Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Posts Tagged ‘Byzantine Catholic’

Ascent to the Heavenly Jerusalem in Eastern “Temple” Architecture

April 1st, 2013, Promulgated by Bernie

In my last post on the theme of the church building as a metaphor for the Heavenly Jerusalem and the Jerusalem Temple, I described the role of the Byzantine Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Iconostasis Screen in enabling the ascent from the earthy to the heavenly, from the visible to the invisible. In this post I will attempt to describe and explain how traditional Byzantine/Orthodox church architecture and the program of imagery/icons contained therein also aid us in the ascent.

(Click on pictures to view sharper images)

Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom), 532-37

Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom), 532-37. (Picture Source)

Cross section, Hagia Sophia.

Cross section, Hagia Sophia.

Generally speaking, the traditional architecture employed in the Eastern Rite Catholic and Orthodox churches had its origins in the 6th century and is associated with the building of the Church of the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) in Constantinople (now, Istanbul) by the emperor Justinian I. That’s fair enough given that Hagia Sophia was a mammoth architectural expression of an architectural concept first employed by some earlier and much smaller churches, the most important being The Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus. Still standing (now a mosque), and about a 15 minute walk from Hagia Sophia. The much smaller building is thought to have been the model for Hagia Sophia.

Sts. Sergius and Bacchus

Sts. Sergius and Bacchus. (Picture Source)

Ground Plan of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus

Ground Plan of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus. (Picture Source)

The notable feature of Saints Sergius and Bacchus is the combination of the architectural forms of 1) the Roman basilica ground plan, and 2) the dome of a martyrium. The result is an impressive feeling of height over the center of the church. The domes in such churches quickly became associated with the “dome” of heaven –and the floor below, with earth. These early domed churches were probably not decorated with figurative imagery. However, a church built between 876-80 is thought by at least one art historian1 to be the prototype for the program of figurative images that became the norm in the Eastern churches.

Sixth century Manuscript of Cosmas Indicopleustes. The world conceived as a box with the Almighty at the top and the earth as a mountain and the 'waters under the earth'.

Sixth century Manuscript of Cosmas Indicopleustes. The world conceived as a box with the Almighty at the top and the earth as a mountain and the ‘waters under the earth’.

The Nea (New) Church sponsored by the Byzantine Emperor Basil I in Constantinople was the first monumental church built in the Byzantine capital after Hagia Sophia. It was destroyed in 1490 but we know something of its decorative imagery from contemporary accounts and a few surviving fragments. The decorative program apparently conveyed the concept of the church as a microcosm of the world with heaven above and the earth, below.2  It included a sense of the church building as the New Jerusalem with Christ’s life depicted as if eternally renewed or relived, thus complementing the liturgy of the Mass in which the sacrifice of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection is made always present.


Monastery at Daphni, Greece.

In the Nea Church the image of Christ Pantocrator was placed in the apex of the dome, thus dominating the entire interior space of the church. The walls rising from the floor were covered in veined marble revetment symbolizing the earth and “the waters under the earth”.  Just above the marble covered walls was the zone of the saints, our brothers and sisters who have gone before us in the faith, ready to intercede between heaven and earth. In the register above the saints are scenes from the life of Christ, ever present in time: the Annunciation, Nativity, Baptism of the Lord, Raising of Lazarus, miracles, Miraculous Catch of Fish, Washing of the Feet, etc. Then, in the dome –between the windows– appeared the apostles and the Holy Virgin. Old Testament scenes may have been depicted in side chapels. The Fathers of the Church who formulated the liturgy and were the first to enact it were represented in the apse, on the other side of the Iconostasis Screen, behind the altar.

Fathers of the Church as well as the Virgin of the Sign depicted in the apse behind the altar.

Fathers of the Church as well as the Virgin of the Sign depicted in the 6th century apse behind the altar in the 6th century chapel of Mar Musa Monastery in Syria. (Picture Source)

This program of representation received, through tradition, the sanction of the Church.3  Those responsible for the interior decoration of churches were not permitted to deviate from it in any significant way. The program was eventually formulated into a set of written rules or guidelines. The earliest copy known is from the 16th century and is called the Painters’ Guide, a handbook of sorts outlining how a church should be adorned with images and how each saint and scene should be depicted.4 The guidelines have the force of tradition but are not canonical, as far as I know.

Byzantine and Orthodox churches are not all of the same design, of course (some don’t have domes for example), but the general concept of hierarchical ascent generally governs the decorative program of imagery in the Eastern tradition.


1  Talbot, David, Art of the Byzantin Era, (Singapore, Thames and Hudson, 1963), p 88

2 Talbot p 88

3 Talbot p 88

4 Talbot p 89

Icons of the Great Feasts: Raising Aloft of the Precious Cross

September 14th, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

Constantine and his mother stand on the left in the icon. The architecture in the background represents the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

(click on the icon for a sharper image)

(This post was originally published September 2011.)

Today, September 14, is the Great Feast of the  Exultation of the Cross.

We in the Western Church call the feast the Exaltation (or Triumph) of the Cross but in the Eastern Rite Catholic and Orthodox Churches it is usually called the Raising (Aloft) of the (Precious) Cross. Anglicans call the feast Holy Cross Day while Lutherans refer to it as the Feast of the Glorious Cross.

Tradition holds that St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great discovered the Cross of the crucifixion in Jerusalem while on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 326. Constantine was interested in uncovering as many of the important holy places associated with the life of Christ as he could. The site of the discovery was included in the construction of the building complex of the Church of the Resurrection (The Church of the Holy Sepulcher). The feast of the Raising of the Cross and the dedication of the church, which happened in 335, became associated with each other.

In a pilgrim’s account of her journey to Jerusalem in 400, reference is made to the solemn celebration of the feast of the dedication of the church “because the Cross of the Lord was discovered on that day.” Before long, however, the annual celebration of the dedication was entirely eclipsed by that of the Feast of the Cross.

But let’s go back to the day after the dedication in 335 when the people were first admitted to venerate the sacred wood of the Cross. Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem, while standing on an ambo at the rock of Golgotha and, with the help of some of his clergy, raised high the actual Cross and announced “Behold the Holy Cross!” and the people responded with “Kyrie eleison” (Lord have mercy) at least three times, and probably more. On September 14, 614 the ceremony was performed for the first time in Constantinople. It was repeated there again in 633 when a portion of the Cross that had been carried off by the Persians was recaptured and brought to the capital. The patriarch of Constantinople carried it in procession through the streets of the city. The rite was celebrated for the first time in Rome under Pope Sergius (687-701).

The theological and political meaning of the ceremony could not possibly have been lost on the crowd and the clergy that first time in Jerusalem. The Cross was the instrument by which Christ accomplished the redemption of man: “the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor.1:25). The Cross was the glorious weapon whereby the evil one was defeated and the curse incurred by Adam, abolished. Eternal life with God was possible again. The new Adam accomplished redemption through the agency of the new Tree of Life –the Cross. All creation was again incorruptible and blossoming with new flowers. That’s the theological meaning.

But, there was a political sense, as well. It was by the Cross that Constantine had conquered and been victorious. His conversion and patronage of the Christian Church ended 300 years of intermittent and sometimes horrendous persecution.

The Cross is the ultimate symbol of “invincible victory.”



The Meaning of Icons, Leonid Ouspensky & Vladimir, (Crestwood, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1989) pp.148-50

Picture Source

Unfortunately, I don’t have any information regarding the artist, studio or company that produced this icon.

Some Byzantine Thoughts on Liturgical Things

September 10th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

Byzantine Catholic priest celebrating Mass "ad orientum" in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

I found the following interesting blog post while searching for something else. It was written “way back” in July of 2007 around when Summorum Pontificum appeared.  It’s interesting because it discusses a couple of contentious issues of the Liturgy of our “Latin” (Novus Ordo and Extraordinary Form) rite but from the perspective of a Byzantine Catholic –Catholics who use the “Greek” Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom; things like “active participation” and celebrating facing the people in contrast to “ad orientum.”

… I have to laugh a bit when I read or hear some Catholics insist that having the priest “turn his back to the people” is a bad or bizarre thing, as though it will somehow create a sort of dark and emotionally-draining chasm between the priest and the people …

… some Catholics (certainly not all Catholics, of course) think the greatest thing they can do as a lay person is to be up front, doing stuff. In which case they misunderstand what the primary role of the laity really is …

Read the short entry here

Annunciation Byzantine Catholic Church, Joliet, IL.

September 6th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

I ran across the website forAnnunciation Byzantine Catholic Church in Joliet, Illinois and found the program of icons in the interior interesting. The site has three pages of photos of the church, mostly the interior. The third page offers larger views if you click on the pictures. Unfortunately, the first two pages offer only thumbnails in a little larger size than normal. Scroll down and click on “Next page” to advance to pages 2 and then, 3. The pastor, Fr. Thomas J. Loya, is painting the icon murals.

I am quite taken with Byzantine, Eastern Rite and Orthodox churches that cover nearly every available interior wall space and ceiling space with icons. It is an amazing liturgical and spiritual experience for me especially with chanting and clouds of incense.

Check out the Church’s website.

In the bottom left corner you can see the top of the altar, and the tabernacle, candelabra and liturgical fans as well as the crucifix. The Virgin of the Sign dominates the bema/altar area. On the left wal is a mural in only the first stages of 'writing' by the pastor.

Another view of the altar area (behind the iconostasis screen). The altar and tabernacle are in the bottom of the photo. Note the altar for the preparation of the bread and wine on the left. You can see here also the chairs for the priests and deacon or other attendants.


The pastor, Fr. Thomas J. Loya, works on the ceiling mural. You can see the iconostasis screen in the bottom half of the photograph.

Close-up of adding facial features; dark lines and tones, first.

Bishop saints: John Chrysostom (left) and Basil the Great.

I think this is a view of the nave with the mural of the Dormition on the back wall.

Here we have saints Methodius and Cyril.