M. “Ikonostas.” In Reallexikon der byzantinischen
- Kunst, Vol. 3, ed. K. Wessel and M. Restle. Stuttgart, 1978.
- Duchesne, L., and C. Vogel, eds. Liber pontificalis. 2nd ed., Paris, 1955-1957.
- Evelyn-White, H. G. The Monasteries of the Wadi ‘n Natrun, Pt. 3. New York, 1932; repr. 1972.
- Graf, G. Verzeichnis arabischer kirchlicher Termini. CSCO 147. Louvain, 1954.
- Leroy, J. Les Peintures des couvents du désert d’Esna. Mémoires publiés par les membres de l’Institut français d’Archéologie orientale 94. Cairo, 1972.
- Pauty, E. Bois sculptés d’eglises coptes (époque fatimide). Cairo, 1930.