Light has unique symbolic meaning in worship and so do all the illumination tools used in church. In our previous article, we discussed candle holders and lamps located in the altar and taken out at certain parts of services, described in the rubrics of the Church. Now let us focus on the purpose and symbolism of the lighting located in the main part of the church.
The large hanging chandelier, as well as its ancestor, historically known as choros (or corona lucis) are the largest ecclesiastical lamps hanging down from the dome and illuminating the main space of the church with many lights. Sometimes you can see the same lamps of a smaller size in small churches, as well as in the side aisles or even over the altars of large cathedrals. The number of bulbs in them ranges from seven to twelve. These fittings are called polykandela.
The choros chandelier is the ancient Byzantine predecessor of the large hanging chandelier, as we know it today. It consists of one or more large metallic or wooden rings, suspended from the dome on chains. The first such lamps had 12 candles or lamps, according to the number of the holy apostles, carrying the light of the Gospel into the world.
With the passage of time and the development of architecture, these light fixtures began to become more complex. In particular, they began to be decorated with ornaments and carvings, supplemented with stained glass images etc. In the Orthodox tradition, it is customary to decorate the large hanging chandelier with one or more images of the cross. On Mount Athos, this imagery also includes other ancient Christian symbols, signifying Christ and the Holy Church, e. g. a fish, a ship, a sail, an anchor, or a cross in a boat. It is also typical for the churches of the Holy Mountain to follow the ancient tradition of decorating this chandelier with hanging lamps, glass balls, ostrich eggs and silk tassels.
The invention of electricity at the end of the 19th century made it possible to replace candles and lamps with light bulbs, increasing their number many times over. The light bulbs used in church are usually designed in the form of candles and vigil lamps to match the interior decoration.
Choros Chandeliers with forged animal figures, stained glass inserts and glass Lamps are also made to order in our workshops.
At that time, large hanging chandeliers began to acquire their usual form both in Europe and in the Russian lands. The design of these chandeliers resembles a tree with many branches of arms with candlesticks stemming from the central rod. The bottom of this central rod ends in a sphere, known as the “golden apple”. Symbolically “growing” under the branches of this luminous tree, it symbolizes the fruit of heavenly wisdom and grace.
In contemporary churches, one can find both historical choros chandeliers and their modern versions. Often a central hanging chandelier is represented by a combination of the two.
The spiritual symbolism of the large hanging chandelier with its many lights is to signify the Heavenly Church as a gathering of people sanctified by the grace of the Holy Spirit. His heavenly light drives away the darkness of sin from the earthly Church and calls on Christians to strive for spiritual growth in order to join the saints in inheriting the kingdom of heaven. Another symbolic meaning of this fixture is to signify joy and jubilation during worship.
On Athos, during especially solemn moments (e. g. the polyeleos) the central hanging chandelier is swayed. This event is accompanied by the singing of a unique ancient melody known as terirem*. The lit lamps move rhythmically in the space of the church, reminding us with their symbolic “dance” of the continuous movement of the entire Universe and, together with the choir, glorifying the Creator. Interestingly, in many churches of the Holy Mountain, electric consecration is still not used, while all lamps are lit and extinguished manually.
There are also other kandela (an outdated ancient name for all types of church candlesticks) both in the main part of the church and in the narthex. In addition to hanging lamps near individual wall icons, there are also large candlesticks (candelabra) for wax candles next to especially revered images (usually the Savior, the Mother of God, the icon of a feast or a particular saint on the central analogion ). In the center of such kandela, there is usually an oil lamp, from which these candles are lit. The oil from such lamps is sometimes used for anointing.
An important role of these candlesticks is the parishioners’ sacrifice to God, made through their offering in the form of burning wax candles, symbolising souls that believe in Christ. Candles are usually placed in such candelabra with personal prayer intentions as well as prayers for the health of relatives and friends.
Candles for the repose of the souls of the departed are usually placed on a dedicated quadrangular memorial table (kanun), located near the Crucifixion. Such tables have a metal or marble top with openings for memorial candles, as well as an oil lamp and a metal Crucifix with figures of the Savior with the forthcoming. Funerals and memorial services are usually performed before such a table.
A church is a house of God, and everything in it reminds us of His Kingdom and of the repentance that our hearts need to embrace Him. Candles in various holders, as well as lamps and other light fixtures may differ in practical application, but they all serve a common spiritual cause. They help us give praise to God, to bring our small sacrifice to Him, and sometimes in a small flame to see the light of His love. Although we do not always notice this symbolism, it helps our souls partake of God’s grace. It is for a reason that many saints advise spending more time in church, where the soul is invisibly filled with Spirit, becoming closer to the Lord, Who will not oversee any spiritual effort.
* terirem is an ancient melody reflecting angelic singing. It was revealed to St John Koukouzelis on Mount Athos in the 14th century. The saint then recorded this chant, in which there are no understandable words, only sounds, not related in meaning, and set to a heavenly melody.