Meaningful Beauty: The Crypt-style Church of The Holy Royal Martyrs at St.Elisabeth Convent

On July 17 the feast of The Holy Royal Martyrs was celebrated at St.Elisabeth Convent. It was a special day for St. Elisabeth Convent, because one of the Convent’s churches has been blessed two years ago in the name of the Royal Passion bearers. The beauty and uniqueness of this church impresses both the parishioners and the pilgrims.

“The idea of building the church appeared more than ten years ago, – tells Father Dmitry Kozyrev, the chief architect and the leader of the project group of the Convent. – At that time the cathedral in the name of the Mother of God the Reigning was being built and we needed a separate baptismal church. It is interesting that the church in the name of the Royal Passion Bearers is the lower one, and the cathedral in the name of the Mother of God the Reigning stands above it. When the royal family was shot, the Mother of God picked up the sovereign scepter of the Russian Empire. There also another one parallel: the royal family members were shot in the basement, and the location of the church reminds us about the events of those days…”

The murals of the church are painted mostly in red combined with white and grey. The red colors represent blood and resignation at the same time. Since the church is also a baptistry, most of the icons are devoted to the theme of baptism. “The crossing of the Black sea is an Old Testament prototype of baptism, – says priest Sergius Nezhbort, an icon-painter. – The chosen people of Israel escaped from captivity, which symbolizes sin. At the same time the chosen people symbolize our Christian Church. People are persecuted and they are in turmoil. And then Moses cuts the waves through with his staff and the water steps back, so that people can cross the sea. Then the water takes its place and washes out the persecutors. In one of the festal canticles there are the following words: “How could Moses do that?” He made the sign of Christ with his staff – the cross. This was not reflected on the icons, and that is why it was a difficult task for us: how should we depict this moment in such a way that it is recognizable and contains red and grey at the same time?

Gradually we developed the following composition: we depicted the pharaoh sinking in the water and falling from the horse in the grey background, and Moses was painted in the saving red one. All of these symbolize the kingdoms of death and life. Water means death for the pharaoh and sin, and it is life for the people and all of us. It is said in the order of baptism, that a person is baptized in Christ’s death in order to accept the resurrection of Christ. The old person dies in baptism, but the new one arises in new life with Christ. In front of this fresco you may see another one – Baptism of Christ. We wanted to depict this famous plot and to show Him anew too. We took a brave decision to paint the water in red. It is unusual and in this case it is symbolically connected with the church itself. Or maybe it is not water at all, but it is the blood of sinners, the blood of Christ from the Bowl… While being baptized there, people stay in front of the image of Christ depicted on this fresco, as if they are going to unite with him. There is an axe to the left from Christ, which is a symbol of judgment on sin. Between Moses and the way through the Black sea there is a star, which reminds us about the Coming of our Savior.

To the left from this mural there is an icon, which shows a fragment of the life of John the Baptist. He was alone when he was just three years old. It depicts the moment, when the angel leads John to the desert. He is depicted as a child, and the angel shows him the right way. The image of the angel symbolizes a soul, because when you are baptized you are given your own guardian angel, who will accompany a person for life. Even if you are 80 years old, you are still just a child for your angel, and you need his help in your journey. It is vital that those people who are baptized understand that since in this very moment their new life begins…

In the center of the baptismal church there is a baptismal font, which has a shape of a cross. It is decorated
with stone mosaic, but some of its elements are made from glass. As a result we have something like a stained glass combined with a mosaic. In the center of the celling Christ is depicted. He is shown as a young man here, just like He was depicted in ancient times. So did we to continue the theme of early Christian paintings. On the frescos you can trace the line between Heaven and Baptism. In the Old Testament it is described how God creates a human being and sets him in Heaven, hedged with four rivers. The four edges of the celling symbolize these four rivers. Their names are written there too. There are also four prophets pointing to Christ and near them there are quotations from the Holy Scripture. Each part of text tells about the second coming of our Savior and at the same time these texts are connected with water, which make us clean and brings us in the Kingdom of Heaven. All of these show our attempt to show the essence of baptism.
In the very beginning this church was designed like ancient catacombs, we wanted to make it look in the style of ancient Christian churches, and this intent influenced all the decoration of the church. Regarding the decoration of the altar, it is interesting that we wanted each person to see the image of Christ behind the altar. It is the church’s center and we wanted people to look at this image which is the biggest in this church, because through Baptism, Divine service and other

Sacraments a person can reach the Kingdom and know Christ. Near this image – to the left and to the right – Basil the Great and John Chrysostom are depicted. They are holding the scrolls on which the texts of the liturgy are written. In the altar there are two frescos which embody two sacrament topics: Descent from the Cross and the Resurrection of Christ. These two episodes show the essence of life, and what we join being baptized or during other sacraments. On the other side of the altar The Last Supper is depicted. It means that the icon of the altar are Eucharistic by their nature.

On the left from the altar there is a fresco of the Mother of God taking the scroll, on which the dialog between Her and Christ is written: “Dear Lord, the Lover of men, hear Your Mother praying to You. – What do You pray Me for, Mother ? – To save the sinners. – They called down My wrath. – Forgive them, my Son. – They do not repent. – Save them with Your divine gift”. In front of it there is an image of the Savior keeping His hands on the Gospel on the verse saying: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (MarK, 16:16).
Above the Sanctuary doors you can see the icon of Annunciation. The Sanctuary doors are a special place in the church. They are considered to be the border between the our world and the Heavens. It is the place where people meet Christ, because it is not just the priest who comes through these doors, but Christ himself.  The acoustics are great there too. Due to this you can hear well what the priest is saying and the singing of the choir. In the forechurch there is a beautiful chandelier, which attracts the attention of many people and makes them stop under it.

All the icons and frescos in this church seem to come to life during the liturgy, and this helps people to join the spiritual world. Spiritual art has a large impact on a person.

Many of those who have visited this church say that with the help of these paintings you can learn the Holy Scripture. It is important, because it is the external and internal decoration of the church, what attracts many people when they first start going to church. Only then they will understand what the true sense of this beauty is. The architects should pay attention to this fact, as well as the icon-painters and all the people who participate in custruction and iconographic decoration of the church, as there is nothing better, than to come to God through this beauty.
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