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Symeon of hessalonike and the heology of the Icon Screen

Nicholas P. Constas

ppearing in highly developed form during the

Palaiologan period, and visually prominent within
the performance space of the liturgy, the icon
screen embodies a number of beliefs critical to the Byzantine
theological tradition. As a symbolic threshold that so
conspicuously marked the boundary between the sensible
and the intelligible, the icon screen efectively realized
the uniquely Byzantine understanding of the Incarnation as
a paradoxical dialectic of revelation and concealment.
Despite the apparent dualism between the sensible
and the intelligible mentioned above,1 the Byzantines were
not dualists, and developed a sophisticated phenomenology
of representation consistent with their belief that the invisible
God had been directly revealed to the organs of sensual
apprehension. For Byzantine religious thinkers, the appearance
of the invisible God in the fabric of a human body complicated
the binary oppositions of ancient philosophy and promoted

he problems in this dichotomy, which Byzantine theologians associated with the sanctuary
enclosure, will be discussed in what follows. For now, it should be noted that later Greek thought posited
a dynamic continuity between the sensible and the intelligible, locating both on either end of a single
continuum, the one being an intensiication of the other. Plotinus, for example, holds that sensations
() here [i.e., in the sensible realm] are dim intellections ( ); intellections there [i.
e., in the noetic realm] are vivid sensations ( ) (Ennead

a new Christian synthesis of ontology, semiotics, and aesthetics.2 Indeed, what

Alden Mosshammer has argued concerning the intellectual development of
Gregory of Nyssa can reasonably be asserted of the Byzantine theological
tradition as a whole, namely, that it was a movement away from a Platonizing
and exaggerated dualism between mind and body, intelligibles and sensibles
towards a more speciically Christian understanding of reality.3 he result
was a sacramental vision of the self and the world that did not simply disallow
facile disjunctions of sensibles and intelligibles, but deined salvation itself as
a coincidence of such opposites centered within, and transcended by, the dualnatured person of Christ.4
As stated above, Byzantine theories about the nature of revelation had to
contend with the appearance of the uncreated God within the concrete forms
of the created world. hat the absolute could enter, and be personally active
within, the relative conditions of time and space were beliefs derived, not from
the schools of Greek philosophy, but from the religion of Israel and its sacred
scriptures, viewed from a distinctly Christian perspective. In relecting on
the accounts of Gods various theophanies to his chosen people, patristic and
Byzantine exegetes were drawn to the heavenly tabernacle revealed to Moses
during his sojourn on Mount Sinai (cf. Exod. 25:810). Following Gods detailed
directions, Moses constructed an earthly tabernacle closely corresponding to
the celestial archetype, which subsequently became the privileged locus of the
deity, the visible home of the invisible God, who dwelt within its sanctuary
hidden behind a cultic veil.
Because Byzantine exegetes of Scripture were also bishops of the church, the
tabernacle of Moses was frequently the model for the decoration and symbolic
perception of their own houses of worship. hus the witness of Scripture to a
liturgical veil enclosing the divine presence and dividing sacred space directly
inluenced the Byzantine sanctuary enclosure, the main portal of which was
oten equipped with a veil. his association was so strong that the symbolism of
the veil could at times be applied even to the typically stone-carved entablature.5
In addition, the portal doors themselves were (and continue to be) decorated
with the iconography of the Annunciation, an image that likewise recalls the
liturgy of the tabernacle, for at the very moment of her virginal conception, the
Mother of God is depicted weaving a veil for the Temple. With the inclusion of
4 See, for example, Maximos the
Confessor, Ambiguorum liber 41, who envisions a series of Christological mediations
between ive divisions of being (male/
female, earth/paradise, heaven/earth, intelligible/sensible, God/creation). Maximos
concludes this passage, ostensibly a
commentary on Gregory of Nazianzos, Or.
39.13 (PG 36:348d), with a citation from
Dionysios the Areopagite (On the Divine
Names 13.2), whom he praises as the
unerring witness and true theologian
(Louth trans., 15662). See L. hunberg,
Microcosm and Mediator: he heological
Anthropology of Maximus the Confessor
(Chicago, 1995), 373408, and A.-S.
Ellverson, he Dual Nature of Man: A Study
in the heological Anthropology of Gregory of
Nazianzus (Uppsala, 1981), 1740.

Nicholas P. Constas

Cf. pseudo-Sophronios, Commentarius
liturgicus 4:

87.3:3984d); see below, n. 26.


2 Byzantine thinking on these questions

has recently moved to the center of contemporary continental philosophy. See, for
example, Jacques Derridas reading of
Dionysios the Areopagite, How to Avoid
Speaking: Denials, in Derrida and Negative
heology, ed. H. Coward and T. Foshay
(Albany, 1992), 73142; and the responses by
E. Perl, Signifying Nothing: Being as Sign
in Neoplatonism and Derrida, in
Neoplatonism and Contemporary hought,
ed. R. Baine Harris (Albany, 2002), 12551;
and J.-L. Marion, In the Name: How to
Avoid Speaking of Negative heology, in
God, the Git, and Postmodernism, ed. J.
Caputo and M. Scanlon (Indianapolis, 1999),
2053; revised as In the Name: How to
Avoid Speaking of It, in In Excess: Studies of
Saturated Phenomena, trans. R. Horner and
V. Berraud (New York, 2002), 12862. See
also Marions use of categories drawn from
John of Damascus in his God without Being,
trans. T. A. Carlson (Chicago, 1991), and
from Gregory of Nyssa in Being Given:
Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness, trans.
J. L. Kossky (Stanford, 2002).
A. Mosshammer, Gregory of Nyssa
and Christian Hellenism, StP 32 (1997):
172. Jaroslav Pelikan has similarly described
the general movement of Eastern Christian
thought from late antiquity to the Early
Byzantine period precisely as a shit from
Christian idealism to Christian materialism, signaling a new Christian metaphysics and aesthetics and a new
Christian epistemology; see his Imago Dei:
he Byzantine Apologia for Icons (Princeton,
N.J., 1990), 99, 107. John Meyendorf characterizes late antique Christian idealism
as a dualistic, world-denying Hellenic
spiritualism and underlines the total
incompatibility between Greek philosophical thought and the Bible, arguing that the
usual slogans and clichs which too oten
serve to characterize patristic and
Byzantine thought as exalted Christian
Hellenism, or as the Hellenization of
Christianity, or as Eastern Platonism
should be avoided. He concludes by noting
that whereas Greek patristic thought
remained open to Greek philosophical
problematics, [it] avoided being imprisoned
in Hellenic philosophical systems (his
emphasis): J. Meyendorf, Byzantine
heology (New York, 1983), 2425, 43.

various icons along the entablature, the theological tableau was complete, for
sacred images were the necessary corollaries of orthodox faith in the Incarnation.6
Drawn like a curtain across the architectural frontier of the sensible and the
intelligible, linked to the presence of the deity in the tabernacle of Moses, and
closely associated with icons and especially the iconography of the Incarnation,
the sanctuary enclosure and its veiled portal were symbolic expressions of the
Christian belief that the invisible God had been revealed to the world through
paradoxical concealment in a veil of lesh.
his study seeks to reconstruct a theology of the icon screen as it was
understood around the time of its crystallization in the Late Byzantine period.
he principal sources for such a reconstruction are the writings of Symeon of
hessalonike (d. 1429), a somewhat neglected igure whose use of the symbolic
theology of Dionysios the Areopagite (ca. 500) is an important key to the task
at hand. Symeon provides us with a rich and in certain respects unparalleled
theological interpretation of the icon screen, and this will serve as the basis
for a larger discussion of its meaning and signiicance. To place Symeons
interpretation of the screen within its proper context, this study begins with
an analysis of his treatment of sacred space, with particular attention to
the longitudinal organization of the church building. his is followed by a
consideration of Symeons symbolic perception of the sanctuary enclosure
as a threshold between the sensible and the intelligible, a liminal state that
he associates with the cosmological polarities described in the irst chapter
of Genesis. he frame of reference is then expanded in order to consider the
same sacred enclosure in light of Symeons understanding of the church as a
Christian tabernacle, focusing primarily on the symbolism of the veil in Jewish
and early Christian tradition. As we shall see, the veil of the tabernacle was the
supreme expression for the idea of incarnation, and became a convenient (and
contested) narrative designation for the doctrine of revelation, including the
hesychast distinction of essence and energies within the godhead. With this
last idea, we arrive at the central argument of this study, namely, that Symeons
mystagogical interpretation of the icon screen is correctly understood as an
example of how the symbolic theology of Dionysios the Areopagite, refracted
through the lens of hesychasm, was used to rethink the material and spiritual
inheritance of the Byzantine liturgy.

Symeon of hessalonike
Symeon of hessalonike was born in Constantinople (ca. 1375), where he was
later tonsured a monk in the circle of Kallistos and Ignatios Xanthopouloi.7
From these Late Byzantine mystics, Symeon was initiated into the theology and
practice of hesychasm, and maintained strong spiritual ties to their community
long ater his departure from the capital.8 here is some evidence to suggest that
he may have also studied at the Patriarchal School, under the tutelage of the
hesychast theologian Joseph Bryennios.9 Given his detailed knowledge of the
rituals and ceremonies of Hagia Sophia, it is likely that Symeon served there as
a deacon before his elevation to the see of hessalonike, sometime between June
1416 and April 1417. By all accounts, he was a man of strong will and even stronger
opinions. hroughout his episcopal tenure, he staunchly resisted the aggression
of the Muslim East and the Christian West, both of which were contending
for control of hessalonike. He fought, in the words of David Balfour, to
save his church from the Latins, and the state from the Turks.10 Standing
virtually alone in his opposition to hessalonikes surrender to the Venetians
in 1423, he was nevertheless successful in guaranteeing limited freedom for his

Symeon of Thessalonike and the Theology of the Icon Screen


6 For discussion, see K. Parry, heodore

Studites and the Patriarch Nicephoros on
Image-Making as a Christian Imperative,
Byzantion 59 (1989): 16483.

7 On Symeons life and career, see

D. Balfour, Symeon of hessaloniki as
a Historical Personality, GOTR 28 (1983):
5572; idem,
, , Analecta
Vlatadon 34 (hessalonike, 1981), 2976.
hese works rely upon the fundamental
study, idem, Politico-Historical Works of
Symeon Archbishop of hessalonica, Wiener
Byzantinistische Studien 13 (Vienna, 1979).
8 hat Symeon was a convinced and
enthusiastic Hesychast will be evident to
anyone reading his Dialogue, and particularly its chapters 3032. Gregorios Palamas
is for him a saint and a hero, and he praises
in the same breath Philotheos [Kokkinos]
and Neilos of Constantinople, Neilos and
Nikolaos Kabasilas, heophanes of Nikaia
and Isidore of hessalonica. But his
greatest admiration is reserved for Kallistos
and Ignatius. Balfour, Politico-Historical
Works, 279; on Kallistos and Ignatios
Xanthopouloi, see ibid., 27986. For a
detailed study of Symeons Palamite credentials, see M. Kunzler, Gnadenquellen:
Symeon von hessaloniki als Beispiel fr die
Einlunahme des Palamismus auf die orthodoxe Sakramententheologie und Liturgik
(Trier, 1989).

Cf. Balfour, Historical Personality, 59.


Ibid., 67.

church under the ensuing Latin occupation. Western rule, however, was shortlived, and Symeon died six months before the city was captured by Murad II
in March 1430. Symeon was proclaimed a saint in hessalonike on 3 May 1981,
following unanimous decisions of the church of Greece and the patriarchate of
Symeon was a proliic writer, remarkable given the demands of his oice, his
chronic ill health, and the harsh conditions of life in the city, which sufered
starvation during the eight-year blockade by the Turks (142230). His major
work, known as the Dialogue against Heresies, is a collection of more than a
dozen semi-independent treatises dealing with the faith and ritual practices
of the Orthodox Church. Ater an initial discussion of orthodoxy and heresy,
the remaining sections describe and interpret the sacraments, and treat the
symbolism of the church building. Written in somewhat popularizing Greek,
and cast in the form of questions and answers between a bishop and a
priest (or deacon), the Dialogue was apparently intended to be a catechetical
handbook for the clergy. A related work, the Interpretation (Hermeneia) of
the Christian Temple and Its Rituals, is likewise a detailed description and
symbolic interpretation of both the church building and the eucharistic liturgy
as celebrated by a hierarch. Symeon also wrote a large number of prayers for
various occasions, and hundreds of hymns to saints, including several in praise
of his predecessor, St. Gregory Palamas, who was canonized in 1368.11
In the Dialogue, Symeon provides us with an important theological
interpretation of the sanctuary enclosure, which presents several distinct
advantages for this study: it is contemporary with the icon screen in its later,
developed form; it is embedded within both a larger mystical/allegorical
account of the liturgy and a symbolic interpretation of sacred space; and it is
deeply rooted in an ancient tradition of liturgical, mystagogical, and theological
commentaries. Of these latter, Symeons engagement with the symbolic
theology of Dionysios the Areopagite is particularly signiicant, although this
has not been fully recognized by contemporary scholarship. In his study of the
Byzantine mystagogical tradition, Ren Bornert correctly aligned Symeons
work with that of Dionysios and Maximos the Confessor, although he failed
to note the particular esteem in which the Areopagitical writings were held by
the hesychasts.12 In a telling self-disclosure, however, Symeon identiies himself
as the last and least among the students of the students of Dionysios,13 which
should be taken as an oblique reference to his training under the Xanthopouloi,
and more generally to the Palamite interpretation of the corpus Dionysiacum.14
As will become clear, Symeons use of the Areopagitical writings follows the lead
of his hesychastic teachers and contributes to his understanding of the sacred
space of the church building as a symbolic manifestation of divine presence.

11 Both the Dialogue and the Hermeneia

are hereater cited by PG column number
alone; for discussion, see I. Phountoules,

(hessalonike, 1966), 2934;
for the hymns on Palamas, cf. idem.,
, vol. 1,
(hessalonike, 1968), 12021, 13233.

12 R. Bornert, Les commentaires byzantins

de la Divine Liturgie du VIIe au XVe sicle,
AOC 9 (Paris, 1966), 24849, employing
somewhat overdetermined categories,
contrasts Symeons work with that of
Nicholas Kabasilas, who, under the inluence of Chrysostom, reprsente le ralisme
antiochien, whereas Symeon, par sa
dpendance du Pseudo-Denys et de Maxime
le Confesseur, en revanche, le symbolisme

Sacred Spaces: he Church and the Cosmos

(256a; cf. 184a).

Symeons interpretation of the sanctuary screen is situated within his larger

understanding of the church building as an image of the cosmos. Far from
being static or univocal, the forms and structures of this symbolic universe
are luid and complex, generating a multiplicity of simultaneous associations
and correlations. Single, and seemingly simple, forms, such as a hemisphere or
a column, are thus made to support several senses at once, oten derived from
widely diferent contexts. In this respect, Symeons mystagogical interpretations
of church architecture are reminiscent of patristic allegorical interpretations of
Scripture, in which the consecutive elements of linear narratives are spatialized
within a ield of signs that refer backward and forward to each other, not within

14 See, for example, Kallistos and Ignatios


(ed. , vol. 4 [Athens,
1966]), who cite the great Dionysios in
overtly hesychastic contexts: cf. 259 (on the
nature of mental images); 262 (on the minds
union with God); 266 (on the three movements of the soul); and 27172 (on the
nature of divine darkness, dei ned as a
superabundance of supersubstantial light).

Nicholas P. Constas


historical time, but in a manner similar to the interaction of elements on the

surface of a painting or on a point without spatial extension. Symeon indicates,
moreover, that architectural meaning is generated by the experience of liturgy
itself, and emerges through an interactive process governed by various ritual
determinants, including ones religious status, the nature of the ceremony or
sacrament being conducted, the time of celebration (e.g., morning or evening),
and the participants physical location within the church building.15
his polysemic and richly layered approach enables Symeon to map a large
number of symbolic interpretations onto the basic longitudinal organization
of sacred space. For example, he associates the three major divisions of the
church building (narthex, nave, sanctuary) with the tripartite division of the
cosmos (earth, heaven, and the places beyond the heavens 704bc; cf. 321d),
as well as with the three regions of the visible world (earth, paradise, and
the visible heaven 337d, 357d, 704ab, 708c). From another point of view, the
same threefold division mimics (1) the tripartite structure of the tabernacle
(of Moses) and the Temple of Solomon (337d, 704cd; cf. 348d); (2) the three
triads of the angelic orders; and (3) the clergy, the faithful, and those in
repentance (704bc). And because the three distinct spaces of narthex, nave,
and sanctuary are contained within a single architectural unity, the church
preeminently signiies the multiplicity within unity of the Holy Trinity (337d;

Structures of Duality
his trinitarian interpretive category, however, is of somewhat secondary
importance within Symeons overall interpretation of liturgical space. Instead,
the Palaiologan symbolist more consistently employs a twofold formula, whose
binary elegance and systematic eiciency deeply structure his architectural
hermeneutics.17 From this perspective, the narthex and nave together correspond
to the visible earth (understood to include the visible heaven), while the
sanctuary is a type for that which exists beyond visibility, that is, the realm of
the invisible God. As we shall see, the shit to a binary formula creates a grand
division of sacred space that enhances the importance of the critical frontier
demarcated by the icon screen. Moreover, the rationale for such a bifurcation
is closely associated with central patterns of religious belief. In a key passage,
Symeon argues that the binary forms of sacred space are relections of cognate
patterns embedded within Christology, anthropology, and the doctrine of God,
all of which are interconnected.
he church is double ( ) on account of its division into the space of the
sanctuary ( ) and that which is outside () the sanctuary, and thus
it images () Christ himself, who is likewise double ( ), being at
once God and man, both invisible and visible. And the church likewise images man,
who is compounded of (visible) body and (invisible) soul. But the church supremely
images the mystery of the Trinity, which is unapproachable in its essence (), but
known through its providential activity and powers ( ,
In this passage, the two performance areas of the church (the sanctuary
and the nave/narthex) are said to image the two natures of Christ, so that the
visibility of the nave signiies the visible human nature of Christ, whose invisible
nature is represented by the restriction of the sanctuary from public view. In the
same way, the twofold nature of man, composed of (visible) body and (invisible)

Symeon of Thessalonike and the Theology of the Icon Screen


15 Cf. 333a, 360bc, 708a, and 704b,

where diferent symbolic structures are said
to depend upon the intention () of
the symbolist. For a discussion of Symeons
hermeneutical principles, see Phountoules,
(above, n. 11), 12141;
and, with caution, H.-J. Schulz, he
Byzantine Liturgy, trans. M. J. OConnell
(New York, 1986), 11424 (see below, n. 50).
On the relationship between liturgical mystagogy and allegorical exegesis, see Bornert,
Commentaires (above, n. 12), 4782, and P.
Rorem, Biblical and Liturgical Symbols
within the Pseudo-Dionysian Synthesis
(Toronto, 1984). See also R. Ousterhout,
he Holy Space: Architecture and Liturgy,
in Heaven on Earth, ed. L. Safran (University
Park, Pa., 1998), 81120; H. Maguire, he
Language of Symbols, in Earth and Ocean:
he Terrestrial World in Early Byzantine Art
(University Park, Pa., 1987), 515; and T.
Kolbaba, Liturgy, Symbols, and Byzantine
Religion, in he Byzantine Lists (Princeton,
N.J., 2000), 10223.
16 In this regard, Symeon follows
Maximoss predilection for triadic interpretations, although he avoids the latters
tripartite anthropological interpretation of
sacred space (i.e., nave/body, sanctuary/
soul, altar/mind); cf. Maximos, Mystagogia
4 (PG 91:672bc).
17 Cf. Phountoules, ,
12930. For a detailed discussion of binary
logic in the ancient world, see G. E. R.
Lloyd, Polarity and Analogy: Two Types of
Argumentation in Early Greek hought
(Cambridge, 1966), 1585. See also Maximos,
Mystagogia 2, for a twofold formula in
which the church is a type and image of
the entire universe, visible and invisible
(PG 91:668d).

18 All translations, except from Genesis,

are my own, many of which, for the sake of
clarity and simplicity, paraphrase the
rhetorical lourishes of the original sources.
he translation of Genesis is from L. C. L.
Brenton, he Septuagint with Apocrypha
(London, 1851; repr. Peabody, Mass., 1992).

soul, is likewise imaged by the respective exteriority and interiority of the nave
and the sanctuary.19 Finally, the same bilateral structure is said to exemplify a
central tenet of Late Byzantine theology, namely, the Palamite doctrine that
the godhead is unknowable in its essence (and as such unrepresentable) but
nevertheless well known through its various manifestations and activities.20 In
Symeons cogent use of these categories, both the doctrine of revelation and the
symbolic architecture of the church are formally uniied, based on a distinction
opening around that which is given to visibility and that which is not, or cannot,
be given to vision or knowledge.
We have, then, a basic binary formula, rooted in a uniied doctrinal pattern,
which Symeon employs as a systematic principle in the spatial ordering of his
liturgical universe. Within that world, the sacraments occupy a central place,
and they too are understood in light of the same, binary framework. For example,
in his comments on the administration of consecrated oil (), Symeon
explains that the person of Christ, the git of unction, and those who receive it
are all closely intertwined and ultimately identiied in light of the basic unity
in duality by which they are structured:
In this sacrament, two prayers () are said, signifying the dual-natured ()
Jesus, who is bodiless, unspeakable, and cannot be apprehended (), but
who for our sakes assumed a body, and becoming comprehensible () was
seen and conversed with men (Baruch 3:38), remaining God without change, so
that he might sanctify us in a twofold manner (), according to that which is
invisible and that which is visible, by which I mean the soul and the body. And thus
he transmitted the sacraments to us in a twofold form (), at once visible and
material, for the sake of our body, and at the same time intelligible and mystical
( ), and illed with invisible grace for the sake of our soul[and
thus when administering the consecrated oil we say that it is] for the sanctiication
of soul and body. (524d525a).21
his double, inward/outward character is distinctive of every sacrament,
having a visible and invisible aspect; a combination of things immediately
accessible to the senses and of things which are not. In the rite of anointing, this
is expressed through the use of two prayers along with the twofold utterance
of the administration formula. As Symeon makes clear, the dual nature of the
sacrament has its origin in the sacrament of the Incarnation, that is, in the dualnatured Jesus, who as God remained purely spiritual while becoming fully
material as man. Symeon therefore airms that the material and the spiritual
are not separate or opposed, but rather conjoined, for there is one and the same
church above and below, since God came and appeared among us, and was seen
in our formand the same [sacred ceremony] is celebrated both above and below
(340b; cf. 296cd). Once again, the principle of physical and metaphysical union
is a direct corollary of the Incarnation, when the invisible God visibly appeared
among us, traversing and thereby abolishing the paradigmatic opposition of
above and below. In the dual-natured person of the God-man, both the
created, visible image and its uncreated, invisible archetype are woven together
in a uniform coincidence of opposites rendered present through the sacramental
mystery of the liturgy.

he Sanctuary Veil as Sacramental Symbol

With these crowning formulations, Symeon appears to have efectively overcome
the binary opposition of the sensible and the intelligible, the visible and the

Nicholas P. Constas


19 In a prayer recited publicly at the

annual commemoration of the dedication
() of St. Sophia in hessalonike (25
January), Symeon joins a binary cosmological scheme to a binary anthropology and
Christology: You have vouchsafed that this
temple should be built as a type of the whole
world ( ), both
heaven and earth; and as an image ()
of human nature, intelligible and sensible;
and as an example and imitation
( ) of you, the Lord
of all, who being God, became man;
Phountoules ed., 50, lines 1115.
20 Note that here Symeon does not
contrast the divine essence with the
Palamite terminology of energies, but
rather with the Dionysian language of
providential [activity] and powers, which
is widely attested in the Areopagitical
corpus; see the index of G. Heil and A. M.
Ritter, Corpus Dionysiacum (Berlin, 1991),
2:278, 294. Symeon elsewhere notes that as
the house of God, the church typiies the
entire cosmos, for God is everywhere and at
the same time transcends all things (337d);
cf. below, n. 67.

21 Cf. 337d, where Symeon notes that

spiritual blessings are mediated through
material objects, such as saintly relics,
because we are double ( ), and
receive double git s, and thus grace subsists
() in material things (cf. 352a,
177cd); and below, n. 32, on incense as a
medium of divine grace. See also John of
Damascus, Orationes de imaginibus 3.12:
Because we are twofold (), fashioned
of soul and body, and because our soul is not
naked, but covered as if by a veil (
), it is impossible for us to
attain to spiritual things ( ) apart
from corporeal realities (
). And for this reason Christ
assumed a body and a soul, and this is also
why baptism is twofold (), of water
and spirit, and so too communion, prayer,
and psalmody, are all twofold, bodily and
spiritual (Kotter ed., 3:12324, lines 23
35); and Clement of Alexandria, Excerpta ex
heodoto 81:
(PG 9:696b).

invisible, which are conjoined in the Incarnation, mediated through liturgy,

rendered present through the sacraments, and monumentalized in the twofold
organization of sacred space. Into this seemingly indissoluble union, however,
the Palaiologan symbolist introduces an important qualiication. Turning to the
language of veils and symbols, Symeon asserts that the earthly liturgy difers
from its heavenly counterpart in one critical sense: he Lords priestly activity
() and communion and comprehension ()22 constitute
one single work (), which is celebrated at the same time both above and
below, except that there (i.e., in heaven) [it is celebrated] without veils (
) and symbols ( ); but here [it is celebrated]
through symbols ( ), because we are enveloped () in
this heavy and mortal load of lesh (340ab; cf. 296cd).23 Here the single
work of the liturgy is said to be diferentiated with respect to the place and
manner of its celebration. Whereas the heavenly liturgy is celebrated in
unveiled immediacy, its earthly performance is mediated through symbols,
which Symeon characterizes as veils. With this latter image, that which
covers and conceals has become a metaphor for the totality of material objects
employed in the celebration of the Byzantine liturgy (e.g., church building,
altar, chalice, vestments, bread, wine). Contrary to expectation, however, these
symbolic veils are not said to obstruct the communion and comprehension
of divine mysteries, but instead function precisely as the irreducible medium of
religious experience, a network of igures, as it were, providing the conditions
for perceiving that which is beyond iguration. here is thus one liturgy, in
which heaven and earth jointly participate, although it is experienced in a
manner proper to each. In the case of the earthly liturgy, celebrated by human
souls enveloped in lesh, participation in the divine can occur only through
symbols and veils, a phrase that designates the sensuous apprehension of that
which cannot otherwise be known. Symeon can therefore be said to espouse a
realist notion of the symbol, a sacramental theology of real presence, in which
symbolic forms do not simply refer to objects outside themselves, but rather
contain or participate directly in their referents.
hat Symeon chose to encapsulate a general theory of the symbolic in the
image of a liturgical veil was not, of course, arbitrary and is closely related to
his symbolic understanding of the sanctuary enclosure. In distinguishing
those within the sanctuary from those who stand outside it, Symeon describes
the latter as participating in the mysteries of the sanctuary, not immediately,
but mediately ( , ), and through certain veils (
) (312b). he sanctuary doors, moreover, which are
closely associated with the veil, have the same symbolic function, and are
described in virtually identical terms.
Aterwards, the doors are closedfor the sublime things cannot be contemplated
( ) by the lower members, neither are the mysteries understood (
) by all, for at that moment Jesus is veiled () rom the many,
and disclosed only gradually ( ). Aterwards, the doors are
opened, analogous to the contemplation of the more advanced and perfectand
Christ unites and is united to all, but in a manner relative to the capacity of each,
for all do not immediately () participate in him, for some do so purely, and
without veils ( ). (296bc)
At irst glance, we might be inclined to recoil from what appears to be the
construction of a theological caste system, whose higher levels enjoy immediate

Symeon of Thessalonike and the Theology of the Icon Screen


22 Bornert, Commentaires byzantins

(above, n. 12), 24950, associates this term
with the contemplation () of intelligible realities through liturgical rites and
symbols, identiied with the perception of
eschatological realities through the types of
the Old Testament; cf. ibid., 25961.
23 Cf. Phountoules,
(above, n. 11), 32, lines 412;
and Plotinus, Ennead (discussed
above, n. 1).

and unveiled access to God, whereas the lower members can only gape at veils
drawn across closed doors, passively awaiting incremental disclosures controlled
by hierarchy. Upon closer inspection, however, these remarks are concerned only
to diferentiate speciic forms or modes of contemplation (described above as
symbolic), and thus should not be taken to mean that the lower members do
not participate in the divine source of redemption. All participate in God in ways
that are proper to them. No one is by nature excluded from communion with
God, but the transcendent deity is imparted only under various symbolic forms,
or veils, that are analogous to ones capacity to receive it. Symeon has taken
this principle directly from Dionysios the Areopagite, whose doctrine of divine
revelation played a prominent role in the hesychastic controversy. he question
at the center of the storm was whether or not human beings participated directly
in the life of God, or if such experiences were inexorably mediated by various
symbols, referred to as veils.24 I shall return to this question in detail below.
Here, it should be emphasized that, among the hesychasts, the veil was a central
image for representing the symbolic nature of human religious experience, and
Symeon has mapped it directly onto the function of the sanctuary enclosure.

he Sanctuary Enclosure: Visible hreshold of the Invisible

hus far, we have considered Symeons architectural hermeneutics, which present
the sacred space of the church as an image of the tabernacle, the visible earth,
and the entire cosmos. With Symeons interpretive shit from tertiary to binary
patterns, we saw a new space emerge, a place of identity and diference mediated
through symbols and covered by veils. Sacred space was thereby reorganized
around the distinction between that which is given to visibility and that which
is not, or cannot, be given to vision and/or knowledge. It is here that Symeon
situates his remarks on the sanctuary enclosure as follows:
he sanctuary enclosure ()25 brings to light the distinction between the
sensible ( ) and the intelligible ( ), and [thus] it is like a
irmament (; cf. Gen. 1:6) separating () intelligible [forms]
( ) rom material objects ( ); and the columns in ront of the
altar of Christ are the pillars of his church, and they preach about him and support
us. Hence the entablature ()26 above the columns maintains () the
bond of love (cf. Eph. 4.3; Col. 3.14) and the union in Christ of the saints on earth
with the [saints] in heaven.27 And thus [the icon of] the Savior is placed above the
entablature in the middle of the sacred icons of [his] Mother, and of the Baptist; and
of the angels, and the apostles; and the rest of the saints. hese icons teach that Christ
is in this way in heaven among his saints, and also [here] with us now, and that he
will come again.28 (345cd).
27 Cf. 296bc: he souls of the saints
reside above with the angels, and together
with them they keep watch around us,
dwelling within our churches.
28 Symeon is apparently describing an
image of the Deesis placed in the center
of the epistyle. he association of the (oten
curtained) bema with the anticipation of
judgment recalls patristic descriptions
of courtrooms; cf. pseudo-Makarios, Hom.
4.30.3: When the judge takes his seat before

Nicholas P. Constas

the tribunal ( ),
a curtain is placed before the door (
) (Berthold ed.,
70, lines 2526); Gregory of Nyssa, Contra
Eunomium 1.1.141: Again the lieutenant
governor, again the tragic pomp of trial;
againthe criers and lictors and the
curtained bar ( ),
things that readily daunt even those who are
thoroughly prepared (Jaeger ed., 1:141,
lines 16); and Chrysostom, De incomprehensibili Dei natura 4.4: When a judge


24 Cf. Dionysios the Areopagite, On the

Celestial Hierarchy 1.2 (Heil and Ritter
ed., 8, lines 1013) and the texts cited below,
n. 49. On the archaeology of liturgical veils
in Dionysios, see C. Schneider, Studien
zum Ursprung liturgischer Einzelheiten
stlicher Liturgien: , Kyrios
1 (1936): 5773.
25 C. Walter notes that this term
seems to be virtually restricted to Symeon
of hessaloniki, for whom it means the
sanctuary enclosure; idem, he Byzantine
Sanctuary: A Word List, in his Pictures
as Language: How the Byzantines Exploited
hem (London, 2000), 271 (a search of the
hesaurus Linguae Graecae produced
no matches). Walter, ibid., 27273, crossreferences Symeon, Hermeneia 7:
, ,
155:704d), and suggests that refer
to the panels of the sanctuary barrier, but
elsewhere designates the double doors of
the iconostasis or simply the iconostasis.
are further attested in Symeons
liturgical rubrications, ed. J. Darrouzs,
Sainte-Sophie de hessalonique daprs un
rituel, REB 34 (1976): 49, lines 5152 (
); 53, line 14
( );
53, lines 3031 (
); 53, line
32 ( ); and 61,
line 20 (
26 Walter, Byzantine Sanctuary, 273,
citing this passage, notes that for Symeon
[this word] seems to be a technical term for
entablature, the same translation for which
is provided by Lampe, 769; cf. pseudoSophronios (above, n. 5); and Manuel Philes,
(Miller ed., 1:117
18 [no. 223]).

appears in court and is about to take his seat

at the tribunal, the jailers lead the prisoners
from their cells and seat them before the
chancel barrier ( ), and
before the curtain that covers the entrance
to the court (
)so it shall be when
Christ appears to take his seat, as it were,
before the high tribunal (

) and reveal himself in the
mysteries (PG 48:733, lines 2028).

his is in certain respects a somewhat obscure and enigmatic passage, due

in part to Symeons tendency to blur the distinction between symbols and their
referents. his may be deliberate inasmuch as Symeons interpretation of the
iconography of the entablature as an imago ecclesiae holds within vision an
eschatological unity which itself blurs the boundaries of time and space. Equally
complex are Symeons analytical categories (e.g., matter, sense perception,
intelligibility), which are taken over from the reined psychological vocabulary
of religious contemplation.29 It would be impossible to accommodate here all
the elements of this extremely dense passage, and we shall therefore identify
three related points that are central to the argument of this study. he irst is
the perception of the sanctuary enclosure as a symbolic boundary between
the sensible and the intelligible, a distinction that has been with us from the
outset. he second theme, related to the irst, is the association of the sanctuary
enclosure with the irmament described in the irst chapter of Genesis.30 In
Jewish and Christian tradition, the irmament was a cosmological keystone
that marked a liminal divide between heaven and that which transcends the
heavens. As its name suggests, it was the solid (), perceptible boundary
of the visible creation, behind which was concealed the uncreated God.31
Symeons identiication of the sanctuary enclosure with the irmament is
linked to our third theme, which embraces the previous two, namely, the notion
that the veil of the tabernacle was a representation of the veil of the heavens,
and, more generally, that the entire tabernacle was a microcosm of the heavenly
tabernacle or of the cosmos as a whole.

Symeon and the Tabernacle of Moses

Symeons cosmological interpretation of sacred architecture, including his
identiication of the sanctuary enclosure with the heavenly irmament (Gen.
1:6), are part of his larger belief in the relationship between the tabernacle
of Moses and the church, both of which are understood as microcosms of
creation. To demonstrate this claim, Symeon gestures toward the organization
of sacred space, reporting that the tripartite structure of the church building
was foreshadowed in both the tabernacle of Moses and the temple of Solomon,
for these were divided into three parts culminating in the Holy of Holies. He
maintains, moreover, that these spatial divisions correspond to the structures
of the spiritual universe, and he concludes that, just like the Holy of Holies,
the Christian sanctuary is a type of the places beyond the heavens (cf. Heb.
9:24), containing the throne of the immaterial God (cf. Heb. 1:8, 4:16, 8:1, 12:2)
(337d). he ritual use of incense, which Symeon describes in detail, is yet another
mark of continuity between the tabernacle and the church, for it symbolizes the
ef usions of divine glory emanating from the divine presence.32
32 See 624c: At vespers, it was customary
for the acolytes to i ll the church with
incense, to the glory of God and as a type of
his sacred glory, which once i lled the tabernacle so that Moses and Aaron could not
enter until it dissipated. h is was also done
in imitation of the temple of Solomon,
which was i lled with the glory of God;
329bc: he use of incense is in place of the
cloud that i lled and sanctiied both the
tabernacle and the temple of Solomon, being
a type of the Holy Spirit; and 644a: he

use of incense is to signify that the tabernacle was built by Moses and Bezaleel in the
Holy Spirit. Symeons association of incense
with the presence of the Spirit is underlined
in his admonition to deacons not to cense
a heretic, should one chance to be present
out of curiosity, for incense is the impartation () of divine grace, ed.
Darrouzs, Sainte-Sophie (above, n. 25),
49.6061; cf. 561d:
[i.e., ]

Symeon of Thessalonike and the Theology of the Icon Screen


29 Cf. above, n. 22.

30 Gen. 1:68: And God said, Let there

be a i rmament () in the midst
of the water, and let it be a division
() between water and water, and
it was so. And God made the i rmament,
and God divided between the water which
was under the i rmament and the water
which was above the i rmament. And God
called the i rmament Heaven, and God
saw that it was good, and there was evening
and there was morning, the second day
(trans. Brenton). Cf. Exod. 24.10.
31 See, for example, Eusebios of Caesarea,
Praeparatio evangelica 11.6:

(PG 21:857c); and Cyril of
Jerusalem, Catecheses ad illuminandos 9.1:
In virtue of his great love for mankind, God
has covered his divinity with the heaven like
a curtain (), so that we might
not perish [at the sight of him]for if the
sight of the archangel Gabriel struck terror
in the hearts of the prophets, surely the
vision of God as he is in his own nature (
) would destroy the human race (PG

Symeon also sees in the tabernacle a type of the body of Christ, a connection
authorized by the New Testament and richly developed by exegetes of the
patristic period. Working within this tradition, the Palaiologan mystagogue
asserts that the holy tabernacle was an image of that all-holy and living temple,
by which I mean the Lordly body, which the True and Living Wisdom built
for herself (Prov. 9:1), God the Word incarnate (325c).33 Here Symeon is
particularly interested in the veil of the tabernacle, a covering that he identiies
with the lesh that concealed the incarnate Logos. h is connection is particularly
pronounced in his comments on the main portal of the sanctuary, which is
arguably the visual and symbolic focal point of the entire screen. Symeon sees
the sanctuary portal, presumably veiled, as a symbol of Christ, the self-described
door () of the sheep (John 10:7)because Christ is the one who gave us
entrance () into the Holy of Holies through the veil of his lesh (cf.
Heb. 10:1920) (293a).34 he seemingly peculiar association of Christs lesh
with the veil of the tabernacle was canonized by the author of the Epistle to the
Hebrews, and we shall return to it in a moment.
hrough a kind of symbolic displacement, Symeon similarly interpets the
veil that covers the altar table: the holy veil () on the divine
altar [symbolizes] the immaterial tabernacle around God, which is the glory
and grace of God, by which he himself is concealed (), clothing
himself with light as with a garment (Ps. 103:2) (348cd). Here the deity is said
to be hidden, not by invisibility or darkness, but paradoxically by light itself, that
is, by the very medium that makes vision possible. Contrary to expectation, it is
light (or vision itself) that simultaneously reveals and conceals the presence of
God, like a garment covering the body. Signiicantly, in the hesychast tradition
exempliied by Gregory Palamas, the idea of concealment in a sacred veil was
identiied with the ascent of Moses on Sinai, where he entered into the cloud
(Exod. 24:18), beheld the pattern () of the heavenly tabernacle
(Exod. 25:9), and was instructed to make a veil of blue and purple and scarlet
woven, and ine linen spun (Exod. 26:31), a central biblical narrative to which
we may now turn.
34 Cf. 645a: Christ renewed and
prepared for us a way through the veil of
his lesh, by which we have entrance to
the sanctuary (Heb. 10:20); and 704cd:
the veil of the sanctuary is a type of the
heavenly tabernacle () which is
around God. See also Severianos of Gabala,
De velo: he temple was one structure,
but nonetheless divided into two parts, that
is, the Holy Place, and the Holy of Holies,
being a type of the Lordly body. For just
as the former was visible () to all, but
the latter only to the high priest, so too was
the Saviors divinity hidden (
) in the Incarnation, but nevertheless
exercised itself in plan view (
); and the veil, too, was a type
of the Lords body, for just as the veil stood
in the middle () of the Temple,
separating that which was outwardly
() visible from the inner ()
mystery, so too the body of the Lord veiled

Nicholas P. Constas

his divinity, barring mortal vision from

the sight of the immortal. And this teaching
is not mine, but Pauls, who says that he
opened up a new way through the veil,
that is, his lesh (Heb. 10:20) (PG 52:830,
lines 1333).


33 Cf. 697ab: he omnipresent God,

moved by divine love, came and tabernacled
() among us (John 1:14). See also
heodotos of Ancyra, Hom. in s. Deiparam
13: he one who was begotten before
themorning star (cf. Ps. 109:3) in the last
days called the holy virgin his mother, and
the Wisdom of God built for herself a
temple (cf. Prov. 9.1; Jn. 2.21) not made by
hands (cf. Mark 14:58; Acts 17:24) in the
body of the honorable virgin and tabernacled among us (John 1:14), because the
Most High does not dwell in shrines made
by human hands (Acts 17:24) (Jugie ed.,
332 [214], lines 1924).

he Veil of the Tabernacle

Patristic and Byzantine writers dealt extensively with the veil of the tabernacle
(and, by extension, that of the Jerusalem Temple), which separated the Holy
Place from the Holy of Holies (cf. Exod. 26:31, 37:3, 40:3; Mt. 27:51). As an
example, we may consider a passage from a twelt h-century homily on the early
life of the Virgin by James of Kokkinobaphos. he homily, based on the
apocryphalProtoevangelion of James, deals in part with the Virgins work on
the veil of the Temple, a textile that the homilist interprets as a symbol
for the lesh of Christ. In Marys purple thread, the Byzantine monk sees
foreshadowings of the Incarnation, for Christ will presently clothe himself in
the royal robe of the lesh woven from the body of the Virgin, and in return he
shall show her forth as the Queen of all created beings. He then ponders the
meaning of veil (), which he deines as a polysemic term (
) having a range of applications ( ).
He observes that the curtain of the Temple is a veil, for it shrouds in mystery
the presence of God. And the sky above us is also a veil, for the heavenly azure
conceals the expanse of the universe. He therefore concludes that the veil of
the Temple was intended by Moses to symbolize the veil of heaven, and both
veils together preigured the veil of Christs lesh, which enfolded and concealed
his divinity.35
Christian thinkers who made these associations were exploring a relationship
between the veil of the tabernacle and the lesh of Christ that, as we have seen,
was established in the Epistle to the Hebrews, and thus had the imprimatur of
sacred Scripture.36 In an allegorical reading of the tabernacle liturgy, the outer
tent ( ) is said to be a symbol () of the present age (Heb.
9:6, 9), rendering by implication the inner tent a symbol of heaven and the age to
come. Traversing the outer boundary, Christ the high priest passed through
the greater and more perfect tent not made with hands ( )
(Heb. 9:11), entering, not into a sanctuary () made with hands, an antitype
of the true one, but into heaven itself (Heb. 9:24). herefore, the argument
concludes, we have conidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by
the new and living way which he opened for us through the veil, that is, his lesh
( , ) (Heb. 10:1920).37
In order to clarify these ideas, it is helpful to recall that the tabernacle was
understood to be a microcosm of the six days of creation (Gen. 12), revealed
to Moses during his six-day sojourn on the summit of Mount Sinai (Exod.
24:16).38 he days of creation, moreover, determined the various stages of the
tabernacles construction, and thus the veil of the sanctuary was installed on
the second day (Exod. 26:3133), imitating the irmament that, on the second
day of creation, was positioned between the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:68).
37 N. H. Young,
(Hebr. 10, 20): Apposition,
Dependent or Explicative? New Testament
Studies 20 (197374): 100104, argues
against various attempts to mitigate the
direct association of the tabernacle veil with
the lesh of Christ.
38 See, e.g., Basil of Seleucia, Assumpt.:
God directed that Moses the writer should
become the iconographer ()
of creation, and through the construction of
the tabernacle he was ordered to imitate

() the creator, for the appearance

() of the tabernacle is an imitation
() of the earth and of the things
on the earth (PG 28:1097c); and Kosmas
Indikopleustes, Christian Topography 5.19
20, who states that the tabernacle was a
type (, cf. Exod. 15.30) of what Moses
had seen on Sinai, that is, an impress of the
whole world (
), Wolska-Conus ed., 2:3539.

Symeon of Thessalonike and the Theology of the Icon Screen


35 James of Kokkinobaphos, Hom. 4,

which remains unedited, at Vat. gr. 1162,
fol. 109v; cited in I. Hutter, Die Homilien
des Mnches Jakobus und ihre Illustration
(Vienna, 1970), 2:26; cf. 1:15759; cf.
Chrysostom, In Heb. hom. 15: By the tent
not made with hands he means the lesh.
And he called it a greater and more perfect
tent, since God the Word and all the energy
of the Spirit dwell within it, for it is not
by measure that God gives the Spirit to him
(John 3:34). And it is not made with
hands, for man did not construct it, but it
is spiritual, of the Holy Spirit (cf. Luke
1:29). He calls the body () a tent,
a veil, and heaven to the extent that one
thing or another is signiied (),
although they are called by the same word.
I mean, for instance, that heaven is a veil,
and the lesh of Christ is also a veil, for
it concealed his divinity (
) (PG 63:119, 139). See also
heodoret, Interpretatio in xiv epistulas s.
Pauli: In Heb. 9:1112; 10:1922 (PG 82:741,
749); idem, Eranistes, Ettlinger ed., 76.
36 For a detailed analysis, see H. Attridge,
he Epistle to the Hebrews (Philadelphia,
1989), who states that the document known
as the Epistle to the Hebrews is the most
elegant and sophisticated, perhaps the most
enigmatic, text of 1st-century Christianity
(p. 1). On Heb. 10:1920, see pp. 28387.

he basic liturgical division of the tabernacle, therefore, corresponds to the basic

division of creation, the veils of which conceal respectively the visible mysteries
of the universe and the invisible mystery of God.39 For later commentators,
including Philo, Josephus, and the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, the veil
represented the boundary between the visible world and the invisible, between
being and becoming, between the world of the senses and that of the intellect.40
hose who passed through the veil were mediators, igures who functioned in
both worlds, and who through ritual sacriices united humanity with divinity.
In the context of the tabernacle liturgy, the high priest alone was permitted
to pass through the veil, and only on the Day of Atonement. On that day, he
wore special vestments fashioned exactly ater the manner of the veil, and they
too represented the fabric of creation (cf. Wisdom 18:24: For upon his long
robe the whole world was depicted). According to Philo, the high priest was a
igure of the heavenly high priest, that is, the Divine Logos, who likewise passed
through a veil, not in an ascent into the sanctuary, but in a descent from the
divine throne to earth (Wisdom 18:1416). As the Logos descended through
the veil of the heavens, it took form and became visible, clothing itself in the
elements of the creation: Now the garments that the supreme Logos puts on as
a raiment is the world, for he arrays himself in earth and air and water and ire
and all that comes forth from these.41 Arrayed in the perceptible garments of
creation, the Logos revealed itself to sensual apprehension and now stands on
the border ( ) as a mediator between creatures and their creator.42
he veiling of the Logos, which revealed its invisible presence by concealing
it, provided an important expression for the idea of incarnation, and passed
directly into Christian usage through Hebrews 10:1920.
With these ideas in mind, we may return briely to the iconography of
the Annunciation and the signiicance of its location on the threshold of the
sanctuary. he Virgins work on the veil of the Temple is an activity coincident
with the Incarnation, and it is the act of drawing out the thread that signiies
the moment of conception. In producing thread for the veil of the Temple, the
labor of Marys hands symbolizes the activity of her womb. Concealed (and thus
revealed) in a curtain of colored matter, the formless divinity is transformed
in the womb of the Virgin, who has rendered it dissemblant from its very self,
engendering a form for the formless through the folds of a garment, a veil of lesh.43
he Byzantine association of the sanctuary veil with the tissue of the human body
inds a striking parallel in Philos Life of Moses. Commenting on the fabrication
of the various Temple curtains, Philo notes that the ten curtains are woven
from four kinds of material, which multiply into the number forty. Philo
observes that this igure is generative of life, corresponding to the number of
43 Cf. Cyril of Alexandria, De Adoratione
9: he beauty and multiform ornament of
the church is Christ, who is one yet understood by many riddles, such as the i ne-spun
linen (Exod. 26.31), for the bodiless Word
was spun () when he was knitted
together () with the lesh; and
not just linen but blue linen, for he is not
only from earth but from the heavensand
purple, for he is not a slave but a King from
God; and woven from scarlet, to indicate,
as we said, his being knitted together with
the leshfor scarlet is a symbol ()

Nicholas P. Constas

of blood (PG 68:636ab). For discussion of

this passage, see N. Constas, Proclus of
Constantinople and the Cult of the Virgin in
Late Antiquity (Leiden, 2003), chap. 6.


39 Chrysostom, In diem nat. 3: he

temple was built as an image ()
of the entire world, sensible and intelligible.
For just as heaven and earth are divided
() by the i rmament which
stands in their midst, he directed that the
temple be likewise divided ()
in two, and he placed a veil in its midst; and
whereas that which was outside the veil
was apprehensible by all ( ),
that which was within it was not given to
vision (), except to the high priest
(PG 49:355); cf. heodoret, Quaestiones in
Octateuchum: Qu. in Exod. 60: he tabernacle was an image of creation (
), for just as God divided the
earth from the heaven by means of the
i rmamenthe ordered that the veil be
placed in the midst of the tabernacle as a
type of the i rmament, dividing the tabernacle in two (
) (PG 80:281ab); and Basil
of Seleucia, Assumpt.: He screened of
() the inner portions of the tabernacle, gracing its invisible portion by means
of a curtain (). h rough
these forms () he legislated the
imitation of heaven and earth, desiring to
bar entrance to the innermost shrine, which
he reserved only for the high priest, as a
type of the Lords ascension into heaven
(PG 28:1097cd).
40 h is material has been collected and
studied by M. Barker, On Earth as It Is in
Heaven: Temple Symbolism in the New
Testament (Edinburgh, 1995).

Philo, On Flight 110 (Colson trans., 68).

42 Philo, Who Is the Heir of Divine hings?

2056: To His Word, His chief messenger,
highest in age and honor, the Father of
all has given the special prerogative, to stand
on the border and separate the creature
( ) from the creator (
)saying I stood between the
Lord and you (Deut. 5.5), that is, neither
uncreated () as God, nor created
() as you, but midway between the
two extremes, a surety to both sides (
, )
(Whitaker trans., 385).

weeks in which man is fully formed in the workshop of nature (

), a metaphor of fecundity later ascribed to the womb of Mary.44
Symeon himself associates the igure of Mary directly with the central gate
of the sanctuary enclosure (562d; cf. 636d, 637d, 640bc),45 which had been
decorated with the iconography of the Annunciation from at least the Middle
Byzantine period.46 In addition, the incarnational symbolism of the sanctuary
doors could be further enhanced by equipment with an actual curtain, or veil
(), suspended across the entrance into the sanctuary.47 Altogether,
the conjunction of scripture, theology, iconography, and architecture created
an appropriate symbol for the incarnation of the Logos, who passed through
the virginal gates and entered the world of matter. Weaving a cultic veil for
the Temple, the Virgin was poised, not simply on the visible entrance to the
sanctuary, but on the threshold of that which is beyond visibility, the presence
of the invisible God. In such a richly articulated arrangement, the promise held
forth by Marys thread appeared to be fuli lled in the folds of an actual fabric,
the veiled gate of the Christian temple.
As the central narrative in the history of Gods revelation to Israel, the book
of Exodus had a profound inluence on the patristic and Byzantine religious
imagination. References and allusions to Moses sojourn on Mount Sinai
resonate across the entire landscape of Greek Christian literature, from the New
Testament to the writings of Symeon of hessalonike and beyond. he veil of the
tabernacle assumed a particularly prominent place within Byzantine theology
and served as a central metaphor for the paradoxical nature of divine revelation.
In addition, the symbolic perception of the tabernacle as a type of the cosmos,
and of its veil as a kind of heavenly curtain, encouraged expansive cosmological
interpretations of the church building and the veiled portal of its sanctuary. he
Epistle to the Hebrews ensured that the Incarnation would never be absent from
relection on cosmology and sacred architecture, which were profoundly shaped
by theological controversies down through the last years of the empire.
47 Sanctuary veils are attested in Egypt
as early as the 6th c. See T. F. Mathews,
he Early Churches of Constantinople:
Architecture and Liturgy (University Park,
Pa., 1971), 16271; R. F. Tat , A History of the
Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, vol. 2, he
Great Entrance: A History of the Transfer of
Gits and Other Preanaphoral Rites of the
Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, OCA 200
(Rome, 1975), 41116; and S. E. J. Gerstel,
Beholding the Sacred Mysteries: Programs of
the Byzantine Sanctuary (Seattle, 1999), 89.
Gregory of Nyssa uses the imagery of veiled
portals as a metaphor for the entrance of
the divine into the human soul, imaged in
the i gure of Solomons bride, later identiied with Mary: She opens the door ()
drawing aside the covering () of the
heart. She removes from the door the veil
of the lesh ( ).
She opens wide the gate () of the soul
so that the King of Glory may enter; In
Canticum canticorum 11 (Jaeger and
Langerbeck ed., 333, lines 25).

Symeon of Thessalonike and the Theology of the Icon Screen


44 Philo, Life of Moses 2.17 (Colson trans.,

491); cf. idem, Special Laws 3.33:

(Colson trans., 494); cf.
Proklos, Hom. 1.1:
(Constas ed., 136, lines
1415; cf. 14950).
45 In a hymn to the Virgin, Symeon
praises her as a Living Temple and Gate
() of God (cf. Ezek. 44:12)
(Phountoules ed., 125, line 9). In the dedication prayer for the church of the heotokos
Acheiropoietos, which was read publicly
before the gates ( ) of the
Temple (cf. 328c), Symeon asks the Virgin,
Be with us now, and together with our
entrance into your temple, open ()
for us also the mercies of your Son, you who
are the Heavenly Gate ( ;
cf. Gen. 28.17), ibid., 3132, lines 23 and 12.
For additional occurrences of this image, see
ibid., 17071, 21516, 246.
46 he earliest evidence is a 12th-c.
illumination from the Homilies of James
of Kokkinobaphos, Vat. gr. 1162, fol. 90r,
i g. 42. See A. Grabar, Deux notes sur
lhistoire de liconostase daprs des monuments de Yougoslavie, ZRVI 7 (1961): 1322,
esp. 15, i g. 4; G. Babi, Limage symbolique
de la Porte Ferme saint-Clment
dOhrid, in Synthronon: Art et archologie
de la in de lantiquit et du moyen ge (Paris,
1968), 14551; and the recently published
bema doors from Sinai dated to the late 12th
c., in Sinai, Byzantium, Russia: Orthodox
Art rom the Sixth to the Twentieth Century,
ed. Y. Piatnitsky et al. (London, 2000), 236
37. See also E. Kitzinger, he Mosaics of
the Cappella Palatino in Palermo, ArtB 31
(1949): 277 n. 41.

Revelation as Concealment

48 Cf. above, n. 13.

In this study of Symeon of hessalonike, we have encountered a robust

organization of reality into a series of contrasting polarities, a dynamic system of
binaries holding in purposive tension the sensible and the intelligible, the visible
and the invisible, the revealed and the concealed. Like so many of his patristic
and Byzantine predecessors, Symeon did not understand these heterogeneous
orders as constituting an ontological or metaphysical dualism, but rather as a
complex perichoresis of the spiritual and the material, a fecund syzygia internally
bounded by charged liminal sites. In the texts considered above, these contrasting
magnitudes are associated with the symbolic function of the sanctuary enclosure
and open up around the image of the veil, a key metaphor that enables Symeon to
correlate the two dissevered halves of the world and the self: its physical, sensory,
externalized half and its ideal, transcendent noumenal half, transforming life
into a unitary act of perception and understanding, a liturgical work of art.
As we have seen, this basic structural principle is deeply indebted to the work
of Dionysios the Areopagite, with respect to whom Symeon identiies himself
as the last and least of the students of his students, a self-efacing claim for the
place of his own work in an unbroken chain of interpretation and practice.48 In
particular, Symeons repeated assertion that the earthly liturgy is mediated by
veils and symbols is taken directly from Dionysioss treatise On the Celestial
Hierarchy, in which the self-styled disciple of St. Paul (cf. Acts 17:34) declares,
it is impossible for the divine ray to otherwise illumine us except by being
concealed in a variety of sacred veils (
), a notion that succinctly expresses Dionysioss doctrine of
revelation and is variously attested throughout the Areopagitical writings.49
hat a Late Byzantine mystagogical writer should draw on the renowned
liturgical commentaries of Dionysios the Areopagite might at i rst glance
seem hardly worthy of notice, and may explain why the Palaiologan prelates
use of the Areopagitical corpus has received only supericial consideration in
contemporary scholarship. It is, however, a mistake to dismiss Symeons use
of Dionysios as simply an entry in an inventory compiled by a Byzantine
antiquarian who was confused about his sources.50 It is well established that
Symeon was an ardent hesychast, and his work is therefore best viewed from
the perspective of the spiritual and theological concerns of the fourteenth
and i teenth centuries.51 During this period, Byzantine intellectuals became
increasingly preoccupied with the writings of Dionysios, beginning with George
Pachymeres celebrated paraphrase of the corpus Dionysiacum presented to the
patriarch of Alexandria in the irst decade of the fourteenth century.52 With the
controversy between Barlaam and Gregory Palamas (ca. 133541), the Dionysian
renaissance of the Palaiologan period assumed a heightened intensity, for the
quarrel of these men involved a disagreement over the correct interpretation of
the divine Dionysios.53 Taking a one-sided and reductive view of apophatic
theology, Barlaam argued that God is simply inaccessible, and he concluded
that the light of habor (cf. Matt. 17:2) was not the eternal, uncreated light of

See above, n. 8.

52 See M. Aubineau, Georges Hiromnemon ou Georges Pachymrs, commentateur du Pseudo-Dionysios? JTS 22 (1971):
54144, cited in A. Rigo, Il corpus pseudoDionisiano negli scritti di Gregorio Palamas
(e di Barlaam) del 13361341, in Denys

Nicholas P. Constas

lAropagite et sa postrit en Orient et en

Occident, ed. Y. de Andia (Paris, 1997), 517.
53 he notion of a Dionysian renaissance
should not be overemphasized: the
Areopagitical corpus had been the subject
of continuous commentary since the 6th
c., beginning most notably with the scholia


49 Dionysios the Areopagite, On the

Celestial Hierarchy 1.2 (Heil and Ritter ed.,
8, lines 1013). Cf. other texts by Dionysios
the Areopagite, such as, On the Divine
Names 1.4:

(Suchla ed., 114, lines 17);
idem, On the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy 4.2:

(Heil and Ritter ed., 97, lines 57);
idem, Letter 9.1:

(Heil and
Ritter ed., 198, lines 1012); and idem, Letter
8.1 (Heil and Ritter ed., 177, lines 36).
50 Schulz, Byzantine Liturgy (above, n. 15),
115, notes that, for Symeon, Dionysios,
regarded as a disciple of the apostles, is
repeatedly cited [in the Dialogue] as the most
important witness to tradition, and that
the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy serves as the
model for Symeons teaching on the sacraments. h is is certainly true, but Schulz
seems unaware of the hesychastic inluence
on Symeons appropriation of Dionysios.
Moreover, Schulz stresses Symeons dependence on Maximos, although he subsequently states that Symeon ultimately
bursts Maximus framework apart, and in
the i nal analysis retains only Germanos
and heodore, whose identiication of
symbol and reality now appears in an even
more extreme form (p. 119). He concludes
that Symeons work is essentially derivative,
being an inventory of all the interpretive
motifs approved by the church, in consequence of which large sections of his explanation [are] both ambiguous and confusing
(p. 124).

of John of Scythopolis, written between 537

and 543; cf. P. Rorem and J. C. Lamoreaux,
John of Scythopolis and the Dionysian Corpus
(Oxford, 1998), 922; for Scythopoliss
scholia on the , cf. ibid.,
pp. 150 (on CH 1.2), 177 (EH 4.2), and 190
(DN 1.4).

God, but rather a created, transitory phenomenon. For the hesychasts, however,
this was not only a radically incomplete reading of the Areopagitical corpus
but a denial of the experience of divinizing grace, and they took up the gauntlet
precisely where it had been thrown down.
At issue was Dionysioss understanding of the vision of God as an experience
mediated by symbols, which, as we have seen, were frequently designated
as veils (). John VI Kantakouzenos (emp. 134754, d. 1383),
for example, writing in defense of the hesychastic view, reviews a number of
contemporary opinions concerning the disputed divine and blessed light of
habor. He notes that some of you call it a created phenomenon (), and
a veil (), or an apparition () that appears and then vanishes
away, but you54 call it a creature () that abides (); still others say
that it is neither created nor uncreated, deeming it a kind of wonder ().55
In a letter addressed to a Latin bishop, Kantakouzenos airms the necessary
role of created symbols in the elevation of the mind to God. Because the context
for discussion is the narrative of the Transiguration, the symbol in question
is the body of Christ, the created medium of divine light, and thus the symbolic
veil of Dionysios is here directly identiied with the veil of lesh from the
Epistle to the Hebrews:
According to Dionysios the Areopagite, it is impossible for the divine ray to
otherwise illumine us except by being anagogically concealed in a variety of
sacred veils ( ),56 and I say that this is
absolutely true, for it is not possible for the human intellect to be illumined by
the thearchic ray, if it is not i rst elevated anagogically by creatures to the idea of
God. For neither were the apostles at that time [i.e., the Transiguration] able to
see the light as it is in its own nature, as Chrysostom says,57 but rather by means
of the veil, that is, the lesh of Christ (Heb. 10:20), but even then not according
to nature, as Dionysios demonstrates, but rather in a manner beyond human
nature and beyond human reason.58
he same ideas are advanced in Kantakouzenoss Tomos of 1351, from where
they were directly cited by Philotheos Kokkinos (ca. 130078), who additionally
asserts that the glory of the divinity becomes the glory of the body, but the
mystery beyond nature cannot be contained () by human eyes, thus
the unendurable and unapproachable light concealed itself by means of the lesh,
as if under a kind of veil ( ).59
Similar views are shared by Kokkinoss student, heophanes of Nicaea, both
of whom are praised by Symeon in his Dialogue (chap. 31). In his treatise On
the Light of habor (ca. 1370), heophanes deals extensively with the nature
of divine revelation through symbols and seeks to distinguish the uncreated
nature of the divine light ( ) from the symbolic forms
it assumes relative to subjective perceptions (
). Here, the image of the veil is ready to hand: he light
of habor, even though it naturally inheres within the substance of the divine
nature, was projected like a veil ( )being a
symbol and type of Gods incomprehensibility, for such [symbols] are called
coverings () of the truth.60
he importance of the veil as a theological symbol owes much to the authority
of Dionysios the Areopagite. Its centrality among the hesychasts, however, was
assured by Palamas himself, who had irst introduced it into the debate. In
an important passage from the Triads, Palamas grapples directly with a locus

Symeon of Thessalonike and the Theology of the Icon Screen


54 Here the author addresses the subject

of his critique, Prochoros Kydones, an antiPalamite theologian condemned in 1368.
55 Refutatio Prochori Cydonii 1.5 (scr. ca.
1368; Voordeckers and Tinnefeld ed., 8, lines
3139); cf. ibid., 1.26:
lines 1415): ibid., 1.50:

(76, lines 4648); ibid., 1.53:

(80, line 24); idem, Letter 4.1:

, , , ,

(202, lines 2228); and idem,
Letter 5.1 (215, lines 1922).
56 Citing Dionysios, On the Celestial
Hierarchy 1.2. For an opposing interpretation of this passage, see Gregory Akindynos,
Refutatio magna, Or. 1.45 (Nadal Caellas
ed., 53, lines 2734), and ibid., 1.26 (Nadal
Caellas ed., 32, lines 58). See J. Nadal
Caellas, Denys lAropagite dans les
traits de Grgoire Akindynos, in Denys
lAropagite (above, n. 52), 53362, esp. 559
60; and T. Boiadjiev, Gregorios Akindynos
als Ausleger des Dionysios PseudoAreopagita, in Die Dionysios-Rezeption im
Mittelalter (Turnhout, 2000), 10522.
57 Pseudo-Chrysostom = Severianos of
Gabala, De velo (PG 52:830); cf. above, n. 34.
58 Letter 5.10 (scr. ca. 136869; Tinnefeld
and Voordeckers ed., 228, lines 2031).
59 Philotheos Kokkinos, Antirrheticus
contra Gregoram, or. 11 (Kaimakes ed., 429,
lines 74447); the citation from the Tomos
(PG 151:753c) is in the Kaimakes ed., 410,
lines 1034:
60 De lumine haborio, or. 3, lines 54751
(Soteropoulos ed.); cf. idem, or. 4, lines 982
85; cf. I. D. Polemis, heophanes of Nicaea:
His Life and Works, Wiener Byzantinische
Studien 20 (Vienna, 1996), 20814, for
corrections to the edition of Soteropoulos.

classicus from the Mystical heology of Dionysios, in which liturgy, mysticism,

and the doctrine of revelation are closely intertwined in an exegesis of Moses
ascent on Sinai:
When Moses entered the sacred cloud, he saw not only the immaterial tabernacle
(which he copied by means of matter) but the very hierarchy of the hearchy and its
properties, which through various material means were depicted by the priesthood
of the law.61 For the tabernacle and everything in it, such as the priesthood and that
which pertains to it, were perceptible symbols, veils () of the things
that Moses saw in the cloud, but the things themselves were not symbols, for to those
who have transcended both impurity and purity and have entered the mystical cloud,
they appear uncovered (), 62 for how could those things be symbols
which appear devoid of every covering ( )? And this
is why Dionysios begins the Mystical heology by saying O Trinity beyond being,
direct us to the highest summit of mystical [scriptures], where the simple, absolute,
and unchanging mysteries of theology are veiled () in the brilliant
darkness of the cloud. 63
Palamas begins these theological pyrotechnics with Moses entrance into the
cloud, followed by the revelation of the immaterial tabernacle, materially igured
in the symbolic veils of the liturgy. A distinction is subsequently introduced
between the sensory perception of liturgical symbols and the deeper insight
available to those who, like Moses, have entered the mystical cloud, and behold
the things themselves, devoid of every covering. he passage concludes with
a Dionysian paradox, for the uncovered objects of contemplation remain veiled
in brilliant darkness. Every unveiling, it would seem, is yet another concealing,
and one veil is removed, only to disclose another. Elsewhere, however, Palamas
speaks quite clearly of a more direct form of vision, unmediated by veils, a
phenomenon that we also observed in the writings of Symeon. In the words of
Palamas, his light and this vision () not only transcend sense perception,
but transcend all forms of being, for now [we see] by means of sense perception
and through existents and partial symbols, but then we shall transcend these
things, and we shall behold the eternal light immediately, with no intervening
veil (, ).64 What are we to make
of this seeming contradiction?
In order to understand the symbolic function of the veil among the
hesychasts of the fourteenth and i teenth centuries, it should be recalled that
these thinkers, following Dionysios the Areopagite, envisioned creation as a
theophany, that is, as a manifestation of God.65 In a celebrated passage from On
the Divine Names, Dionysios describes creation as the self-manifestation of the
uncreated deity: In a moment of ecstasy, the cause of all comes to be outside
itself by its providences for all beings; and being, as it were, seduced by goodness
and afection and love, is led down from being above all and transcending all
is brought down to being in all.66 his movement of erotic ecstasy is Gods
creative git of himself to the world, in which the absolutely nameless and
unknowable becomes knowable through all things and subject to all names.
But even in this ecstatic self-impartation, God nevertheless remains radically
unknowable in his essence. In his own nature, God is neither a being nor even
being itself, but in the ecstasy of creation he becomes all things in all things
and nothing in any.67 And because creation is the self-revelation of God
himself, Dionysios regards all creatures as symbols of intelligible reality
veils of the uncreated divine energies, the hesychasts would saybecause they

Nicholas P. Constas


61 Cf. Dionysios, On the Ecclesiastical

Hierarchy 5.2: In the hierarchy of the Law,
the rite () was an uplit ing to spiritual
worship, and the guides were those whom
Moses had initiated into the holy tabernacle. It was Moses who, for the ediication of others, depicted () in this
holy tabernacle the institutions of the hierarchy of law. He established all the sacred
actions of the law as an image () of
what was revealed to him on Sinai (Heil
and Ritter ed., 105, lines 915).
62 Citing Dionysios, Mystical heology 1.3
(Heil and Ritter ed., 143, lines 1315).
63 Triads 2.3.55 (Meyendorf ed., 2:5013,
lines 2027, 19). For discussion and bibliography, see R. Sinkewicz, Gregory
Palamas, in La thologie byzantine, ed.
G. Conticello and V. Conticello (Turnhout,
2002), 2:13182, esp. 16164. On Palamass
use of Dionysios, cf. R. Sinkewicz, he
Doctrine of the Knowledge of God in the
Early Writings of Barlaam the Calabrian,
Medieval Studies 44 (1982): 181242; and
A. M. Ritter, Gregor Palamas als Leser das
Dionysios Pseudo-Areopagita, in Denys
LAropagite, 56377, but note that both
authors follow Meyendorf s dubious claim
that Palamas introduced a christological
corrective to Dionysios, on which see J.
Romanides, Notes on the Palamite Controversy and Related Topics, GOTR 9.2 (1963
64): 25062, esp. 24957; and A. Golitzin,
Dionysios Areopagites in the Works of St.
Gregory Palamas: On the Question of a
Christological Corrective and Related
Matters, SVhQ 46 (2000): 16390.
64 Triads 2.3.24 (Meyendorf ed., 2:435,
lines 1012); cf. Symeon, 296cd, above,
at n. 23.
65 he following analysis is indebted to
H. Urs von Balthasar, Denys, in his he
Glory of the Lord: A heological Aesthetics
(Edinburgh, 1969), 2:144210; and E. Perl,
Symbol, Sacrament, and Hierarchy in Saint
Dionysios the Areopagite, GOTR 39 (1994):
31156; idem, Saint Gregory Palamas and
the Metaphysics of Creation, Dionysios 14
(1990): 10530.
66 On the Divine Names 4.13 (Suchla ed.,
159, lines 914); cf. E. Perl, he Metaphysics
of Love in Dionysios the Areopagite, Journal
of Neoplatonic Studies 6.1 (1997): 4573.
67 On the Divine Names 7.3:
(Suchla ed.,
198, lines 89).

are symbols of God himself as imparted and revealed.68 Creation then, is a form
of incarnation, because it is a true theophany of the divine, the paradoxical
visibility of the invisible, the sensuous apprehension of that which cannot
otherwise be known.
hese Dionysian principles were developed by Palamas and his disciples,
who unequivocally airm that human beings know God by sense perception
no less than by intellection.69 hus the distinction between mediated and
unmediated communion is ultimately a false dichotomy. Direct ontological
communion with God is not distinct from some other form of communion, but
rather takes place in, through, and because of the various symbolic mediations.70
Dionysios states that the same knowledge of God that angels receive noetically
is received by human beings symbolically, that is, the same knowledge is
imparted in the manner proper to each,71 and thus to reify the distinction
between mediated and unmediated participation would be to inscribe
a faulty kind of structuralism. Balthasar has therefore rightly suggested that
unmediated should be taken to mean only that the irst hierarchy has no need
of a further intermediary between itself and God, which need not, however,
imply that because of this it possesses an essential vision of God. In the end,
one is let with the paradox of a mediated immediacy.72
Such a paradox means that, in the very moment of its unveiling, the divine
conceals itself. he self-revelation of God, precisely because it is the revelation
of an inexpressible plenitude, is necessarily a veiled unveiling. his is no less
true for the Incarnation: for he is hidden even ater his manifestation, or to
speak more divinely, precisely in his manifestation.73 In the paradoxical
manifestation of the unmanifest, what is incomprehensible is given in what
is really comprehensible, for it is in every case the incomprehensible God in his
totality who makes himself comprehensible in his communications.74 hus one
cannot, in a gnostic ascent from sense perception to pure intellection, strip
away the symbols, or remove the veils, because when these are removed, there is
nothing there, nothing, that is, which can be given to human comprehension.
What is required is a movement into the signs, an understanding of the veils
of creation as ontological symbols. One does not encounter God by discarding
created symbols, but by experiencing them as symbols, as visible mirrors of the
invisible. God is present only in the created symbols, accessible only in the veils
that conceal him, because the nature of the symbolic is to conceal and reveal
simultaneously, or, to speak more divinely, to reveal by concealing.

Conclusion: Toward a heology of the Icon Screen

hough oten disparaged as a form of private mysticism, Byzantine hesychasm
was deeply rooted in the experience of the liturgy. As Michael Kunzler has so
compellingly argued, participation in the grace of the sacraments (understood
as participation in the uncreated energies of God) was the basis for the
theology of Palamism, so called.75 he same holds true for the theology of
Dionysios the Areopagite, which disallows any spirituality divorced from
the sacramental life of the church, forging instead a via media between the

68 hus Balthasar, Denys, 179:

Dionysios contemplates the divine symbols
with an aesthetic delight. h ings are not
simply the occasion for his seeing God:
rather, he sees God in things. Colors, shapes,
essences and properties are for him immediate theophanies.
69 And, at the same time, that God is
unknowable to intellection no less than he is
to sense perception; cf. Perl, Symbol, 319,
who notes that a dichotomy between sense
and mind is the farthest thing from
Dionysios intent, for it would mean that
God is inaccessible to sense but accessible to
mind, whereas Dionysios invariably insists
that God is both inaccessible and accessible
to both sense and mind (emphasis added).
70 See On the Divine Names 2.7:
, ,

(Suchla ed., 131, lines
56, 910); and the discussion in Perl,
Symbol, 34449.
71 On the Celestial Hierarchy 7.2 (Heil and
Ritter ed., 29, lines 515); On the
Ecclesiastical Hierarchy 6.1 (Heil and Ritter
ed., 11516). Cf. On the Divine Names 7.2
(Suchla ed., 195, lines 1220).
72 Balthasar, Denys, 207. Cf. On the
Divine Names 2.5, where Dionysios speaks of
the (Suchla ed., 129,
line 3), and ibid., 2.11 (Suchla ed., 133, lines
73 From Dionysios, Letter 3, which in its
entirety reads as follows: He who is beyond
being () has come forth from his
secret place ( ), becoming a
human being in order to manifest himself
among us. And yet he is hidden even ater
his manifestation (
), or to speak more divinely,
precisely in his manifestation (
). For this mystery of Jesus is
hidden () and cannot be explained
or understood as it is in itself in any way, but
even when spoken remains inefable, when
thought unknown (Heil and Ritter ed., 159,
lines 510).
74 Balthasar, Denys, 185.

75 Kunzler, Gnadenquellen (above, n. 8),

95102, 14448; cf. G. Mantzarides, he
Deiication of Man: St. Gregory Palamas and
the Orthodox Tradition (Crestwood, N.Y.,
1984), 41: he sacraments are created
media which transmit the uncreated grace

of God. Man as a created being has need

of these created means if he is to approach
and receive the uncreated grace of the
Holy Spirit.

Symeon of Thessalonike and the Theology of the Icon Screen


extremes of an anti-institutional mysticism, on the one hand, and an anticharismatic institutionalism, on the other.76 Hence the ease with which the
corpus Dionysiacum was taken up and championed by the liturgically minded
hesychasts, not least among them Symeon of hessalonike, who was the leading
liturgiologist of the Byzantine Church in its late period.77 We may therefore
characterize Symeons entire project as an attempt to correlate a Dionysian
discourse of liturgy (including its rites and material culture) with the theology
of his revered predecessor, St. Gregory Palamas. For Symeon, the language of
light and illumination, which pervades the liturgy and the sacraments, is
identiied with the timeless, uncreated light of the Transiguration. he living
archetype and source of every sacrament, moreover, is the dual-natured person
of the incarnate Christ, through whom the divine energies are given to the
world, mediated through a veil of lesh (Heb. 10:20).
As we have seen, the status of creation within this tradition is complex. In
the ecstasis of its providential love, the transcendent deity has come to exist
outside of itself, relected within the variety of sacred veils that constitute
the diferentiated forms of the cosmos.78 Symeon airms that the result of this
manifestation of the unmanifest is neither a binary opposition between God
and creation, nor a disjunction of the sensible and the intelligible, as noted
at the outset of this study. Rather, the logic of revelation is conceptualized
through a twofold reduction: to the imparticipable, unknowable God on the
one side and to the symbolic forms or determinations of creatures on the other.
he world is thus the manifestation of the hidden and transcendent beauty of
God, the perfect iguration of that which cannot be igured.
Symeon applies this twofold principle, not simply to the elements of the
cosmos, but to the material culture of the liturgy, including its nonsacramental
elements (if such there be). For the Palaiologan mystagogue, the church is not
simply a building or conglomeration of things, neither is it an institution or
department of state, but an extension of the Incarnation, a manifestation of the
deity outside of itself, symbolically igured on the plane of material being, an
icon of the divine energies as structures of divinizing grace. Consistent with this
belief, the twofold distinction of sacred space, organized around the visibility of
the nave and the invisibility of the sanctuary, is nothing less than a igure of the
godhead, unknowable in its essence (and therefore unrepresentable), but well
known in and through its various manifestations and activities. As noted above,
this is the Palamite doctrine of God as both concealed and revealed, a distinction
that Symeon has mapped directly onto the twofold organization of sacred space,
largely through a rethinking of the symbolic ontology of Dionysios.79
At the same time, the Byzantine mystagogue envisions the same sacred space
as an icon of both man (body and soul) and Christ (humanity and divinity),
based, once again, on a distinction between that which is given to visibility
and that which is not, or cannot, be given to vision or knowledge. Here it
is worth noting that in the microcosmic temple of the human person it is psyche,
with its procession of forms and images, that serves as the boundary and link
between visible lesh and invisible mind.80 Such an intermediary, iconoplasmic
role suggests an intriguing analogy to the nature and function of the icon
screen, and it is to be regretted that Symeon does not explore it in any detail.
Instead, his eforts are more directly focused on the church as a symbol of the
body of Christ.
In bringing together the structures of Christology and those of sacred space,
Symeon enacts an architectural exegesis of the scriptural notion of the church as
the body of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 3:16, 6:19; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:1922; 1 Pet. 2:4

Nicholas P. Constas


76 On which, see A. Golitzin, Dionysios

Areopagita: A Christian Mysticism? Pro
Ecclesia 12.2 (2003): 161212.
77 Balfour, Historical Personality, 56
(above, n. 7).

78 Cf. above, nn. 6667.

79 Cf. above, n. 20.

80 Cf. Dionysios, Letter 9.1: he impassible part of the soul borders ()
upon the simple and most deeply interiorized visions of deiform imagesthis is
evident in those who, having beheld the
things of God beyond the veils
( ), subsequently
shape within themselves a certain image
( ) (Heil and Ritter
ed., 198, lines 814). See also heodore the
Studite, Letter 380 (Fatouros ed., 2:513) =
Liber ii.36 (PG 99:1213cd), cited in N.
Constas, Icons and the Imagination, Logos
1.1 (1997): 116; cf. G. Mathews, Byzantine
Aesthetics (London, 1963), 11719; H. J.
Blumenthal, Plotinus Psychology (he
Hague, 1971), 8895; A. Charles,
Limagination: Miroir de lme selon
Proclus, in Le Noplatonisme, Colloque
international sur le noplatonisme,
Royaumont, 913 juin 1969 (Paris, 1971),
24151; G. Watson, Phantasia in Classical
hought (Galway, 1988), and below, n. 82.

10). Christ himself, moreover, associated his physical body with the Jerusalem
Temple (John 2:21; cf. Mark 14:58),81 the same body whose lesh the Epistle to
the Hebrews identiied with the veil of the tabernacle (Heb. 10:20). Neither
passage escaped the notice of patristic and Byzantine exegetes. And because they
also understood the veil of the lesh (Heb. 10:20) to be a type of the primordial
irmament (Gen. 1:6), the result was an exegetical tour de force in which body,
tabernacle, temple, and cosmos formed a single ediice, the keystone of which
was the archetypical igure of the incarnate Logos. he most important example
of such a reading undoubtedly belongs to the twelth-century writer Michael
Glykas, whose discussion I shall briely outline, both for its direct relevance to
Symeons symbolic perception of the sanctuary enclosure, and because it has, to
my knowledge, completely escaped scholarly notice.
Glykas takes as his point of departure the patristic equation of the veil of
the lesh with the irmament, an association he subsequently modiies in the
course of his exegesis. A close reader of Scripture, Glykas observes that Moses
speaks of a irst heaven, followed by a second, subcelestial heaven, called the
irmament, which separates the waters above from those below (cf. Gen.
1:68). What, he asks, are we to make of this peculiar passage? Working with
the exegetical principle that all things are types of Christ, he suggests that
the irst heaven is a type of Christs invisible, incomprehensible divinity
( ),82 whereas the irmament is a type of
Christs assumed humanity. he water, moreover, which lows on the frontier
between them, is an image of Christs human soul, which functioned as
a mediator between his divinity and the density of his lesh (
).83 Given that both Genesis and the Gospel of
John begin with the phrase, In the beginning ( ), Glykas avers that
the irst heaven is by nature heaven, and is called so from the beginning (Gen.
1:1), in the same way that Christ is the Logos from the beginning (John 1:1).84
hese transcendent natures are then contrasted with the material irmament,
which was not from the beginning and was only called heaven ater its union
with the heaven above, because the holy body of Christ is called God not in
virtue of its own nature, but in virtue of divinization and union, and this is
why Paul calls the veil of the tabernacle the holy lesh of Christ (cf. Heb.
10:20), for it was formed from blood, just as the irmament was made from the
lower moistures.85
Consistent with the tendencies of Symeons own exegesis, we have an
alignment of Christs transcendent divinity with the invisible heaven, both
of which are respectively united to, and distinguished from, Christs created
humanity and the lower irmament. Anticipating Symeons (Dionysian)
sacramental theology, Glykas describes the interweaving of the created and the
uncreated in the symbolic veil of Christs body. he resulting communication
of properties is such that, in the words of Philotheos Kokkinos, the glory of the
divinity becomes the glory of the body.86 Most interestingly, the intermediary
role, which is typically ascribed to the veil/irmament as a type of Christs lesh,
is here given to his created human soul, that is, to the liminal realm of psyche,
mentioned above. his is because the mediation described here is not between
Christ and those who, through the sacramental veil of his lesh, participate
in the divine energies, but rather between Christs human lesh and his own
divinity, which are joined through the medium of his human soul. In both cases,
however, it is Christ who forms the bond of love (cf. Eph. 4:3; 345c) between
the two worlds; it is he himself who is clothed in the cosmic veil that joins the
visible and invisible worlds.

Symeon of Thessalonike and the Theology of the Icon Screen


81 For a discussion of these passages, see

R. Brown, True and False Witness:
Architecture and the Church, heology
Today 23 (1967): 52137.


Bekker ed., 20.1516.

83 Bekker ed., 20.1920. In patristic

anthropology, the soul is typically that
aspect of the self that mediates between the
mind and the body; cf. above, n. 80. he
association of the soul with water is an
ancient trope, perhaps most famously
expressed by Porphyry, On the Cave of the
Nymphs, trans. R. Lamberton (Barrytown,
N.Y., 1986). If, then, the Virgins drawing
out of the thread symbolizes the creation
of Christs lesh within her womb (cf. above,
n. 43), then her apocryphal visit to the well,
in order to draw out water, must surely
symbolize the fashioning of his human soul;
cf. Protoevangelium Iacobi, ed. C.
Tischendorf, Evangelia Apocrypha
(Hildesheim, 1966), 20.
84 Bekker ed., 20.2021.1.
85 Bekker ed., 21.18. Glykas attributes
this interpretation to Anastasios of Sinai,
although it is not attested in any of the
works ascribed to that writer.
86 Cited above, n. 59.

hese two worlds, the immanent and the transcendent, the visible and the
invisible, are intimately connected by a boundary that simultaneously separates
them and unites them. his boundary is of course symbolized architecturally
by the sanctuary enclosure, which brings to light the distinction between the
sensible and the intelligible, and is thus like a irmament (Gen. 1:6), marking
the frontier between intelligible forms from material objects (345c). Consistent
with these overarching symbolic functions, the icon screen is an imposing, even
formidable object. Its power, moreover, resides precisely in its liminality, in its
compelling dual structure of the mind and its relection, referring each observer
in turn to an alternate vision of the world and himself. As a symbol, the icon
screen is always between two things, two universes, two temporalities, two
modes of signiication; between sensible form and intelligible ideal, between
forms and formlessness, vacillating endlessly between a present dissemblance
and a future semblance. As the symbol of the cosmic boundary between the
sensible and the intelligible, the icon screen is saturated with the meanings of
the invisible world, yet nevertheless is visibly manifest and vividly material.
As a symbolic veil of lesh, the icon screen is pure meaning wrapped in the
thinnest membrane of materiality; the common limit of the sequence of
earthly states and the sequence of heavenly states, the boundary where the inal
determinations of earth meet the increasing densiications of heaven. It is thus
the sign of a movement, a relexivity, between the two realms, in which both
domains of existence are given to consciousness and vision.87
As the thinnest membrane of materiality, the icon screen corresponds to
the enigma of the virginal body depicted on its central portal: a threshold both
radically sealed and yet radically open to the informing presence of the divine.
Locating the Virgin and her angelic interlocutor around a cultic gate allowed
Byzantine artists to play with the distance and the spacing that their colloquy
presupposes, as well as with the idea of crossing a threshold, an originary rite
of passage, namely, that of the Logos into Marys sealed lesh, which in turn
enabled the passage of all humanity into a new time and a new place.
A matrix of igurability par excellence, the icon screen is a symbol of symbols,
a super-icon, or meta-icon, the icon of all icons, for it expands to include the
entire world of all things visible and invisible. It is a boundary, a sign of
diference that both divides and unites, bifurcating the perceived world and
reintegrating it through a series of relective, interconnected correspondences, a
range of relations mediated by gestures, language, and imagery. It puts into play,
displays for all to see, a fecund universe of igures from where, and in which, the
Spirit will progressively come forth. Every sign, every symbol, every meaning
acquires depth by dividing, by splitting in two: the letter kills but the spirit
gives life (2 Cor. 3:6). he icon screen is thus the mysterious book, written on
both sides, to be fully unsealed only at the end of time (cf. Rev. 5:1).
Before concluding our study, let us consider a inal line of questioning. Our
choice of descriptive language can be unwittingly prescriptive. Is the icon screen
necessarily a screen or barrier in any meaningful sense of those terms? Is it
not made to disappear from view? Do we see it as a wall that arrests and turns
back our vision or as a permeable membrane that both conceals and reveals? Is
the icon screen the suppression of vision or its intensiication? Is it a barrier or an
enticement: a foothold for ascent, the strategy of grace? According to Florensky,
the iconostasis is itself vision, inasmuch as it is the manifestation of Christ and
his saints, an appearance of heavenly witnesses, who proclaim to us that which
is from the other side of mortal lesh. If the church were i lled with mystics and
visionaries, he argues, there would be no need for an icon screen, but because our

Nicholas P. Constas


87 he quotations are from P. Florensky,

Iconostasis, trans. D. Sheehan and O.
Andrejev (Crestwood, N.Y., 1996), 43.

sight is weak and our prayers feeble, the screen provides us with visual strength
for our spiritual brokenness. Florensky stresses that this spiritual support does
not conceal from the believer an otherwise lucid object of sight; on the contrary,
it points out to the half-blind the mysteries of the altar, and opens for them an
entrance into a world closed to them by their own entrapment. Destroy the
material icon screen, he asserts, and the altar itself will wholly vanish from our
consciousness as if covered over by an essentially impenetrable wall. A temple
without a material iconostasis, he maintains, constructs a solid wall between the
altar and the faithful; but the iconostasis opens windows in that wall, through
whose glass we see what is permanently occurring beyond. To destroy it thus
means to block up the windows. It means smearing the glass and diminishing
the spiritual light for those of us who cannot otherwise see it.88
We expect, and perhaps demand, that every revelation be an unveiling,
a drawing aside of the curtain, a liting of the veil. But when the object of
revelation is not an object at all, but that which is invisible and beyond
predication, then it can give itself to us only through an event/appearance that
is also a concealing. Divine transcendence, divine hiddenness, remains absolute,
and yet providentially reveals itself by concealing itself in a sacred veil, which is
at once the revelation of, and means of participation in, the very life of God.

Symeon of Thessalonike and the Theology of the Icon Screen


88 Ibid., 6263.