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The Iconostasis for St. Sava Church in Cambridge, MA

In October 2009, after 3 years of work, my first iconostasis has been installed in St. Sava Church in Cambridge, MA. There is still more work to be done - I'm to carve 24 miniature Gospel scenes and fit them into their place in the Royal Door around the images of Archangel Gabriel and Mother of God. That, however, is a huge job in itself and will take some time.

These pages will eventually offer the full story on the iconostasis, as it is quite a story. For now you can read a relatively short description and see the photos I have so far. I will add to this as time allows.

Father Aleksandar in front of the new iconostasis on the Consecration Day.
I don't know who took some of these photos - if they're yours let me know and I will put your name here or remove the photo if that is your wish.

If you've been inside any Orthodox Church you've surely noticed that an iconostasis is usually just a big frame for icons - there's rarely any attempt at art in most of them. I decided in advance that I wouldn't be making those things - adding one more of those to this world is one too many, in my opinion. Fortunately St. Sava's parish priest Father Aleksandar has an eye for art.

Technical details
The iconostasis is 35 feet wide and slightly over 17 feet tall at its highest point (top of the central cross). I spent over 21 cubic meters of European walnut on it. That amount of material is obviously not standing there because walnut has a huge percentage of waste, but that is how much went into it. The work took 3 years and will take probably a year more for the 24 scenes of Christ's life to be carved and installed into the Royal Door. The icons are all painted in egg tempera with 23 - 24 karat gold leaf background.
The Idea
My basic idea during the design process was that this iconostasis symbolically represents the Church. Even its physical appearance is based on our medieval churches - it's got the middle and side "domes" (in this case arches) with crosses on top of them, the middle section for the Royal Door is shaped like stone portals of old churches, the line of little arches that goes all across it right underneath the upper segments (which I'm sure has a proper architectural name in English that I don't know) is a common thing to see under the roof line of medieval churches, the carvings are in the style of stone carvings from the Middle Ages, etc.
In the spiritual sense it represents the time line of the Church's existence.
In the beginning the Church was all about faith, so on the base of each column you see a different nameless "Holy Warrior", representing all people who gave their lives for their belief in Christ thus building the strong 'base' of the Church (hence their position on the iconostasis). All these lower parts below the big icons are filled with a lot of plants and animals illustrating the "Let all that has breath praise the lord". There are two scenes from the old Testament on the Deacon Doors, each a lesson in faith. All in all that part, representing the first few centuries of the Church, is full of meaning - both in visual symbols and in carved biblical quotes (all in Serbian cyrillic).

Above it is the so called "sovereign row" consisting of six large icons (37"x55"), their choice and position being traditional - The Christ, Archangel Gabriel and St. John the Forerunner to the viewer's right and Mother of God, Archangel Michael and St. Sava (the patron saint) to the viewer's left. The columns to the side of each icon are left unadorned while the boards behind them are carved - with the same pattern, but a closer look reveals that actually each one is carved differently. The idea of leaving the columns ("the surface") plain and working on what is
behind instead is symbolical - it's there to teach people to look behind the surface. The reason for carving the ornamentation behind in the same pattern but differently is to remind us that God never made copies and everything is unique even if it appears similar to something else, but without looking beyond the surface we can't notice that.
"Red Sea Crossing" - the words carved around the scene are from Exodus 14:13,14: " Fear not, stand still and see the salvation of the Lord which he will show you today; for the Egyptians whom you have seen to day you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you will hold your peace." The idea to carve that scene came to me when I first ran out of money very soon after the start. At first I panicked and then I calmed myself down with these words that Moses said.....the reaction was almost immediate and the money problem soon disappeared.

The arches above the Deacon doors illustrate the Christ's words "I am sending you now as sheep among the wolfs....." on one side and, again, the "Let ALL that has breath..." on the other. The latter shows different imaginary creatures symbolizing that whatever exists, even if in imagination only, is created by God and thus owes Him praise.

Then, as the iconostasis goes up (symbolizing the passage of time in the existence of the Church) in the upper section the ornamentation becomes less about meaning and faith and more about appearances only (customs and tradition). A shallow glance of the surface would make one think that the upper parts are not that much different from the lower parts but a closer look shows that there is nothing really there except appearance, just very simple repeating ornaments that go on and on across the upper (smaller) arches, which symbolizes what we have today - people attending the service without understanding almost any of it, going through motions and patterns on and on. Not a mention of a "holy warrior"or a faith that
went against the entire army of Egypt that we see in Old Testament scene in the lower part..... Just appearances. The lunettes at the top of the segments with deacon doors contain two images familiar to most Serbs - the lesser known image of the two birds from one of Ravanica's windows and the better known image of the Dragon and the Rooster from Studenica's (and later Decani's) window. Both there, unfortunately, just as ornamentation - monuments of the "glorious past" but nothing deeper than that; just tricks to get the pride going in people  for half an hour without the real desire to inspire the faith that existed when the originals were made.

"Noah's Arc" - as it often is in Byzantine tradition a scene doesn't represent a frozen moment in time but rather surpasses time, condensing both the happenings and their meaning before, during, and after. The original story does not mention mocking neighbors but I placed them there to symbolize all those people whose response to warning is to mock, even if the flood clouds are right above their heads. The animals are entering the ark by themselves showing more wisdom than those who consider themselves wise. The God's sign of the new covenant between Him and humans - the rainbow - is what is to come after the flood; here it signifies God's protection of those who follow his commandments. The Christ is in the upper left corner above Noah and his family blessing them and the ark (and if you're thinking "Jesus wasn't born yet at that time" you are clearly in the wrong place and shouldn't bother reading this). The words around the scene are a combination of Genesis 7:1 and 6:17.


However, the middle section symbolizes hope - the church still has the strong core that keeps it standing, gives it stability and connects it with Christ (the cross at the top). The entire middle section from top to bottom is about meaning. The Archangels are guarding the entrance. The left column (looking from the nave) represents human struggle - people too busy fighting the problems of the world (each other, nature, irrational fears - themselves) that they can't see that the Serpent (Satan) already has them trapped and all it needs to do is to squeeze. The right column illustrates the story of the Prodigal son. The columns in the back show trees that grow both from the lower and the upper end - symbolizing that nothing ever can exist only as material ("from the ground") but is always a unity of material and spiritual ("and from the heavens").

Above the Royal Door we have Moses on one side and the words "In the beginning God created Heaven and Earth" underneath him, and St. John the

Theologian on the other with the words "In the beginning there was Word" - representing the Old and the New Testament that are the source of faith and Church's teachings. Above the entrance are Christ's words "Enter through the narrow door". The central arch above is a quote from Mathew 6:26-29, both in words (the inner arch) and illustrated in carved images (the outer one), reminding people to stop fretting about their perceived problems and the future and to have faith that God will give them everything they need just like He gives to birds and plants. My rendering of the Rublev's "Old Testament Trinity" icon is inside the central arch, above the Royal Door. Fortunately Father Aleksandar chose it over the more common "Holy Supper". Most people completely miss the warning it offers cause they don't fully remember the story - when they stopped at Abraham and Sarah's the three angels were actually on their way to burn down Sodom and Gomorrah.

There are Biblical quotes carved all over the iconostasis, each suitable to its place or the situation I was in at the time I carved it. As this story gets expanded I will do my best to show all the details of this iconostasis in hope that it will inspire some "powers that be" to see that an iconostasis can be more than just a boring frame with peacocks, flowers, leaves and vases mind-numbingly repeated over and over so the parishioners can fall asleep easier as they stand or sit in front of them.