Friday, March 8, 2013

The Dome in an Orthodox Church

Building a church today, especially when building it in a non-Orthodox country, introduces new elements to the local community. One of these elements is a dome, which is an integral part of an Orthodox Church. Being part of the new building of a Greek Orthodox Church in London (St. Panteleimon and St. Paraskevi in Harrow) brought the Greek community in having to answer a number of questions and having to explain its architectural differences from the norm of the land; many seeing eventually that we placed a cross on top of the dome, came and thanked us for building a church, a rare site in modern Britain, and not a mosque, which many believed that this building was, due to the dome. Nevertheless, how did the dome begin within Orthodox Christian Architecture?

The first Christian Churches, until the 5th century AD were Basilicas. However; the first dome was put to its most spectacular use in Constantinople, in the emperor Justinian's great Church of the Divine Wisdom, Hagia Sophia. For many centuries it was the largest church in Christendom. The architects, Anthemius and Isidorus, created a gigantic, sublime space bounded on the lower levels by colonnades and walls of veined marble and overhead by membranous vaults that seem to expand like parachutes opening against the wind. The climactic dome has forty closely spaced windows around its base and on sunny days appears to float on a ring of light. The dome was established as a hallmark of Byzantine architecture (although basilicas continued to be built), and it infused church design with a more mystical geometry.

The dome within an Orthodox Church symbolises the Heavens, that is why Christ Pantocrator is normally depicted there, blessing the faithful who are underneath Him, on earth. Nonetheless, it is believed that the Hagia Sophia dome did not depict the Pantocrator but a big cross. Since then domes have received various shapes and sizes, with fantastic iconographies. The dome, however, is not only an Orthodox architectural element, since it is used within the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Protestant world.  

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