On Earth As It Is In Heaven ❧

To forget this Beauty is to lose sight of the Heavenly Kingdom. Above all we must learn to desire Beauty. It was not for theology or propriety that the Byzantines so adorned their temples. It was for Beauty. In Beauty lies Truth, and by it we show our Love for God.

Hagia Sophia Interior (Ayasofya) - Istanbul

‘GOD DWELLS THERE AMONG MEN’

In 988, emissaries of Prince Vladimir of Kiev visited Hagia Sophia. They famously remarked, “only this we know, that god dwells there among men.” This statement highlights the attitude towards holy temples that was universal among ancient religions – that a god actually lived in the temple. Christianity has moved away from this belief, but Orthodoxy retains it as a liturgical concept. In an Orthodox church, Christ and the saints are present among the faithful. Prayers are directed towards their icons, not towards the sky. …

 

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… This is a great difference from Western architecture. A Gothic church is a monument offered up to God. It is an attempt by man to order and beautify all that exists in creation. It points upward to God the Father who is outside of it, and prayers are directed likewise. in contrast, an Orthodox church is introverted. The interior represents Heaven, and to enter it is to step into the New Jerusalem. God dwells there among men, and they have no need of the sun, neither of the moon, for the Glory of God illumines it (cf. Revelation 21 : 23).

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Light pours into a Gothic church through great decorated windows. Broken into dazzling colors, it overwhelms the materiality of the walls. The stonework itself magnifies the effect, as it is thin and delicate, and carven with most delicate tracery. The weight of the stone is denied. The worshipper is at once conscious of the awesome radiance and power of the light without and the tenuous structure of the material within. The light beautifies the structure by dematerializing it, even until the stone itself looks like rays of light.

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The walls of an Orthodox church are immensely thick and strong. The windows are small and up high, set deeply into the openings. The light is seen reflected off the thickness of the wall, rather than directly from the windows. In some Byzantine churches the window is translucent alabaster or marble, so that the light seems to glow from within the wall itself. Gold mosaics or bright frescoes play the light from many surfaces. Polished lamps and inlaid furniture reflect highlights from every direction. Deep aisles or side chapels behind arches appear as mysterious shadows in the distance, which make the church look brighter by the rich contrast. This is mass transfigured by light. It is the same light as in the icons, holy and all- pervading, the Uncreated Light which emanates from god to his creation. The stone and plaster glow from within. They do not seem transitory, but more real. Walls and piers seem as silent and as still as ancient mountains. They are bathed with the Light of Christ, and are sustained and strengthened by it as we are.

… A church building is the structure and organization of all the icons within it. As a unified edifice, these make up a single integrated icon which encompasses all the history and theology of the Church. The organization of the icons broadly follows three architectural axes.

The first axis is west to east. This is the liturgical axis. The narthex repre- sents the fallen world, and is used for preparation and exorcisms, for judg- ment is at the gates of heaven. The nave represents the redeemed world, or the Church, where the faithful gather among the saints for the worship of god. The sanctuary represents highest heaven; the altar is the throne of god and his tomb. (1)

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The second axis is vertical and can be understood as hierarchical. The Pantocrator is at the top of the dome with hands outspread, embracing the universe he created. Below are angels in their appropriate ranks, followed

 by the evangelists, representing the beginning of the church, and then the saints in their tiers below. To the medieval mind, hierarchy meant freedom; it was the mark of identity and security. This axis and hierarchy exist also in the iconostasis as a miniature version of the same concept. The vertical axis has another interpretation which is the approach of god and man. The dome, most brightly lit and filled with angels, is heaven. It touches the nave at the pendentives, where the evangelists are painted, because they record the meeting of god and man. alternately, some churches have four great feasts which are theophanies at the pendentives, for the same reason. The Theotokos of the sign in the apse represents the Church reaching back up to god. Christ appears in the sign before her, emphasizing that by the Incarnation He is already with Her.

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The third axis is circular and horizontal, the interplay of icons cycling around the nave and relating to one another across it. This axis often por- trays the flow of time, although it can express many other relationships as well. The great feasts may be ordered chronologically around the nave, or specific feasts may be combined or face one another to highlight theological connections. In a large church there may be hundreds of biblical and historical scenes, and their placement with respect to one another and to the principal feasts can suggest almost limitless depths of interpretation.

Historically, church builders have struggled with the interplay of these three axes. …

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THE TEMPLE AS COSMOLOGY

… Of all forms, the cube and the dome are the most sacred and universal in architecture. The cube or square represents the earth, while the dome symbolizes the sky. It was ever the desire of the Romans to combine these forms and represent the universe. They achieved this at Hagia Sophia. The square nave has the most water-like pavement in the world. Sheets of wavy blue-gray marble flow from the altar like the river of the water of life from the Throne of God. Rows of columns rise from the banks like trees. Amazingly, the builders abandoned the thousand-year-old tradition of the Classical orders, and crafted a new type of capital which looks like the fronds of palms blowing in the wind. The arches above the capitals are decorated similarly. The whole nave is like a walled garden of unimaginable scale, the very image of Paradise.

 

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ISLAM VS. CHRISTIANITY — MOSQUE VS. ORTHODOX TEMPLE

 

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In Islam they build mosques that have the quality of jewel boxes. They are ornamented with a tremendous richness and regal splendor, but are completely devoid of anything iconographic, anything representational. They seem like abstract spaces, as does the Muslim worship within these spaces — the bowing down toward a mihrab, which is, in and of itself, nothing, but only an abstract architectural gesture that indicates the direction of Mecca. And of course, the Islamic faith emphasizes that man is very low and that God is very high, and that, really, the two do not meet; they surely do not meet in the sense that they meet in Christianity. So regardless of how beautiful a mosque may be, mosque architecture has never sought to convey an impression that God is within the mosque. It only conveys the impression that man has attempted to dignify himself by beautifying the mosque to an extent that man might be found worthy to kneel before God (because, of course, one only kneels in a mosque). So, if it is true that the emissaries of St. Vladimir attended services in an Orthodox Church, a Catholic Church, and in a mosque, I think it’s very appropriate that they would have observed that only in the Orthodox Church does it seem that God dwells with men. The very specific and deliberate attempt of Orthodox liturgical art is to convey that impression, and this is, of course, the fundamental gospel of Christianity.

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… A good modern building flooded with white light can be beautiful and people will often call such a building uplifting or inspiring. But we need to remember that the purpose of liturgical architecture, of an Orthodox church, is not to uplift and inspire but to make us mindful of the presence of God and the saints. Traditional architecture does this iconographically by revealing the beauty of the uncreated light shining through the saints, through the icons, and by suggesting the veil of mystery and the cloud of witnesses around the altar. For this iconographic technology to be effective requires a certain dim and mysterious light so that the reflections of light off of the gilded icons can be seen as brilliant and even supernatural in the setting of a dark church. A church that is flooded with natural light robs the icons of their ability to shine more brightly than the sun.

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(1) For the full article “ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN ❧ Form and Meaning in Orthodox Architecture by ANDREW GOULD, go to http://nwbstudios.com/articles/On-Earth-As-Heaven.pdf

(2) For excerpts of the article “Mass Transfigured by Light”: The Iconic Vision of an Orthodox Church and ANDREW GOULD’s interview, featured in the current issue of Road to Emmaus Journal, go to http://www.orthodoxartsjournal.org/andrew-gould-featured-in-road-to-emmaus-journal/

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Church Vertigo

Church-of-St-Vincent-Ferrer

Richard Silver (previously) has a unique way of looking at architecture, building composite photographs from several images that seamlessly reveal a structure’s interior. His new series captures the insides of New York churches … These images are composed of 6-10 shots, forming a vertical panorama so cohesive that it might give you vertigo.

Although Silver has been to hundreds of churches during his career and many years of travel, it’s only recently that he figured out how to capture the expansive inner beauty of their architecture. “Finding the perfect location in the center aisle then shooting vertically from the pew to the back of the church gives the perspective that only architecture of this style can portray,” says Silver.

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Church of St. Stephen / Church of St. Paul the Apostle

Silver was born and raised in New York and has visited 75 countries in his life, including 13 last year alone. His previous careers involved computer science, real estate, and a stint on Wall Street, but he embraced photography full-time in 2011. You can see more of his vertical church series on his Flickr page here.

Calvary-Episcopal-Church
Calvary Episcopal Church

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Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sava / Church of the Village

Church-of-St.-Francis-Xavier
Church of St. Francis Xavier

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Vincent St. de Paul / Most Holy Redeemer Church

St-Monica's-Church
St. Monica’s Church

Source: “Vertical Panoramic Photographs of New York Churches by Richard Silver” Colossal http://www.thisiscolossal.com/2015/09/vertical-panoramic-churches/

Solomon, I have outdone thee!

An excellent documentary and a unique website featuring the grandest Byzantine church of them all, “Hagia Sophia”, Church of the Holy Wisdom in Istanbul, Turkey  

 

 

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Iconographer and Russian historian launches unique website featuring “Hagia Sophia,” Church of the Holy Wisdom

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Mosaïque de l'impératrice Zoé, Sainte-Sophie (Istanbul, Turquie)    Mosaïques de l'entrée sud-ouest de Sainte-Sophie (Istanbul, Turquie)

Deisis

An interesting new site illustrating the history of Constantinople’s Church of the Holy Wisdom  popularly known as “Hagia Sophia”  recently appeared on the internet.

A “must visit” for Orthodox Christians, especially those interested in Church history, iconography, mosaics, and ecclesiastical architecture, the site gives special attention to the magnificent “Deesis” mosaic in the church’s south gallery.  Depicting Christ flanked by the Theotokos and Saint John the Forerunner, the exquisite mosaic was uncovered in the 1930s.  It is one of the world’s most beloved images of Our Lord.

Built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the early sixth century, Hagia Sophia replaced two earlier churches, the first built in 380 AD.

* In the time of Justinian, it had a thousand clergy and in Neara, Herakleion, there is a catalogue listing in the 7th century 600 people, consisting of “80 priests, 150 deacons, 40 deaconesses, 70 sub-deacons, 160 lectors, 25 cantors, and 75 door-keepers”.

http://pemptousia.com/2016/01/haghia-sophia-such-ecstasy-can-never-be-forgotten/

It is an engineering marvel, inasmuch as its massive freestanding central dome  the world’s largest of its kind  has withstood everything from earthquakes to invasions for 1500 years.  After the fall of Constantinople in 1453 AD, it became a mosque.  Its current status  that of a state museum  dates back to the early 1900s.

The site is the work of Bob Atchison, an iconographer and Russian historian from Seattle, WA who now lives in Austin, TX.  His interest in Hagia Sophia, and especially it’s Deesis mosaic, dates back to his childhood.

The site, which includes invaluable historical information, illustrations, maps and plans, and original photographs not readily found elsewhere, is of special interest to Orthodox Christians in general, and specifically to those desiring deeper insights into Orthodox Church history, iconography, liturgy, and ecclesiastical architecture.

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When Justinian had finished the construction he supposedly proclaimed, “Solomon, I have outdone thee!”

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The site may be accessed here : http://www.pallasweb.com/deesis

 

Source: http://oca.org/news/oca-news/iconographer-and-russian-historian-launches-unique-website-featuring-hagia

Gateway to Heaven

 St Nicholas Cathedral

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Standing in the Cathedral after Sunday Liturgy on August 12, 2012. In addition to its magnificent and historic iconography, completed in the 1990s following the dissolution of the USSR, the Cathedral houses the relics of many saints, including St John of Kronstadt, St Elizabeth the New Martyr, St Herman, apostle to Alaska, St Innocent, metropolitan of Moscow and apostle to Alaska, St Tikhon, and St Daniel of Moscow.

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Gazing up at the dome with the image of Christos Pantokrator (Christ as Ruler of All, or Lord of the Universe) offering all worshipers His benediction.

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The choir gallery overlooking the nave, with beautiful frescoes of the Russian New Martyrs on the left and right as well as many of the North American saints. Note the magnificent fresco of Christ’s Resurrection on the wall hanging over the gallery as well as the ceiling icons of the Great Feasts of the Dormition of the Theotokos (L) and that of Pentecost, the Decent of the Holy Spirit (R). Symbolizing the triumphant restoration of Orthodoxy in Russian life, the fresco of Moscow’s rebuilt Christ the Savior Cathedral – initially demolished under Stalin’s orders in 1931- crowns the beautiful choir gallery.

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The four writers of the Gospels are depicted on the pendentives supporting the dome. Higher up, closer to Christ, are depicted the cherubim and seraphim and other angelic powers of heaven. The red fire symbolizes the Holy Spirit descending to and filling the earth.

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The frescoed icons on the Cathedral’s north wall depict the life and deeds of St Nicholas, the fourth century bishop of Myra (located in modern day Turkey), and patron saint of Greece, Russia, and many ancient cities. Can you find the picture of the saint rescuing a drowning man?

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A reliquary of St Herman of Alaska (1756-1837), patron saint of Orthodoxy in the Americas and peaceful evangelist to many native Alaskan tribes.

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Relics of the Romanov Imperial Family of Russia, who were murdered on Lenin’s others on July 17, 1918: the Emperor or Tsar Nicholas Alexandrovich II, his consort the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, and their children. Orthodox Christians venerate them as “Passion-bearers” who graciously and courageously bore many sufferings and imprisonment and went to their deaths with great fortitude.

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Relic of Saint Sergius, fourteenth century Wonder-worker and deeply beloved Russian saint (d. 1392).

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Looking toward the iconostasis and the apse above the altar. Along with most of the interior fresco work, after the fall of the Soviet Union expert Russian iconographers completed the beautiful iconostasis (icon stand) which separates the altar area from the main part of the Cathedral. This evokes the Temple at Jerusalem which had a ‘holy of holies’ in which the Tabernacle was kept.

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Relics of many ancient and new Russian saints, including St Elizabeth the New Martyr (front right).
Saint Elizabeth (1864 – 1918) was the wife of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia, fifth son of Emperor Alexander II of Russia and Empress Maria Alexandrovna (born Princess Dagmar of Denmark, she was the sister to Alexandra who became Queen of the United Kingdom as consort to Edward VII). Princess Elizabeth and her sister Alix, who in 1894 became the wife of the new Russian Emperor Nicholas II as Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, were granddaughters of Britain’s Queen Victoria.
After an anarchist assassinated her husband, Grand Duchess Elizabeth visited the man, offering him her forgiveness, but he refused her offer to intercede with her brother-in-law for a reprieve from execution. She went on to found a convent dedicated to ministering to Moscow’s poor, and as part of her efforts she petitioned the Russian Church to restore the historic female diaconate. She opened the Martha and Mary Home in Moscow to utilize the prayer and charity of devout Russian women. For many years she helped the poor and orphans through this Moscow home.
In 1918, the Communist government exiled her to Yekaterinburg and then to Alapaevsk, where she and several other members of the Imperial Family were violently killed by the local Bolsheviks on July 18, 1918. She was glorified by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in 1981, and by the Russian Orthodox Church as a whole in 1992 as New-Martyr Elizabeth.

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Reliquary of the Great Martyr Saint Catherine of Alexandria (287-305), an Egyptian princess and scholar whose erudition and learned arguments inspired the conversion of thousands. She was brutally put to death on the orders of the pagan Roman Emperor Maxentius, whom Constantine defeated in October 312 at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge outside Rome. In the fifteenth century another virgin saint, the young Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc) received visions of St. Catherine exhorting her to drive the English out of France.

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Fragrant double icon depicting two pillars of the Orthodox faith in Russia. Saint John of Kronstadt (1829-1908), shown offering the Communion chalice and a benediction, is one of the most beloved Russian saints to whom thousands would come seeking his ascetic and pastoral advice. He wrote widely on many topics, especially on the profound existential need to cultivate transcendent Christian love and forgiveness.
He is shown with Saint Matrona of Moscow (1885-1952) because when he saw her as a young, blind girl in a crowd, he predicted she would be his spiritual successor. Blessed Matrona healed many people of their spiritual diseases and predicted numerous marriages, events and deaths- including her own.

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Standing in the choir, looking toward the iconostasis and the apse icon of the Panagia Theotokos (All-Holy Mother of God, the Virgin Mary). The elaborate chandelier, lit at various points of the divine offices, symbolizes the eternal presence of God’s grace in His Church, the radiance of the Kingdom of Heaven, and the abiding light of the Holy Spirit.

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Gazing down over the nave from the choir gallery. Approaching the central icon stand before the iconostasis, worshipers first venerate the cathedral’s principal icon of the holy person or God. Upon entering any Orthodox church, worshipers bow before the divine presence in the altar where the Eucharist is offered as the mystical transformation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of our Lord.

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Standing in the lofted gallery where I sing with the choir. This is one of my favorite pictures of the Cathedral interior because one really has a strong sense of the iconography- the ‘image writing’, as the term means from the Greek- as a powerful tool for the theological education of the faithful who see and comprehend the many magnificent images depicting the saints.

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Centered shot of the dome and its supporting columns and pendentives.

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The Cathedral shining in the late summer sunshine! Russian and American architects designed the Cathedral to evoke a twelfth century church in Vladimir, an ancient Russian city on the Klyazma River some 200 km (120 miles) east of Moscow. In 1988 the bell tower was erected as a gift from the Moscow Patriarchate to the Cathedral commemorating the one thousandth anniversary of the conversion of St. Prince Vladimir of Kiev and his people to Eastern Christianity.

Memento Mori

There’s something about abandonment that resonates strangely with the human spirit; and the sight of human buildings reclaimed by nature has a twofold effect. Firstly, it hints at hidden histories, at stories and perhaps lives lost – but more powerful still, is the underlying message that reminds us how all things must one day return to the earth. How interesting it is then, to contemplate the decline of our monuments to religion: more than mere function, these structures carry the weight of our beliefs, our dreams, our hope and our faith.

From time to time in my travels, I’ve come across the derelict remains of churches; some of them boarded and fenced off in city centres, others left to rot in fields or forests. I felt it was about time I shared a few of these locations … and so here are five of the most memorable religious ruins that I’ve had the opportunity to explore.

THREE ABANDONED CHURCHES AND A CELLAR FULL OF SKULLS

Derelict Church and Bell Tower, Bulgaria

I came across this first site one year ago – on Boxing Day, to be precise – nestled amongst bushes and tumbled stone walls, in the middle of a remote Balkan village.

The village was much like many others in the area; half a dozen houses clustered around a potholed road, and half of those properties most likely uninhabited. Over the past couple of decades Bulgaria has seen radical depopulation in its more rural settlements, as young people typically move to the cities – or now, increasingly to other EU nations – in search of work. As a result, many of Bulgaria’s more remote villages have begun to look a little starved of life and vitality.

From the road it didn’t look like much more than a collapsed barn; the creepers and brambles already taking a hold on the old stones, pulling them down in a deadly stranglehold. It was a war memorial in the graveyard that caught my eye, however – a peculiar, kneeling figure, sat atop the Bulgarian crest and brandishing a WWI-era rifle. The face seemed somehow twisted at first, but the more I looked the more I read a profound pathos etched into that stone mask.

I walked through the graveyard to the derelict building behind, a structure I’d barely given a second look until then. Here though, approaching from the main entrance I was greeted by the faded yet familiar symbols of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church; and stepping through an arched double doorway, for just a moment I was able to imagine the building whole.

At a guess, I’d say the church had been built sometime in the early 19th century. It wasn’t until 1878 that Bulgaria finally achieved independence from Ottoman rule, before which these people were strictly forbidden from building churches that rose taller than the invaders’ mosques. As a result, Bulgarian Orthodox churches built before that were typically dug deep into the ground, to form semi-subterranean spaces of worship that wouldn’t offend their Muslim overlords.

This building, approached by a series of three stone steps descending into a shallow, one-storey church, seemed to fit the mould perfectly.

The site also featured a bell tower, built in a more ornate style and topped with a proud cross, which would certainly have been raised post-liberation – such an unashamed statement of christianity would never have met with Ottoman approval. In fact, during those years even bells themselves were banned from churches; the subjugated Christians would rather have made do with wooden clappers, that drew less attention to their heathen practices.

It was sad to see the church, along with its more recently acquired bell tower, in such a squalid state of disrepair; the roof had long since been stripped, leaving nothing of value and only old, moss-covered stones to hint at what had once been here. Such is the nature of depopulation, however. With only a handful of elderly residents left, there was barely a congregation to be found in the village – let alone the work force required to keep the church and tower well maintained.

The sun was setting by the time I left the main body of the church. I glanced up at the stone tower as I crossed the graveyard, and at that moment I caught the reflection of sun beams glinting dully on the brass body of a bell. Immediately, I knew I wanted to climb the tower.

The bell tower wasn’t tall, perhaps little over four floors high by average building standards. What made the climb difficult however, was the state of the wooden staircase within. Some steps were missing altogether, others splintered, grown over with moss, while just a few seemed to promise the illusion of stability.

I spread my weight across as many steps as I could at any given time, taking the climb at a painfully slow rate. The structure creaked and groaned in protest, as I crawled up the rotten corkscrew.

At last, however, I made it to the top. Coming round one final corner of the warped and weathered staircase I met a square of blue above – where day’s last light was spilling in through windows in the stone to illuminate the bell ringer’s platform.

Pulling myself up and onto the larger beams that formed a floor for the tower’s topmost chamber, I caught my breath and looked out at the view – the sleepy hamlet, the lake beyond, the mountains disappearing into mist. In all the years this church and tower had suffered the onslaught of the elements, wood and stone giving way to the inevitable pull of natural decay, the view itself had likely never changed. Now that I was here, I couldn’t resist but ring the bell. It tolled a deep and dissonant sound that echoed out across the landscape … but by now there was no one left to hear it ring.

Christ the Savior Cathedral, Kosovo

In November last year I took a trip to Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. One of the sites I explored that week was an unfinished cathedral, located in a park just off George Bush Boulevard.

The building – titled the “Christ the Saviour Cathedral” – is a perfect example of the Orthodox form with its tower and dome, its simple cross placed up top. Here however, in the largely Islamic capital of Kosovo, the unfinished building stands out in sharp contrast against its surroundings.

Nowadays this building (and what it stands for) is caught at the heart of a heated political debate.

Construction began on the cathedral back in 1995, when it was intended as a place of worship for Pristina’s Serbian Orthodox population. Things would soon change however, with the outbreak of the Kosovo War in February 1998. The construction project was stalled as war ravaged the country, Albanians pitted against Serbs in a battle for independence. The following years would see attempted ethnic cleansing, bombing raids and eventual UN intervention … and by the time the Republic of Kosovo had been established as an independent nation in July 1990, the unfinished Serbian cathedral in its capital had become an uncomfortable reminder of their past oppression.

Built on the grounds of Pristina University, the Christ the Saviour Cathedral remains a brickwork shell to this day. It isn’t guarded, and the construction team never got as far as giving the building doors which might be locked to keep out trespassers; and so I sauntered in freely, to explore the vast brickwork arches and domes of a cathedral that never was.

While some Kosovo Albanians have called for the complete demolition of the building – branding it a symbol of the regime of Slobodan Milošević – there are others here who like it just the way it is. Speaking to an Albanian Muslim friend just a few days later, I was told that there are some in Pristina (and particularly amongst the younger population) who consider this ghostly shell a kind of trophy;

“Every time I look at this ruin, it reminds me of our victory against the Serbs,” my friend told me over burek and macchiatos.

Inside the cathedral I caught the scent of something foul, and turning a corner, I found that the altar space had recently been used as a public toilet. Whether this too carried a political message – or was simply the work of someone who’d been caught short in the park – I’d never know.

Abandoned Orthodox Church, Romania

Perhaps the most beautiful building featured on my list, this Romanian Orthodox church was also the most severely dilapidated.

The church lies on the edge of a tiny village, surrounded by open fields and roughly an hour’s drive from Bucharest. I never would have found the remote location on my own, but rather I made the trip with my Romanian friend Ovidiu, and co-conspirator Nate (the man from Yomadic).

Ducking beneath a lintel of jagged, severed bricks, we stepped into the church through a breach in one wall; a breach created after one large section of the building had torn away altogether, to crumble into the long grass.

Immediately I was struck by the simplistic beauty of the place. Frescoed walls and pillars in warm shades of orange, delicate arches and the most exquisite murals painted in blue, gold and red.

Unlike the building above, which I had witnessed being pulled aggressively apart by power tools and bulldozers, the ugly work of human hands and gas-fuelled vehicles of destruction, the atmosphere in this place was altogether different. Here there was a sense of balance, a serenity about the decay, as green growth sprouted out of old bricks … and vines reached in through windows to steal the minerals back from the very walls themselves.

The death of this church was a beautiful thing, a painless passing wrapped within the loving arms of mother nature.

Though the space inside was small, we spent a good long while exploring it – most of that time poring over faded frescos, admiring the painstaking detail in every scene. At one point we even climbed up onto the walls themselves … moving slowly, ever cautious not to dislodge the stones. From the broken end of the nave we looked down on the altar from above, our view level with the bell tower that somehow, against all odds, stood tall and square above the ruin even now.

Outside the church, where the graveyard bordered onto a small village square in which children chased chickens and three old women in shawls had sat on a wooden bench and watched us pass, there stood a gatehouse.

Like the church, this building too had clearly seen better days – but for now at least, it managed to maintain some structural integrity. I decided to climb it.

Stood beneath the stone archway, I ran my hand through the space where once a staircase would have been – wet chips of rotten wood now hanging in heavy cobwebs, while the chewed-off ends of steps still jutted out of slots in the wall at regular intervals. There was a square hatch above, leading to the tower room with its balcony – but 10 feet up without a ladder, I wasn’t going to get there on my own.

Using Ovidiu as a human climbing frame, I managed to get a hold on the ledge above … before pulling myself up and over the lip, rolling into a square grey chamber adjacent to the central tower.

The space inside the upper portion of the gatehouse had, apparently, long since been taken over by the pigeons. Moving through the mounds of muck and feathers, I crossed to where a wooden hatch opened onto the central tower. Above me, sunlight streamed in through a wide rent in the tin roof.

The main tower of the building had lost its floor – where once the boards had been, now only a couple of wooden planks extended from one end to the next, a delicate balancing act above a 10-foot drop.

I put my best foot forward, placing it on the wooden beam with the hope of crossing, and making it out onto the balcony beyond. It wasn’t to be, however; the moment I put weight on the wood I felt it shift beneath me, the surface crumbling to a grit with the texture and consistency of coffee grounds. I took one last look at that door opening out onto the balcony, then looked down again to the powdery mess my foot had made of the walkway.

Nope, I thought, not worth it.

Before we left, the churchyard had one more surprise in store for us.

Beneath a nearby tree there sat a heavy stone sarcophagus, its lid carved with ornate script and a sculpted wreath. At each corner, the tomb was supported on stones fashioned into the shape of feet.

I was just admiring the letters carved into the tomb, when I spotted a square hole opening up in the earth beside the sarcophagus. It was deep – too deep to make out the bottom – and suspecting I might be stood above some kind of buried crypt, I began looking around for the entrance.

We found it, sure enough; a series of slab-like steps that descended beneath the graveyard, into a deep, dark chamber filled with stones and rubble. The space wasn’t large, and felt all the more cramped for the piles of broken things which had been cast down from the opening above. There were cracked tombstones, pieces of pillar, even shards of splintered wood; presumably from coffins.

And after that we bid the church farewell. In one sense it was tragic to see such art left out to rot, and I wondered why no effort had been made to preserve it; the more time I spent in and around that building however, the more I experienced an inexplicable feeling that everything was exactly as it should be … and from then on I was simply grateful for the opportunity to admire the church before it had been swallowed back into the earth altogether.

Monastery Crypt, Bulgaria

My last location was not abandoned; neither was it a church, strictly speaking, but rather a picturesque little monastery nestled beneath a cliff in the mountains of Bulgaria.

While the monastery itself was undoubtedly beautiful – not to mention unique, at least in terms of structure and geography – my main reason for visiting the place was a small, half-buried chamber that would usually not be seen by visitors.

Stepping around the corner of a chapel, we followed the graveyard path that wound around and down; a flight of stones steps descending to the cellar door. We tried the handle and though the door was stubborn to open – the wood swollen from moisture – it had been left unlocked, as expected.

Inside the dim chamber beyond, a number of wooden boxes had been stacked in clumsy piles, a muddle of mismatched chests and caskets. “костилница,” read lettering on the wall: “Ossuary.”

Many of the boxes were labelled with names, presumably corresponding to the one-time owners of the bones that lay inside. I wondered where these bones were headed – or if these wooden boxes were indeed the final resting place of monks, martyrs, or whoever else this may have been in life.

Not all these holy bones were hidden though, and on a recessed shelf at the back corner of the crypt were arranged a series of human skulls. Following the same tradition I saw on my recent visit to a Czech ossuary, these bones had been boiled clean … but after that, the monks here had painted names and dates across each skull in delicate brushstrokes.

The effect was strangely beautiful; a repurposing of death, skulls used in place of headstones. These bones had served as vessels of information in life, why not allow them to continue to speak beyond that point?

It did trouble me a little to see the bones left open to the air … the skulls on the shelf showed signs of disintegration, while the stacked boxes were beginning to collapse under the weight of those piled above. Perhaps, though, such desire for preservation is itself an unnatural urge – maybe it’s healthier to accept the passing of time, and to embrace the inevitable decay that comes with it. These skulls seemed to serve the purpose of memento mori in every sense: both a reminder that all things must end, and also an admission that such processes can yet be beautiful.

Guinness Record Church in Russia

The temple of St. Andrew the Apostle. Guinness Record Church in Russia

*The temple of St. Andrew the Apostle. In the morning mist*

Away from the hustle of big cities, on the water surface of the Vuoksa, stands the temple of St. Andrew the Apostle. The temple is mentioned in Guinness Book of Records as the world’s only church built on a tiny island, the foundation of which serves the monolithic rock protruding from the water. It was built in 2000, by Andrei Rotinov, an architect (passed away by now), according to ancient canons. Nothing like this has been ever built. There is no mass pilgrimage, no pompous ceremonies (though services are held on schedule), and other things like that. This place is more for solitude with nature, to reflect on the events of your life, meditation and quiet conversation with God in a relaxed atmosphere. Around the picturesque banks of the Vuoksa, with rocks protruding from the water, and singing birds … idyll or peace.

Guinness Record Church in Russia

* The church at the dawn*

An example for the architectural solution was the oldest church of the Ascension in Kolomna. While in the world, there are other “Churches on the water,” among which the church in Volgograd, Kondopoga, Church of the Assumption in Slovenia and surprisingly similar to Priozersky temple church in the town of Kalyazin on the Volga, but St. Andrew the Apostle church on the island Vuoksa surprises all.

Guinness Record Church in Russia

*The lonely church against misty background*

The temple is named after one of the twelve disciples of Jesus Christ – according to church tradition, it was in these places people were baptized in the local waters. Andrew is the patron saint of sailors, so every ship is bound to have Andrew’s flag, and possibly surrounded by water from all sides church refers to this fact. The area of ​​the island is only 100 square meters. To get here is possible by boat or ferry, but in the near future will be built a bridge, way to the dock and the pool for baptizing.

Guinness Record Church in Russia

*The Church in the winter landscape*

The site is located near the village of Vasilevo of Priozersk District, in the suburb of St. Petersburg. From St. Petersburg the trip takes about 2 hours.

The temple of St. Andrew the Apostle

The temple of St. Andrew the Apostle
The temple of St. Andrew the Apostle

Winter landscape

Winter landscape

Panoramic view of the church at sunset

Panoramic view of the church at sunset

Guinness Record Church in Russia

The temple of St. Andrew the Apostle. Photographer Michael Vorobyev

Guinness Record Church in Russia

The temple of St. Andrew the Apostle. Photographer Michael Vorobyev

Guinness Record Church in Russia

The temple of St. Andrew the Apostle. Photographer Michael Vorobyev

Guinness Record Church in Russia

The temple of St. Andrew the Apostle. Photographer Michael Vorobyev

Photographer Michael Vorobyev

The temple of St. Andrew the Apostle. Photographer Michael Vorobyev

Pink sunset, panoramic view of the church

Pink sunset, panoramic view of the church

Absolute beauty

Absolute beauty

Autumn landscape

Autumn landscape

Beautiful sunrise

Beautiful sunrise

Beautiful sunset

Beautiful sunset

Church on the rocks

Church on the rocks

Covered with snow church

Covered with snow church

Frozen with ice river

Frozen with ice river

The sign with the name of the Church

The sign with the name of the Church

Wooden architecture, detail

Wooden architecture, detail

Wooden church, detail

Wooden church, detail

Inside the church

Inside the church

Guinness Record Church in Russia