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Ascent to the Heavenly Jerusalem in Eastern “Temple” Architecture

April 1st, 2013, Promulgated by Bernie

In my last post on the theme of the church building as a metaphor for the Heavenly Jerusalem and the Jerusalem Temple, I described the role of the Byzantine Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Iconostasis Screen in enabling the ascent from the earthy to the heavenly, from the visible to the invisible. In this post I will attempt to describe and explain how traditional Byzantine/Orthodox church architecture and the program of imagery/icons contained therein also aid us in the ascent.

(Click on pictures to view sharper images)

Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom), 532-37

Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom), 532-37. (Picture Source)

Cross section, Hagia Sophia.

Cross section, Hagia Sophia.

Generally speaking, the traditional architecture employed in the Eastern Rite Catholic and Orthodox churches had its origins in the 6th century and is associated with the building of the Church of the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) in Constantinople (now, Istanbul) by the emperor Justinian I. That’s fair enough given that Hagia Sophia was a mammoth architectural expression of an architectural concept first employed by some earlier and much smaller churches, the most important being The Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus. Still standing (now a mosque), and about a 15 minute walk from Hagia Sophia. The much smaller building is thought to have been the model for Hagia Sophia.

Sts. Sergius and Bacchus

Sts. Sergius and Bacchus. (Picture Source)

Ground Plan of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus

Ground Plan of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus. (Picture Source)

The notable feature of Saints Sergius and Bacchus is the combination of the architectural forms of 1) the Roman basilica ground plan, and 2) the dome of a martyrium. The result is an impressive feeling of height over the center of the church. The domes in such churches quickly became associated with the “dome” of heaven –and the floor below, with earth. These early domed churches were probably not decorated with figurative imagery. However, a church built between 876-80 is thought by at least one art historian1 to be the prototype for the program of figurative images that became the norm in the Eastern churches.

Sixth century Manuscript of Cosmas Indicopleustes. The world conceived as a box with the Almighty at the top and the earth as a mountain and the 'waters under the earth'.

Sixth century Manuscript of Cosmas Indicopleustes. The world conceived as a box with the Almighty at the top and the earth as a mountain and the ‘waters under the earth’.

The Nea (New) Church sponsored by the Byzantine Emperor Basil I in Constantinople was the first monumental church built in the Byzantine capital after Hagia Sophia. It was destroyed in 1490 but we know something of its decorative imagery from contemporary accounts and a few surviving fragments. The decorative program apparently conveyed the concept of the church as a microcosm of the world with heaven above and the earth, below.2  It included a sense of the church building as the New Jerusalem with Christ’s life depicted as if eternally renewed or relived, thus complementing the liturgy of the Mass in which the sacrifice of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection is made always present.

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Monastery at Daphni, Greece.

In the Nea Church the image of Christ Pantocrator was placed in the apex of the dome, thus dominating the entire interior space of the church. The walls rising from the floor were covered in veined marble revetment symbolizing the earth and “the waters under the earth”.  Just above the marble covered walls was the zone of the saints, our brothers and sisters who have gone before us in the faith, ready to intercede between heaven and earth. In the register above the saints are scenes from the life of Christ, ever present in time: the Annunciation, Nativity, Baptism of the Lord, Raising of Lazarus, miracles, Miraculous Catch of Fish, Washing of the Feet, etc. Then, in the dome –between the windows– appeared the apostles and the Holy Virgin. Old Testament scenes may have been depicted in side chapels. The Fathers of the Church who formulated the liturgy and were the first to enact it were represented in the apse, on the other side of the Iconostasis Screen, behind the altar.

Fathers of the Church as well as the Virgin of the Sign depicted in the apse behind the altar.

Fathers of the Church as well as the Virgin of the Sign depicted in the 6th century apse behind the altar in the 6th century chapel of Mar Musa Monastery in Syria. (Picture Source)

This program of representation received, through tradition, the sanction of the Church.3  Those responsible for the interior decoration of churches were not permitted to deviate from it in any significant way. The program was eventually formulated into a set of written rules or guidelines. The earliest copy known is from the 16th century and is called the Painters’ Guide, a handbook of sorts outlining how a church should be adorned with images and how each saint and scene should be depicted.4 The guidelines have the force of tradition but are not canonical, as far as I know.

Byzantine and Orthodox churches are not all of the same design, of course (some don’t have domes for example), but the general concept of hierarchical ascent generally governs the decorative program of imagery in the Eastern tradition.

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1  Talbot, David, Art of the Byzantin Era, (Singapore, Thames and Hudson, 1963), p 88

2 Talbot p 88

3 Talbot p 88

4 Talbot p 89

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One Response to “Ascent to the Heavenly Jerusalem in Eastern “Temple” Architecture”

  1. avatar y2kscotty says:

    Having been to Istanbul several times, I always pay a visit to Haghia Sophia and say a silent prayer there that someday the Divine Liturgy will take place again. However, I always reflect on the fact that it was once a church and is the most-visited site in Turkey today. If you have a chance to visit Istanbul, this building is a must-see. Other sites are the “Chora” Church, a former church, then a former mosque, and now a museum with every square centimeter covered with frescoes – absolutely stunning. And there is St.Anthony’s church where one of the Sunday Masses is in English.


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