Front and Center

Front and Center

This past Sunday our preacher said that when you enter a church building, the architecture gives you a clue as to what the congregation considers most important.

Reflections on sacred architecture

This past Sunday our preacher said that when you enter a church building, the architecture gives you a clue as to what the congregation considers most important.

For instance, if the sermon is the central part of the worship service, the pulpit will be prominent.

Other church buildings feature a baptismal font or pool as the focus of attention. The members of that church regard baptism as the key passage in Christian life.

Other church buildings display the altar, from where communion is served, as the prominent feature.

Still other churches put their organ front and center, stressing the importance of music to their worship.

What part of the architecture is the focus inside your building? What does that say about your congregation?

The other day we visited the Church of St. George in the Greek Patriarchate in Istanbul. The interior of St. George is heavily decorated. Hardly any wall space is bare of artwork, especially old artwork in wood, stone, painting, silvering, and gilding. You feel yourself immersed in deep time. You feel enveloped by the communion of saints, many of whom are depicted, and some of whom have their relics in the side aisles. But the center of attention is the massive wooden wall of icons and paintings — the iconostasis — at the front of the worship space, stretching from the floor to the ceiling, from side to side, with the icons carefully arranged in tiers. This wall of icons marks the boundary between the nave, where the congregation is gathered, and the most holy space, the sanctuary, where the high altar is located. The focus in this building is the iconostasis, the screen of many icons, especially icons of Christ, Mary, Peter and Paul, and the Four Evangelists. It appears as if these figures are literally the door, or gateway, to the Holy of Holies, to heaven. There is such a profusion of artwork, each piece inlaid with such detail, each layered over by the contributions of generations of worshipers, that you could visit this building repeatedly for years and never exhaust what can be seen and learned of the devotion of past and present generations.

What is the center of attention inside a mosque? Of the mosques we have entered in Turkey, our attention is consistently directed to a niche in one wall. Sometimes this niche is richly decorated. Sometimes the carpets on the floor have a distinctive pattern oriented to this niche, the Mihrab, the purpose of which is to point the worshippers in the direction of Mecca, in Saudi Arabia. Mecca is like the spiritual center, or spiritual pole, of the Islamic world.

When the famous St. Sophia building in Istanbul was used as a mosque, the eyes were drawn to huge medallions of calligraphy located high on the walls. They are still there, and still striking. For instance, one medallion shows the name of God (Allah), and another the name of the Prophet Muhammad. These medallions proclaim the sacred nature of writing. The holy book of Islam, the Qur’an, is the foremost embodiment of the sacred.

What is the focus of attention in your congregation’s worship area? What feelings, or atmosphere, does that focus create in you? Over time, where does your congregation lavish its art and decoration, to enhance the worship space? And how do we teach these things to the next generation?

Ken and Betty Frank

Ken & Betty Frank serve with the American Board in Istanbul, Turkey.  They share the job of General Secretary of the American Board.  They also serve on the board of the Istanbul Interparish Migrant Program (IIMP).