Byzantium in Chicago

Chicago architectural history is knotted tightly with the economic and social development of the city. Historian William Cronon has dubbed Chicago “Nature’s Metropolis” in his so-titled book about the physical development of Chicago drawing on its geographical aspects. Nature certainly has had its infulence on the art and architecture of Chicago, but in Ecclesia Panos Fiorentinos shows the resilience and dedication of man, despite the hardships and ravages of nature and the Chicago urban landscape, in forming the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago.

Within the Greek Orthodox definition of Metropolis, being the geographical boundary of church administration and hierarchy, Fiorentinos presents a quite stunning visual presentation of the current architecture of the Greek Orthodox Church. Via a comprehensive set of photographs Fiorentinos shows the “theology in color” of the Greek Orthodox Church, highlighting iconogarphy, structural adornment, and the exterior forms of each church. Man and his liturgical relationship to God are at the center of Fiorentinos book, showing the success of the Greek Orthodox immigrant population in continuing a thriving religious architectural tradition, despite the quite harsh relationship of the Chicago (and Midwest) urbanity to religious structures.

Panos shows St. Andrew’s, which defies Lakeshore Drive and its 65,000 passing cars per day to view out at Lake Michigan from an interior of elegance, vivid color, and serene iconography. The traditional Byzantine style Assumption Church, on Chicago’s far west side, peers over the Congress Expressway, holding its gilded domes and ancient murals in a once-plum location at the end of the streetcar line. St. Basil’s fills the former Anshe Shalom Temple, with ecclesiological evolution from Synagogue to Church, showing the morphing of Jewish to Christian architectural adornments. The Chicago Metropolis stretches from Minnesota in the northwest to Indiana in the southeast, so Ecclesia’s shows the full set of Greek Orthodox Churches ranging from the low-slung St. Elias in Dubuque to the gloriously towered and domed Annunciation Cathedral in Chicago’s Gold Coast down to the vaulted and sparkling St. Nicholas in St. Louis, MO.

Over four hundred full-color photos of 59 churches establish Ecclesia as a visually impressive book. The summary text accompanying each church is brief, presenting a chronological history of each church. The iconographer of each church is noted, and the visual presentation is in a depth sufficient to do justice to the distinct beauty of each church, while encouraging church visitors to see each church in person. The description of the architectural design of each church is somewhat sparse, for example, Frank Lloyd Wright is only briefly mentioned as the design architect of Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Milwaukee (though the interior shots leave no doubt as to Wright’s work) while very little mention is made of other architects. The brilliant colors of the art and architecture photographs by Fiorentinos, and the superb printing of Worzalla in Stevens Point, WI, show the reader the unique beauty which can only be partially described in the minimal historical text.

John Powers is president of the Bricks and Mortar Foundation based in Evanston, IL. The foundation supports the preservation of the Midwest’s historic religious architecture.