Saturday 30 November 2013

Set texts: The Geography of a Greek Church

In the early days, Communion or the Divine Liturgy as it is called here took place in private homes because the basic requirements are not at all complicated:  an indoor space, a congregation, a prescribed ritual, a table to serve as the altar, bread, and wine.  And no matter how grand or complex churches have become since then, the basics remain the same.  A visit to any small country church in Greece will reveal the essential geography which I have depicted below at its most basic.

 The Narthex on the western side of the church acts as a pro-hall to the Nave and even that is optional in small churches or represented simply by an open porch called an Exonarthex.
A central door on the west side of the church opens to the Nave (Nαός) which is  the largest space in any church and the place where worshippers congregate and stand during the liturgy.
At the eastern end of the nave is the Bema (βέμα), pronounced Vema, demarcated by one, or more steps, raising it from the floor of the Nave. The word Bema  means raised platform; in Orthodox churches the word describes two areas: the Solea and the Sanctuary. The area between the raised steps and the iconostasis, the Solea, can be quite deep in a large church or so abbreviated in a small church as to be almost non-existent as in the picture below.  In a large one, would be where cantors stand to perform during the liturgy.  When large enough, it acts as the ‘stage’ for the clerics during the public part of the liturgy. 

Beyond the Solea is the second part of the Bema: the Sanctuary or Hieron ( Ιερόν) hidden behind a wide vertical screen stretching from wall to wall, - high but never reaching to  the ceiling. This screen is the Iconostasis or templo (τέμπλο). It can be of wood, marble, or bricks and plaster and is often elaborately decorated with icons, hence its name which means icon station.

An Iconostasis may have as many as three doors leading from it into the Sanctuary. But the important door and the only one in smaller churches, is the central one, the Royal Door behind which is the altar.

The Three doors with the Royal Door in the center

The Greek word for altar translates as  Holy Table; it is covered with elaborately embroidered cloths, and hidden from view by a hanging curtains or, quite often as above, by waist high saloon-type swinging doors.

The Altar in the apse behind the Royal Door 
The areas to the left and right of the altar and behind the Iconostasis have specific functions. To the right is the Diaconion where priests and deacons robe themselves in preparation for the liturgy. To the left is the Prothesis where the bread and wine for communion are prepared and blessed by the priest before they are brought into the nave, then to the altar and thence to the waiting congregation. 
Often the priest's vestments are hung in the Diaconion between services

A cloth covers the utensils  in the Prothesis when not in use

The concave semi-circular hollow on the eastern end of the building directly behind the altar is the semi-domed  Apse. It generally protrudes beyond the back wall of the church and is the most noticeable architectural feature of small country churches, even at a distance. 
One of my favorites in Lousi

 In some churches, there are three apses, the central and larger one being joined by on either side by smaller ones behind the Diaconion and Prosthesis. In others, as in the pictures above,  the Diaconion and Prosthesis might just have niches in the back wall with robes hanging on pegs in one, and the utensils needed for preparing the Eucharist in the other.

 There is a Progression Towards Sanctity from West to East.  
The idea that the worshipper as he/she enters the church is moving east towards sanctity and  away from  the sinful world is graphically illustrated by this orientation with the baptized worshipper facing east towards  the altar and the large cross which is always a feature over the Royal Door leading to the Sanctuary.

There are levels of sanctity among the celebrants too because only deacons and priests and bishops can enter the sanctuary. In early Christian churches, where the view was unimpeded by the Iconostasis, this idea was carried even further. There was a  Synthronon,  tiered stone benches set along the back of the apse behind the altar with a higher and more elaborate seat - a throne really - for the bishop, the celebrant who was literally closest to God.  Since there is a dearth of  intact early Christian churches in Greece try synthronon in Google images. The image below is an effort to replicate the synthronon in a modern church: 

In Xilocastro

The development of the Iconostasis put paid to that elaborate symbolism.  Bishops and Archbishops now sit in the Solea (where there is one – in the south eastern part of the nave where there is not) where they can be seen.
 In keeping with the east-west hierarchy, the as yet unbaptized worshippers (catechumens) were expected to follow the service from the narthex (or from side aisles if they existed), or at least to be separate from the baptized in the nave during communion. 
Women may be excused for being a little less lyrical about this Divine symmetry since their place was in an upper  gallery if there was one or on the left side of the nave as opposed to the right, a custom still adhered to today although sometimes ignored.
 Why was east the holiest?  A good question. It has been written that it was so that the churches orientation would be to Jerusalem somewhat like the Mihrab pointing to Mecca in Islam. This seems unlikely and the theory loses credence because Orthodox world-wide prefer the same eastern orientation. More likely it is to face the rising sun, an apt symbol in many pagan religions and one that could adopt itself very easily to the idea of a rising Christ, Light of the World.
The Vertical Hierarchy
The North and South of a church pretty well take care of themselves but a vertical hierarchy (hardly surprising given heaven’s location) became important, especially as mosaics and frescoes became de rigeur
No religious figures may appear on the floor inside the church although it may be tiled elaborately. (Animals are allowed and floral patterns.)  Even the most icon decorated church leaves a skirting of  about 60 to 90 cms high up from the floor bare of religious decoration although this area can be painted to imitate marble, curtains, or contain wonderful floral or geometric patterns. 
The skirting is always worth a look

Slightly elevated from the congregation, because of the decorative skirting, the walls in churches where wall paintings exist are covered with row upon row of standing saints and martyrs, each recognizable by his or her traditional garb, demeanor, and symbol, but named in writing just in case.

Their status higher than the congregation is literal as well as figurative. And the priest acknowledges them as participants during the service. Above the saints and in the lower part of the curve of the vault if the church is vaulted, are scenes from the Twelve Great Feasts of the Orthodox Calendar, and other tableaux from the Bible, almost all, in one way or another, reflecting the Incarnation – Christ becoming human. This aspect of Christ’s story, that each Christian has a spark of the divine within him or herself, is given great emphasis in Orthodoxy.  In the Conch of the Apse, high above the Iconostasis and therefore usually visible to the congregation, is Mary. In her role as Christ’s mother, she is the link between the congregation and God, hence her position.

  The top of the central dome, if there is a dome, is reserved for Christ Pantocrator, Christ the ruler of all,  supported figuratively and visually where possible by angels and the apostles. In this, the highest position possible, he views the congregation.

 Not always easy to see Him in old churches...

As time passed, the inside of the dome came to be regarded as the dome of heaven and the church an image of the earthly Christian cosmos. That explains the increasing presence of painted stars on a blue background on ceilings and glittering chandeliers as time passed,  -all appropriate celestial backdrops in this contained Divine Universe. 
Even in the tiniest country church which makes do with a few icons here and there on the walls somehow manages the chandelier

 The historical development of such elaborate and increasingly detailed symbolism has made the domed church with an interior cross design the most symbolically satisfying of all church designs although not actually necessary to the church’s primary function.  Early Christian churches had timbered roofs, hardly conducive to mosaic or frescoed decoration and even when domed and vaulted roofs first appeared, the placement of icons therein developed over time.

 A final observation on geography: Greek churches do not aspire to ascend to the heavens. On the contrary, many are sturdy and seem to hug the earth.  At the sight of a small white church firmly nestled in the trees, the image of a brooding hen or dove flashes to mind. Even domed churches are low-slung. Although the object of each worshipper in anagogic – to reach up to Christ,  hence the proclivity for hilltops and domes - the church structure itself seems to stress the Incarnation, the fact that Christ came down to earth bringing the Divine spark to mankind. For me, at any rate, this makes Greek churches very accessible, and very much a part of the geography of everyday of life.

Inside Essentials
 Even in the simplest church there will be some kind of   iconic representation albeit it just a series of faded framed photographs of saints placed haphazardly around the walls. Mary is always present in the apse in her position of honour even if only a small painting or photograph is employed.

Upon entering the nave, expect to find almost immediately a stand with an icon of the saint or saints to whom the church is dedicated, an icon that is generally kissed and venerated by each worshipper upon entering the church.

 This church is dedicated to Constantine and Eleni.

 If the church’s icon has miracle working properties, or is locally venerated, expect to see circular prayer knots, tamata, and even jewelry placed in front.

Nearby, if not in a Narthex, are candles, candle holders, and an offering box so that a candle can be lit for the saint or saints.
 Stand with an oil lamp (kandyli) in center for easy lighting
Sometimes there are chairs in the nave, sometimes not. Early crusaders were astounded at the stamina of Byzantine worshippers who sometimes stood as long as eight hours at a time. You might find rows of tall standing seats along the north and south walls of the Nave where the elder parishioners can lean and partially sit. In the Solea area of the Bema in a larger church, there will be lecterns left and right for cantors and sometimes a table in front of the Royal Door. The bishop’s chair is on the right side of the Solea. 

Small churches get crowded

On even the simplest Iconostasis four portrait sized icons will likely be present. Christ is depicted to the right of the Royal Door and Mary to the left. To Christ’s left is, John the Baptist. As the forerunner of Christ he has pride of place. He is easily recognized because of his ragged clothing and unkempt hair – all befitting a desert prophet. On Mary’s left, is an icon depicting the figure or figures to whom the church is dedicated, a good thing to know since churches in Greece do not advertise their patron saint on outdoor signs.
 In this bare bones description, the other feature of note in large naves is the pulpit (ambo) from which the sermon is read. In big churches it is a tulip like structure attached to a pillar or pier on the left side, higher than the congregation and reached by ladder-like stairs. In country churches the priest does without, instead, standing in front of the Iconostasis, the Bible resting on a lectern.
The Atmosphere
That only leaves the amazing Atmosphere of this created cosmos when a divine liturgy takes place:  the elaborate regalia of the clergy, and the chanting, the glittering  gold and silver of the oil lamps, the  eyes of the saints fixed on the congregation, and the air redolent of candle wax and incense; it is a sensual as well as a spiritual landscape.  I had an English friend, a stage manager, who bought a house in a mountain village and attended every single Sunday service in his village  simply because he was awed by the perfection of the “performance”.  As he put it: It’s great theatre!

Now That You Know…
Even the most complex, multi-domed church with side chapels, aisles and more aisles cannot intimidate if you are aware of the basics. And many Greek churches are very complex indeed. Some started out that way; others had renovations, often a multitude of renovations over time.  Chapels (pareklesia)  are in effect small churches built inside or beside  bigger ones. When the former the effect is like so many Russian dollies, when side by side as happens in many island churches, they remind me of defenders in a football match during a penalty shot!  But each will have the same basic geography as the main church. Galleries with various functions abound and attached  Bell towers can appear just about anywhere. Many a small Byzantine church has been enlarged by the simple expedient of knocking out the west wall, using the original structure as the Sanctuary, and adding a new and bigger nave.
 The quirks, the exceptions, and add-ons become interesting and then downright fascinating. Is that church is skewed the “wrong” way because of a geographical obstruction? Why is the door to the nave on the north or south wall?  What is supporting that dome?  If there are two doors in the templo, how did the icon painter manage the four icons? If the church is tiny, did he leave them out of get inventive? Why are there three altars in this particular small church?   The badly designed elephants in Mani churches (who knew) do not detract from the essential meaning of the painting, the crazy Mycenaean like filler decorations between icons and in the doorways  in old churches in no way detract from the icons’ sanctity. These details make every church just that little bit different.  And once you know what to look for, you also notice also what is missing. I remember a barrel-vaulted church near Eghion in the Peloponnese where the icon painter was not at all fazed by the lack of a central dome. He simply painted Christ Pantocrator on the ceiling like a decal on an egg.  A discovery like that is just lovely on a totally secular level – the level, after all, on which most tourists do enter Greek churches.  The joy is in the details. The essential sameness of Greek churches makes their infinite variety both amazing and delightful. 



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