An arrangement of exacting colours and clouds in non-exacting gatherings. Panels and boards depicting religious bodies, angels and holy ones on columns, cupboards, walls and any other surface designed to draw and still the eye. All a haphazard assembly, with no obvious hierarchy in how the images are placed. The effect is rather like a junk shop that displays china and glass on tables, and pictures on surfaces higher up where they can be attached to another support or structure, or where they can lean against a surface whether a table, a chair, a wall, or even a chair. Here, it is not clarity of organisation in display that matters, but the overall effect of conveying the authority of Christianity for all to see.
If only you knew it was there…
A little bit of eastern Orthodoxy on yet another cold day in London during yet another winter where I have lost about four gloves, leaving me the four from the other half of the pair.
A church interior full of smoothly painted surfaces, dazzling colours, reflected light, grainy marble and porphyry. I am in a Greek Orthodox Church on one side of an unobtrusive street, not endowed with a capacious and majestic driveway or precincts to announce its splendour. Indeed, it is not best positioned to announce its arrival, located as it is on a narrow street, riddled with traffic, close to a petrol station and a small block of flats over the road. In fact, it must be so easy to pass by without knowing it is there. The location is not down-town Athens. I am in the heart of Crystal Palace suburban clamour in south-east London. I had not chosen to visit a church today. I had chosen Crystal Palace as I had heard that the town centre had vintage and junk shops and I was looking for an armchair for about £10.00, or pushing it, £20.00. I found quite the opposite: artful vintage shops selling this and that from the 1950s mixed with the ultra- modern and a coffee shop briskly serving easy eggs and mugs of coffee at every turn, corner, angle and face. Crystal Palace is fast becoming like many trendy areas in London: a place to be seen with a laptop in a café, wearing yoga clothes and beards to keep out the brazen elements. And so to step into the world of Greek Orthodoxy was not what I was expecting. Today. Or even any day as I go about my irregular itinerant ways.
I am a little nervous to write about this church, or include the pictures, as a kind, but firm custodian, who was preparing for a wedding, asked me not to take photos of the icons. So those you shall not really see.
And so here I gather by a roughly- hewn, clumpy stone exterior on a cold, whistling, wind-raging day, masking another world, that is hidden within: warmly-glowing, translucent, resplendent, honey wax candle-filled and icon rich. The exterior looks like a high Victorian Gothic model and familiarly recognisable: a tall tower replete with tracery and mouldings, a pointed arch framing the doorway, surmounted by a pointed gable broken up with a gentler pointed tracery filled window. There is though no stained glass. The colour slowly awakens and then dazzles as you go inside.
And where Greek is spoken. Greek is heard. The movements of people inside are slow, serene, and monumental. Black coats are worn. An old man is selling the thinnest candles I have ever seen. The church feels reverential, hushed, and meditative, despite the over-filled colour palette, but the mood is sombre and simple and yet all so out of place in Crystal palace, heaving in traffic with its precarious one way system. But this is just what I love about London. You just never know what is there. Be brave and enter. Churches are so much more than what they used to represent.
And the panels and the boards that I describe are icons. Rather than one large image at the high altar and perhaps a few other altarpieces dotted around the church, either in small chapels or arranged in progression on the aisle walls, the icons are everywhere. Up and down, here and there, on strips of wall, on parts of wall, tucked into corners, by the back entrance, the vestry, the cleaning cupboard, jutting into richly carved corbels, hanging down too into the painted space of an icon, by door frames, decorated windows, by lights, some near the roof, the sky, and the street. There are even mini icons on window ledges and on shelves. Icons lead the way for the viewer; icons are like the ways to the cross. In other words, the whole church weighs with the image of the sacred. The aisle is not just a thoroughfare to move towards the altar. Everywhere you look is iconic, icon splendour, where the eyes of the camera need to hesitate. I took a few photos from far away. And that is why some of the shots seem a little obscure. There are exceptions – for example the place to light the candles, lodged into pools of sand and framed by two windows chequered and lozenge like by small glass panels. And then a close up shot of a rich repertory of marble in the form of a column, with a base, rounded smooth and polished by the sheer versatility of the marble’s flexibility.
And behind you see the light of the chandelier, bathing the church in light that throws specks of dust around like star dust. The pews wait patiently, for I am told a funeral is about to start. At the place where the altar is tucked away, a mandorla shape containing a Christ triumphant, arms raised to the painted Heavenly blue above, while angels, picking their way through balls of cloud stand to protect him beside.
The screen, rather like a rood screen painted with images of the medieval saints – here is a wonderful medieval example at the church of St. Helen, Ranworth, Norfolk – http://www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/ranworth/images/Dscf4405.jpg is a showcase of other saints, such as St. Michael, protecting and screening the altar area behind. Gold backgrounds regally reign here, the figures stationary, firm, steadfastly strong.
The church is dedicated to St. Constantine and St. Helen, a son and his mother. As far as I know, these are not common dedicatees for English parish churches. Let me start with the mother first. Helen (or Helena, c. 255-330) is a pillar of female courage and bravery, but not from the perspective of modern day feminism. She was a guiding leader, not requiring a category and when there was no need for a way in which to describe here. She mothered the boy to be Emperor, she spoke for Christianity in the Holy Land, she founded churches and she found the true cross – which is radiantly commemorated in a painting, as part of a cycle of frescoes at the church of St. Francis, in Arezzo by the Renaissance artist – Piero della Francesca – https://www.wga.hu/html_m/p/piero/2/7/7find01.html – you will see Helen on the left, slightly bent, wearing a black cape, a white headdress and a cream conical hat as she stands beside the cross she has just discovered and then on the right – kneeling in veneration of the true and only true find. This took place just outside Jerusalem and there it is prominently dispayed as if a Tuscan hill town to the left. One of my favourite figures in this image is of the man looking back towards Helen– and mirroring her in his choice of dress: a white tunic and a sharply tailored black coat with buttons, with bare legs. Except that he is wearing ‘short’ while she is bedecked in ‘long’. And his lesser status signalled by a cloth, and softly moulded cap, instead of an angular crown like hat. Helena in her solemn, silent, elegant pose seems to capture the tentative, even dangerous early stirrings of Christianity. And meanwhile her son’s turning to that is reflected in this early morning, night-dreamy state of the vision – https://www.wga.hu/html_m/p/piero/2/4/4vision1.html – where he is offered the way as he sleeps. In power from 312, Christianity was finally and formally established under his watch. But is he really sleeping? Yet, is he dreaming? For he gazes out sleepily at us, to say look, look at this, behold what is happening to me, and it shall happen to you. Light or dark, sunrise, or sunset, the light is radiant, ethereal, for something has happened. Or has it? Is this anything to do with the change to Christianity, for the sleepy dream represents the soon to be victory seized from another – as he waited for the day to fight the Emperor Maxentius at a battle by the Tiber. And while he sleeps or dreams, he is given the message ‘By this sign shalt thou conquer’.
I could not really linger. I was poised, on toes, twitchy, nervous, in case the eye found me out. I was taking pictures; I was casting a modern glow on that of the mysterious, but bold Greek icon. The sensation was one of watchfulness – both by the eyes in the icons, large, all-seeing, all-knowing and then mine – checking on my custodian, checking all around for the next image of beauty I wanted to capture. I was frozen, held captive by my delight and my nerves.
There were too many distractions, too many chambers to root in, too many gaps for my curiosity to be piqued.
And with just a brief conversation, how I learnt. There is no obvious high altar. I had asked where it was. That is concealed by some wooden gates, which lead into a small vestibule which is the altar area. And in that area I just about glimpsed some more icons. And there is no obvious altar table given a permanent place before the altar. It is merely a table wheeled out upon which the Eucharist items are laid out, when the gates are opened for the ritual during service times. Compared to the Latin Catholic church, the high altar is preserved, hidden and concealed from roving nosy eyes like mine. I was also shown the relics (although I could not tell which bodily bits exactly), of a bishop that had attended the Council of Nicaea, now Turkey in AD325. This was an important mission, on a global, truly international scale convened by Constantine in a religious and civic role. It was a massive gathering of bishops and priests, deacons and acolytes, all travel expenses paid. A great assembly for and to represent Christendom in which matters such as the date of Easter (still a movable feast), and the establishment of the Nicene Creed, still said today etc were discussed.
And so, here in a church in south-east London on a windy mad-March day comes a worldwide, all embracing gathering of visual and historical unity – to celebrate the easterly forms, patterns, ways and visions of Christianity, an understanding of some of its eastern history and a coming into glorious technicolour from a dreary, drab London street.
Sometimes churches give so little away to us outside. But maybe that is how it should be. Otherwise, what else, apart from driving rain might encourage us to step inside?