The True Beauty of Orthodox Architecture

by Fr. Basil Biberdorf

Designer Andrew Gould explains the intricacies of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Read more about the seminar at the St. Vladimir's Seminary website. (Photo credit: Deborah Belonick.)

At the end of June, a group of men from Holy Trinity went to a presentation on Orthodox architecture at the St. Vladimir’s Seminary in New York. The presentation was led by Mr. Andrew Gould, an Orthodox designer of church buildings and furnishings. Learn more about Mr. Gould Attending in anticipation of the Chapel of the Holy Spirit’s building of a church in Snyder County, we went without knowing entirely what to expect.

Mr. Gould’s presentation was an extended virtual tour of Orthodox churches from antiquity to the modern day. There was no one shape or size that was more “right” than the others. Each one was a product of faith, history, and the needs of the community and place. Whether marble, masonry, stucco, or wood, each one reflected the best that the faithful could give. Mr. Gould showed the attention that was given even to the small details found in all of his examples: The idea that one would create a makeshift or patchwork structure just to get by was notably absent in all of them.

In listening to the presentation, I couldn’t help but recall the building of the tabernacle in the wilderness: “the children of Israel brought a freewill offering to the Lord, all the men and women whose hearts were willing to bring material for all kinds of work which the Lord, by the hand of Moses, had commanded to be done” (cf. Ex. 3:4-29).

In our time, we often marvel at the construction of Orthodox churches in the old world, and even those constructed decades ago here in North America. We wonder how we could ever hope to construct something similarly enduring and beautiful in this early 21st-century America. Land is ever more expensive, especially in areas with growing populations. Building materials cost more, too. The tradesmen and artisans who do the work must charge more today than they did “back then.” Numerous regulations lead to still more expense. The dollar signs overwhelm us.

In spite of this we must consider our own situation. We must also ask ourselves about our own family incomes relative to those of the faithful who built so many of the beautiful Orthodox churches, large and small, here in America in the past two centuries. How did they build while having so little in comparison, without an emperor or government to help, and lacking so many of our “essentials”?

Mr. Gould’s presentation led all of us to think about these things, but he cautioned that beauty need not be extravagant or excessively expensive. Rather, true beauty comes from a structure and adornment that reflect the genuine self-giving and care of a prayerful and believing Orthodox community. Our Chapel of the Holy Spirit will, of course, be considering all of this very soon. Our prayer should be that our hearts, like those of the Israelites, would be stirred for the proclamation of Christ’s Gospel in word and deed as well as beauty and grace.