Orthodox Churches in Europe
Orthodox Christianity is the majority faith in much of Eastern Europe and in Greece. It may not be as well known in countries like England or Finland, but there have been Orthodox churches in Western Europe from the earliest days of Christianity. Five European churches, from both East and West, appear in Catherine’s Pascha.
Constantinople (now Istanbul), Turkey
The Emperor Constantine built his great cathedral, Hagia Sophia, in 360 AD, in Constantinople, the capital city of his new, Christian empire. The cathedral was on the highest point of the city, on the European side of the Bosphorus Strait.
Hagia Sophia was dedicated, not to Saint Sophia, as some suppose, but to the Holy Wisdom of God, the Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity. The feastday for the church was December 25, the feast of the Nativity.
The current building is actually the third building for the church. It was built by Justinian I between 532 and 537 AD to replace the second building, which was burned to the ground during the Nika Revolt. The original Hagia Sophia had been built in 360. It was destroyed in the year 404, during riots that erupted when St. John Chrysostom was exiled.
After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Hagia Sophia was converted to a mosque. Today, it is a museum, where many of the original church mosaics can be seen.
More information about Hagia Sophia is available at the museum website.
St. Sophia’s Orthodox Cathedral
The first Greek Orthodox Church in London was built in 1677. Soon, however, the Greeks living in London began moving to a different part of the city, and the church fell into financial difficulties. By 1684, French Huguenots had taken possession of the building.
For many years after that, the Greeks of London worshiped in the Russian church. It wasn’t until 1837 that a Greek chapel was built. That chapel was dedicated to Christ the Savior. But the Greek community was growing, and by 1843, the chapel was already too small for the community.
A new church of Christ our Savior was completed in 1849. Again, though, the people in the Greek community began to move to other areas of the city, and the location of Christ the Savior church was too far away from the community to be practical.
In 1874, the church established a building committee; in 1877, the foundation stone for the new building was laid, and in 1879, a new building was completed. The church is known as St. Sophia, dedicated, not to a saint, but to the Holy Wisdom of God.
St. Sophia has been the cathedral of the Metropolis of Thyateira and Great Britain since 1922. During World War II, when London was the seat of the Greek government in exile, St. Sophia also served as the cathedral of the Greek nation.
The cathedral was bombed during the Blitz, and was later repaired. You can read more about St. Sophia’s on their website, and see images of the magnificent mosaic icons that adorn the walls.
St. Basil’s Cathedral
The church known throughout the world as St. Basil’s Cathedral is officially the Church of the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God, or sometimes the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat. It was built in the mid-sixteenth century by Ivan the Terrible to commemorate his military triumphs in Kazan.
There is no other building like it. In more than a thousand years of Russian and Byzantine art and architecture, there is nothing similar. Historians argue about possible influences — wooden churches in northern Russia, mosques in Kazan, Greek refugees from Constantinople, and Italian and German craftsmen. This mix of influences resulted in a building that is unique.
The cathedral is not one church, but eleven. The original design called for the central church to be surrounded by four large churches and four smaller ones. The entire structure is asymmetrical; the large apse of the main church causes it to be offset to the west.
The asymmetry is increased by the tenth and eleventh chapels, which were not in the original plan. The tenth chapel is built over the grave of St. Basil the Holy Fool, who was an open adversary of Tsar Ivan. St. Basil left his original work as a shoemaker to take up shoplifting. He gave what he stole to the poor, both to help those in need and to shame the rich who could have helped but did not.
Basil also rebuked the tsar publicly for lack of piety and for his violence and brutality. When Basil died, the tsar served as one of his pallbearers. The name of the monumental cathedral that was built at the tsar’s command has, ever since, been known by the name of St. Basil.
The final chapel was originally dedicated to the protection of the Mother of God. Since 1916, though, it has served as the grave of St. John the Blessed of Moscow, and is dedicated to him.
St. Spiridon and the Church of the Resurrection
Oia, Santorini, Greece
Santorini is the largest of a group of islands that surround the caldera of an ancient, but still active, volcano in the Aegean Sea. The conditions on the island can be harsh. Many local homes, called yposkafa, are carved into cliffs. This protects the homes from the heat of summer and from storms and earthquakes.
The village of Oia is perched on cliffs. It is home to some 70 churches. The white-washed, blue-domed churches are instantly recognizeable, even if you’ve only seen photographs. St. Spiridon and the Church of the Resurrection are the main churches in the Monastiri district.
Cathedral of Christ the Savior
In 1812, after Napolean Bonaparte retreated from Moscow, Tsar Alexander I declared his intention to build a magnificent cathedral in honor of Christ the Savior. Work on the cathedral was begun by his successor, Nicholas I, in 1839.
The construction took many decades to complete. The cathedral was not consecrated until May 26, 1883, the day before Alexander III was crowned.
Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture was written in honor of the cathedral and of the victory of Tsar Alexander over Napolean. It premiered in a tent outside the unfinished church in August 1882.
The cathedral was destroyed in 1931, under Joseph Stalin, ostensibly to extract the gold from the domes. A gigantic Palace of the Soviets was to have been built there, but the foundation was, for many years, nothing more than a giant water-filled pit. A swimming pool was eventually installed.
The church, a faithful replica of the original, was rebuilt in the 1990s. At 338 feet in height, it is the tallest Orthodox Church in the world.