The Byzantine Church as Microcosm
The interior of a Byzantine Church should be a three dimensional icon; the Church is a model of the universe, a vision of the redeemed, a transformed cosmos, a mimesis (or copy of) a divinely ordered universe. It is both a reminder of God’s constant and visible revelation in man’s history and a symbol or copy of heaven.
In a Byzantine cross cupola church, the main structure is shaped as a cross, representing Christ’s cross and the four points of a compass. The cupola over the crossing point is like the sphere of heaven, showing that the whole cosmos is encompassed by Christ’s death on the cross. In the cupola, Christ Pantokrator (the All-Ruler) is enthroned. Also in the dome are prophets of the Messiah’s coming, and in the four corners supporting the dome are the four evangelists. Along the top of the walls are icons of the twelve major feasts, and under them the icons of other prominent saints. The figurative work stops at shoulder height because the congregation makes up the the next step of the hierarchically arranged microcosm - we enter the church and become an integrated part of the divine drama; man himself is made in the image of God and is an icon, a part of the complete decoration.
The iconostasis, or icon screen, divides the altar and sanctuary, the holy of holies, from the congregation. It symbolizes both the division of Heaven and Earth and the breaking of the barrier that divides them. In the center of the iconostasis are the Royal Doors, through which the priest proclaims the Gospel and offers us the Body and Blood of Christ. Above them is often an icon of the Last Supper, the institution of the Eucharist. To the left of the Royal Doors, the first icon we see is that of the Theotokos, the Mother of God holding the infant Christ, representing the beginning of our salvation. To the right of the Royal Doors, we see an icon of Christ Pantokrator, the fulfillment of our salvation sitting in judgment at the end of time. To the left of the Theotokos should be an icon of the saint to whom the church is dedicated, and to the right of Christ Pantokrator, often
John the Baptist. The Deacon’s doors, which normally lie at the two ends of the iconostasis, are for entry and exit from the sanctuary of those with a liturgical purpose. The north door, to the left, represents Heaven and is the liturgical exit from the sanctuary. St. Michael is often shown on this door, protecting the gates of Paradise. The south door, to the right, is the liturgical entrance to the sanctuary and often bears an icon of St. Gabriel, the proclaimer of Christ’s arrival. Often above all are icons of the twelve major feasts of the liturgical year.
The faithful on earth may partake in the heavenly liturgy because of God’s descent to us through the incarnation. The uniting of Heaven and earth is manifested by the placing of the Theotokos with her hands lifted in prayer and Christ on her lap or in her womb right above the altar. Mary is a bodily channel for God’s coming, a ladder between Heaven and earth. The connection between the Incarnation and the sacramental continuation of the Incarnation through the Eucharist is made clear. The altar symbolizes the Heavenly throne and Christ’s grave, actualizing the whole scope of the drama of the Redemption.
*The photo above is the iconostasis of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan in St. Petersburg, Russia, where my husband proposed to me :)
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The Story of Icons by Mary Paloumpis Hallick
Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting by Aidan Hart