St. John Orthodox Church | Atrium Classrooms for Catechesis of the Good Shepherd

Cedar Park, Texas

A classroom used for Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is referred to as an "atrium". An atrium is a carefully prepared environment that is integral to the CGS curriculum. The activities that children engage in within the atrium are referred to as “works” – some are practical life works and others are biblical or liturgical works. The display of these works within the atrium being beautiful, child-level accessible, clean and organized is a critical prerequisite to the child’s self-directed use of them. In these respects a Montessori classroom is the best parallel to an atrium, but lacks the atrium's religious/spiritual orientation. 

Our designs for the new atrium classrooms at St. John draw inspiration from Orthodox Christianity's unique understanding of the child as a full communicant in the Body of Christ. Small human persons are of equal (and inestimable) value with grown-up human persons and bear the full potential to live as saints, be filled with the Holy Spirit, fully united to the Trinity, commune with angels, and all of creation. It therefore follows that the works they engage in are also of comparable value. Because the practical and liturgical works that go on in the atrium environment so closely parallel the work of the Church at large, it seemed only natural to us to shape the architecture of the atrium in a way that appropriately reflects the importance of the work being done by the children. Thus a concept of the atrium as a small chapel-like environment emerged.

One element of the CGS curriculum that we have not yet seen integrated into an atrium classroom is iconography. In the past when various works would call for the inclusion of iconography, a CGS catechist has placed a small laminated icon on a picture-frame stand nearby the work (often rather tenuously). We find this an insufficient solution. We have designed our atrium classrooms to receive a complete program of iconographic wall murals that is both responsive to and informed by the CGS curriculum. For example, the great feasts of the Church might be presented in simplified format; likely scenes from the childhood of Christ might be incorporated such as St Joseph teaching him how to polish wood or the Mother of God teaching him how to pour water (both of which are practical life works of the Level I atrium); the communion of children may be presented in lieu of the more typical line of apostles or hierarchs; images of Christ as Good Shepherd with his sheep, or Christ as the True Vine with his branches (two key themes of Level I and Level II atrium) might be included. The scale of figures will be sized and located to address the appropriate age level of the children who will use the room. Doubtless, the work to be performed by an iconographer – in translating the rich biblical and liturgical content of the CGS curriculum into a visual language harmonious with the church's wealth of iconographic history – will be a pastoral work, a highly creative work, a work with tremendous missional potential, and a work that excites us. 

Many elements of beautiful traditional Orthodox chapels are also conducive to an atrium classroom. We plan to include high clerestory windows (whether in domed or basilica format); natural daylight; ordered rhythms of columns, arches and windows; an Eastward and/or upward orientation; a quieting progression of entry into the space (from forest to garden to porch to vestibule); and a sense of privacy from outside viewers and distractions. 

The design of these atria at St. John will continued to be refined as the project moves forward.

SIZE:  New ~ 2,000 SF

CLIENT:  St. John the Forerunner Antiochian Orthodox Church

COMPONENTS:   Atrium Classrooms for Level 1 and Level 2 Catechesis of the Good Shepherd


SERVICES:  Preliminary Design, Fund Raising Materials.


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