A' BYZANTINE HAGIOGRAPHY
1. BYZANTINE TEMPLES
Our homeland - and not only - is dotted with Byzantine churches. We find them everywhere: in big cities, towns, villages, in monastic enclosures and in many other places, wherever the piety of the faithful erected them to glorify God.
Many of these churches did not withstand the passing and the corruption of time; they were destroyed and left in ruins. However, the ruins that did survive, remind us of the majesty of an era past, and the role they played in the in the lives of the Church's faithful. Other buildings, despite the centuries that passed from the time they were erected, still remain almost intact. These are the irrefutable witnesses of Byzantine tradition and reverence.
These remnants of Byzantine construction have a common characteristic: they have a picturesque exterior and an internal beauty. The outer walls are not impressive; they are unadorned and austere. The interior is that which impresses the visitor; it solemnifies him, and elates him. The cross shape that the architectural design has internally and externally, connects the external edifice with the internal decoration; a Byzantine chapel when seen and observed externally will invite us to cross its threshold and admire its interior. Responding to this invitation is rewarding; the interior of a Byzantine church can truly amaze the visitor.
First of all, the interior of a Byzantine church provides a solemn atmosphere. Inside, the visitor sheds his worldly cares, he becomes lighter, he forgets himself, and he is elevated, heavenwards. This is attributed to a number of factors: the forms of the overhead arches and the domes, the dim lighting, the serene forms of Christ, the Holy Mother and the saints. Let us add to these the particular arrangement inside the narthex (inner and outer), the main temple area and the Holy Bema (there are usually other additional areas, such as adjacent chapels, baptism areas etc.). This arrangement is in absolute harmony with the psalms and the rituals that take place inside this hallowed space.
Secondly, the interior of a Byzantine church is an excellent visual means of teaching the faithful. As we shall see further along, the interior arrangement of a Byzantine church, its orthodox hagiography across all its surfaces and the position of certain icons - for example, the icon of the Almighty and of the Virgin Mother - are reminders of the mystery of divine providence: that is, the incarnation of Christ and our salvation. Those things that are normally familiar to the faithful from the Holy Scriptures and the teachings of the Church, are now brought to mind in another way - conjectural and visual - thus making the faithful more aware of them and better impressed.
We usually refer to the holy temple as the house of God, the " House of my Father " as our Lord had called the temple in Jerusalem where He prayed, taught and performed miracles. According to Germanos, Patriarch of Constantinople (715 - 730 A.D.), " the church is a temple of God, a holy shrine, a place of prayer and assembly of the people, the body of Christ... a terrestrial heaven, wherein the heavenly Father resides and walks " (PG 98, 381 B). The words "Church", "temple", "heaven" alternate, in order to define the Christians' holy shrine. It was aptly observed, that "the Greek language..... used the same word, for both the divine organism of Christianity in general, as well as the place for individual assemblies of worship: " C hurch" written with a capital "C"; " c hurch" written with a small "c". The special, inaugural hymn that covers these two concepts so vividly, of the institution and of the edifice:
"Like a brightly-lit firmament
the Church showed itself to be,
shedding its light on all the faithful;
Inside which we stand, crying out :
Lord, make firm this House"
(Short hymn of inauguration, 13 th September - Pan.Christou, patrologist).
The holy temple as a place of worship concentrates the love of the faithful; it nurtures it and it magnifies it. Everything that exists and takes place here, gives wings to our hearts so that they may rise upwards, towards heaven. The icons, the candlelight, the wafting incense, the psalm chanting, all raise the faithful to celestial worlds, just as the hymns and the Fathers of the Church have stressed : " Standing inside the temple of Your glory, we believe that we are standing in heaven ..." (From a Matins hymn), " Tread inside the church as you would tread in heaven; and in it, say nothing and contemplate nothing terrestria l " (Saint Nilos, the ascete, PG 79, 1253 B).
Thus "heavenized", the church interior engrosses the faithful; it opens their heart and moves their lips to glorify the Creator. Even more than this, it symbolizes, it becomes the model for, and it illustrates the entire world, both terrestrial and celestial. " The temple as a house of God depicts the entire world " (Simeon of Thessaloniki, PG 155, 337 D). Let us again pay attention to the words of the memorable professor, Pan. Christou: " In many ways however, there is something more to a temple: it envelops the Church as a whole, with both its divine and its human character. This is immediately perceived by the faithful, from the moment they enter an orthodox church. When they look upwards, they will see the very Head of the Church, portrayed in the central dome; it is the Almighty, Who surveys everyone so imposingly, and Who blesses everyone with such benevolence. Further down, they will see Christ's retinue portrayed in tiers: the angels, the prophets, the apostles, and in the domed triangles atop each of the four central pillars, the four evangelists. Along the side walls - again portrayed in rows - are the martyrs, the saints, the Fathers and all those who had pleased God. Deep in the front of the church, in the conch overlooking the inner sanctum, is the imposing portrayal of the Theotokos "Platytera", the "Broader than the Heavens" Holy Mother, who unites the heavenly with the earthly. This is what is referred to as the "triumphant Church".
Then comes the "drafted Church". Beneath the Platytera icon, at the "synthronon" - the co-throne - are the places for the clergy, with the prevalent head priest amongst them who surveys the assembly, then the rest of the ministers along with the deacons. Opposite them, stands the faithful congregation, with due reverence and orderliness.
In the midst of all these, are the vital constituents of the Church, the sacraments: the body and the blood of Christ situated on the holy altar, the baptism, the chrism, the holy unction and all the others, between the clergy and the people.
That is why I stressed that the Church, in whichever form, bears within itself the divine and the human, the celestial and the terrestrial .
'As a bright-lit firmament, the Church...'.
With this kind of decoration, but chiefly with the liturgical assemblies with which God mystically leads us from terrestrial to celestial reality, " this place (the church) is an issue of virtue, a school of philosophy; not only during its assemblies, when Scriptures are recited and spiritual teaching takes place and reverend fathers convene, but in every other time and place " (Saint John Chrysostom, EPE 26, 146).