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The Symbolism of the Church

Iconographic Decoration in the Orthodox Church

The Art of the First Centuries of Christianity and its Symbolism


The Symbolism of the Church

Leonid Uspensky, The Orthodox Church, Studies in Orthodoxy vol. I, ed. A. J. Phipippou, Holywell Presse, Oxford 1964, p. 153- 168.

Trans. from the French by Mrs. Marianna Fortounatto

What exactly is the meaning of symbolism? The indirect expression by means of an image of something which no form, visual or verbal, can convey directly, for all means are inadequate and powerless in face of the truth which they must try to express. Symbolism, the language of mystery, reveals the truth to those who know how to interpret it, while concealing it from the uninitiated.

Colloquial speech confuses the meanings of "sign" and "symbol". Spiritually, it is advisable to distinguish them. The sign limits itself to indicating a particular fact; the symbol expresses and somehow incorporates and makes present a higher reality. To understand a symbol is to experience a presence; to understand a sign is to translate a piece of information. Let us take the cross as an example. In arithmetic it is simply a sign which denotes addition. In the Highway Code it indicates cross-roads. But in religion it is a symbol which expresses and communicates the inexhaustible content of the Christian faith.

Symbolism plays a very important role in the Church, because everything in the Church has, so to speak, a dual character: material and spiritual. The material is directly accessible to our senses; the spiritual is suggested to us through symbols. One cannot fruitfully study the symbolism of the Church apart from the Liturgy: the two developed together, and the Fathers explained symbolism in terms of the Liturgy. Cut off from the divine service symbolism loses its meaning and becomes a series of sterile abstractions.

The word "church" (in Greek ἐκκλησία ) means "convocation", "reunion". The Church "is so named because she calls all men together and unites them each to all", says St. Cyril of Jerusalem (1).

The verb " καλῶ " means "to call"; " ἐκκαλέω " means "'to convoke", to call forth. Those who are thus called forth are the apostles and the disciples of Christ, the New Israel. In the Old Testament the people of Israel were set apart, separated from the world, in order that they might make known to the world the divine incarnation, and prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah. As the New Israel, the Church in her turn brings to the fallen world the presence and the promise of the Kingdom of God . She prepares this world for the Second Coming.

The word "church" means both the Body of Christ, His Kingdom, constituted by the community of all the faithful, and the place of worship. In our prayers at the consecration of churches the place of worship is actually called a "house in the likeness of heaven", an "image of the dwelling place of God". It is consecrated "in the image of the most holy Church of God, that is, of our very body which Thou has deigned to call Thy temple (and members of Thy Christ) through the mouth of Thy glorious Apostle Paul", that is to say, in the image of the Church which is, according to St. Paul, the Body of Christ (Ephesians i, 23 and Colossians i, 18). Thus a church is an image, an icon, of the Church, the Body of Christ. In other words, a church is an image which expresses symbolically what cannot be expressed directly, since there exists neither language nor imagery to describe directly the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, which is an object of our faith, yet invisible in her plenitude.

The foundation of the Christian life is always the same, whether in the first centuries of our era or today. It is a birth into a new life, an intimate union with God which is essentially realized in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Our churches, as the places where this sacrament is performed and where the people, thereby united and renewed, assemble, are different from all other places and buildings. They bear the impression of that which takes place in them. It is characteristic that among the many names which the early Christians gave to the temple, such as "the church" or "the house of the Church", the one most widely used was "the house of the Lord" (2) . This name in itself underlines the difference between a church and any other building, and expresses its specifically Christian significance.

This significance is connected with the heritage of the Old Testament. The Tabernacle of the Old Testament, which prefigures the churches of the New Testament, was constructed according to the plan revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai . God Himself directs not only the general plan, but the whole arrangement, down to the smallest details. The history of the Church shows that the first Christians did not break with the past; on the contrary, they considered themselves the direct heirs of the Old Testament. The Christians were the New Israel, the fulfillment of the prophecies. The apostles and the Fathers constantly emphasize the traditional character of the new faith. The apostles and the early Christians in general went to the synagogues and to the Temple of Jerusalem, and took part in the Jewish life of worship. Only when they were refused admission did they build specifically Christian sanctuaries, and even then they were careful to preserve the revealed pattern of the place of worship, the principle in accordance with which the Tabernacle and the Temple of Jerusalem had been built. They brought out the real meaning of this principle, the meaning of the New Testament and the fulfillment of the prophecies. Therefore it seems beyond dispute that the essential significance of a church, which is so closely linked with the very essence of Christianity, was understood by all believers in the first centuries of our era, even though it was not at once explicitly formulated in theoretical terms.

We know from historical and archaeological researches that the Christians of the first few centuries did not have only the catacombs and the places for prayer in private houses referred to in the Acts of the Apostles and in the Epistles (3), but that they also built churches above ground (4). During times of persecution these churches were destroyed and later rebuilt. But, in spite of the existence of these churches, neither the early Fathers nor writers in general have much to say about the Liturgy, and they say nothing at all about the meaning of the church, its significance, and its symbolism. Why this silence ? It is thought to be due to two reasons: firstly, there was absolutely no need to write down something which was common knowledge, by which indeed all lived; secondly, the early Christians had no intention of initiating into their sacraments the pagans amongst whom they lived, of revealing to them their faith and their hope. The truths of the faith were confessed above all in life itself, and were rarely formulated. That is why the symbolism of the Church, like the dogmatic truths of the Christian faith, was not systematically expounded during this period.

Nevertheless we have some evidence from the first few centuries of how Christians conceived of the place of worship. Thus, in the Didache it is said that a church should remind the faithful of a ship, and should have three doors to evoke the Holy Trinity. We know that the Fathers very often use the image of the ship, and in particular the Ark of Noah, to symbolize the Church. Noah's Ark was a prefiguration of the Church; just as this ark served as a refuge at the time of the flood, the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit on the waters of life, is the safe refuge of Christians. That is why it was usual to apply this image to the church, the place of worship. Even today we call the middle part of our churches the nave. On ancient monuments we find symbolic images of Noah's Ark in the form of square chests, sometimes with a dove on top. Archaeological excavations have shown that a great many churches of the early centuries were built exactly to a square plan, that is, in the image of the Ark. At first sight, to an outsider, this analogy might seem abstract, artificial, void of deep meaning, as also the use of three doors to indicate the Holy Trinity. But in reality this is not the case. If we remember that the small Christian communities were surrounded on all sides by a more or less hostile paganism and that they were subject to periodical persecutions, we shall realize that the church was for them truly an ark, where they found salvation in the sacraments.

As far as the symbolism of the three doors is concerned, this image also was neither abstract nor lacking in significance. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not only a teaching of the Church about God, one in three Persons; it is the very foundation of the life of the whole Christian community. In fact, the Holy Trinity is the prototype of that love which still today sustains every Christian community, be it a monastery, a parish or any other organism. The very life of this community is love, without which it cannot be realized. This is the reason why, down to the present time, everything in our churches reminds us of the Trinity: the three parts of the church, the three fingers with which we cross ourselves, and so on.

These examples show that in the primitive churches, just as in ours today, everything had a symbolic meaning, everything was designed to lift up the soul and spirit of man to the divine life. In other words, the very architecture of the churches lifts us up to contemplate realities which are not only invisible but which also cannot be expressed directly. The objects that our bodily eyes behold thus become symbols which introduce us to the divine world. This is an application of the patristic formula: visible objects lift us up to the contemplation of invisible things.

From the fourth century onwards, symbolism in the church begins to be explained and commented on in greater detail. Two circumstances, above all, made such explanations necessary: firstly, under St. Constantine the Church was given the right legally to exist in the Roman Empire . This most important historical event led to the triumph of the Church, and had very important consequences for her art. The construction and embellishment of churches developed a richness hitherto unknown. The well-known Church historian, Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, speaks at length and with great enthusiasm about these buildings. A great multitude of new converts filled the new churches. The majority needed explanations about the Christian faith and needed spiritual guidance. One of the means by which this instruction was given was the symbolism of the churches and of Christian worship. This necessity to explain the meaning of the churches could not but influence the theoretical exposition of symbolism; it made it essential.

The second circumstance was that, from the fourth century onwards, Christian worship took on clear and precise forms. Our Liturgies, which bear the names of St. John Chrysostom and Basil the Great, date back to that period. The rapid progress in the perfecting of rites and the decoration of churches is described by Eusebius, writing in the reign of Constantine : "A clear, bright day, without hint of cloud, illuminates with rays of a divine light the churches of Christ throughout the universe. . . . Churches are rebuilt from the ground up to a great height and are much more beautiful than the old, destroyed churches. . . . Feasts for the renovation or the consecration of these new churches began to be celebrated in the towns. . . . The services and holy rites which the priests celebrated became more perfect, acts of worship more beautiful (5).

Some ancient liturgies (for example the Syriac text of the Liturgy of St. James) contained commentaries for the instruction and direction of the faithful. These commentaries were embodied in the actual text of the Liturgy, and were read by the deacon in the course of the celebration. It is thought that these commentaries were incorporated into the text at the end of the third or beginning of the fourth century, that is to say, at a time when they were particularly necessary owing to the tremendous number of converts pouring into the Church. This leads us to wonder whether in our own time also such commentaries might not be useful, at least after the Liturgy, during the sermon. It is true that the majority of us are not recent converts; nevertheless, our understanding of these things is somewhat vague.

On what is the symbolism of church buildings based?

Christian life is based on two essential truths: the one is the redemptive sacrifice of Christ, and the need to participate in this sacrifice, to be identified with it in order to be saved, the need for everyone to recapitulate, to repeat, so to speak, the sacrifice in his own soul. The other essential truth-the purpose, the result, and the very meaning of this sacrifice-is the transfiguration of man and with him of the whole visible world, which was dragged down by man in his fall. This is what peace between God and the world means. It is this second truth which constitutes the principal subject of the symbolism of the church. In fact, the whole of God's revelation to man, and the immensity of the sacrifice made by God for the salvation of mankind, on the one hand, and everything that man brings to God, on the other hand, is all directed towards one and the same goal: towards what the Fathers of the Church call the heavenly Jerusalem, the Kingdom of God. Without this perspective, which

gives to our every action and our every prayer its full significance, our faith would be meaningless. It is exactly this orientation towards the future, this building of the future, which distinguishes Christian worship from all others. The service may be conducted in different languages. Likewise, a church may vary in shape: for instance it may take the form of a cross, a basilica, or a rotunda; it can be built according to the taste and ideas of one period or another, of one people or another; but its significance was, is and always will be the same. Each nation expresses its characteristics in its church buildings. But this diversity of form only serves to emphasize the underlying unity of meaning, the confession of one and the same truth.

As early as the first quarter of the fourth century, Eusebius, in a homily on the consecration of a church in Tyre, develops in great detail the symbolism of this building. His fundamental idea is that what we see in a church is identical with what we hear. The building corresponds to the service which is celebrated there. Moreover, the visible church is built in the image of the invisible Church, and bears an essential likeness to her. It is the house of God, for God dwells there with the faithful who are the vessels of His Spirit. It is heaven on earth, the world of the age to come, where God is all in all. The beauty of a church seems in some measure to unveil the beauty of the heavenly Jerusalem which God prepares for those who love Him (6).

But Eusebius does not confine himself to commenting on the church as a whole; he goes on to explain its parts: the sanctuary (cut off by a screen to prevent the people from approaching the altar), the nave and the narthex. Eusebius has the merit of reflecting the attitude of mind of the Church of his day, and of reporting authentic facts of which he was an actual witness.

It was during the seventh and eighth centuries especially that the symbolism of the church attained its most complete theoretical formulation. The most systematic commentaries are to be found in the Mystagogia of St. Maximus the Confessor (seventh century), who has also left a remarkable study of the Liturgy; in the writings of St. Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem (seventh century); of St. Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople (died 740), the great confessor of Orthodoxy during the iconoclast period; and of St. Simeon, Archbishop of Salonica (fifteenth century). These same centuries, he seventh and eighth, so rich in writings on symbolism, are also a time of great activity in the composition of liturgies, the period of the great authors of canons: St. Andrew of Crete, St. Cosmo of Maioum, St. John of Damascus.

In studying these commentaries, it should never be forgotten that they do not only express the subjective opinion of their authors. The symbolism of the church is founded objectively in the essence of Christianity, and it expresses a well-defined reality, the liturgical life, which is one of the principal aspects of tradition. That is why St. Simeon of Salonica starts his essay On the Divine Temple with the words: "We pass on to you with love what we have drawn from the Fathers; for we have nothing new to add to what has been passed on to us, nor have we in any way modified it, but we have preserved all things, as a symbol of faith, in the state in which they were given. We celebrate the services exactly as Christ Himself and the apostles and the Fathers of the Church did"(7). There is here a striking parallel with theology, in which the Fathers equally endeavoured to avoid all individual and subjective interpretation. "I pray God that I may neither think nor pronounce anything about Him, like Solomon, that may be peculiar to myself", says St. Gregory Nazianzen (8).

St. Maximus the Confessor and St. Sophronius see in the church the image of both the spiritual and the visible world, that is, the image both of what we perceive through the spirit and of what we perceive through our senses. They emphasize the cosmic importance of the church, as an image not only of the whole created world, but also of the transfigured world.

St. Germanus makes use of a kind of play on words in his commentary; he speaks of the Church as the Body of Christ and as a place of worship in the same terms, in the same phrases even, in order to stress that the second is but an image or the first. "The Church", he says, "is heaven on earth, where lives and dwells God, Who is higher than heaven". He continues: "It calls to mind the crucifixion, the burial and the resurrection of Christ, it is more glorious than the Tabernacle of the Covenant", which clearly refers to the place of worship. "It was prefigured in the patriarchs, founded on the apostles ... it was foretold by the prophets, adorned by the hierarchs, sanctified by the martyrs, and its altar is founded on their "holy relics", which once again consciously confounds the Church and a church, its image. Having stressed this analogy, St. Germanus goes on to comment on the place of worship: "The church", he says, "is a divine house where the mysterious and life-giving sacrifice takes place, where there is the inner sanctuary, the holy cave, the sepulchre, the soul-saving and life-giving food, where you will find the pearls of the divine doctrines which the Lord taught His disciples".

St. Simeon of Salonica also stresses this meaning of the church and explicitly states, among other things, that in the most solemn rite of consecration the church is revealed to us as "a mysterious heaven and the Church of the first-born". It is clear that the Church as described by the Fathers is not only the terrestrial Church as we know it, but also the celestial Church with which it is indissolubly linked; in other words, the Kingdom of God which will come in power when God shall be "all in all", in the words of St. Paul (I Corinthians xv, 28). This is why the church is the image of the "good things to come" as St. John of Damascus expresses it. St. Simeon of Salonica calls a church "paradise" and "gifts of paradise", for it contains not only the tree of life, but life itself, which is present in the sacraments and communicates itself to the believers.

Thus a church is a very complex reality, rich in content. On the one hand, it is a holy place where the members of the Church share through the sacraments in the divine life. The first-fruits of the Kingdom to come, it is thus a particle of this Kingdom, already existing on earth, and preceding its coming in glory. On the other hand, it is also an image of that divine Kingdom towards which the Church leads the world. This idea runs through all the patristic commentaries. And these commentaries are not confined to explanations of the church buildings in general: they also make clear the significance of each part.

In the Orthodox mind the patristic conception of the church and its parts remains immutable. Thus we read in recent works like The New Table of the Law, by Archbishop Benjamin, that the church is divided into three parts (the sanctuary, the nave and the narthex) according to the plan of the Tabernacle of Moses and the Temple of Solomon . Just as the people of Israel, the Church of the Old Testament, prefigured those of the New Testament, the Tabernacle and the Temple prefigured the holy places of the New Covenant which have preserved the same plan. For St. Simeon of Salonica this tripartition recalls the Holy Trinity, the three orders of the heavenly hierarchies, and the three categories into which Christian people are divided: clergy, believers and penitents, and catechumens.

The sanctuary is, in fact, reserved for the clergy. This is the most important part of the church, where the sacrament of the Eucharist is performed. It corresponds to the Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle. It is in a way the heart of the whole sacred edifice, the part which sanctifies it. It represents symbolically the dwelling place of God, "the heaven of heavens", as St. Simeon of Salonica wrote, or, in the words of St. Germanus, "the place where Christ, the King of all things sits enthroned with the apostles". The sanctuary is situated at the eastern end of the building, so that the whole church is turned towards the east. This feature is common to all Christian churches. The explanation lies both in the past and in the future, both of which the Church recalls to us: on the one hand, the lost paradise which was in the east, on the other hand, and above all, the coming of the future Kingdom, towards which the whole life of a Christian is directed. This Kingdom of God which is to come is often called, especially in the monuments of the first Christian centuries, the eighth day of creation. The coming of this "day without end", which we await and for which we are preparing, is symbolized by the rising of the sun, and hence by the east. This is why St. Basil prescribes, in his ninetieth rule, that we should always direct our prayers towards the east. The middle part of the church, the nave, corresponds to the " Holy Place " of the Tabernacle, which was separated from the court-yard by a veil. There the priests came every day, bringing sacrifices. In the church of the New Testament it is the laity, the "royal priesthood, the holy people", in the words of St. Paul, who enter this part and offer God their prayers. This part of the church contains, therefore, people enlightened by the Christian faith, who prepare themselves to receive grace in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Having received this grace, they are redeemed and sanctified, they form the Kingdom of God . If the sanctuary represents that which surpasses the created world, the dwelling place of God Himself, the nave of the church represents the created world. But it is a world which is redeemed, sanctified, deified, the Kingdom of God, the new earth and the new heaven. This is how the Fathers describe this part of the church. Here, for instance, is what St. Maximus the Confessor says: "In the same way as the carnal and the spiritual principles are united in man, in such a way that neither does the carnal principle swallow up the spiritual nor the spiritual principle dissolve the carnal, but spiritualizes it, so that the body itself becomes an expression of the spirit, likewise in a church the sanctuary and the nave communicate with each other: the sanctuary enlightens and guides the nave and the latter thus becomes its visible expression. Such a relationship restores the normal order of the universe, which was turned upside down by the fall of man; it re-establishes, therefore, the conditions of paradise which shall be restored in the Kingdom of God " (9).

Finally, the narthex corresponds to the court-yard of the Tabernacle, the exterior part where the people stood. Nowadays, while the sanctified people have their place in the nave, it is the catechumens and the penitents who stand in the narthex, that is to say, those who as yet are only preparing themselves to enter the Church and those whom the Church places in the special category not admitted to the communion of the Holy Gifts. This explains why, when the sacrament is consecrated, those who cannot partake of it are asked to leave: some because they are not yet members of the Church, others because they have fallen away or are considered unworthy. Thus the very design of a church draws a precise boundary between those who participate in the Body of Christ and those who cannot do so. The latter are not turned away from the church, and may remain there up to a certain moment. But they cannot participate in the inner, sacramental, life of the Church. Their place is not completely outside the church, neither is it within. They are, so to speak, on the periphery, on the border-line between the church and the world. The narthex, according to the commentary of the Fathers, symbolizes the un-regenerate world, the earth which still lies in sin, sometimes even in hell. It is always situated on the side opposite the sanctuary, that is, on the west.

We speak of the devision of the church into three parts as being the most complete, the most usual, and the one which expresses most clearly the meaning of the Church. But this division does not constitute an absolute rule. Only the sanctuary and the nave are absolutely indispensable: without them the church is not a church. But without the narthex it nevertheless remains a church. Certainly, in our present situation, a narthex seems desirable, even indispensable in our churches, for often people come to our services who are not members of the Church. These people attend our celebrations. They must be given the opportunity to find out what a church is and, through this, what the Church is, the Body of Christ.

To the "spatial" and permanent significance of the church must be added a temporal significance which changes at different times in the service.

Let us sum up the general meaning of the patristic commentaries: a church, a place of worship, is an image of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church; at the same time it is the first-fruits and image of the Kingdom of God which is to come. It is in order to give precision to this image and to suggest the presence of this Kingdom to come that the Church has recourse to images. The iconographical subjects of its decoration are distributed according to the meaning of each part of the church and its role in the service. If the symbolism of the Liturgy was commented upon by the Fathers during the pre-iconoclastic period, the relationship between the decoration of the church and this symbolism was elaborated after this period. The pattern of church decoration then established has the character of a clear and precise theological system.

We shall speak here only of the classic type of decoration in its principal features, in order to complete the general picture of a church. From the eleventh century-that is to say, from the post-iconoclastic period, when the system of church decoration was definitively determined-until the end of the seventeenth century, the arrangement of iconographical themes remained unchanged, at any rate in the monuments which have survived. Naturally, this stability and uniformity can be seen only in the general features and not in the details of the decoration.

The sanctuary, as we have already seen, represents that which is higher than heaven, which surpasses the created world, the very dwelling place of God. It is in the sanctuary that the sacrament of the Eucharist is performed, and consequently those things which are most closely connected with it are here represented. The first row of paintings, beginning at the bottom, represents the Fathers who wrote the Liturgy, and with them other saints of the hierarchy and holy deacons, in their role as co-celebrators. Higher up is represented the Eucharist itself, under the guise of the communion of the apostles, in both kinds, bread and wine. Higher still, above the Eucharist, is the image of the Mother of God, directly behind the altar. Her place so close to the sacrament corresponds to her place in the Eucharistic Canon, where she is mentioned at the head of the whole Church, immediately after the accomplishment of the Eucharistic mystery. Moreover, the Mother of God personifies the Church itself, for she bore in herself the Creator of the world, Whom the whole world cannot contain. That is why at this place in the sanctuary she is generally represented in the orante form, that is, interceding before God for the sins of the world, which is her role and the role of the Church. The representation of the Virgin as intercessor here, where the sacrifice takes place, acquires a quite particular significance. The elevation of the hands is a gesture which completes the sacrifice. It is the inseparable final completion of it, directing the offering towards God. This is why we see this same gesture made by the priest during the Liturgy. This elevation of the hands has nowhere been prescribed. But it is a gesture which has become an inseparable part of the Liturgy, so closely is it connected with the sacrifice; it is an incarnation of prayer.

Since the sanctuary is the place where the unbloody sacrifice instituted by Christ Himself is offered, the image of Christ is placed above that of the Virgin. It is He Who is Himself the sacrifice offered and the High Priest Who offers the sacrifice, and His image has a quite particularly Eucharistic significance here.

Finally, in the hemisphere of the arch of the sanctuary, Pentecost is represented. This image indicates the presence of the Holy Spirit, by virtue of Whom the sacrament of the Eucharist takes place.

This brief summary allows us to see the fundamental importance of the sanctuary: it is the place which sanctifies the whole church. Consequently, the decoration of the sanctuary is, so to speak, the most concentrated of the whole church. The opening of the Royal Doors during the Liturgy symbolizes heaven itself being thrown open to allow us to catch a glimpse of its splendour .

The nave of the church, as we know already, symbolizes the transfigured creation, the new earth and the new heaven, and at the same time the Church. That is why the Head of the Church, Christ Pantocrator, is painted in the cupola. The Church was foretold by the prophets and founded on the apostles, and these are represented immediately underneath the image of Christ. Then come the four evangelists in the four corners, proclaiming the good news and preaching the Gospel in the four quarters of the world. The pillars supporting the building are decorated with images of the "pillars" of the Church: martyrs, hierarchs and ascetics. On the walls are displayed the principal events of sacred history, especially those which the liturgical feasts celebrate as syntheses of Christian instruction, "pearls of divine dogmas", in the words of St. Germanus of Constantinople. Finally, the western wall portrays the Last Judgement, the end of the history of the Church and the beginning of the age to come.

In this way the decoration of Orthodox churches does not depend on individual ideas of artists; the iconographical themes are distributed according to the significance of the church as a whole and the significance of each of its parts.

The Church of the Old Testament made use of symbols, as did all other religions. This symbolism prefigured the coming of Christ. But Christ has come, and yet the symbolism largely inherited from Israel continues in the new Church and forms a dimension of its worship which it cannot dispense with. Indeed, the whole Liturgy has been penetrated by symbolism, in its language, gestures and images. This symbolism takes on the character of an initiation into the mysteries which are taking place in the church, and reveals a reality which is always present, but which cannot be expressed directly. This reality is the Kingdom of God, the first-fruits of which exist as a spiritual and material reality, a physical presence, in the Eucharist, which is the principal sacrament of the Church. The Church places before our eyes the image of that Kingdom, so that we may partake of this sacrament with greater awareness and in consequence feel ourselves a part of the Kingdom of God, so that we may share with the whole Church in preparing for this Kingdom, which is the supreme goal of the world. The Church uses visible things to bring us nearer to the invisible ones which are beyond the reach of our senses. For "we are not able to bring ourselves to contemplate spiritual things without some intermediary, and in order to do this we need something close and familiar", says St. John of Damascus (10). In other words, worship and all that forms part of it is a means to our sanctification, our deification. Everything in a church is directed towards this end. After the fall, the Old Testament was the first step towards this goal. It was not yet a direct preparation for the age to come; it was the preparation for the second stage, the New Testament. What was for the Old Testament the future is now the present, and this present is preparing us for and leading us towards the future, which the Fathers call the heavenly Jerusalem . St. John Damascene sums this up by referring to St. Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews: "Mark", he says, "that the law and all that has been instituted by the law, as well as all the worship that we are at present rendering, these are holy things, done by man, which through the intermediary of the material are lifting us up towards God Who is immaterial. The law and all that has been instituted by the law (that is to say all the Old Testament) was a prefiguring of our present worship. And the worship which we now offer is an image of the good things to come". These good things (that is to say reality itself) are the heavenly Jerusalem, immaterial, not made by human hands, as the Apostle says: "We have here no continuing city, but seek one that is to come" (Hebrews xiii, 14), that is, the heavenly Jerusalem "whose builder and maker is God" (Hebrews xi, 10). In fact, all that has been instituted by the law and by our present worship only exists for the sake of the heavenly Jerusalem (11).

Our churches are images of the heavenly Jerusalem . A church is a prefiguring of the peace to come, of the new heaven and the new earth, where all the creatures shall gather together around their Creator. The building and decoration of churches are based on this image. The Fathers do not prescribe any style of architecture nor specify how the building should be decorated, nor how the icons should be painted. Everything is rooted in the total meaning of the Church, and follows a rule of art analogous to the rules by which the Liturgy was created. In other words, we have a very clear and precise general formula to direct our efforts, which leaves entire freedom for the action of the Holy Spirit in us. This formula is passed on from generation to generation by the living tradition of the Church, a tradition which goes back not only to the apostles but even to the Old Testament. If we live in this tradition, we understand the church as the holy Fathers understood it and we decorate it accordingly. If we move away from it, we bring in elements which have no connexion with the meaning of the church, and we often secularize the church by introducing things from everyday life.

The very meaning of the church, its raison d' ê tre , demands that it should be different from all other buildings, with a character of its own. This specific character corresponds to and expresses the specific nature of the Church. According to the words of Jesus Christ Himself, His Church is a Kingdom "which is not of this world". Yet the Church lives in the world and for the world, for its salvation. This is the purpose of her existence. Since she is a 'Kingdom which is not of this world' she has her own nature, which is distinct from that of the world. She cannot accomplish her purpose unless she remains faithful to her own specific nature, faithful to herself. Her way of life, her means of action, her methods are other than those of the world. Her art, especially, is not like the art of the world: it expresses truths of a different order and pursues different aims. If it mixes with profane art, it no longer corresponds to what it must express, nor to the aim it is serving. In other words, it no longer fulfils its function, and so compromises the Church's action and saving mission in the world. This is why it is so important to keep the specific character of the Church constantly in mind in all the branches of ecclesiastical activity, especially in the realm of art, which has the capacity to act directly and powerfully on the human soul.

From the beginning the Christian Church gave its temples and its worship forms appropriate to their nature and purpose. She established the interior aspect of churches, the character of the sacred images, the singing, the clergy's vestments, etc. Together church and Liturgy form a harmonious whole, a perfect liturgical unity and fullness. This unity, this convergence towards the same end, presupposes that each of the elements forming part of the divine service must above all be subordinate to the general meaning of the church, and therefore all desire to give them a role or value of their own must be renounced. The painting and singing cease to be separate forms of art, independent of the others. Instead, they become a variety of forms which express, each in its own way, the general meaning of the church, the transfigured world, a prefiguration of the peace to come. Subordination is the only way by which each art, as part of a harmonious whole, is able to attain its full significance and become increasingly rich in an ever new meaning. United by this common aim, these different elements which enter into worship fulfil the "unity in diversity" and the "richness in unity" which express, in general and in each detail, the principle of catholicity of the Orthodox Church, its " sobornost ". This is precisely what creates the beauty of the church, which is quite different from the beauty of the world, a beauty which truly reflects the harmony of the age to come. We may take as an illustration the description of the conversion of the holy Prince Vladimir, by a Russian chronicler. When the messengers whom he had ordered to compare various religions came back from Constantinople, they told him that when they were present at the Liturgy at St. Sophia, they did not know whether they were on earth or in heaven. Even if this is only a legend, it expresses perfectly the Orthodox meaning of the Church and her worship, the Orthodox sense of beauty. The imperial palace was also beautiful, but it did not impress the messengers of St. Vladimir.

There is nothing new in all this. It is obvious to anyone who lives in the Church. But as soon as one is separated from it, as soon as one begins to get involved in the things of this world, one loses the way of salvation based on tradition. But the Church never loses it, and reminds us constantly of it in the Liturgy, in the voice of the Councils, in the bishops, or simply in the faithful. In this way His Holiness Alexis, Patriarch of Moscow, reminded us of tradition when he wrote in his Easter message to the clergy in Moscow in 1947: "In a church, everything is different from the things we see constantly around us and in our homes. The pictures are not like those we see at home; the walls are painted with holy images; everything is resplendent; everything lifts up the spirit and takes it away from the usual thoughts and impressions of this world. And whenever we see something there which falls short of the greatness and the meaning of the Church, it shocks the eye. The holy Fathers who established not only the worship but also the exterior and interior aspects of the church, planned and ordered everything to create a special state of mind in the faithful, so that nothing should hinder their progress towards heaven, towards God, towards the heavenly world of which a church must be the reflection. If in hospitals, which treat the diseases of the body, everything is arranged to make the surroundings conducive to the patient's return to health, what great care must be taken to order everything in a spiritual hospital, a church of God ! (12)

In his message, His Holiness pays special attention to singing, which, like the pictorial image, is one of the important problems of our worship. "The performance of liturgical singing in the shrill manner of worldly romantic songs or passionate opera arias deprives the worshippers of all possibility not only of concentrating, but even of understanding the content and meaning of what is sung" (13). These romantic songs and arias can be very beautiful in themselves. But in church this type of beauty is not constructive; it is even destructive, because it hinders the understanding of the content and the meaning of what is sung. All one can say is that it simply has no meaning because it does not fulfill its function in church. One can say the same thing where painting is concerned. Naturally, each of us is used to certain styles and has his own preferences. But we must know how to go beyond them, to do without them in church. Besides, the Church does not exist to satisfy the habits and tastes of this or that person, it exists to direct them to salvation in the Church.

The symbolism of the church shows us the basis on which is founded the language of worship, especially of the icon-a language which we have forgotten. All the sayings of the Fathers and writers of the Church whom we have mentioned are only some expressions of what the Church has lived on since its beginning, and what it will live on until the Second Coming of its Head.

A characteristic feature of the New Testament is that it gives us a direct image. This New Testament image will disappear only at the coming of the reality which it prefigures, the Kingdom of God . But as long as we are still on the way, as long as the Church is still only building this Kingdom to come, we will remain in the realm of the image. The Church shows us through the intermediary of the image the way towards our goal.

We cannot share in the building of the Kingdom of God, and we cannot say consciously "Thy Kingdom come", unless we have some indication of what that Kingdom will be. But the symbolism of an Orthodox church, and in particular of the icon, is a reflection, albeit a dim one, but still a true reflection, of the glory of the age to come. In the words of St. Simeon the New Theologian,

" We can know God in the same way a man can see a limitless ocean when he is standing by the shore with a candle, during the night. Do you think he can see very much? Nothing much, scarcely anything. And yet, he can see the water well, he knows that in front of him is the ocean, and that this ocean is enormous and that he cannot contain it all in his gaze. So it is with our knowledge of God "(14).


(1) Catechesis , XVIII, XXIV; PG XXXIII, 1044 b.

(2) H. Leclerq, Manuel d-Archeologie Chr étienne, vol. I, p. 361' 2, Paris 1907.

(3) Acts xii, 12, xx, 7-8; Romans xvi, 4; Corinthians xvi, 19; Colossians iv, 15. (4) H. Leclerq, ibid. vol. 1, pp. 378 et seq .; P. Sixte Scaglia : Manuel d' Archeologie Chr é tienne, Turin, 1916, pp. 143-44.

(5) Historia Ecclesiastica, L, x, ch . I &II, PG xx, 845 a, 845 c&848 b.

848 b.

(6) Historia Ecclesiastica, X, iv, P.G. xx, 83.

( 7) Expositio de divino templo, i. P.G. clv, 701 a, b.

(8) Oratio XX, v, De dogmate et constitutione episcoporum, P.G . xxxv, 1069 c.

(9) Mystagogia , ii, P.G . xci, 668 d ff.

(10) De imaginibus oratio I, 2, P.G . xciv, 1233 b.

(11) lbid ., II, 23, P.G . xciv, 1309 c.

(12) Easter message to the rectors of the churches in Moscow, Calendar of the Patriarchate of Moscow, 1947 (in Russian).

(13) Ibid.

(14) Or . 61, Worlds, Moscow, 1892 (in Russian), p. 100.

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