And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of. And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. And he called the name of that place Bethel: but the name of that city was called Luz at the first. And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, So that I come again to my father's house in peace; then shall the Lord be my God: And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God's house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee.
- Genesis 28:12-22
Nathanael saith unto him, Whence knowest thou me? Jesus answered and said unto him, Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee. Nathanael answered and saith unto him, Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel. Jesus answered and said unto him, Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig tree, believest thou? thou shalt see greater things than these. And he saith unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.
- John 1:48-51
Following the previous look at Paradise and its hierarchical structure in the Old Testament scriptures, and in the poetry of St Ephraim the Syrian, we have laid the groundwork to consider the interaction of sacred art and sacred space in the construction of the Eastern Orthodox "temple," the name which Eastern Christians usually apply to their places of worship. I've chosen this as my first case study for three reasons:
- I can speak from personal experience here, since my encounter with sacred art and sacred space in this context answered a certain longing I have felt since childhood.
- As one of the oldest, stable iconographic and architectural traditions in the world, there is a lot of material to work with--not just in Russia or Greece, but in Italy, Sicily, Spain, Romania, other parts of Western Europe, and even the British Isles. The features I will be focusing on in this post are not specifically Eastern, and at one point in time were part of the common expression of the sacred that was found throughout Christendom.
- The beauty one encounters in an Eastern Orthodox church is an excellent example of beauty as an objective reality rather than a subjective "in the eye of the beholder" response. What I mean is this: many people, when first stepping into the nave of a canonically adorned and decorated Orthodox church, will say something like "it's very beautiful," with the often explicit caveat that it is not to their taste. In other words, they recognize the transcendent qualities of the art and architecture while at the same time acknowledging that it belongs to a world so far removed from their own time and context that they would not choose to decorate their own houses of worship (let alone their own houses) this way. It will perhaps seem ironic, but I consider this to be one of the surest proofs of beauty in this tradition--objective beauty is beautiful whether or not I like it.
It's become a commonplace in certain circles to notice the similarities between the temples of the Ancient Near East (and first and foremost, the Tabernacle of Moses) and the layout of the Christian house of worship. This is particularly true in the Eastern Rite, where the ancient understandings of sacred space have only been reinforced by medieval and early modern developments (such as the development of the curtained templon into the great carved iconostasis in the Russian Orthodox tradition).
|Photo credit: http://stdemiana.church/orthodoxy/inner-layout-structure/|
As discussed in a previous post, this basic understanding of hierarchical space was a means of incarnating ancient understandings about God, man's relationship to the divine, and even the interior structure of human nature itself. The amount of attention given to the Tabernacle/Temple in both Old and New Testament Scriptures, and the extensive Patristic commentaries on the long passages found in Exodus and elsewhere detailing the exact dimensions and materials to be used in the Tabernacle all point to the great significance of this concept in ancient Jewish and Christian thought. In The Language of Creation, Mattieu Pageau suggests that the structure of the Tabernacle (and by extension Eden, the Genesis narrative, etc.) functions like the spelling, grammar, and syntax which forms arbitrary lines on paper into a means of communicating an abstract spiritual reality:
Given our current materialism, the best way to understand the role of the temple is through analogies with our written language. Like a written word, the temple is made from a collection of physical parts arranged by the rules of an arcane language. The purpose of this "body" is to host an invisible "breath." This pattern is then reiterated within the temple itself (in the Ark of the Covenant) where the written tablets (the testimony) physically host the spoken laws of God... With the analogy of written language, it is easier to understand why the plans of the temple are so detailed and complicated. These patterns are examples of "lowering meaning" into the lowest depths of material reality. At these levels, they are like the rules of an alphabet because they organize "marks" in a very detailed manner. Similarly, if we were to describe how to embody the meaning of "holy temple" on this page, the plans for its construction might look something like this:
You shall make nine vertical marks, ten horizontal marks, and six slanted marks. Three of the slanted marks shall be left-leaning, and three shall be right-leaning, etc. You shall make two of the following patterns: three horizontal marks joined to the right of one vertical mark in equal distance, etc.
- The Language of Creation, pp 94-5
|The diagram to which Pageau refers in the quote above. The book is full of many such helpful diagrams which show the work of man to "raise earth" (potential) and that of God to "lower heaven" (meaning) in Genesis.|
Here we can think of the difference between going to tour one of the great cathedrals of Europe and attending (and participating in) a Mass there. These are two radically different experiences. In the first case, the cathedral is merely an idea--an artifact or relic from a bygone era. It may be deeply moving, as a beautiful painting in a museum is moving, but a safe distance is maintained between ourselves and the structure.
In the second case, the structure--magnificent as it is--exists to uniquely and truly facilitate the meeting of heaven and earth. That this meeting could happen anywhere--say, on the side of a mountain in the Sinai peninsula--does not in any way refute the fact that some places or structures are better suited to incarnating certain spiritual realities than others. To partake in the Divine Liturgy in a great cathedral (or a small church--it is the peculiar genius of Eastern Orthodox architecture that small buildings can reveal Paradise as effectively as large ones; the impressiveness of the size is not the primary focus) is to ascend up and through the art, architecture, and music to something which is beyond any of them, but provides meaning to them all.
|A tiny church in Urkaine. Photo credit.|
In this experience, no particular attention need be paid to the icons--many of them are in fact in the high recesses of the ceiling where you cannot see them very well--or to the music, or to the smell of incense, or any of the other multi-sensory experiences of worship. For the thing which demands our attention is the Liturgy itself--all of the other incarnational aspects of art and architecture facilitate this journey in a way which aids our perception of the spiritual.
It is with this in mind that I will attempt to speak of the iconographic scheme of an Orthodox Church. It must be understood that the visual beauty is only one aspect of this experience, one which flows out of the basic forms of the architecture and moves us, not toward sensationalism or emotion, but sot a place of higher communion where God may be known.
Entry into an Orthodox church begins in the narthex (sometimes, there is a secondary area just inside the doors called the exo-narthex, sort of a narthex before the narthex). This word means "porch" and is analogous to the porch of Solomon's Temple, or to the outer court of the Tabernacle. The journey "up the mountain of Paradise" towards God begins when the faithful leave the world and step into this area. Ritually and iconographically, this is a border, a transitional space. Baptisms are traditionally held here, since Baptism is both a ritual death as well as a crossing through death into new life. Here also (at least traditionally) those who are not of the Faithful--catechumens, penitents, and well-behaved visitors--stand during the Liturgy. This is the base of the mountain.
Iconographically, the narthex is usually decorated with scenes from the Old Testament scriptures. One church near my house features:
- The creation of Adam and the expulsion from Paradise [Located on the Western wall, so that it is the last thing one sees when one leaves the church--the typology here, which goes all the way back to St Ephraim the Syrian, should be clear: the church is paradise.]
- Moses and the Burning Bush
- Moses parting the Red Sea
- Moses receiving the tablets of the Law
- The hospitality of Abraham at the Oak of Mamre
- The sacrifice of Isaac
- The Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace
- Jonah in the belly of the great fish
- The dome (and there is always a dome over the nave if the building has been purpose-built for an Orthodox church) contains an icon of Christ enthroned in glory--most often of the variety called Pantocrator -- "the ruler of all."
- The Western wall (the direction you face when leaving the church) usually has an icon of one of the following subjects: the Last Judgment, the Dormition of the Theotokos, or a synaxis (gathering) of evangelist/missionary saints. Each of these makes a slightly different statement about what thoughts should occupy the Faithful as they return to the world.
- The Eastern end of the nave is dominated by a raised platform and, joining the nave to the Most Holy Place, the templon or iconostasis.
|The dome of St Seraphim Orthodox Cathedral, Dallas TX|
There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel. (Exodus 25:22)
And the temple of God was opened in heaven, and there was seen in his temple the ark of his testament: and there were lightnings, and voices, and thunderings, and an earthquake, and great hail. And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars... (Revelation 11:19-12:1)
I behold a strange and wonderful mystery:
The cave a heaven, the Virgin a cherubic throne,
And the manger a noble place in which hath lain Christ
The uncontained God.
Let us therefore praise and magnify him.
- Katabasiae of the Nativity
|A glimpse through one of the deacon's doors, up into the apse.|
|Detail from secco of The Transfiguration, by Aidan Hart. Photo credit.|