Iconostasis of St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church

By David Hall

July 2020

Anyone who enters St. John Chrysostom is immediately struck by the many beautiful icons all around the walls and even the ceiling of the church. But the most captivating part of the church is the iconostasis (icon screen). As one of the most distinctive features of an Orthodox or Eastern Rite Church, the iconostasis is a wall that separates the sanctuary, which houses the altar, from the rest of the church and is made up of many different icons and religious symbols. The iconostasis has three series of doors: the centrally located Royal Doors (also called the Holy Doors or Beautiful Gates), and the two “deacon doors” on the left and right sides.

Large church with two domes on the right and left side, a circular window in the center, and crosses on the top.
“St. John Chrysostom,” Photo by author, July 2020. The recognizable exterior is a landmark of sorts on the Penn-Lincoln Parkway.

Located in Greenfield, St. John Chrysostom is a Byzantine Catholic Church, meaning it is part of the Catholic Church but follows Byzantine traditions. This particular church gained some fame from one of their late members, Andy Warhol, whose family attended since he was a child. The preexisting congregation started construction on the current building started in 1932 and ended in 1935, but the church and iconostasis has undergone many changes since then. Most notably, the church saw redecorations in the 70s and 80s and even more recent renovations from 1994 to 1997. The present iconostasis is a unique design in America; whereas most American iconostases only have two layers, St. John Chrysostom has a much taller traditional Russian style, with four layers of icons. This Slavic style of iconostasis reflects the church’s origins in the Carpatho-Rusyn community, a Slavic people from the Carpathian Mountains and surrounding regions in Europe which received Russian and other Slavic influences over time. This design included a larger space in the Royal Doors, which allows a clearer view into the sanctuary and the altar. The space around the Royal Doors is also reminiscent of Byzantine domes and architecture.

A four-part, gray, intricate gate with four portraits of gospel writers on the left and right parts of the gate. Behind it there is an image of Jesus in the center.
“Royal Doors,” Photo by Author, July 2020. The royal doors are intricately designed with images of the four gospel writers.

All iconostases feature icons in different layers. At St. John Chrysostom, the icons on the bottom level include one of Jesus Christ, the Theotokos (Mary, the Mother of God), St. John Chrysostom, and St. Nicholas. As patron saints, St. Nicholas and St. John Chrysostom are holy figures who protect Eastern Catholic Churches, the latter of whom protects this church in particular. Christ and Mary are located on either side of the Royal Doors in all Eastern Rite Churches. The second layer of icons depict many events in the New Testament, such as the Nativity of Christ, the Pentecost, and Christ’s Baptism. Another interesting detail is in the placement of icons relating to the Mother of God on the lower level. In a special place on either side of the Royal Doors, there is a two-part icon in between the first level and the second levels. This icon is of the Annunciation (when an angel told the Virgin Mary that she will give birth to Jesus), which the church added after renovations in the 90s. These renovations helped expand the iconostasis and also changed the icons to a more traditional Byzantine style. The third level of icons depicts various saints––notably, St. Athanasius, the saints Cyril and Methodius, St. Paul, and many more. They face the icon of Christ Enthroned, portraying Christ’s rule in heaven at the top of the iconostasis. Finally, the top layer shows many Old Testament figures, like Moses, King David, Ezekiel, and Daniel almost on top of the other saints.

Above the Royal Doors, there are four icons that seem separate from the other layers. The icon of Christ Enthroned sits triumphantly at the very top, flanked by one of Mary the Mother of God on the left and St. John the Baptist on the right. Below these icons is the Divine Supper, also called the Last Supper in Western European traditions. This icon appears like a keystone of the entire iconostasis, drawing a clear parallel between that scene and that of the Divine Liturgy which is celebrated on Sunday. Unlike other churches, there is no clear icon of the crucifixion though it is present in the iconostasis. Above, Mary, St. John, and Christ Enthroned are three crosses, which is symbolic of the crucifixion of Christ. This subtle depiction of theology without the explicit use of icons is found elsewhere in the heavily ornate iconostasis. Between icons are also two tablets with Roman numerals representing the 10 commandments on the left side. A cross, cup, and book are on the opposite side all of which are foundational Christian images. These two designs in between the icons bring together elements from both the Old and New Testaments of the Christian tradition and adds to the significance of the iconostasis in the church.

“Whole Iconostasis,” Photo by Author, July 2020. The iconostasis is the central fixture of any Eastern Rite or Orthodox church.

Beyond its visual significance, the iconostasis is also a central part of the church for its role in the liturgy. In the church, the iconostasis denotes the sacred, where the sanctuary is often symbolic of heaven. For something to be sacred in this tradition, it must be set apart from the profane in some way. This separation is literally portrayed in the physical separation of the iconostasis. But this separation is not impermeable. In the liturgy, there are many entrances and exits from the sanctuary that bring out the Gospels or the sacrament. The Gospel reading and the sacraments are a very literal form of bringing the sacred to the laity, and it is all facilitated by iconostasis and its doors.

Further Reading

Klein, Barbara. “A Pop Icon’s Iconic Beginning.” Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, 2019, https://carnegiemuseums.org/carnegie-magazine/fall-2019/a-pop-icons-iconic-beginning/. Accessed July 2020

“The Iconostasis: A Characteristic Feature of the Byzantine Catholic Church.” Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, https://www.archpitt.org/the-iconostasis-a-characteristic-feature-of-the-byzantine-catholic-church/. Accessed July 2020

“The Iconostasis.” St. Tikhon’s Seminary, https://www.stots.edu/article/The+Iconostasis. Accessed July 2020

“An Historic Glimpse.” St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church, http://www.sjcbcc.com/history.html. Accessed July 2020

How to Cite

MLA: Hall, David. “Iconostasis of St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church.” ReligYinz: Mapping Religious Pittsburgh. University of Pittsburgh, 5 August 2020, https://religyinz.pitt.edu/iconostasis-of-st-john-chrysostom-byzantine-catholic-church/.

APA: Wolfe, Emily. (2020, August 5). Iconostasis of St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church. ReligYinz: Mapping Religious Pittsburgh. https://religyinz.pitt.edu/iconostasis-of-st-john-chrysostom-byzantine-catholic-church/.

Chicago: Hall, David. “Iconostasis of St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church.” ReligYinz: Mapping Religious Pittsburgh. University of Pittsburgh, 5 August 2020. https://religyinz.pitt.edu/iconostasis-of-st-john-chrysostom-byzantine-catholic-church/.