The Icons and Iconostasis in St John’s Orthodox Church

Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory

The Church represents heaven on earth. This is why we can see many icons, or sacred images, of Christ, His Mother, the saints and the angels in churches. These icons are not merely pictures, they are holy presences. Orthodox Christians believe that Christ, His Mother, the saints and the angels are present among us through the Holy Spirit, Who came down to us at Pentecost.


Thus, the Church walls are covered with the icons of hundreds of Orthodox saints. To the front of the church on the left-hand side as you face the altar, there are icons of the life of Christ, of the apostles, early martyrs and, towards the back, early Greek, Roman, Egyptian and other saints. At the back of the church there are icons of the Old Testament saints. On the right-hand side of the church, there are saints of many different nationalities, Greek, Romanian, Bulgarian, Serbian, English, Spanish, French, Chinese, Russian, including many saints of recent times. Finally, to the front of the church on the right-hand side, there are the twentieth-century New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia.

On the pillars in the nave of the church, from right to left and from the back towards the front, hang six icons of particularly venerated saints. These are St John (our patron-saint), St Helena (the patroness of Colchester), St John of Kronstadt, St Elizabeth the New Martyr, St Nicholas the Wonderworker and St Seraphim of Sarov.

The main focus of Orthodox worship is directed towards Christ in the Kingdom of Heaven. This means that we look towards the iconostasis or icon-screen, which separates the nave from the sanctuary, where bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. Our iconostasis was carved and painted in Kishinev in Moldova. It has two tiers. On the second tier are the icons of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Church’s Year and also the icons of the Twelve Apostles, which would usually appear on a third tier. Since we have a very wide iconostasis, the second and third tiers are here combined. Above the central doors there is an icon of the Last Supper.


On the lower tier there are icons of our main saints (see below) and also three doors. The central doors symbolise the doors of the Kingdom of Heaven and are called the holy doors. On them there are icons of the Four Evangelists and of the Feast of the Annunciation. This Feast is called ‘the beginning of our salvation’. As is common in Orthodox churches, on the left-hand door there is the icon of the Archangel Michael and on the right-hand door that of the Archangel Gabriel.

As is appropriate in this country today, the main saints portrayed in the lower tier are all missionary saints of recent times. The icons of the saints who lived most recently are placed towards the centre; those who lived longer ago are placed to the far left and right-hand sides. These saints show the global, universal reach of Russian Orthodoxy, which spreads from the Far West to the Far East. From left, or the west (the symbolic west – the actual west is at the entrance of the church), to right, or the east (the symbolic east – the real east is the sanctuary), these twelve icons show:

1.St Innocent of Alaska, Apostle to America, Enlightener of Alaska (+ 1879). After the period that he spent as a missionary-bishop in Alaska, St Innocent, whose see later moved to San Francisco, became Metropolitan of Moscow. Thus, St Innocent preceded St Tikhon (see below) in the see of Moscow. Since 1453 Moscow has been the centre of the Orthodox Church, and is known as The Third Rome. St Innocent was canonised in 1977 and he is often called ‘Equal to the Apostles’.


2.The Fourteen Optina Elders (+ 1829-1937). Clockwise from the bottom left these are Sts Moses, Antony, Ambrose, Anatolius, Barsanuphius, Nikon, Nectarius, Anatolius, Isaac, Joseph, Isaac, Leo, Macarius and Hilarion. These Elders prepared the revival of the Russian Church after its persecution by foreign rulers in the eighteenth century, when two thirds of Russian monasteries were closed and the State tried to turn the Church into a bureaucracy. The twentieth-century feat of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia was prepared by this great spiritual renewal of Orthodoxy in the nineteenth century, fostered especially by these Optina Elders. They were canonised in 1990.

3.The Archangel Michael.

4.The Royal Martyrs (+ 1918), Nicholas, Alexandra, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia and Alexis. The Royal Martyrs represent all the laity who were victims of the Communist persecution. They also had close ties with England, where the martyred Emperor Nicholas and the two sisters, his spouse the Empress St Alexandra and the Grand Duchess St Elizabeth, spent time. The latter, a large icon of whom is in the church, was among Queen Victoria’s favourite grand-daughters. The catechism of the future Empress Alexandra began at Windsor Castle and the martyred Tsar is a great-uncle of Queen Elizabeth II. They all spoke excellent English and the English tutor of the youngest child, Alexis, was Fr Nicholas Gibbes (+ 1963), the first Orthodox priest in Oxford.

5.St Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow (+ 1925). St Tikhon represents all the clergy who were victims of the Communist persecution. Before becoming Patriarch, he was Bishop of San Francisco, preceding our patron St John in that see. St Tikhon was responsible for having Orthodox services translated into English. As Patriarch of Moscow, he also founded the self-governing Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. St Tikhon reposed on 25 March, the Feast of the Annunciation to the Mother of God (see the next icon). His repose on that date, after years of persecution, was a new annunciation to Russia and the world of Christ’s Truth. Like the Royal Martyrs, he was canonised in 1981.

6.The Mother of God. An icon of the Mother of God is always positioned here to the left of the Holy Doors. This is a copy of the 13th century icon, whose home is in our Cathedral in New York, and is known as the Wonder-working Kursk Root Icon. It is the Guide of Russian Orthodox who live outside Russia and among whom it travels regularly. It has come to us twice in recent years. It was in front of this very icon that our patron St John reposed in 1966. Around this Kursk Root icon of the Mother of God we find the icons of nine Old Testament prophets, holding scrolls of prophecies concerning Her. Clockwise from the bottom right, these holy prophets are Sts Elijah, Habbakuk, Gideon, Isaiah, Moses, David, Solomon, Daniel and Jeremiah.

(The Holy Doors).

7.The Saviour. An icon of the Saviour is always placed here to the right of the Holy Doors. Our Lord carries a scroll which announces; ‘A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another (Jn. 13, 34).


8.St John of Shanghai (+ 1966) is our patron-saint. He was our Archbishop in London and is also known as St John the Wonderworker, since he is well-known for his life of ascetic feats and miracles. St John was born in the Ukraine, lived in Serbia as a refugee and then became Bishop of Shanghai. He toiled there until the Communist Revolution closed all the Russian and Chinese Orthodox churches. After this period he was appointed Archbishop of Western Europe. Here, from 1950 to 1962, St John did much to encourage the veneration of local saints in the many European countries where he worked. This is why our chapel (through the door on the right at the front of the church) is dedicated to our local saints, All the Saints Who Have Shone Forth in the Isles. After his time in Western Europe, St John was sent to San Francisco, where he completed the present Cathedral. In this way he followed both St Innocent of Alaska and St Tikhon (see above) as a missionary in North America. He was canonised in 1994.

9.St Nicholas of Zhicha (+ 1956), also known as St Nicholas the Serb. This great Serbian theologian, a Church Father of the twentieth century, was one of the bishops who consecrated St John in Belgrade on 28 May 1934. A friend and admirer of St John, the two men were close. Before the First World War St Nicholas studied in Switzerland and England. During the Second World War he was imprisoned by the Nazis in Dachau, after which he went to the USA, where he reposed. His relics were later returned to Serbia and he was canonised in 2003. His theological works and prophecies have already been translated into many languages.

10. The Archangel Gabriel.

11. St Alexis of Carpatho-Russia (+ 1947). He was a confessor for the Faith in Carpatho-Russia (Ruthenia), on what was for a very long time the Western edge of the Orthodox world. Already before the First World War, St Alexis toiled for the return of Carpatho-Russians to the Church, both in the United States and in his homeland. With the help first of the Church of Russia and then of the Church of Serbia, altogether some 160,000 Carpatho-Russians returned to the Church. St Alexis knew St Nicholas of Zhicha and St John well and many of St John’s letters to St Alexis survive. He was canonised in 2001.


12.St Nicholas of Japan (+ 1912), also known as St Nicholas of Toyko, He spoke excellent English, visiting Shanghai in 1871 and London in 1879. Both these cities link him with St John. Altogether he spent fifty years of his life as an Orthodox missionary in Japan and is the founder of the Japanese Orthodox Church. He was canonised in 1970 and he is often called ‘Equal to the Apostles’.

Like many groups of saints, these saints are interrelated, forming one family. They represent the spread of the Orthodox Faith to the Far West (St Innocent of Alaska) and the Far East (St Nicholas of Japan). Indeed, both these saints actually spent the winter of 1860-61 together in Siberia, when St Innocent was returning to Moscow and St Nicholas was setting out for Japan. Thus, these saints, both often called ‘Equal to the Apostles’, form a virtuous circle, for East and West met and still meet in Russia.