Holy Transfiguration Skete: A Pilgrim’s View

by Holy Transfiguration Skete, appearing in Volume 11

Church of St. John the Theologian at Holy Transformation Skete viewed from the southeast. Photo by author

The Roman basilica, exemplified by Constantine’s fourth-century Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem and by the many other monumental churches he had erected throughout the Roman world, remained the standard of church architecture in the West for more than a thousand years.  Even as church elevations transformed themselves from Roman to Romanesque, to Gothic, to Renaissance, to Baroque, the floor plans remained essentially the same: a rectangular nave—divided into aisles, if large, by ordered rows of columns or piers—having its principal entry at one end of the space and its altar in an apse at the other.  The arrangement is axial and focused; one is almost compelled—visually, at least—to progress down the length of the nave to the ultimate goal in the apse.  Transepts, where they exist, do not detract from the initial impression.  The structure is an image of the worshipper’s ongoing pilgrimage toward his final bliss in heaven.

By contrast, since the construction of the Emperor Justinian’s great Church of Holy Wisdom at Constantinople in the sixth century, Byzantine churches have generally exhibited a more centralized floor plan.  A round, square, octagonal, or compact cruciform nave is surmounted by an all-encompassing broad ceiling, often in the form of a dome.  There is little sense of movement in the structure.  The eye is drawn not forward, but upward toward the ceiling, which traditionally boasts a large painting of Christ the Ruler of All.  The impression is not one of an ongoing journey, but of having arrived.

Our own monastic Church of St. John the Theologian attempts to be faithful to the Byzantine design exhibited by many wooden country churches of western Ukraine.  Given the constraints of our building site and budget, however, some accommodations had to be made.

Constantine’s Church of the Resurrection faced west, as did the other monumental churches he erected.  Its main entry was on the east end of the structure, its apse at its western extremity.  This arrangement may have been borrowed from Roman temples, where it had been the custom to open the main doors at dawn to allow worshippers gathered outside a glimpse of the god illumined by the first rays of the sun.  Christians, however, had no such cult images, and they faced east to worship, into the rising sun, a symbol of the salvation breaking over the world in Christ Jesus (cf. Lk 1:76–79).  The Constantinian model was soon reversed; since the sixth or seventh century it has been the custom in both East and West to build churches with their altar and apse to the east.

Such is the case with our church.  Thus, since the highway lies on the east side of the site, the exterior of the apse first greets the pilgrim as he approaches the church from the road.  Coming up the ramp, he passes in front of the Byzantine/Slav cross on the east wall of the apse, and, traversing the length of the porch on the south side of the building, enters the narthex.  

In Byzantine tradition this area is seen as a place of preparation for entering the actual worship space, the nave; as such it is often decorated with images drawn from the Old Testament, the preparation of the Gospel.  The narthex of our new church does not yet have this decoration in place.  Rather, we have placed there a recently donated painting of the Virgin; the Life of St. Mary of Egypt tells us an icon of the Virgin also once hung in the narthex of Constantine’s Church of the Resurrection.  

From the narthex the pilgrim has access to the Chapel of the Holy Cross of Sorrow and Suffering on his left.  Turning right he may pass through the great doors and enter the brightness of the nave.  Facing north as he steps into the area reserved for congregation, he will note opposite the cloister door by which the monks enter and leave the church.  After venerating the icons and blessing cross on the small central table, or tetrapod, he may stand and pray, perhaps affixing a taper—which will be lit during the coming service—to the nearby candelabrum or lighting a votive candle in one of the stands on either side of the nave.  Sitting on the bench along the west wall for a moment of quiet reflection before the service, he may gather some general impressions of the holy place into which he has entered.

An elevated view into the Choir, looking east toward the Ambon, Iconostasis, etc. Photo by author

The space is tall and bright, flooded with sunlight pouring in through three great lancet windows on the west wall above and behind him and from three others high on the south wall of the central tower.  The vaulted ceiling above our pilgrim opens eastward into the tower, and its own ceiling vaults open further into a light-filled octagonal dome, where one day a large image of Christ Pantocrator will gaze down upon worshippers.  The altar area projects east from the tower, the height and configuration of its ceiling mirror that over the congregational area, and its east wall opens into the apse the pilgrim passed on his way into the church.  

Thus, although the church is rectangular in plan, it is centralized in organization.  The tower and dome occupying its center and covering half its area provide a strong vertical axis around which the whole structure seems to revolve.  The tripartite arrangement of its ceiling is reflected in the strong patterns of its tile floor and in the arrangement of its fixtures and furnishings, which in turn is dictated by liturgical function.  

The monastic choir occupies the central space under the tower.  A broad border of patterned tile demarks it from the congregational area to the west and follows along its north and south walls.  Arranged in a u-shaped configuration atop the border, the monks’ choir stalls face east and toward center, where a medallion marks the space under the dome.  From here, in the “midst of the temple,” the Scriptures—other than the Gospel—are proclaimed, and here the monks come together to chant certain hymns during services.  Facing across the medallion to the ambon and the royal doors of the iconostasis, the hegumen’s chair occupies the west center of the arrangement; an opening on either side separates it from the wings of stalls to north and south, and allows the congregation access to the front for Holy Communion, veneration of the Cross, anointings, etc.  To accommodate processions, prostrations, and other liturgical actions the choir remains otherwise empty of furnishings.

The altar seen through the open Royal Doors. Photo by author

Before or after services, a pilgrim may also enter the choir to pray before the icons arranged along its walls, to venerate the “Kissing Icons” on either side of the ambon, or to place votive tapers in their candelabra.  In no case may he step up onto the soleas and ambon that mark the outer edge of the altar platform or pass through the doors of the iconostasis.  Such is permitted only to priests and deacons and to those who are serving some particular liturgical function.

Thus the deacon enters and leaves the altar by the side doors to intone the litanies from the ambon; the acolyte likewise passes through the side doors during processions or for lighting of the lamps of the iconostasis.  The priest and deacon progress through the central royal doors to the altar during the Great and Little Entrances of Divine Liturgy and during the Entrance of Great Vespers; they exit through them to the ambon to proclaim the Gospel, to preach, to administer Holy Communion, or to impart a blessing; on all other occasions they must use the side doors.  Similarly, only a priest or deacon may pass between the holy table and the royal doors—and only when liturgical action requires it.

The holiest actions of our faith take place on the altar.  The reverent respect we show the area acknowledges and reinforces our belief in their awesome truth.  So, too, does the iconostasis, which shields the area from view.  The glimpses of the holy table and its furnishings seen through the open royal doors at certain points in the liturgy are all the more significant because of their infrequency.  The mysteries of faith must remain to some extent mysterious; what can be seen is no longer held by faith; an easy familiarity can breed contempt.

Standing in silent prayer in the midst of the holy temple, the pilgrim will instinctively grasp this.  He knows that beyond the iconostasis lie the holy table, the tabernacle, the table of preparation, the seven-branched lampstand, and the throne on high, as well as seating for the clergy and other liturgical appurtenances.  He is not moved by idle curiosity, and he does not need to see them to appreciate their beauty and significance.  He walks by faith.

May our almighty and loving Lord Jesus continue to shed an abundance of His grace and mercy upon the holy temple and upon all who enter it with faith, reverence, and fear of God.