||“We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men.”Prince Vladimir of Kiev (d.1015) upon witnessing services in the Church of Agia Sophia “Holy Wisdom” in Constantinople.
- The Church of Agia Sophia : the Hallmark Eastern Orthodox Church
- “As soon as one passes through its main door a marvelous view appears, the entirety of the Church. The floor resembles a sea from which 107 large marble columns like the graceful masts of a large ship rise up, dividing the church into three sections that support the upper part of the church. As the approximate center of the church, four gigantic columns rise up in the shape of a quadrangle, and on these rests a marvelous dome of the kind that exists nowhere else in the world. The dome has 40 large windows, and when the sun rises and sends its rays, light passes through them and the pilgrim thinks he is seeing a sky with stars shining on the earth. The pilgrim shivers. He thinks that he is not standing on earth but that a power has passed through him and lifted him up to the sky. This is exactly what the pious architects attempted, to succeed in creating the feeling of what the Church chants when it sings : “While standing in the church in Your glory we think that we are in heaven.”Augoustinos N. Kantiotes, Bishop of Florina, Greece
- The Church Structure
- (Taken from The Orthodox Faith by Fr. Thomas Hopko)
The Orthodox Church through its architecture attempts to reveal the fundamental experience of Orthodox Christianity : God is with us. It accomplishes this through the use of a dome or the vaulted ceiling to crown the Christian church building, the house of the Church that is the people of God. Unlike the pointed arches which point to God in the heavens, the dome or the spacious, all-embracing ceiling gives the impression that in the Kingdom of God, and in the Church, Christ “unites all things in himself, thing in heaven and things on earth,” (Ephesians 1:10) and that in Him we are all “filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:19).The interior of the Orthodox house of worship is particularly styled to give the experience of the unity of all things in God. It is not constructed to reproduce the upper room of the Last Supper, nor to be simply a meeting hall for men whose life exists solely within the bounds of the earth. The church building is patterned after the image of God’s Kingdom in the Book of Revelation. Before us is the altar table on which Christ is enthroned, both as the Word of God in the gospels and as the Lamb of God in the Eucharist sacrifice. Around the table are the angels and saints, the servants of the Word and the Lamb who glorify him- and through him, God the Father- in the perpetual adoration inspired by the Holy Spirit. The faithful Christians on earth who already belong to that holy assembly- “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God . . . ” (Ephesians 2:19) – enter into the eternal worship of God’s Kingdom in the Church.Ultimately, the Orthodox Church building is nothing more (or less) than the architectural setting for the Divine Liturgy. The church structure with which we are familiar today originated after the official toleration of Christianity by Constantine the Great in 313.
- The Structural & Symbolic Divisions in the House of Worship
- The Narthex (vestibule) symbolizes this world. It remains as the place where the faithful light candles as they offer prayers for both the living and the deceased. In the ancient Church and even during the Turkish occupation of Greece, the Narthex was used a setting for religious education of the youth.The nave is the place where the people of God come into His midst. It is shaped either as a cross i.e. Holy Cross Church, or as a basilica, i.e. St. Nicholas in San Jose.The sanctuary symbolizes the place of God, the Kingdom of God. In lies the altar table, the prothesis, and the . This is the place of the priest.There exists a dynamic relationship between the sanctuary and the nave. The nave is potentially the sanctuary, the sanctuary is the nave in action. St. Symeon the Theologian writes that “the fact that the Church as two parts, sanctuary and nave, represents Christ, who is both God and man, the other invisible, the other visible. Similarly it represents man who is both soul and body. From another point of view the whole church can be seen as threefold : the parts in front of the nave (the Narthex), the nave, and the sanctuary. This signifies the Trinity, and the heavenly orders arranged in threes; and the pious people divided into three, I mean, the priests, the perfect believers, and the penitents.”
Symbolic Items in the House of Worship
- There exist a great number of symbolic items in the Orthodox Church. In fact, one may be so bold as to say that essentially everything in the Church has a symbolic or sacred representation. Below are listed a few of the more prominent symbolic items in the Church :
- Altar Table
- The Altar Table is the symbolic and mystical presence of the heavenly throne and table of the Kingdom of God; the table of Christ the Word, the Lamb and the King of the everlasting life of God’s glorified dominion over all of creation. The altar table contains relics of particular saints to show that the Church is built upon the blood of the martyrs and the lives of God’s holy people (the altar table at Holy Cross houses the relics of Sts. Cosmas and Damian, St. Panteleimon and St. Nicholas).
- The Tabernacle
- Often styled in the shape of the church structure, it houses the reserve gifts of the body and blood of Christ for the sick and the dying.
- The iconostasis (icon screen) in the Orthodox Church exists to show our unity with Christ, his mother and all the angels and all the saints. Icons on our Iconostasis from left to right : St. John Chrysostom; the Archangel Gabriel; the Elevation of the Cross (the icon of the Church is always placed here); the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child (always placed here); the Christ (always placed here); St. John the Baptist (always placed here); the Archangel Michael and; St. Catherine the Great Martyr.
- This icon, depicting the Virgin Mary with the Christ child, is always found in the apse of the Church. This icon, as does the Virgin Mary, serves as the bridge between the heavens and the earth.
- The Pantocrator
- This icon is found in the dome of the Church. It depicts Christ the Almighty.
- Baptismal Font
- The baptismal font is found in the front left of the nave. It is the place where infants are baptized in water and the Spirit, “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”The baptismal font in the church replaces a separate building which was once used specifically for baptisms (this has become the standard practice in the Church today. However, many churches today have constructed much larger baptisteries to accommodate adult baptisms).
- The Pulpit is where the sermon is preached and where the Gospel is read. Some will say that it symbolically represents the rock that was rolled away from the tomb of our Lord from which the good news was first preached to the world by an angel of the Lord.
- The Bishop’s Throne
- This is the place of the bishop. Often times, the throne depicts an icon of Christ as the High Priest. It reminds us that it is Christ who officiates in the person of the bishop or the priest. The throne was originally located in the center of the church, amidst the people. However, as the Liturgical tradition of the Church developed, for practical reasons it was moved to the place where it remains today.