On Wednesday, May 31, 2023, St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine hosted “The Shape of the Sacred: Eastern Christianity and Architectural Modernity.” Sponsored by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America in association with the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University, this event was part of a three-day public international symposium that explored the challenges of the dialogue between contemporary architecture and theological concepts of space.
Archdeacon John Chryssavgis, Senior Advisor and Theologian to the Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical & Interfaith Relations, in addition to representing Archbishop Elpidophoros on the Organizing Committee of the Conference, moderated last night’s program featuring keynote conservation with architecture critic and Pulitzer Prize recipient, Justin Davidson. Author of Magnetic City: A Walking Companion to New York, Davidson offered his architectural expertise on what makes St. Nicholas Shrine a ‘sacred’ symbol to Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike. As the only religious site on Ground Zero, Saint Nicholas Church serves the unique function to remember and commemorate those who died during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Most evidently displayed in much of the iconography, Davidson observed the remarkable construction by designer Santiago Calatrava noting that this was the only church he ever designed.
Among the many distinguished conference participants and guests, hierarchs, scholars and enthusiasts, was His Grace Bishop Irinej, a member of the Advisory Council for the Orthodox Christian Study Center at Fordham University. During the question and answer session, which followed the panel discussion, His Grace commented on Calatrava’s own conceptual approach to the architecture of St Nicholas Church and Shrine, predicated on the stylization of the famed mosaic of the ‘Theotokos More Spacious than the Heavens’ of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. This is reflective of the Orthodox theological understanding of ecclesiastical architecture, wherein the use of rounded forms and arches are connotative of the womb of the Theotokos, which contained Christ and was not consumed with His presence. Hence, the very icon above the altar of St. Nicholas in a contemporary setting of the Mother of God over the City of New York.
Thereafter, the rounded forms constantly return the gaze of the beholder to the Kingdom of Heaven, which is omnipresent in the more elaborate interior of the temple. Here, the Bishop made mention of the newness of the traditional iconography, which has been so rendered as to allow the walls and their forms to speak for themselves. There is also a loftiness to the subtle pastel nature of the background, which compliments the translucence of the sheathed marble.
Finally, continued the Bishop, there is also the semblance of a tomb given the contained space of the interior and stark and elegant smooth exterior. One cannot gaze either inward or outward, yet the soft light of the translucent marble glows with hope and promise of eternity, both on the inside and outside, for those who perished during the 911 attacks, and those who now keep their memory in this sacred Shrine.
Photos: Demetrios Katsiklis