Architecture and Sacred Space
Orthodox sacred space seeks to reflect, materialize and inspire contemplation of the divine. In medieval Byzantium (the eastern Roman Empire), church buildings often conform to a cruciform plan, with a dome in the center, occupying the highest point of the structure. This model is followed on Mount Athos, starting with the Catholicon (communal church) of the Great Lavra (begun 963). An image of Christ as Pantokrator, the “Almighty” or “Ruler of All”, is placed at the apex of the central dome, conveying the idea that he is looking down from heaven to exercise dominion and oversight over the created world. Below him are displayed the principal narratives of his life and the hierarchy of saints. On the west end of the church, a narthex or vestibule marks the entry point into the naos, the space underneath the central dome. At the east end, the sanctuary containing the main altar for the consecration of the bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ is screened off by a wall of icons known as the iconostasis.
Sacred space is created not only by architecture but also by ritual movements, and by the ephemeral effects of light, music, prayer and incense during the monastic offices and the liturgy of the eucharist. A sacred presence is activated upon entering the church by performing proskynesis (prayer in prostration), as well as by embracing and kissing the principal icons round the interior perimeter of the church. The Iconostasis is also animated by the censing and kissing of its icons, and by the opening and closing of the central Holy Doors to reveal the sanctuary and facilitate the procession of clergy with the Eucharistic bread and wine and the Gospel.
Light has the ultimate significance in Orthodox Christianity as a medium for the believers to reach the realm of the divine. Hence, we see many candles, shimmering gold and marble surfaces and windows to permit the light to be used in a controlled fashion inside the church. Light also measures the passage of time and structures the shape of the monastic liturgy. During the cycle of offices between the evening service of Vespers and the morning eucharist, the figures of Christ and the saints in the painted icons gradually emerge from the darkness against their shimmering gold grounds. On major feast days, the sacred presence is more dramatically animated by the spinning of the central corona or chandelier beneath the central dome, making the attached icons and blurred light of the candles appear to “dance.”