"Our new chandeliers are the largest of their kind anywhere in the world," said the Rev. John Tavlarides, dean of St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral at 36th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW. The chandeliers, installed recently, are reproductions of a sixth century polykandelon, or small altar lamp. They are a major physical manifestation of the congregation's dream of making the cathedral a Byzantine masterpiece.
When Father Tavlarides came to St. Sophia in 1956, the church was a newly finished, undecorated empty shell. Under his direction, St. Sophia has evolved into the major Greek Orthodox church in the area, and is the seat of the archbishop when he visits Washington.
The church is being refurbished in a style based on the Macedonian school of art that flourished in the Byzantine state during the ninth and tenth centuries. The scholars at the Byzantine Museum at Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown, in informal association with the church directors, are working together to make sure the unfolding cathedral will be as authentic as possible.
The chandeliers were reproduced using polykandelons in the Dumbarton Oaks Museum. "The nine small amber cups on the outside rim of the fixtures represent the nine hosts of angels mentioned in the Old and New Testaments," explained Father Tavlarides. The large center cups symbolize God.
The center cups were too large for Rockville glassmaker Peter G. Chaconas' furnace, and had to be done by a larger company's furnace under his supervision. "Every one was made individually, by hand, to simulate the original process," he said. "We've been working on them for four years," he added.
Other art projects are currently under way at the church. Father Tavlarides is waiting for sealed bids from three church glass companies that want to install Byzantine-style glass in the cathedral windows.
Father Tavlarides is so involved in choosing glass samples that he constantly interrupted conversations with a visitor to ask his opinion of this piece or that. Fresco painting is also under way, and marble veneer is being fitted to the walls.
"The chandeliers have been well received by the church members," said Father Tavlarides. "They are expressions of our faith as well as works of art."
Funds to support the project come from the congregation, he said. "The parish is most committed to the realization of the art program at St. Sophia."