2. Management/Administration: 2.5.3 On Beauty

Having established the idea of sacred space, this pattern of localized divine presence, God commanded Moses to prepare a place for His abiding presence among His people. So, the Lord spoke to Moses, saying… “And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” (Ex 25.8) But this was not supposed to be just any ordinary space. God gave them a specific pattern for constructing the Tabernacle and asked that the people gather their most precious items in order to build and beautify that space (Ex 25.2–9). So objective criteria were established to indicate exactly what it is that constitutes ecclesial beauty. Everything from the Ark of the Covenant, vestments of the Priests were to be made from gold, precious stones, the finest woods, and skins all for “for glory and for beauty” (Ex 28.2, 40). Later, when the people of Israel transitioned from their moveable Tabernacle into the permanent Temple, it was built with the same concern for creating a space of beauty. Solomon “decorated the house with precious stones for beauty, and the gold was gold from Parvaim. He also overlaid the house—the beams and doorposts, its walls and doors—with gold; and he carved cherubim on the walls.” (2 Chr 3.6–7).

So, these special, sacred spaces created by God’s people as a place for His enduring manifestation were to be made beautiful by fashioning them out of the finest materials and that at some great cost to the people. Obviously, the ways in which these precious materials are used has varied throughout time and space in keeping with the cultural diversity of the world. So, the objective standard here is not a particular artistic expression, but rather the effort to create a special and beautiful space using the finest materials and the most gifted artisans. In other words, these were not ordinary spaces, but were seen to be splendid alternatives to the spaces of everyday life, places set aside for the special purpose of worship and they were to reflect the beauty of God himself. Entering into the temple was to be awed by His brilliance. It was like entering another world, a world set apart, in which the space itself was to raise the human spirit to the contemplation of absolute beauty.

Of course, the beauty of these sacred spaces is not just a function of their finite glory, but of the infinite, spiritual beauty of God himself. What made both the Tabernacle and the Temple glorious was that each contained a most holy (holy of holy) place where God was said to meet with the priests (Ex 30.36). As noted above, this space was to be carefully beautified, adorned with oils, implements, the ark of the covenant, an altar, vestments all of which were said to be holy by virtue of their proximity to the “dwelling” place of God. Simply touching the holy oil of the tabernacle could make both objects and persons holy (Ex 30.29). So this became the focal point of God’s manifestation to the Old Testament community, here the Lamb was slain, atonement made, here the community met God. Notice how often God is referred to as being in the sanctuary (Ps 68.24, 73.17, 77.13, 150.1). This is the very same idea expressed by Solomon upon completing the Temple. “I have surely built you an exalted house, and a place for you to dwell in forever” (2 Chr 6.2) And God did respond so that “the glory of the Lord filled the house of God” (2 Chr 5.14). Again at the dedication of the Temple, when Solomon had finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices; and the glory of the Lord filled the temple. And the priests could not enter the house of the Lord, because the glory of the Lord had filled the Lord’s house. When all the children of Israel saw how the fire came down, and the glory of the Lord on the temple, they bowed their faces to the ground on the pavement, and worshiped and praised the Lord, saying: “For He is good, For His mercy endures forever (2 Chr 7.1–3). So, God comes to us, dwells with us, and makes holy and beautiful the space that we have created for him in the Church. What, then, is more wondrous than divine beauty?

But again I fear that the modern social imaginary limits our ability to recognize beauty, but more importantly for the Church, it prevents us from consistently implementing the basic ideas involved in God’s command to beautify our sacred spaces. Acting like pragmatic consumers in a vast market place, we now see the availability, the supposed neutrality, and the utility of a particular technology as sufficient justification for mindlessly bringing it into sacred space no matter what other messages it may bring with it.  Not long ago I was working at a monastery where the nuns were erecting an enormous new building that was to contain their main chapel. Even though it was still under construction, services were held and some care was given to ensuring the beauty of the space. There were magnificent stained-glass windows, beautiful icons, an alter made of purest marble, etc. But being unfinished lighting was a bit of a problem and one day I discovered the nave and part of the sanctuary had been festooned with crisscrossing stings of party or carnival lights.  Obviously, this type of lighting is not neutral, but carries with it a host of meanings mostly antithetical to the sanctity and beauty of the sacred space of a chapel. Those meanings include: partying, eating, drinking, etc. enjoyed in a casual, frivolous, party-like, pleasure-oriented setting, and may even imply overindulgence, extravagance, self-centeredness, moral laxity. These are meanings we cannot separate from this technology, not even from their temporary or provisional use, and they are meanings which we should not bring into the sacred realm of the church, especially during the divine services. This was an obvious departure from “decorating the house for beauty” (2 Cor 3:6) which did indeed undo or “de-beautify” what was already in place. As might be expected the Church was damaged. There were quite a few of us who took offense at this inappropriate lighting and found it difficult to worship under them. But alas they were kept. They were, it was said in good mercenary fashion, just lights, neutral, and, above all, they worked! But at what cost.[1]

Everything I have said about sacred space and its beautification is actually implemented in the architecture of the Church buildings we construct. Clearly, we will have to engage various experts, contractors, lawyers, engineers, and architects in order to meet government codes and make effective use of contemporary building materials and techniques. I don’t think that we need to insist that these people be part of our parish community, since they are not directly involved in the translation of theological principles into form but are just implementing an already developed concept. However, one expert, the architect or designer does need to be a person who does understand, from personal experience and conviction, the spiritual and liturgical needs of the Church. So, designing a Church is not simply a matter of plugging in a series of supposedly Orthodox elements, domes, cupulas, etc. We know that the elements used in the building can and do have an effect on the very nature of worship.  “In describing the late medieval introduction of pews into worship, he likens it to the placement of bleachers directly on the basketball court, writing that “it changes the event into something entirely different.”[2] Designing a Church is also not simply a matter of copying the architectural styles of other Orthodox cultures.[3]

The age of the immigrant ghetto in America is over. That means that the national styles of Russia, Greece, Macedonia, and Romania no longer need to be enlisted to hold together a trans- planted culture in a foreign land. In America at least, while Christians can indeed remain eschatological “strangers” and aliens, they are commissioned to transform the “flesh” of their own historical context just as Christ labored within the flesh of Palestinian culture.[4]

So, designing a Church is rather “an experiment—one whose success will not be measured in architectural critiques but by the fruit of a genuine life in Christ that is facilitated within it.”[5] For that reason, we should “avoid architectural firms that offer a hybrid[6] composed of elements you choose from a pictorial buffet and then throw into a computer…”[7] and choose a faithful Orthodox architect who will be able to transform the principles of our faith and liturgical requirements into a sacred space using the architectural language of the culture in which we live.[8]

The purpose of both church architecture and iconography, as they combine with music and aromas and light, consists not in bringing us to an exalted perception of external delights, but rather in a transformation within the hearts of the assembled faithful. The question for architecture is how it can serve its own iconic purpose. In the icon we must pass through the paints and lines to the prototype, just as the pieces of a parable must move us be- yond the immediate story towards its central revelation. Architecture cannot satisfy participants by dazzling with formal and technical gymnastics. The forms themselves must move us toward their hidden content, bringing us to Paul’s affirmation of “Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).[9]

In contrast to the glitzy expectations of a consumer-oriented culture, the process of beautifying a sacred space where God can dwell involves facilitating the engagement of the worshipping body with the divine. In the end, we have to ask will the newly constructed or newly beautified temple “promote the glory of the community, the glory of its designer, the glory of its builder? Or will it show forth the glory of God’s kingdom, spilling from its walls into the heart of the neighbor and travelling stranger?”[10]



[1] Interestingly, these inappropriate lights had wide ranging consequences causing great deal of distress. Many were no longer able to worship there, relationships were broken, a priest was dismissed because he objected, and young people were driven to consider leaving the Church they now considered badly damaged.

[2] Aiden  Kavanagh, Elements of Rite: A Handbook of Liturgical Style (New York: Pueblo Publish- ing Company, 1966). Cited by Alexis Vinogradov, “The Vernacular in Church Architecture,” The Wheel 5, no. Spring (2016): 25. www.wheeljournal.com.

[3] According to Nicholas  Denysenko “American Orthodox communities surely attempt to construct clichés of past models…” Nicholas Denysenko, Theology and Form: Contemporary Orthodox Architecture in America (Notrte Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017), 12.

[4] Vinogradov, “The Vernacular in Church Architecture,” 30.

[5] Vinogradov, “The Vernacular in Church Architecture,” 30.

[6] As for contemporary Orthodox architecture Denysenko “proposes that contemporary Orthodox architecture has evolved beyond the form/function paradigm and shows how architecture has become a synthetic repository of immigrant cultural identity, modern liturgical theology, and mission.” Denysenko, Theology and Form: Contemporary Orthodox Architecture in America, 8.

[7] Vinogradov, “The Vernacular in Church Architecture,” 28.

[8] But defining just what an Orthodox architectural style might look like may not be as straight forward as it seems. Research done by Denysenko suggests at least three models. “These models represent the landscape of Orthodoxy in America, which is a collection of churches with varying ecclesiologies, liturgical styles, and approaches to mission. Three groups define the collections of churches: the immigrant model, the liturgical renewal model, and the American Church model.” Denysenko, Theology and Form: Contemporary Orthodox Architecture in America, 224.

[9] Vinogradov, “The Vernacular in Church Architecture,” 25.

[10] Vinogradov, “The Vernacular in Church Architecture,” 30.

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