How The Chapel in the Sunday School of St. Elisabeth Convent Was Constructed

There is a small chapel in honour of the Holy Martyrs Faith, Hope, Love, and their mother Sophia in the building of the Private Grade School and Sunday School run by our St Elisabeth Convent. It is still being decorated but for the most part, the work has already been done. Every piece of work adds something important to the general design idea. Each new detail does not only make the chapel more beautiful but also adds some meaning to it. Even the smallest brick has its mission.

This is what fresco painter Dmitry Kuntsevich, who is in charge of the mosaic workshop of St Elisabeth Convent, tells about it:

— We did our best to make the chapel look interesting, distinctive, warm, and lively. The fact that the chapel is located in a place where children come together, allowed us to let our imagination run free. We even considered letting children create certain decorative elements themselves but it soon became evident that this kind of work requires serious concentration: you’ve got to teach the children regularly and for a long time. Unfortunately, we did not have this opportunity so we did the majority of tasks on our own.

The idea and its implementation was a joint effort of Sergey Kozyr, Mikhail Lavshuk, Alexander Truskovsky, Maksim Dudarau, Anna Ambrosova, Vitaly Zharov, Sergey Kudlach, Andrey Dudka, Alim Raula and many others.

We hope that the children will pray, study church-related subjects and enhance their creativity. This nice and cosy place will help them to concentrate on prayer and learning.

“The Dome Looked Empty Without Mosaics”

During the concept design stage it became clear that a mosaic could fit into the dome nicely. The attempts to do without the mosaic were dull. We felt that something was missing because the composition looked incomplete.

The dome is a semi-sphere, or, symbolically speaking, a transcendent place. It symbolizes the Heaven — a place where God dwells. We decided to cover it with gold, which, coupled with the starry darkness and the clouds in the centre, signifies something ethereal, something from outer space. However, we felt that there was a lack of the central piece, some “personal” image. If we used the face of Christ as the centrepiece, we would need to develop a plot of some kind. We did not want to do it because it would involve adding unnecessary details. We were to make the composition lighter, so one of our team suggested placing a dove in the centre of the dome. The allusion to the dove that brought an olive branch to the Noah’s Ark is a testimony about forgiveness and unification between the Heaven and the earth, between God and man. We gave the dove a golden olive branch, and this made the dome look complete, deep, and multilayered, which is very important for the composition.

Each Detail Has Its Own Image

Once we formulated the general idea and completed several parts of the composition, we decided that we should focus on the materials – the beauty of gesso, natural stones, bricks, and alabaster – and not to overload the composition with paintings, stories, and literary events.

At a certain point, we decided to make niches in the walls, which would represent windows into the alternate world. The vigil lamp lights shine like the saved souls of the reposed whose sepulchres we observed in ancient caves. The niches also resemble swallow’s nests in quarries or maybe burial sites of early Christians in catacombs. I hope these images will be properly interpreted by the visitors.

Finally, we finished the dome; the walls with niches “land” into the scheme and create a sort of a space in its own right; they follow their own logic. The problem was how to make pendentives. We did not want to continue decorating the chapel with mosaic.

Once I saw several photos on the Internet related to Syrian art: ruins of churches, decoration, tiling, streets and palaces that went back to late antiquity and the beginning of the Christian era. I had never seen Syrian Christian art heritage before. These masterpieces were the foundation for the entire Orthodox culture; in fact they lie at the roots of the Orthodox church art.

I saw how stones match bricks. I appreciated the imagery of these materials, the conceptuality of these masterpieces, their artistic perfection, when I suddenly felt that they were in tune with our ideas and could be reproduced in our chapel! They are so amazing!

I was so inspired by the Syrian architectural masterpieces that I wanted to use them, to put this inspiration into practice, so we made a wave in the pendentives, which represents the grace of the Holy Spirit, the sea and air waves through which the Lord touches us. The movements in the pendentives diffuse the tension from the dome down to the people who stand in the church.
The chapel itself is an artistic representation of the Noah’s Ark where human beings, including the students and other supplicants, can get saved. The pieces of wood incorporated into the plastered walls remind us of the old wood – the authentic wood that the Noah’s Ark was built of – and of the saving wood of the Lord’s Cross. The fumed oak looks like it has survived many ages and epochs.

The walls have an arched structure. It expands the space and adds visual depth. Figured mosaics and paintings will cover the surface of the niches. However, it took us a long time to figure out what to do with the floor. The ancient samples helped us again: we finally decided to try making a ceramic floor with glazed elements, and found out that they were a perfect match!

Like all other elements, the ceramic floor has a symbolic meaning. It represents clay and soil, the earth that human beings are made of and to which they shall go. These tiles were made of our Belarusian clay excavated in Polesie region. Firing, shaping, and fitting it was no easy task. Nevertheless, seeing how nicely it matched the general concept, the artistic idea of the church, we decided to undertake this hard work.

We used wooden inserts of fumed oak for the floor, too. The combination of the materials and colors looks fascinating.

The lower tier of the chapel requires lighting. We chose not to make forged brass sconces. Amazingly enough, I realised that ceramic vessels on those Syrian photos were used as lights when vigil lamps, candles, and wood spills were placed into them. We made a sketch and then adapted it for our chapel. Quite unexpectedly, we discovered another piece of the puzzle: a jug… A jug is basically earth, water, and air that went through fire. Generally, water, earth, air, and fire are the basic elements of the creation, according to the Holy Fathers. These jugs made from the dust of the earth become sources of light, thus embodying a human being who can be filled with either light or darkness, with either living or dead water. As a result, we put ceramics into the white walls, the color of which is the same as the color of the floor tiles, and the ceramics start to shine through holes in the exquisite floral ornaments.

Several important parts of the interior design remain to be implemented in order to fully finish the decoration of the chapel, including painted, glazed, and ceramic plates made according to an ancient Byzantine technology; entrance doors made of glass with fumed oak inserts, rivets and doorknobs with images of the Evangelists on them.

With an Image of Christ in the Centre

An icon of the holy patron saints of this chapel, Ss Faith, Hope, Love, and their mother Sophia, is being painted now. It will sit in a side niche. There will be images of other saints in various other strategic points around the chapel. The central icon of Christ who holds a white scroll in his hands with an inscription that reads, Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid (Cf. John 14:27). This scroll in the hands of the Lord, combined with his dark posture, looks like a cross. This image of Christ was inspired by an icon of Moses found in one of Jewish synagogues in Syria. This icon was painted in the style of early Christian encaustic paintings, and it has become the centrepiece of the chapel that helps to finish the general image of the chapel.

We plan to make mosaics Alpha and Omega, which will be located on both sides of the Savior and will serve as a continuation of this image. The mosaic is a concise composition where letters α (alpha) and ω (omega) will be parts of the ornament. There will be faces of the apostles and two hands of Jesus in this ornamental pattern: a blessing hand with the Eucharistic Cup and a hand with Eucharistic Bread. Can this be the perfect illustration of the idea of fullness of ecclesiastical life? The Communion is the beginning and the end of all things. The Body and the Blood of Christ contain the entire Revelation! There is nothing better than what the Lord feeds us with. Jesus Christ is the Word of God — our Logos, our life.

I’d like to hope that this is the Word of God that the children are taught in our school.

Recorded by Vadim Yanchuk
September 30, 2017

St. Elisabeth Convent