December 08, 2017

Photo Essay: The Greek Orthodox Cathedral That Hollywood Built

I've spent most of my life being unorthodox and doing unorthodox things. And although I don;t consider myself religious, I have a lot of respect for a certain kind of orthodoxy that compels people to express their piety in elaborate architecture, ornamentation, and iconography.

It seems like a good way to channel religiosity—give it up to whatever or whomever you worship, and keep your sanctimony without being too sanctimonious.

And maybe it'll be so pretty that infidels like me can't resist going in.

I found this to be true with the Orthodox cathedrals and chapels in Ukraine; and when I came back from the former Eastern Bloc, I found myself drawn to another Orthodox institution: Saint Sophia Cathedral.

It's Catholic, but it's not Roman Catholic, so I still found it somewhat exotic—though supposedly this version of Catholicism predates all other versions of Christianity (or, as we call them, denominations), going all the way back to the so-called "birth of the Church" (and that is, indeed, Church with a capital "C").

The Roman Catholics didn;t begin to split off until the 11th Century, creating a great divide between East and West.

And that more or less coincided with the time when religion really became an act of war (a.k.a The Crusades).

But before everything got so muddied up with all this infighting, there was a line that led directly back to the apostles of Jesus, and the was The Church, the Orthodox Church (that is, ορθά δόξα, or "right glory").

Then again, there are a lot of churches that claim the same direct line and the same "rights" to sacred sites and traditions.

So who's right?

If you could ask Apostle Paul, what would he say?

What about Matthew?

Would they even recognize the beliefs that have been handed down over the last two millennia?

If Jesus was truly our Holy Savior, surely he wouldn't want his followers to be divided among so many splinter groups.

But how do you know?

Not James, nor James the Lesser, nor Thaddeus, Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, or Simon can speak to us now.

Shall we ask Saint Sophia, the 2nd century martyr who gave birth to Faith, Hope, and Charity?

Perhaps, but Saint Sophia Cathedral isn't actually named after her—nor after any saint at all.

The word "Sophia" (Σοφία) here refers to "wisdom"—not a proper name.

And somehow the word for "Holy"(Αγια) got translated into "Saint" (as most dictionaries are apt to do), despite the fact that the cathedral was actually named after the Church of Holy Wisdom—Hagia Sophia—in ancient Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey).

So, if this wisdom is so holy, then why is it so confusing?

But before I get too mired down in the details and discrepancies of theology, I have to remember what brought me into Saint Sophia Cathedral—and that's the building itself.

With its opulent crystal chandeliers, it feels more like a theatrical interpretation of Byzantine tradition...

...and that's due, at least in part, to its art glass windows being designed by the head of Fox West Coast Theaters' decorating department, William Chavalas.

But the cathedral itself was borne out of a Hollywood dream—the dream of a Greek immigrant named Charles Skouras who vowed to build a house of worship if he ever "made it" in showbiz.

When he did, ultimately becoming president of Fox West Coast and head of the National Theatres circuit, he made good on his promise—breaking ground on Saint Sophia Cathedral in the "Greek" section of LA in 1948.

It was completed in 1952, just two years before Skouras passed away. And now, he's buried in a crypt right there on the property—on land he personally donated to be used for the cathedral.

And yet his dream lives on for its parishioners, the community in the surrounding Byzantine-Latino Quarter, and curious visitors like me.

For more information about the cathedral and its iconography, click here.

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