Friday, October 19, 2007

The Magnificence of Saint Sophia's LA


This is Saint Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Los Angeles. The most beautiful church in LA. The photograph is from the church's website. I did not take the photo. I'm using it as part of my introduction to this special Internet presentation featuring photos of the interior that I did take which you can view by scrolling down this page. If you'd like to hear the story behind this exhibit please read through the text.

On the afternoon of Saturday, October 13, 2007, I accompanied a friend to the Saint Sophia Cathedral. He was to place a runner down the center aisle of the church for a wedding of the daughter of a mutual friend of ours, and I was going to help him with it. We had a short time frame to do this as we could not enter the church until a baptismal ceremony was completed.

After we finished laying down the aisle runner, I found a chance to do something very special. I had about 10 minutes to take pictures of the interior of the church before it was opened for the wedding guests to enter and be seated.

The Saint Sophia Cathedral is a Los Angeles landmark. The opportunity to photgraph the interior of the church is something that does not happen very often. I approached the shoot with respectful reverence, capturing the images in natural light as much as I could, and periodically using a flash. I used a simple Canon PowerShot A75 digital camera which I purchased in the summer of 2004.

I didn't particularly plan on this. I brought along my camera to take a picture of the center aisle for my friend's website as he is a professional florist and event specialist. When I realized there was a window of opportunity to take photos of the church interior, I did so with the permission of the people in charge at the time on that day.

Saint Sophia is the most beautiful church in Los Angeles and certainly one of the most beautiful in California and throughout the United States. Photographs of the interior of the Saint Sophia Cathedral are rare as the church has generally not allowed photography of the inside. Some of the art shown here have never been seen outside of the church in its 55 year history. Also, there are views of the interior which I shot from vantage points that have never before been seen either. Nor has there ever been a photo published of the interior of the Saint Sophia Cathedral prepared for a wedding ceremony. This is a publication first in many aspects of the Saint Sophia Cathedral in Los Angeles.


A Greek immigrant to the US, Constantine (Charles) Skouras came to this country like many others seeking a better life in America. From humble beginnings, he was smitten with the enthusiasm of and passion for the film entertainment industry. He made a vow to God that if the Almighty were to grant him success in the movie business, he would build a great church to honor Him.

God must have been willing as Charles Skouras was very successful in Hollywood. He became the head of National Pictures. His brother also became very successful. Starting out as a poor shepard in Greece, he went on to become the president of 20th Century Fox for 20 years. Another brother became the head of United Artists. In 1932, the Skouras Brothers (Spyros, George and Charles) took over the management of over 500 Fox-West Coast theaters.

It was Charles Skouras' experience in developing palatial movie theaters that led to his great magnum opus, the Saint Sophia Cathedral in Los Angeles. In 1948, ground was broken at the intersection of Pico Boulevard and Normandie Avenue in Los Angeles and construction began on the church. It was completed in 1952 and the Patriach of Constantinople himself came to the city to consecrate the altar and dedicate the Cathedral.

Charles Skouras died 2 years later, in 1954 at the age of 65. He is interred in a small mausoleum on the church grounds along with the painter of the church, an artist whose name I do not presently know but will include in this text as soon as I find out. They are the only two buried at Saint Sophia's.



The last photograph I took is the first one I'm featuring in this tour of Saint Sophia's. The front of the church. The austerity of the exterior gives a hint of the grandeur that's inside by virtue of the highly decorative relief sculpture that marks the main face of the Cathedral. The pylons that support the building are driven far into the ground. Through the earthquakes and tremors that have hit Los Angeles since 1952, the structure is so solid that it barely shuttered at all. Charles Skouras built Saint Sophia's to last for centuries.


To the right of the main entrance is one of two cornerstones used at the ground breaking ceremony for the Cathedral on July 25, 1948. This black stone is Los Angeles bedrock.

This is the cornerstone to the left of the main entrance of the church, the first photo I took. The sky was overcast at the time. This white cornerstone is very significant. It's a block of marble given as a gift to the community of Los Angeles by the King of Greece on July 25, 1948. The day of the ground breaking ceremony. The block of marble is cut from the very same quarry that the marble for the Parthenon was cut from.


Here she is. The Saint Sophia Cathedral. This is the view upon entering the church itself, facing east to Jerusalem. The white carpet you see in the center aisle is a runner which I helped place for a wedding that was going to happen in the church soon.

Making my way closer to the front of the church. What a sight to behold. I was careful not to step on the runner. I straddled the area to the left and right of the runner where the red carpet is visible.

Here's a picture of the interior of Saint Sophia's with the dome partially visible at the top.

The glorious dome of Saint Sophia's depicting Christ. The image is illuminated by flood lights which border the inner rim of the dome. I tried to capture as much of the dome as possible in this shot. The only way I could frame the dome in its entirety was to lay on the ground. Since the runner had already been placed in the center aisle, and in reverence and respect to the church, I settled for the best I could get.

A marvel to behold, this majestic painting of Saint Mary adorns the area behind the altar wall. Not visible at this angle is the image of the Christ Child. Mary's face is illuminated by a light that is shown on that part of the wall. The area is curved and forms an optical illusion in the way that her face is seen from a distance within the church. The artist distorted the rendering of Mary's face slightly to compensate for the curve and to create a proper proportion when viewed from the congregation.

While at the front of the church photographing the painting of Mary and Jesus, I took this shot using a flash to record the colors. Afterwards, I realized that there was something unusual about the picture. Take a look at the small round shape at the upper right and the larger, faint, circular object at the left just above the arch.

There's a row of round flood lights above the altar wall along the ceiling which shine down on the area in front of the wall. Perhaps these shapes were reflections from the lights, or maybe dust particles on the camera lens. If this was dust, then why didn't the shapes show up in the other photos. If they were reflections or lens flares from the arced spot lights, then why isn't there a symmetry or a similar arc to the shapes, why do the shapes vary in size, and why is the shape at the upper right slightly distorted with a more pronounced border.

There's a photographic phenomenon that I've heard about which is described as spirit orbs. A spirit orb is a ball of light identical to what is seen in the photo above that some believe is supernatural in origin. I'm not saying that's what it is, but I'm not dismissing it either. In the more than three years I've been using this camera, and after thousands of shots, this is the first time anything like this has appeared on a picture I've taken. If indeed this is that kind of phenomenon, then why at this spot in the church. There could be a related explanation.

The arch above the altar wall is adorned with pictures of cherubic angels. If you look closely to the left and right of the arch you can make them out. These are portraits of children and grandchildren of the church's greatest benefactors when it was being built. The kids were painted along the arch as angels. Perhaps it may be the spirits of a couple of the children who've since passed away.

It could also be the spirit of Charles Skouras and the artist who painted the church, both of whom are buried on the grounds, interred in a small mausoleum.

Of course, it's impossible to say, but it's interesting and fun to speculate none the less. In any case, it makes the photograph that much more special, considering that there may be something of a miraculous aspect to it.

I got as close as I possibley could get to the altar without actually entering. At the gate to the altar is this view of the painting of Christ as a child. This is what the priests see when services are conducted. In reverance and respect, I did not proceed past the altar gate and I didn't use a flash to take the photo.

The north wall of the church, above the left exit as one faces the front, is an epic painting of Christ as he is about to be crucified. This shot was taken in the natural light of the church without a flash.

The south wall of the interior of Saint Sophia's is an equally huge painting of the Resurrection of Christ.

This picture was taken with a flash to highlight the colors of the south wall painting of Christ's Resurrection.

This is the view of the back of Saint Sophia's from approximately underneath the dome. The balcony is at the top in the center of the shot. This is where the choir sings from during services and where the organ is located as well. The image at the balcony wall portays the Prophet Elijah being taken up to Heaven in a chariot of fire.

There's a quote from the Bible along the back wall above the main entrance to the church. It is the words of Christ. "For what shall it profit a man if he should gain the whole world and lose his own soul." Charles Skouras chose wisely in deciding which part of scripture to include here. An important reminder for humanity, and a particularly appropriate thought for Los Angeles.

To the left of the back wall is a painting of Moses with the Ten Commandments. There are paintings of virtually every Old Testament prophet throughout the church. The art of the Cathedral venerates the roots and foundations of the Christian faith.

To the right of the back wall is a painting of Jesus Christ holding a stone tablet while he teaches in a synagogue. He carries the New Commandment which he gave to the world. The writing is in Greek. It says "Agapate Allylos" which translates as "Love One Another".

I took this picture with a flash to capture the vibrancy of the colors. The light area along the wall around the feet of Christ reveals the brush strokes used in painting the image.

At the center of the back wall, just above the main entrance to the church, is this painting. It depicts an angel and a set of scales. His right hand points to Heaven and in his left hand is a scroll with the word "Justice".

After photographing the major elements of the entry area of the interior, I turned to my left and took this shot of Jesus preaching to the Samaritan women at the well. The church walls to the left and right, or the north and south sides, are full of extraordinary paintings such as these depicting people and events from the Bible, along with the ornate graphics of the angel motif that frames and embellishes the scenes.

There's a reason why I chose to shoot this particular painting and area of the church. In 1996 or 1997, while at midnight services for Easter, there were so many people in attendance that all available seating was taken. So with others, I stood along the wall at this place. It was here that Academy Award winning actor Tom Hanks and his wife walked past me. Along with many other Hollywood celebrities, they're parishioners of Saint Sophia's.

I revisted the front and noticed that the lighting had changed on the great painting of Mary and Jesus. Charles Skouros designed theatrical lighting for the church which allows tints of colors to be shown in certain areas around the altar and also controlled the intensity of light throughout the interior. In this shot a warm tint has been turned up on the clouds.

The image of Mary and the Christ Child dominate the visual experience as one looks towards the front of the church. The changed lighting adds to the beauty and mood.

The picture below is the altar area at the front of the church.

Here is Saint Sophia's prepared for a wedding. The little table in front of the altar steps is the center of the ceremony and where most of the activity will take place. The door to the left of the altar wall is open, allowing for a glimpse inside.


This next photograph was the last I took of the interior of the church. I managed to make my way to the balcony as the organist for the wedding unlocked the entry. My position is in the center of the balcony, right next to the organ, where the choir director would stand. At the bottom edge of the photo along the left, you might make out the heads of guests as they enter the church and seat themselves in the front rows. It was time to wrap up the shoot.

And that was that. At this point I left the inside and took two exterior photos, the ones that started the blog.

I thank you sincerely for visiting this special Internet presentation of the Saint Sophia Cathedral and hope that you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed preparing it. Please feel free to share this with your friends and family. If you ever have the opportunity to see Saint Sophia's for yourself, you'll discover that it's even more magnificent than these photographs portray.

The church is located at 1324 S. Normandie Avenue in Los Angeles, California, 90006. The Saint Sophia website can be visited by following this link:

Thank you again, God bless, Peace On Earth, Justice, Love One Another.

Charles Zembillas