The classical model of Byzantine church architecture is the Church of the Holy Wisdom, Hagla Sophia, built in Constantinople in the first half of the sixth century. Its structure, which still stands today, is topped by a distinctive dome surrounded by a triple-bar cross.
Many means were used to express the Byzantine faith and its aspiration towards the Divine in the architecture. Typically, a relatively plain façade sheltered an unsurpassed wealth of decoration. Rather than a house of God, the space projected an image of a miniature universe in which the one and only God dwelt. Designers spiritualized space and dematerialized mass. The polished surfaces or curved them to reduce the impact of their mass; they perforated other details such as those adorning the lintels or capitals to give the ethereal texture of embroidery of lace.
Sunlight, penetrating from above, illuminated the nave and lifted the dome to produce a sense of religious exaltation. Emphasis on the height and length of these buildings was an attempt to unify their inner spaces.
The hemispherical dome is a significant form because it is used to symbolize heaven. The altar is located at the eastern end of the building where the wall bellies out to form an apse. An iconostas, a fixed or movable screen to which icons or sacred pictures are attached, is used to separate the altar and sanctuary from the body of the church.
Current plans identify the development of a three building complex. The Community Center is an existing structure. The Cathedral and Rectory are to be added. The whole is to have a commonality of expression and purpose.
To achieve a unified appearance, new forms and materials should respect existing cues. Underneath is the energy of the community working and worshipping together. The site. As part of the whole, should assist in linking the pieces.
The Cathedral is to be the dominant feature of the project. Like the massing of the Hagia Sophia, the natural order of the building should focus on the dome. The exterior, developed in a non-dynamic but pleasing form, is to be constructed of materials and from compatible with the Community Center. Locating the important axial focus at the corners rather than on the sides is an intriguing effect and is used as a means to reduce the impact of building size. More importance is to be placed on the decoration of the Cathedral’s interior.
Because of new technology, the means to dematerialize mass can be explored. The lighting of spaces should support the appropriate environmental qualities. Like the Community Center, the Rectory is to provide support functions and it is, therefore, perceived as being separate from the Cathedral and related more strongly to the Community Center.
The People of God of St. John the Baptist Cathedral, when they were planning their new House of God wanted very much to continue the tradition of their ancestors and to share the old with the new. The spirit of this congregation transcends several generations and there was a strong desire to express that continuity in the task that they were about to undertake.
The connection between what was and what would be is depicted in four distinct transitions. The ornate, gold-like tabernacle and the beautiful brass candlesticks that had adorned the altars for many years were removed, sent off to the company where they had been made to be cleaned, refurbished and polished. And when this process of rebirth was completed, they were returned and placed upon the altars of the new church, where they reside in splendor for all to see for generations to come.
The bells, which for nearly a century had tolled to call the faithful to worship and had sounded to mark ever occasion, be it one of joy or one of sadness in the history of the parish, were carefully removed from the towers of the old church as many of the faithful stood in awe and watched. They were sent off to Verdin and Company in Cincinnati where the were cleaned, checked for cracks or other damage, burned, and completely refurbished. After this work was finished, they were loaded upon a trailer and returned to Munhall where they now reside in the tower of the new church and once again, they toll to call all who hear them to come to the House of the Lord.
Moving the ten saints that were depicted in the beautiful stained glass windows of the old church to their new settings was quite a feat. Since the window size and positions are totally different in the new church something had to be done if the old was to become a part of the new. Once again the removal process was begun, and the windows were taken down in segments. The sections were cleaned, checked for damage and refurbished. Once the cleaning process was done, the architechs and the class artisans came together so that the new windows could become a reality. The outcome of that meeting is that six of the saints now reside in pairs above the three entrances to the new church and the remaining four occupy space above the nave to mark the points of support for the dome. The remaining portions of the windows were dismantled, the old glass was mated with new stained glass, and was remade into the beautifully ornate windows that encircle the dome and the mezzanine of the new church forall to see and to marvel for years to come.
The final item to journey from the old to the new was the large stone cross that now stands in the middle of the circle of the driveway. It was moved from its post in the front yard of the old Rectory, where it had stood since 1918, to its new site for all to see as they come to our new House of God.
Because the church is symbolically related to heaven, its sacred place is surrounded by images, or icons, of the heavenly court. Typically, the iconostas separates the sanctuary from the nave.
Most were highly ornate screens with three doors through which ministers entered the sanctuary during the Divine Liturgy – two smaller (north and south) Deacons’ doors and larger central Royal doors. The Deacons’ doors usually featured icons of St. Gabriel and St. Michael; the Royal doors, icons of the Evangelists – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
To the right of the Royal doors are Icon of Christ the Teacher and to the left, Icon of the Mother of God. To the far right and left are icons of the patron of the church (St. John the Baptist, in this case) and St. Nicholas of Myra, the patron of the Eastern Church. In the strictly traditional setting where the icon screen extends from floor to ceiling, the following are depicted in the upper ranges, immediately above the Royal door is a picture of the Last Supper.
To the right are six icons depicting the major feasts of Christ, and to the left are six icons portraying the major feasts of the Mother of God. A large icon of Christ the King is located on the far wall of the sanctuary, which is visible above iconostas. Some icon screens also bear pictures of the Twelve apostles and Old testament Prophets with a crucifixion scene surmounting all.
Blending the traditional with the modern to decorate the interior of our Cathedral with the icons that are a part of the Byzantine Rite resulted in two murals that contain Old Testament Prophets, Saints, and the feasts of Christ and the Mother of God. In place of the Last Supper, a large icon of the Communion of the Apostles is located on the wall behind the altar and is visible above the iconostas. The 72 colorful iconic paintings that are seen throughout the interior of St. John’s are the work of Michael Kapeluck, president of Archangel Studios, whose principal work is to produce church decorations in Byzantine style. With his assistant, Philip DeLucia, they applied their art to the walls and altars of the sanctuary.
The paintings are based on the late 14th century works of Theophanes the Greek, who emigrated from Constantinople and painted in an elongated, detailed and rhythmic manner in Moscow and Novgorod, with the addition of a smattering of more typically Russian churches, he painted dado panels near the altar floor. These panels depict draped sections of the tablecloth from the Last Supper, as well as symbolizing the church’s unifying significance.
The cathedral murals are fresh and glowing as Kapeluck opposes any attempt at premature aging. “All icons were once new. They are supposed to be disposed of when they are darkened and cracked, since that does not reflect the continuity of the liturgy: There is no past or future in the church. Everything is in the present.”
In collaborating with Grant Scott, project architect, Kapeluck took the architectural drawings and plugged in the scheme of the icons. More icons could be added at a later date since room was left for them in the icon scheme. The entire icon project took 5,500 man hours over a period of two years to complete.
Art is an important feature of the church interior. Byzantine art, which reached its zenith in the 10th or 11th century, is a unique blend of Imperial Roman, Classic Hellenic, and Christian influence.
This style of art is characterized by majesty, dignity, refinement and grace; it dwells upon inner, rather than outer, realities, in Divine persons, in the holy history, and in the miraculous. It reflects the inward, mystical focus of their Christianity.
The sanctuary, divided by the iconostas into an interior and exterior area, is separated from the Nave by steps (two steps are common). The front center is demarked by an arched protrusion called the amvon. To the extreme right the Bishop has a seat and to the extreme left is the lectern.
A sacramental table is located at the head of the center aisle of the nave. Here, the sacraments of Baptism, Chrismation, and Matrimony take place. An icon is always displayed on this table.
The interior was designed to conform with traditional Byzantine order and layout while giving it a modern touch. Traditionally square to symbolize the equality of all sides, the altar is set beneath a canopy called a Baldachino and symbolically represents the Throne of God.
The music of the liturgy is not supported by an organ or any other instrument. Therefore, the role of the Cantor, the person who leads the people in chanting the liturgical responses, is an important one. With this in mind, the acoustical quality of the building was of prime importance.
The interior decoration of the Cathedral add a special glory because of an intense realization of a color spectrum that falls into an “eerie glow” of tradition. This is achieved by using dark blues, burgundies, grays, and blacks along with the more flamboyant, reds, yellows, greens, and purples and a contrast of gold. Despite a more updated color pallet, the figures in the iconic paintings still resemble those in Eastern Rites churches, which date back as far as 800 A.D.
Surprisingly, these intense hues harmonize with the two subtle shades of mauve that color the unadorned walls and the dark mahogany wood that is used throughout the structure in ornate panels, the doors, and the pews.
According to Eastern tradition, the church is the universe and the dome is heaven. In our church, the dome is achieved through the construction of a stepped building with a central focal point. Christ is literally in the center of our church.
The figure at the center of the dome is Christ the Pantocrator, a traditional Byzantine image of the “all-encompassing Lord.” The looming bust figure surmounts a band of angels, each 8 feet tall, that circle the dome above the windows.
Due to the curvature and the dimensions of the dome, a circle with a 24 foot diameter, the top of which is 75 feet from the floor, the Icon of Christ Pantocrator was painted directly on the surface aof the dome by the artists lying on their backs on the scaffolding.
The Communion of Angels, which encircles the dome above the windows, was done on canvas with acrylic paint, working from dark to light over a dark brown underpainting. There are four to six succeeding layers of color in each figure. Once completed the canvas was fitted and glued into place using clay and vinyl adhesive. This was followed by gold leafing. Approximately 3,000 sheets of gold leaf, each 3½ inches square, were applied by the artists by hand. Encircling the dome are 24 windows that are a composite of portions of the stained glass windows that were removed from the old church and new stained glass united to exemplify the marriage between the old and the new.