THE BULGARIAN ORTHODOX ICONOSTASIS
An intrinsic interior structure of the Eastern Orthodox Church is the iconostasis. Functionally seen, its role is to separate the altar area from the naos while providing a platform for those liturgical rites that are performed in the eyes of the congregation and yet remain semantically related to the altar. Regardless of the material used, iconostasis usually refers to the inner, eastern naos wall and its size, form and location follow the canon also applied to the architectural solution of the naos. Its specific symbolism best manifests in its façade shape insofar as its borderline function between the worlds of the seen and unseen. However, since an interior disposition in a church environment reflects a model of architectural façade emulating some of its elements in form but void of its functionality of structure, iconostasis forms follow the architectonics and composition of those stylistic genres that architecture would most likely favour in the respective period.
Theologian symbolism claims iconostasis is the borderline between the “Earthly” and the “Heavenly” church. In its consideration, iconostasis is to divide laymen and clergymen of which only the latter being entitled to access the altar and perform sacral rites. With the consolidation of Orthodox liturgical practices, the naos-altar borderline assumption was subject to continuous revalidation and streamlined. To date, Orthodox iconostases completely hide the sacrum of the altar from the eyes of laymen. In terms of form, they resemble the outer walls of a building, with their window-like vents hosting the images of heavenly creatures to mediate the communion of Lord and the faithful congregation. Any individual iconostasis element holds its unique semantics. The architectonics and iconography of the art of iconostasis would develop in the course of time, and once established, iconography remained steady to variation, for all the modifications of style that followed in the construction of forms and choice of materials.
The size, form and location of the iconostasis in the interior environment of the temple vary with the ceremonial genre of the liturgy, which is also the major functional factor to shape the architectural composition of the church building itself.
Iconostasis architectonic traditions date back to Early Byzantine times. They are related to classical old times forming through the Byzantine cultural cycle the foundations of fine-art culture in general. The Byzantine tradition was so powerful that it would ensure the survival of the adopted antique-façade character of the iconostasis through hundreds of years, through to modern times.
The oldest altar partitions found on the Balkan Peninsula date back to the 4th century. Reconstructions of the remnants of altar partitions found on the island of Lesbos, in Lochrida, Veliko Tarnovo, Serdika and the island of Tassos help gain an idea of what these early-time iconostases looked like. They were low-rise parapets consisting of stone pillars with relief knotwork-decorated stone plates mounted in between, and were in a perfect harmony in terms of material and shape with the character of early Christian temples - spatial basilica-like buildings, monumental and exhibiting classical simplicity of composition.
Altar partition of 4th century Lochrida Basilica. Renovated by A. Orlandos
Altar partition of 4th century antique “Aphenteli” Basilica on the island of Lesbos. Renovated by A. Orlandos
Altar partition of the antique Basilica on the island of Tassos. Renovated by A. Orlandos
Graphic reconstruction of the altar of the Early-Christian three-deck basilica on the Tsarevets hill in Veliko Tarnovo dating back to early 6th century. Renovated by N. Angelov
One of the earliest and most advanced in compositional structure altar partitions, most probably constructed in the 5th century is that of the small early Christian church in the centre of the old town of Serdika, to the east of the St. George Rotund. The rail is about 8.60 m long and 2.50 m high. It consists of nine intercolumniations, the one in the middle serving as an entrance to the altar. There are marble pedestals on a broad stone stage step, all carrying short columns. Over the columns there is a marble architrave split into two horizontal bands. Columns have the so-called Byzantine heads. Pedestals and the plates thereon are decorated with stone carving. Today this iconostasis has been renovated and is stored in the Museum of Archeology in Sofia.
Altar stone-plate of a Serdika (modern: Sofia) temple dated back to the 6th century
Altar stone column of the 6th century Serdika temple
During the 5th - 9th century altar partitions began rising up in height. There were stone columns decorated with architrave on stone pedestals, as well as a frieze and cornice above. Thus, the altar partition took the shape of a colonnade whose vents were hidden in certain moments of the liturgy by brocaded curtains.
Marble and stone-made iconostases formed an ensemble with the church interior being constructed of stonewalls, columns and arcs, marble-plate floors, stone rails, which were decorated with wall- and arc-covering mosaics sometimes also applied as stone-made floor carpets. The latter is not mere coincidence but a conscious concept of the artist in certain cases. An instance of this unity of the solution for the church’s disposition and the alter partition is found in the churches of Veliki Preslav which had been erected between the 9th and 10th century. Preslavian architecture with its polychromic character and feel for minimalist decoration shapes is the covers of columns, cornices and rails, consisting of polychrome ceramic, precious stone and common stone pieces of various tints. Similarly treated were also altar partitions, remnants of which were found in the Round Church, Church No.2 in the Avradak, among other places. In the multicoloured church interior shining with the colours of the glazing and the polished stones, the iconostasis partition should have been an equally valuable element in addition.
Overall, there were several stages in the development of the Orthodox iconostasis in the next two centuries.
The renovated spirit of Christianity, its strengthened positions as a state ideology as well as the artistic quest for a profound symbolic effect on the visitors of the medieval temple lead to changes in the internal composition of the artistic interior of the temple buildings. A significant change was that the border between alter and naos was closed. Thus, the “Heavenly” church physically parted off with the “Earthly” one. The images on altar walls remained hidden from the eyes of visitors. In order to serve their functional task, some were taken to the iconostasis partition. The previously apse image of the Holy Mother was now next to the images of Royal personalities on the iconostasis. In the centre of the frieze, there was the image of “Deisis” /Litany/ consisting of three figures: Mother Mary and St. John the Baptist from both sides of Christ the Great Judge praying for mercy to sinners. On the central “sacral doors” of the iconostasis the Annunciation scene was painted, which was earlier seen on the pillars separating altar and naos, etc. Thus, the iconographic concept of the iconostasis partly originated from the initial distribution of images in the altar area. In the very heart of Orthodox Christianity, in the monasteries of Atone, a similar variety of very old marble iconostases were found. Some were dismounted and later replaced with wooden ones while others remained until the end of the 19th century to serve evidence for the stages of the process detailed in scientific literature.
Ongoing changes in artistic and architectural processes - increasingly evident during the 13th and early 14th century, were arrested due to the political catastrophe hampering for almost half a millennium the natural course of development in the cultures of South-Eastern Europe.
In the first centuries of the Ottoman domination - 15th and 16th centuries - there was a strong drive to keep old forms of decoration and old-time synthesis forms between the individual elements of the interior. These would also store the forms of the iconostasis partition while only precious materials such as marble and processed stones were replaced by wood.
Wood-carved iconostasis of the 16th century “St. Steven” temple. Pre-renovation archive picture
A last effort to keep stone iconostases was the construction of stonemason iconostases, which appeared in those centuries. Leaving aside precious stone pillars, column heads and details that could only be worked out of high-grade stone, constructors would replace them with mason walls made from broken stone and bricks. These walls had two or three vents serving as doors, over which the respective images traditions required were painted.
The time-proof resistance of some traditional forms is demonstrated by the several mason-work iconostases in provincial churches away from the centres of art. One is found in the village of Tzarevetz, region Vratza, in the “St. Nicholas” church, erected in 1781. It was made of stone and painted all over. Later a wooden iconostasis was attached to it. Mason-work iconostases have been found in all countries on the Balkan Peninsula. One would preserve its old traditional form until late. This was Romania where many of the old-time church buildings could take refuge after they were destroyed by Ottoman strikes in the central parts of the Balkan Peninsula.
The oldest completely preserved wooden iconostases surviving through the years until today date back to the 17th century, quite unsurprisingly, since social developments during the 17th century raised awareness that old-time artistic and architectural system could not help cover novel phenomena and keep them in range. The emergence and consolidation of the wooden iconostasis means that monumental interior design, previously the ideal concept of medieval art, was already forgotten. It was the first step in reinterpreting church environment and interior and as such, it could have been no more confident at first. Wood had not yet been demonstrated as a material. Wooden iconostasis was treated with multicoloured paints and lacquers, underestimating its own colorist features at that.
For all the scarcity of the data we have, the following preliminary flashback could be considered: the first wooden iconostases represented flat-surface mosaics that preserved the basic horizontal and vertical lines of their medieval ancestors, stone iconostases. Therein, the peristylion turned into a belt of bottom tables, the colonnade - into a row of large icons, the architrave into a wooden cornice separating bigger icons from smaller ones, while the place of the top cornice was taken by two rows of small icons. An integral part of the structure remains the wooden cross crowning the composition.
The above variety of iconostasis was constructed in the central church in the Monastery of Bachkovo. Initially made of freestone, it totally blocked laymen from seeing beyond. There is exhaustive data to sustain that the high and massive stonewall was laid at the time the very church was erected: 1604. It was never painted or at least no signs of iconography have been found on it yet. Later on, a wooden iconostasis was attached to its front surface. The compositionality of this large and impressive iconostasis is an eloquent picture of the development of iconostasis composition during the 17th century. It consists of five horizontal rows divided into fifteen vertical fields. The correlation of elements follows the classical tripartite model. The structure is simple, best seen in substructures and proportions. It reflects a terminal stage of a period and a next step in the overall process should take an innovatory course by any means. This would be the transformation of composition into architectonics, the introduction of elements suggesting a delusive architectural construction and breaking the flat surface model, medieval in character.
A similar variety of iconostasis to the one in the Monastery of Bachkovo were found in the St. George church in Arbanasi, St. Cyril and St. Metodii in Veliko Tarnovo, the lost iconostasis of the earthquake-stricken temple St. Petka in the same town, the iconostasis in the Christmas Church in Arbanassi.
The first large-size iconostasis exhibiting the full range of compositional changes and so taking the head position in the transition to the Bulgarian Renaissance is the main iconostasis of the church in the Monastery of Rozhen. As well as the rest monuments of the early Renaissance, the Rozhen iconostasis is an interim form characteristic of the transition from medieval art to the esthetics of the New Age. The Rozhen church iconostasis is impressive in size. It is 10.50 m long and 4.40 m to the base of the high cross completing the composition. Following traditions, the bottom tables are filled with bunches of flowers painted on with now plastic rims while the separating pedestals are carved. Pedestals as well as columns are covered with shallow carved knotwork of leaves and branches. The same knotwork covers the architrave and the two horizontal friezes separating small icon rows to form a kind of entablement. The geometrical ornament has been replaced by the plant net made of ornaments.
The carving has been interpreted in flat surfaces everywhere in the iconostasis with the only difference from previous instances being the treatment of the foundation it is carved upon. Its variegated knotworks are brocaded with background areas in between coloured in intensive tints such as dark green, dark blue, and brick colour. The coloration of this large iconostasis matches the colour-rich outlook of the interior to which it belonged. There is a powerful overall impression. In the dusk of the church, between the paintings on the walls and the polychrome light passing through the window vitrages, there is its dull radiance coming out of the carving’s gold and the warm colours of the bases and the grandeur of the dark-faced images on the big festive icons, thus not only completing the picture of the rich interior space and making a perfect work of art itself.
It is a time-tested truth that history of art is compromising in to-the-year and to-the-day dating. For all its contextuality in terms of social background and public perceptions, fine art is also described as relatively time-free. The appearance of a strong personality premature or ahead of their time can seriously disturb the chronological sequence of development.
An instance of such a breakthrough in the chronological series is a small-size iconostasis mounted in the altar area of the church in the Monastery of Rozhen where an additional miniature chapel was built. This iconostasis is a milestone of the deeply grained new developments in the advance of iconography during the second half of the 18th century. There is however no data on the history and time-reference of this unique monument. Presumably, it had been designed for another church and later moved to the Monastery. The architectonic matrix is somewhat peculiar. The lower two belts still follow the colonnade form principle, with the separator columns in between its five fields spatially mounted outside the wall plane and covered with plastic carving. The upper belts form a heavy entablement, almost the size of the lower two belts together. The artistic design of the carving enjoys an independent and offbeat solution ranging away from the characteristic design of the 17th and the 18th century alike. It is a picturesque and striking decision.
The material’s treatment is no less negligent of conventions. For the first time ever wood is regarded as a full-fledged functional material that is plastic and colourful as it is, and not necessarily brocaded or painted all over. The large iconostases of the 18th century would further inherit and develop these artistic principles.
Detail from the sub-icon tables of the “Small iconostasis of Rojen” in the catolicone of the Rojen Monastery “Birth of the Holy Mother”. The iconostasis dates back to the 2nd half of the 18th century. Scene from the Old Testament depicted: “Jacob’s Dream. Jacob Fighting the Angel”
Detail from the sub-icon tables of the “Small iconostasis of Rojen” in the catolicone of the Rojen Monastery. Scene from the Old Testament depicted: ”Samson Tears off the Lion’s Throat”
During the 18th and 19th centuries, Bulgarian iconostases were composed in reproduction of the architectural facades of Renaissance and Baroque buildings, obviously taking the effort to conform to the specific relations and proportions of the latter styles in the architectonic structure, and to reproduce the number and form of elements characteristic of classical order systems. Thus, they reach farther than the structures of the Late Middle Ages, the course of developments doubling that of the changes in typology going on in church architecture. From the last decades of the 18th century, some of the most sophisticated paragon works were created: the iconostases in the Metropolitan Church in Samokov and those in the Holy Mother church in Sozopol as well as its precise copy in the St. Anastasia church on the same name island. Their architectonics as well as the carved plastic covering all elements reflects the new course of developments to be interpreted and extended during the 19th century.
In 1793, the central component of the large wood carved iconostasis created by the Atone past master and monk Antonius was mounted in the Metropolitan church in Samokov. About 40 years later the iconostasis was completed by two new side wings by master Atanas Teladur as meanwhile the church had been reconstructed from two-deck into a three-deck structure. In fact the iconostasis consists of two elements designed for two different types of space; however, owing to the craft of the famous carving master Atanas Teladur neither the area of the renovated naos nor the composition of the iconostasis itself suggest the difference.
It is a large iconostasis consisting of 19 elements, which form an extensive order series. The field-separating columns are entirely in front of the massive wood wall. They break through the lower belt, pass through the line of the festive icons and the horizontal tables underneath, and then break through the head panes to come out into the vine-supporting cornice. This colonnade’s plasticity is not disturbed by the woodcarving; on the contrary, it becomes even more powerful in its various shapes through the interplay of light and shades. The horizontally mounted upper belt lies down on this baroque-style colonnade. What is new about the composition is the step-like appearance. Following traditional conventions, the column head has a horizontal disposition, only discontinued in the middle to provide room for the cross, ripids and the two dragons.
Central partition of the wood-carved iconostasis of the Metropolitan Church in Samokov. Carver: Antonius, Atone monch, late 18th cen
In the mid 19th century, the interior of Bulgarian temples was subject to compositional principles characteristic of the baroque style that also reflected on the iconostasis as part of the spatial concept. Following the principle of co-subordination, the central deck became higher and broader; columns grew thinner blending at the end with the flush light coming through the wide windows. The wooden wall of the iconostasis bends as if under the weight of the longitudinal axis of the church while the upper series of icons is bending over the big colonnade in one or multiple retreats. The column head is invariably three-partite and these three elements like big carved crowns round off the spatial design of the environment of each deck, usually functioning as the altar’s limit in height. In certain cases the middle fields of all three partitions of the iconostasis are taken in and the whole wall of the iconostasis becomes an intensive threefold curve. As if to complete the baroque-like treatment of space, the proscenia, pulpit and the congregation chairs are aligned like side-scene walls, to prepare for the impressive effect of the central element - the iconostasis.
Detail of the iconostasis of the Funeral Church in Bancko. 19th cen.
The general course of development is country-specific; however, there are certain local context features such as the baroque-style interpretation of the iconostasis, mostly characteristic of the masters from Macedonia, which are available in the wooden carved iconostases they constructed for various churches: “Assumption” in Pazardzhik, “Assumption” (The “Deep” Mother Mary) in Assenovgrad, St. Nedelia in Plovdiv.
The iconostasis of the ”Holy Mother’s Assumption” temple in Pazardjik, carver Maccharie Negriev, 1840
Central sacral doors of the “Holy Mother’s Assumption” temple in Pazardjik
Detail of the sub-icon tables in the “Holy mother’s Assumption“ temple in Pazardjik. Scene depicted: Presentation of the Blessed Virgin in the Temple
Baroque principles and the principle of unity in terms of interior design have best been reflected in the central church of the Rila Monastery. The place where the iconostasis is located is in a perfect symmetry with the rhythm of the naos. The naos delineates a field within the visible interior space which would possibly serve as the “lost” first field from the west that should function as a narthex. Thus, an exact number of spatial elements remain in the interior to form a clear rhythmic order. The curvature of the iconostasis wall rounds off the middle line of the area to shape those favourite to Baroque style masters oval lines.
Iconostasis and proscene components of the major “Birth of the Holy Mother” temple in the Rila Monastery cloister. Carver - Atanas Teladur, carved during the 2nd half of the 19th cen.
Central sacral doors in the iconostas of the Rila Monastery
This iconostasis is the biggest one on the Balkan Peninsula. Its master was Atanas Teladur and his disciples and mates and it was constructed in the time between 1839 and 1842. A couple of years after its completion it was brocaded with gold plate. The monumental wooden wall is divided in two “storeys”. The first storey encompasses the colonnade with royal personality icons while the second one - the rows of gospel and festive small icons. A rich horizontal cornice completes the storey with small icons and a tall crown head above it forms the basis of a huge wooden carved cross. The entire composition is constructed in the canons of Baroque façade building. The baroque principle of subordination of details to the whole structure is reflected in the decoration of the carving, too. The elements are large-size, not quite sophisticated so that they are easily seen from greater distances. The majority elements are floral and bird-like ornaments. Flowers in bloom, vine and acanthus leaves, lace and tassels are lavishly interwoven in the ornamental texture. The gold plate rounds off the impression through the interplay of light on the ornate carved basis.
Wood-carved gold-plated iconostasis “St. Sava and St. Simeon” in the Rila Monastery, 19th cen.
Employing a notable sense for interaction with the general composition of space, the iconostasis of the Rila Monastery is a unique work of Bulgarian Renaissance art.
Numerous iconostases date back to the 19th century, all being constructed by the masters of the Trjavna School with a skilful professional craft. Their compositionality satisfies the principles of 18th century art.
Iconostasis of the “St. Elias the Prophet” temple in Sevlievo, mid 19th cen.
The production of the Trjavna masters was so significant in volume that it naturally lead to a standardization of what was being .produced. Mainly designed for parish churches or less sophisticated monastery catholicons and chapels, iconostases were roughly the same size. Recognizably, they all had high-level and richly ornate crown parts.
Iconostasis crown of the “St. Nicholas” temple in Veliko Tarnovo, work of Trjavna School past-masters, 40s of the 19th cen.
Their architectonic details follow a specific proportionality system, which is usually reproduced in any of the Trjavna-school iconostases. The proportions of the three iconostasis’ belts as well as their structural components are pure arithmetic, a more primitive proportionality system than the one of the masters from Western Bulgaria who would rather interpret architectonical requirements according to the “golden mean” principle. This concept about proportion along with the exclusion of the crown head from the overall proportions introduces a certain schematism of composition and diminishes the general effect it has. /19 /
Iconostasis of the “St. Nedelja” church in Plovdiv, probably work of past-masters from the Debar-Rekan School, 40s of the 19th cen.
The novel concept about fine art typical for the second half of the 19th century would gradually exhaust traditional arts so that they would be replaced by secular genres. One was the traditional genre of ecclesiastical carving. Along with the expansion of interior space, carving began losing its priorities. It was too minimalist for the huge size of architectonical elements that it had to cover and iconostasis designers were now facing new tasks. They had to match the traditional iconography of the iconostasis with the increased size of the naos, the magnitude of ornamentation elements and the extended distance they were perceived. Moreover, they had to adjust the very shapes to the varying tastes of the people who commissioned their production: people who had seen Russia and Europe, who were aware of Classicism, Viennese Baroque and Russian Empire Style, who wished to see this type of architecture and art in Bulgaria. Their imagination created the charming eclectics of Renaissance houses, which was also reflected, though less recognizably, in the interior of the newly built temples. That was why after the 60s of the 19th century there appeared iconostases created by carpenters, which had wood-carved details applied on their surface. Craft artistry, with manufacture coming, took on speed at the account of the manually carved wooden plastic art. For all the imperfection of plastic decoration compared to the one of the past, large iconostases dating back to the end of the century were sophisticated and skilful works of architecture. They further advanced the model of iconostases as influenced by European architecture, which was ever more uncompromisingly subject to the general architectural composition.
The artist who had a first-hand and profound appreciation of the changed state of the art, and would moreover level up to the new requirements, was Anton Geshov Stanishev, author of some of the biggest iconostases from the 70s of the 19th century. The major ones were created for the churches being built in North-Eastern Bulgaria, that were a serious factor in the economy of traditional Bulgarian areas and the progress of Modern Bulgarian culture. Aware from his early days of the classical Bulgarian art of carved iconostases, the right-hand man and later coauthor to his brother - the great past-master Dimitar Geshov Stanishev, to produce some of the uttermost carving paragons of the kind, Anton Stanishev had the creative audacity and potential to redirect the art without compromising on its evolutionary course while also synchronizing it to the rule of the day. The novelty A. Stanishev would afford to introduce into the matrix of iconography he obtained by the Western Empire style adopted in Russia under the name “Nicolay’s Empire”. The central component of the main vertical axis now was not the three-ply composition “Deisis” but the large icon of the “Last Supper” which was introduced into the crown head of the iconostasis. A largely carved basket of fruits rounded off the composition of the crown. Yet the traditional on our land Adam’s skull remained unchanged, and the large carved cross stepped on it invariably, being another typical element in Orthodox culture. The location of the temple icon remained the same, too: left to the sacral doors, next to the icon of the Holy Mother.
Iconostasis of the “Holy Trinity” temple in Svishtov, work of Anton Stanishev, 1872
This innovatory compositionality took in well and received a warm welcome everywhere; for all the counteraction on the part of old-school masters, the new direction grew strong and dominated the modern Bulgarian ecclesiastical art for years.
The heritage of the 18th and 19th centuries in terms of the art of iconostasis was the vast experience accumulated in architectural composition as well as the quest for compositional integrity of the temple’s interior space.
In its course of its development, Bulgarian-Orthodox iconostasis art shows that in an effort to create the best works of art while searching for new areas for their creativity, the authors of iconostases managed to reach in some of their works the top of a unique art of great genius, in that any national school of art would take pride.
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