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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Patriarch Blesses New Cathedral Hall

Three months ago, it was a huge, empty space of bare concrete in the base of Christ the Savior Cathedral. This week, workers were feverishly polishing the faux marble columns and installing translation equipment in the bright red seats of the grand, ideologically loaded Hall of Church Councils Ч the latest, $10 million addition to the grandiose complex.

Work on the hall was officially approved late Thursday, three days before the Moscow PatriarchateТs 150 or so bishops are to convene there. The city commission chaired by MoscowТs construction supremo, Deputy Mayor Vladimir Resin, signed the papers, giving the seal of approval to the work of about 50 artists and several hundred workers and engineers who have outfitted the 1,200-seat hall, a smaller hall for Synod meetings, five refectories and a kitchen ready to cater to as many as 1,500 people when the PatriarchateТs millenium celebrations roll around.

On Friday, Patriarch Alexy II blessed the hall and presided over the first meeting of the Synod Ч the churchТs 12-member ruling body Ч in its new headquarters.

Patriarchate officials have long complained about not having a large hall suited for major events. The Church was reluctant to rent movie theaters, as some Protestant groups do, or even the Kremlin Palace of Congresses, which is too big, too Soviet and prompts parallels with the Communist Party. Now it got what it wanted: The new complex is perhaps the most striking embodiment of Byzantine theocracy and splendor in its modern Russian variation.

The hallТs central theme Ч Pentecost Ч is depicted in a Florentine mosaic on the back wall, behind the podium where the patriarch and top bishops are to sit during the council. The ceiling is neither flat nor concave, but convex Ч intended to resemble billowing cloths, which are meant in turn to indicate the presence of the "breath of the Holy Spirit," explained the Rev. Leonid Kalinin, coordinator for the churchТs art work.

"We project the ancient event, the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles, into our present," Kalinin said, alluding to the belief that the Church was created precisely at that moment. Thousands of small lamps dot the "cloths" Ч in fact, plaster-covered metal constructions Ч making everyone in the hall a party both to the apostlesТ gathering on Zion and to "the mystery of Creation."

Of equal significance are the hallТs four main pillars, bearing images of church and state leaders, both canonized and not. Conspicuously absent among the images are those rulers who put pressure on the Church Ч for instance, Peter the Great, who effectively turned the Church into a government ministry accountable to him, and Catherine the Great, who confiscated church lands. The selection vividly represents the Byzantine Ч and later Russian Ч idea of church-state relations, in which the two are neither wholly fused nor completely separate.

Because large gatherings will be relatively rare, alternative functions for the hall Ч such as using it for concerts Ч are under consideration.

No matter how grand, the hall complex is humbler than originally planned. Novye Izvestia reported last week that it was to have six "paradise gardens" filled with rare sorts of trees and costing over $5 million. But, according to the paper, much of this money disappeared in a private foundation in Latvia. Ultimately, the complex has been left with two winter gardens full of tropical plants imported from Holland that were completed this week.

Sergei Semenenko, deputy director of the cathedralТs reconstruction fund, said Wednesday in an interview that the outfitting of the halls and refectories totaled about $10 million, a fraction of the cathedralТs official $500 million pricetag. While the issue of who will own the entire cathedral is up in the air, Semenenko was certain that the city government would retain some ownership rights to the hall. The cathedral's web site