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The Ambiguity of Some Sacred Spaces

02/09/2015 06:16 pm ET | Updated Apr 11, 2015

So-called sacred spaces have a way of defining themselves. A sacred space can be a relatively simple area with bare bones accruements and ornamentation, or it can have the opposite effect. When I visited Saint Nicholas Eastern Orthodox church in Philadelphia's Northern Liberties section some time ago.

I was struck by that church's spectacular floor-to-ceiling iconostasis. The wide sweep of these holy images--one immediately thinks of the word cinemascope- is really the polar opposite of orthodox 4th century western Christian design, the basilica, an architectural format adopted from the fairly simple and stately (Roman Empire) Roman assembly hall.

Any scared space, while not defined by the strictly ornamental, is still subject to the power of symbols.

The Philadelphia Cathedral, formerly the Church of the Saviour, was established as the Episcopal Diocese cathedral in 1992. The original church was designed by Charles W. Burns in the elaborate (and traditional) Italianate style. Built in 1898, there was little of the 4th century basilica look about the new church. That would come almost one hundred years later, in 2002, when the building would undergo a metamorphosis. The original Italianate church had a wooden altar, which was replaced by a marble high altar after a disastrous fire in 1906. The marble high altar, nestled as it was beneath a decidedly Byzantine dome decorated with angel frescoes, was dedicated to the dead of World War I. The Church of the Saviour, while never an Anglo Catholic or 'High' Anglican Church, still had a rich liturgical tradition.

Today the space retains the rudimentary elements of the old church but anyone entering the cathedral would see that a revolution had taken place.

In 1999, a new Dean, the Rev. Richard Giles, had a vision to duplicate the original layout of the 4th century basilica, or to "re think" what constitutes a liturgical space.

Re-thinking liturgical spaces has been an ongoing revolution for the last 40 years, spurred on in part by the liturgical reforms of Vatican II. Religious denominations close to Roman Catholicism, like the Anglicans and Lutherans (but not the Eastern Orthodox) often copied the post Vatican II liturgical styles: the placement of an altar table in front of or in place of traditional high altars; a de-emphasis on ornamentation, altar rails and iconography which some saw as a possible impediment to community worship.

Rev. Giles' "revolution" sparked some controversy within the local Episcopal community. Some traditionalists, shocked at the removal of the cathedral's high altar, managed to save the church's beautiful glass stained windows. The retention of the glass stained windows was a good thing, indicating that the Rev. Giles may have been a reformer but he was not a total... iconoclast.

As R. Kevin Seasoltz observed in his book, "A Sense of the Sacred," the renovation of the Philadelphia Cathedral was in a different category from the redesign of those Episcopal churches where the Eucharistic space became a venue for multipurpose intentions.

For Mr. Seasoltz, other Episcopal Eucharistic spaces hosted "parish suppers, coffee hour, workshops, dances, talent shows and concerts," all of them taking place where the altar normally stands. The end result of this, he says, is that "a sense of mystery is undoubtedly lost when a coffee urn and donuts are placed on the altar immediately after the Eucharist has been celebrated."

The Philadelphia Cathedral is a noteworthy exception. "Dean Giles," Mr. Seasoltz writes, "met many challenges with amazing success as he transformed a conservative community into an assembly at home in an imaginatively renewed space."

To accomplish that mission architect George Yu's job was to create a new sacred space without eradicating basic catholic symbols. Mr. Yu succeeded in maintaining the integrity of the space. Since there were no pews in 4th century churches, the elimination of pews in the new church was hardly radical. A baptismal immersion pool was added to the original font, creating the look of a small sculpture garden.

Although altar tables rarely match the beauty of high altars, here it assumes a powerful role, reminding worshippers that the celebration of the Eucharist is not necessarily an esoteric mystery performed behind gilded gates or icons but that it can also be celebrated out in the open where all the faithful can partake.

Square in shape, the altar table was once located in the cathedral's slightly raised sanctuary but now rests below that. Rev. Giles' beautiful addition of the ambo, where the scripture lessons are read, is based on the design of the ancient bema or reading desk in synagogues during the time of Christ. According to a cathedral brochure, the design approximates the design of a "desk' where Jesus himself would have read the Scriptures.

Happily, the church renovation did not whitewash the circle of painted angels on the cathedral's central dome. Standing in the entrance way of the church one almost has the impression of a mosque were it not for the addition of an icon of Christ by a colonnade and the new icon cross positioned behind the bishop's chair, which is set in the middle of the presbyterium or synthronos.
While the cathedral is not my ideal sacred place destination -- for my Orthodox Christian taste it is minimalist in the Cistercian tradition -- it still manages, somehow, to inspire.