Drawing the Iconostasis: A Teaching Moment for a Russian Orthodox Sunday School Class

A brief and sparsely attended English-language service had just ended at the Saint Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral, and the larger Sunday service wouldn’t begin for another hour. The cathedral, located at 15 E. 97th Street, was dimly lit and somber as a few remaining worshipers from the morning service roamed the room, silently placing candles as offerings and leaning in to kiss the icons paneling the walls.

The center of the room was nearly empty. This church has no pews; instead, its parishioners stand scattered throughout the room, facing the altar. Wooden benches line the room’s perimeter, allowing older congregants to take a break when they need. The nave, where the congregation stands, is richly adorned: icons and intricate patterns cover every inch of the walls and high, domed ceiling. Many of the icons, within their wooden frames, are covered in diamonds and strands of pearls. The iconostasis, a partition at the front of the room that separates the nave from the sanctuary, is covered in gold.

In such a setting, the two empty gray plastic benches in the center of the room looked out of place, a better fit for a high school cafeteria than a place of worship.

Suddenly, the reason for the benches became clear. A Sunday school class, with students of all ages, emerged out of a side door, holding pencils and paper and buzzing with energy, even as their teacher tried to keep them in line. They kneeled at the benches, using them as desks, gazing up at the altar and the iconostasis with their faces lit by the candlelight. With whispered words of guidance—in Russian—from their teacher, each began to draw this ornate partition.

The iconostasis, most important architectural feature of Orthodox churches, separates the sanctuary—where communion is prepared—from the nave. In early Christian times, the screen restricted access to the sanctuary for the secular without hiding it completely from congregants’ eyes. The Eucharist, or communion, is central to Orthodox worship, which is why congregants look toward the place where bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus. At Saint Nicholas, the nave is dimly lit, except for worshipers’ candles, while the sanctuary is brighter, but only partially visible.

The teacher gave the children room to focus on what stood out to them. Some drew from the ground up, gripping pencils tightly as they outlined the three steps leading to the altar. (The teacher helped one boy draw the steps in straight lines.) Others focused on the painted icons covering the closed golden gates, the “holy doors” through which only priests and deacons may pass. One girl, who spotted a priest preparing for the next service, waved her drawing so that he could see its progress. He gave her a furtive wave, his smile at odds with the solemnity of his long black cloak.

One girl, about 13, separated from the group and faced the back of the church, where she could get a better look at a large icon of Jesus hanging over the door. She was intensely focused on her drawing, leaning on her raised leg, and didn’t notice a worshiper take a pause from his movement through the sanctuary to look over her shoulder and up at the icon, appraising her work with a small smile.

Facing the back, she was the first of the children to see worshipers filing in for the morning’s main service, its liturgy in the ancient Church Slavonic language. With more offerings, the candlelight around the room grew brighter. The priests donned their golden robes, and it was time for the children to file out before the gates would open.