The building of this magnificent monument to Christianity was originally spearheaded by the late Charles P. Skouras—a movie-palace mogul in the 1930s, 40s and early 50s. His associate, the late William Chavalis, designed the iconography, windows, and decorations throughout the inside of this cathedral.
The Orthodox Christian Church has a lineage that traces itself, bishop by bishop, back to the very Apostles who were present when Christ’s Church was established in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. The development of Church architecture began at the latter part of the 1st century and was progressively influenced by the architecture of the various countries into which the Church expanded.
Although our cathedral was inspired by a spirit of Byzantine tradition, its architecture and iconography also reflect a diversity of other styles. Uniquely among Orthodox Churches around the world, Saint Sophia Cathedral reflects influences from the Hellenistic Period, the Byzantine, the Renaissance and even some Art Deco—which was popular in Hollywood during the time it was built. The artist, who executed intense research on churches of the world throughout the ages, did not copy any one style, but formed together an eclectic synthesis of timeless traditions connected with the Christian faith.
The exterior of our Cathedral was designed in very modest but graceful lines. The only exterior decorative art works are the reliefs at the main entrance and the north and south exits, providing focal points to elevate one’s senses while entering and exiting the cathedral. The relief work of crosses upon the doors is inspired by the Byzantine style of the 10th century. Above the front entrance outside, the peacocks drinking from the fountain are an ancient symbol of Paradise…and the leaf and the grape theme is a universal Christian symbol pointing to the Eucharist. Other reliefs above the entrance adorn it with foliage and birds signifying that this very portal takes one into Christ’s fulfillment of the Garden of Eden.
The contrast of the exterior with the interior of our cathedral reflect what the Church has essentially taught about the Christian life—that it should be modest and graceful on the outside—and yet filled with beauty and the light-of-Christ from the inside.
Therefore the interior of our Cathedral is given the fullest expression of this, employing all possible artistic media, and precious metals blended into a great symphony of light and, indeed, beauty that is incomparable—all working together as an image of…and a participation in…heaven. Of course, the intent is to captivate the heart and mind of the worshiper…and with the aid of music and liturgical worship, one is aroused to transcend the mere earthly into a sense of awe—directly encountering the Divine Presence—the living God.
The interior of our cathedral is divided into three sections; called the Narthex, the Nave and the Sanctuary. In ancient times, the Narthex—the foyer-style entry room—was intended to accommodate adult converts to Christianity who were still being instructed in the Faith as they awaited baptism. At a midway part of the Divine Liturgy, these students were asked to go and meet with their instructors in the Narthex. Today, the Narthex is used purely as a place of welcome and preparation for worship, where the faithful begin to quietly focus their minds and hearts in reverent prayer to God, venerating the icons and lighting a candle—which proclaims Christ to be the light of the world.
Upon entering the Nave—or the cathedral-proper (where you are now sitting)—you are encircled and inspired by our theology in color…fifty-five paintings…icons of the same type of people that Saint Paul describes as, “the great cloud of witnesses.” The Nave is the area that is occupied by the worshipping congregation. The front part of the Nave is the Solea, the slightly raised white marble area just in front of you. A bronze and white-onyx rail creates a visual border between the Solea and the part of the Nave where the worshippers are seated. The Solea area is used specifically during the Divine Liturgy; at processions; and celebrations of various sacraments.
The most sacred area of the Orthodox Church is the Sanctuary along with all its provisions—located behind the Iconastasion (or icon screen). The Sanctuary of the Orthodox faithful is an image of the place in heaven, from where our Lord eternally offers of Himself to those who have come to worship Him. Within the Sanctuary, the holy Altar is visible immediately past the Holy Door’s gates. The Altar is the celestial throne of the Almighty, invisibly surrounded by the angelic host who sing continuous praises to the Creator. Due to the sacred nature of the Sanctuary space and the holy Altar within it, laypeople (or non-clergy) may only enter that area if they have assigned duties related to worship, or if they have a specific blessing from the priest to be there for some other good reason.
Within the Apse, overlooking the Sanctuary (at the halfway point between Heaven and Earth) is the sweeping and majestic icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary with arms outstretched and the Christ-child in front of her chest. The painting is 33 feet in diameter and the face 7 ½ feet in diameter. As the mother of Christ the King, she is represented here as the Queen of Heaven ready to receive the faithful to the gates of heaven. The translation of the Greek inscription in the arch over the sanctuary says “This is the Gate of Heaven.” Throughout the Orthodox world, this icon is often referred to as “She Who is More Spacious Than The Heavens”—because the Son that Mary once held within her womb was the same One who…from before all time…created the entire universe and also every other heavenly being.
The Iconastasion—or the Icon-screen—which creates a visible border between the Sanctuary and the Nave is divided into upper and lower sections. The upper section of the Icon-screen depicts scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary. The lower section of the Icon-screen, six feet high, holds what is known as the prayer icons.
The first icon among the prayer icons, to the right of the Holy Door—or center-gate, manifests Christ on His throne holding the open Gospel-book and proclaiming, “I am the light of the world. He who believes in Me shall not perish but have the Light of Life.”
The first icon to the left of the Holy-Door manifests the Virgin Mary with the Christ-Child. In Orthodox-Christian Icons of her, Mary always projects and lifts-up the Savior who is the center of her life.
The icon to left of the Virgin, called “Hagia-Sophia” in Greek, is the icon representing that to which this Cathedral is dedicated. “Sophia” in Greek means “Wisdom.” This Cathedral is dedicated to the Holy Wisdom of God. This icon is the artist’s depiction of the Holy Trinity, the source of true Wisdom.
The north altar-screen door is also known as the deacon’s door. It depicts the Archangel Michael, who personifies guardianship of the way into Paradise.
On the right side of the icon of Christ is the icon of St. John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Lord. John points to Christ, reminding us that Jesus, the Lamb of God, is the One upon whom all our attention should be focused.
The south, sliding, liturgical *Entrance*-door depicts the Archangel Gabriel, the Messenger whose Good News to Mary about her birth-giving to God’s Son, became our *Entrance* into the Heavenly Realm.
In the lower center of the Icon-screen is the Holy-Door, which is flanked by two small bronze gates, often referred to as the Beautiful Gates. They represent the threshold to the New (or the Heavenly) Jerusalem. This particular door is only passed through by clergy of the Orthodox Christian Church. This is the door through which the King of Glory mystically passes to his people by way of the Eucharistic chalice…further uniting them to Him and His ministry.
The ceiling of the Cathedral has three areas. The first area is the growing vaults on each side, with capitals which are eight feet away from the walls. From each of those capitals hangs a crystal chandelier. There are seventeen crystal chandeliers throughout the entire cathedral, three of which weigh 2,000 pounds each. They are all lead-crystal, designed and manufactured in what was once called Czechoslovakia. These chandeliers illumine the cathedral as an earthly depiction of—and participation in—the joyous light that illumines heaven.
The second area of the ceiling is the main arch, 33 feet wide, and 40 feet high at center from the floor. It is highly ornamented with staff work and gilded with 24 carat gold leaf. Along the center of the ceiling of that main arch, there is an extended, gold-leafed composition portraying the “Tree of Jesse”—or the genealogy of Christ. The genealogy is divided into three periods of 14 generations each, from Abraham to King David, to King Jeconiah, to Christ. Back at the base of the tree you will see Adam and Eve and the angel who guarded the entrance into the Garden of Eden holding a fiery sword.
The third area of the ceiling is the dome above, which is 90 feet from the floor at its crest and 30 feet across. The icon of Christ’s head is 10-and-a-quarter feet and the hand alone is 7 feet long. The inner shell of an Orthodox Church’s dome is always reserved for an icon of Christ as the Ruler over all—the Creator and Lord of the Universe. He is at the same time, both, the Righteous Judge AND the One who loves humanity. The Gospel He holds is the book by which we are judged, and His hand of blessing proclaims God’s loving kindness toward us, showing us that He is constantly offering forth His forgiveness. The background around Christ within the crest of the dome is crafted in mosaic, surrounded by an inscription of His words, reminding us, “I am the Light of the World.”
There are 24 windows along the circular wall of the dome. The spaces between the 24 windows contain 24 mosaic icons of our Faith’s saints and martyrs…each of them spiritual heroes…whose lives became closely united to the very likeness of Christ.
In the lower ring of the dome are larger icons of six of the Major Old Testament Prophets… each of whose lives and writings pointed to Jesus as the awaited Messiah. On the four corners, at the base of the dome, are icons of the four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Their Gospels each offer us insights into the life and teachings of Christ. Behind each of the evangelists are illustrative-symbols of the Old Testament Prophet, Ezekiel’s, vision of four “living creatures” who, together, bear forth the throne of God. The first and on your right side is St Mark, with a lion, whose Gospel underscores the Royal Dignity and courage of the Lord. In front and on your right side is St Luke, with a calf, representing the temple offering and priestly oblation of the Lord. To your left, St Matthew is shown with a human-figure looking over his shoulder, because his Gospel emphasizes the real, Human-Nature of the Lord. In front, on your left, is St John with the highest flying of birds—an eagle—as his writings most emphatically highlight the Divine Nature of the Christ.
As you look to the walls on each side, you see twelve stained glass windows, six on the north wall and six on the south wall. Each window is four feet wide by 18 feet in height. These twelve windows depict the twelve apostles of Christ, through whom His light was brought into the world. The spaces between the windows are highly decorated with pure 24 carat gold leaf in scroll design, forming medallions approximately six feet by six feet. Each oval contains an icon of various heroes of the Faith.
On the north wall, to your left, we see the trilogy of the Crucifixion. The first panel of the mural depicts Christ carrying His Cross on the road to Golgotha, the Crucifixion scene on the center panel, and the descent from the cross on the third panel. Below the trilogy of the Crucifixion is a magnificent bronze and copper baptismal font…closely associating that entry sacrament into the Church with the death, burial and life-giving resurrection of Christ.
On the south wall, to your right, the trilogy murals depict the Resurrection of our Lord. The first panel represents the entombment of Christ, the second depicts the Resurrection and the third panel depicts the announcement by the archangel to the three women at the Holy Sepulcher that “He is risen!”
To your right and below the panels of the Resurrection is a wooden symbol of Christ’s burial-chamber. It is an elaborate, hand carved, olive-wood Church-accoutrement, imported from Greece. This burial-chamber is used only once a year during the services of Good Friday. It is completely adorned with flowers; then a tapestry-icon of our deceased Lord is placed within it; and it is carried in an elaborate funeral-procession around the cathedral to end at the center of the Solea—representing the final resting place of Christ. The lamentations sung within that Holy Friday funeral-service are most especially marked by a paradox that we call bright/sadness, or joyful/sorrow—sad about Christ’s crucifixion and death—but also exultant in anticipating the joy of His coming Resurrection.
To the north side of the Solea, on your left, stands the majestic gold-leafed Pulpit from which the Good News of Christ is proclaimed and elucidated. On the wall behind the Pulpit are three sets of gold-leafed inscriptions in English—the Beatitudes-of-the-Sermon-on-the-Mount; the Lord’s Prayer; and the Nicene Creed. To the south, on the opposite wall to your right…behind the Bishop’s Throne…these same selections are similarly inscribed in Greek.
The Bishop’s Throne below those—also known as the Throne of Christ—is traditionally placed on the south side of the Solea and is used only by the Bishop during worship services. The lions here symbolize the strength of Christ and of His Gospel as proclaimed by Episcopal authority. The Chi pronounced “Key”-Rho is an abbreviation from the New Testament Greek word for Christ. Just behind the Bishop’s Throne is the painting of the double headed eagle, an emblem of the Byzantine Empire, looking to both, the East and the West. At one time Byzantium was the center of Christian civilization, conveying the Faith of Christ throughout both, the East and the West.
Behind you, in the back of the cathedral, the mural painted above the choir loft is the artist’s rendering of the Old Testament Prophet Elijah being carried toward heaven upon a flaming chariot…while to his left, his disciple and successor, the prophet Elisha, is on the ground crying out at the loss of his departing mentor.
Below the choir loft is the great panel of Divine Justice. To the right of the mural is Moses holding the tablets of Ten Commandments…and to the left is Christ at the Temple with His New Covenant, offered to the new Israel—the Church—rooted in His love. At the center is the Archangel holding the scales of judgment.
At the northwest corner of the Cathedral, the panel represents St. George slaying evil in the form of the legendary dragon. The companion panel on the southwest corner is a mural of St. Demetrios, a martyr of the Church of the third century. Here he is seen, like St. George combating the powers of evil. Both St. George and St. Demetrios were officers in the army of the Roman Empire who became fervent Christians, subsequently suffering martyrdom for Christ.
Just above the main exit doors, as we depart, we are reminded of Christ’s advice that we should put aside our own egocentric desires—to take up our cross and follow Him. In that context our Lord offers the insightful question: “For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”
Thank you for visiting the Saint Sophia Cathedral of Los Angeles. We hope your visit was meaningful and edifying. If you wish to find literature about the timeless Orthodox Christian Faith, it is available at the bookstore in the Huffington center across the way. There, you can also purchase icons and other gifts that reflect the Church’s ancient worship of God as Trinity—the source of true wisdom. Please feel welcome to join us each Sunday at 10:00 AM for Divine Liturgy, to experience this cathedral in the context for which it was designed—the heavenly worship of God. And we ask His blessings upon your life!