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The Sacred Screen: Origins, Development, and Diffusion

Byzantine Symposium 2003, Symposiarchs: Sharon Gerstel and George Majeska

Speakers in this symposium confront one of the defining elements of religious architecture and ritual: the construction of screens to define boundaries and thresholds within sacred spaces. Woven from cloth or chiseled from stone, painted with figures or carved with decorative emblems, and built to various heights or lengths, screens have framed sacred thresholds throughout history. As the material expression of a critical liminality, the screen intensifies ritual, marks passages, and orders communities. Its function as a barrier is often secondary to its facilitation of ritual performance and access to the divine. Paradoxically, the ubiquity of barriers in sacred spaces has often been the cause of their invisibility in historical, theological and liturgical sources. The near absence of contemporary notice and the problematic and contested nature of the surviving evidence makes the study of sacred screens particularly challenging to modern scholars.

For several decades, scholars have been seriously engaged in studying the origins and development of the chancel barrier in the medieval West as in Byzantium, and with very interesting results. Lacking in this research, however, have been two elements: first, a conceptual element that would raise questions about why such barriers should appear and what they might signify, and, second, a comparative element that would take note of regional variations in chancel barriers and try to explain the causes of these differences. In addressing these points, speakers at the symposium look at the following questions: What is the nature of the segregation between clergy and laity in cult buildings? How does this separation of sanctuary from nave relate to other separating mechanisms in sacred edifices, such as those segregating according to gender, or according to standing in the community? How is the relationship between sanctuary and nave different from the relationship between sacred space and secular space, temple and world? In what ways is the specific nature of the separating devices reflective of the theological perspectives of the worshippers? Is the altar screen necessarily different in conception or function from the inner wall of the Greco-Roman altar or the veil of the Jewish temple? Is the Western rood screen qualitatively different from the Byzantine templon? Why do the Russians develop a high iconostasis when non-Chalcedonian Eastern churches can make do with a curtain?

Invoking a broad range of materials, cultures, and perspectives, the 2003 Dumbarton Oaks Symposium shed light on the nature of the sacred screen, its early manifestations through the most recent ritual scholarship.

Group Photo