This is from my friend, art historian, Janet Laisch:
God instructed Moses to “make a sacred Tent for me, so that I may live among them, (Exodus 25.8) and thus God resides in the eleventh century Monastery of Dafni, located just outside Athens, Greece (image shown above). The building follows a traditional Byzantine church plan– a cross inscribed in a square. It is not just a quiet place for reflection but a means to follow Christ– a cruciform cocoon— that transforms those who worship, take communion, hear the word of God, and encounter Christ’s life and miracles in this very space.
In accordance with Orthodox teaching about the Church, the interior of the church itself is understood as a three dimensional icon. With adjustments, the model of the cosmos by Dionysius the Areopagite who converted to Christianity after hearing Paul speak and also became the Bishop of Athens is reflected in the program of Byzantine church decoration. The Byzantine cross cupola church as the name implies has a cross shaped plan where a dome arches over the crossing point. This cross in square plan symbolizes Christ’s cross as well as the four points of the compass.
Byzantine church architecture focused almost exclusively on elaborate interior decorations. Jewel mosaic icons thought to create a holy space where the congregation would be confronted with the true nature of the cosmos without worldly distractions cover the walls and ceiling. From the domed cupola to the marble floor, the program had a significant purpose: to illuminate God’s love, to impart this to the worshipper, and to create an encounter with the Holy. From an early Christian perspective the church represented a mini cosmos or heaven on earth where the world was already redeemed.
Congregants traditionally enter through the west and proceed east to receive communion at the altar though they can also enter via the narthex. From the earliest ancient belief, like the rising sun, Christ is expected to come again in the east. At the entrance, an icon (shown above) with a gold background depicts Mary and Joseph presenting Christ at the Temple (from Luke 2:22) and thus connects this monastery to Christ’s lifetime of ministry at the temple.
Also, at the west entrance are reminders that because of Christ we are all redeemed even if our faith is lacking. The Resurrection icon is above. The Orthodox iconography for the resurrection is slightly different than in western art. Instead of Christ rising from a tomb, he is shown as a valiant soldier. Christ stabs Satan with his great cross and breaks open the gates and bars of hell to free the souls. “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.…” (Romans 8) With one hand Christ pulls Adam out of a grave, while next to him Eve waits her turn. Next to her are King David and King Solomon. On the other side John the Baptist stands with one arm raised and holds his fingers to make a circle or sign of everlasting and holds three fingers indicating the triune nature of God. The church is freed of sin and becomes a model on earth of the redeemed cosmos having already reached salvation.
Modern viewers can identify with the Doubting Thomas icon (shown above) also at this entrance. Thomas reaches out to touch the wounds which Christ reveals to help his friend believe. Belief in God requires faith not proof but here God offers Thomas and us proof of his resurrection. From this we know that despite our doubt, God’s infinite power and love will make up for what we are lacking and that faith like any gift originates from God alone. Much like Jesus proved to Mary sister of Lazarus and then said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life (John 11)”.
The largest and most important icon is found in the very center of the church and at the greatest height. Above the crossing square is a weathered but utterly beautiful domed cupola where Christ resides in gleaming gold watching over everyone at the center of this mimetic mini cosmos. This image is standard for Byzantine churches post iconoclastic controversy. Christ is portrayed frontally as a half figure and framed by a circular rainbow of gems and gold tesserae. It is known as Christ Pantocrator or the all-knowing Christ who is enthroned as the ruler of the universe. What happens in this church mirrors what happens in heaven though is not yet visible to the human eye. The cupola or dome symbolizes heaven—the invisible space where God resides.
To live is to know God which means realizing he exists at the center of life rather than the periphery. Christ’s power transforms everyone even in small ways when they come face to face with this image of God inside this church. Within the dome, just below Christ, are the images of the 16 prophets of the Old Testament who foresaw the coming of the Messiah.
Below the dome, four pendentives support the dome and are decorated with icons. On each pendentive, there is an image of Christ’s life or the life of the Virgin to whom the church is dedicated. On the north pendentives looking toward the altar is the Annunciation (shown above) and looking toward the entrance is the Nativity (shown below) which remind us that God became incarnate to live among us.
On the south pendentives looking toward the door is the Baptism (shown below) where the three natures of God are clearly visible. A hand representing God the father extends toward a dove representing the Holy Spirit and Christ is shown with a halo and cross receiving baptism from his cousin John the Baptist. In 325, the Council of Nicea set out to officially define the relationship of the Son to the Father, in response to the controversial teachings of Arius. Arius questioned the eternal existence of the Son prior to his appearance on earth. Led by Bishop Athanasius, the council affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity as orthodoxy and condemned Arius’ teaching that Christ was the first creation of God. The Council of Nicaea declared Christ– God—“God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father.”
The last pendentive, looking toward the altar shows this Transfiguration icon. As told in the Gospel of Mark the four apostles closest to Jesus ascend Mt. Tabor and while up there recognize Christ’s divine nature as depicted through the mandorla or almond shape surrounding Christ colored in bands of blue and silver. This mandorla and rays of light emanating from Christ symbolize divine-uncreated light and emphasize that Christ is the creator rather than being created. Below these pendentives are additional scenes from Christ’s life including miracles such as the Raising of Lazarus. At the east end, we find the altar.
Above the altar are icons: the Entry into Jerusalem, Christ’s Crucifixion (shown below) and Descent from the Cross. The Crucifixion is shown above. The altar is reserved for clergy serving communion. According to Orthodox belief, the celebrating priest appears as an icon of the high priest, Christ himself. The visual reminders of the body and blood of Christ are the very icons just above the altar in the apse: a portrayal of Christ Crucifixion shows both his body and blood. The altar itself is understood as an icon of Christ’s grave and an icon of his high throne in Heaven.
According to Orthodox religion, one of the most central actions of the Liturgy is the consecration and distribution of the bread and wine that constitute Christ’s body and blood. While congregants take communion inside this church, God resides over communion in heaven where the whole of the church mirrors this purpose.
Below these icons is another level in the hierarchy which includes the saints. The lowest level of icons is at shoulder level and depicts angels. The figurative decoration stops at shoulder height so the congregation is the next level in the hierarchal arranged microcosm. At the very bottom, decorative marble plates are inset in the wall. In this way when we enter the church, we become integrated in the icons. Since we are made in the image of God, we become a part of the complete church decoration. The act of going to church, worshipping and taking communion brings us closer to God and more reflective of his image. Believers and nonbelievers alike– will all one day encounter God for ourselves. For now the church offers us a role in the cosmos of the redeemed and to hear the word of God.