Christos Yannaras:
The Ethos of Orthodox Liturgical Art


3. The ethos of ancient Greek and Gothic architecture

Architecture is probably the art which gives us the most opportunities to approach our theme. The reader must forgive us for inevitably confining ourselves to general observations and preliminary explanations.3

The first characteristic one might note in the architecture of the "Byzantine" church, as we now call it, is respect for the building materials; an attempt to manifest the inner principle of the material, the "rational" potentialities of matter, and to bring about a "dialogue" between the architect and his material. But what do these statements mean in terms of the actual technique of church construction? To find the answer, we shall inevitably have to resort to comparisons, setting the Byzantine building side by side with ancient Greek classical architecture and medieval Gothic.

In ancient Greek architecture, the building material is subjugated to a given "principle" or "reason" which the craftsman wishes to serve and manifest. Matter per se is nonrational; it is formlessness and disorder until reason forms it into being and life. Reason gives form to matter; it brings everything together and leads it to the harmony and unity of the "cosmos," because the reason or principle of a being means that it takes its place in the universal unity of the world, and becomes subject to the laws of cosmic harmony and order which differentiate life and existence from disorder and chaos.4 These are given laws; they are the logical and ethical necessity of life. The architect's task is to decode them, to reveal them through the reason or principle in his construction. It is to demonstrate the "rational" relationships which ensure harmony and unity, in other words the ethical potential of life; and ultimately to teach how the initial formlessness can be turned into a world, a "cosmos," "beautiful indeed," and the initial group of people living together can be turned into a city under the same laws of cosmic harmony and the ethical potentialities of life.5

Ancient Greek architecture succeeds in imprinting the laws of cosmic harmony on a building by making its Construction technique obey the "principle" of proportion in size. The parts of the ancient Greek temple are measured mainly by the "rule of proportions." The architect uses his material in order to form perfect proportions, and thus achieve a flawless rationalistic harmony which reveals and teaches the beautiful as symmetrical perfection. Typical of the absolute priority of the given proportions is the fact that when an ancient Greek temple is doubled in size, all its dimensions are doubled accordingly. The dimensions of its door and steps and all its parts are doubled so that the basic proportions remain the same, even though the door then becomes excessive and need only be half the size for a man to pass through it comfortably, and the steps become so large that they are almost impossible to climb. The over-riding priority is to preserve the harmony of proportions per se, regardless of what sizes are necessary. The point of reference is the mind of the observer; it is this that the craftsman wishes to delight and instruct by the harmony of the proportional relationships in his work.6

The same subjection of the material to an a priori logical conception is again expressed with remarkable technical competence by Gothic medieval architecture. In a Gothic building, the craftsman is not concerned with the inner principle of the building material; his aim is not to study this inner principle, to coordinate and reconcile it with the inner principle of his own creative will, bringing out the material's potentiality to embody, the personal activation of the principle in created things. On the contrary, he subjugates the material to given forms, squaring off the stone and doing violence to its static balance, so as to fulfil the ideological aim envisaged by the construction. This ideological aim is externally and arbitrarily set; it bears no relation to the study of the material and the struggle of construction. It is an objectified knowledge which the craftsman simply takes up in his work in order to analyse it into particular notions.7

The ideological aim of Gothic architecture is to create an impression of the authority of the visible body of the Church, an authority which exerts influence and imposes itself not only through its absolute monopoly in handling God's wishes and revelations, but also through the palpable and immense majesty of the way it is articulated as an organization. Organizational structure creates both the principle of the western Church's unity and the rationalistically secured static balance of Gothic architecture. This is not an organic unity of distinctiveness in principles, the unity which brings about communion as an achievement and a gift of personal distinctiveness and freedom. Instead, it is a uniform submission to given rules and preconditions for salvation or for static balance. It is the theanthropic nature or essence of the Church embodied in the authority of the church organization, which is treated as prior to the personal event of salvation, to the personal gifts of the life conferred by the Holy Spirit, and to the transfiguration of man, the world and history in the person of God the Word incarnate and the persons of the faithful.

In his study on Gothic architecture and scholastic thought, Erwin Panofsky8 has pointed to the common attitude and the attempt to explore truth intellectually which characterizes both scholastic thought and Gothic architecture,9 and to the exact chronological correspondence between the evolution of the two:10 "It is a connection… more concrete than a mere 'parallelism' and yet more general than those individual 'influences' which are inevitably exerted on painters, sculptors or architects by erudite advisors: it is a real relationship of cause and effect."11 Gothic architecture is the first technological application of scholastic thought, following it directly both in time and in substance: it is the technique which sets out in visible form the scholastic attempt to subject truth to the individual intellect, the new structure for a logical organization of truth introduced by scholastic theology. In the thirteenth century, for the first time in the history of human learning, the formulation and development of a truth is arranged systematically, with a variety of divisions. A complete work is divided into books, the books into chapters, the chapters into paragraphs and the paragraphs into articles. Each assertion is established by systematic refutation of the objections, and progressively, phrase by phrase, the reader is propelled towards a full intellectual clarification of a given truth.12 It is "a veritable orgy of logic," as Panofsky says of Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologiae.13

Correspondingly, the technique of Gothic architecture is based on a structure of small chiseled stones of uniform shape. The stones form columns, and the columns are divided into ribbed composite piers, with the same number of ribs as those in the vaulting which receives them.14 The arrangement of the columns and the division of the ribs create an absolutely fixed "skeleton plan" which neutralizes the weight of the material by balancing the thrusts of the walls. Here again, the thesis is reinforced by systematic refutation of the antithesis, "the supports prevail over the weights placed on them," and the weight of the material is neutralized by the rationalistically arranged static balance.

This technique conceals "a profoundly analytic spirit, relentlessly dominating the construction. This spirit considers the forces, analyzes them into diagrams of statics and petrifies them in space,"15 forming a unity which is not organic but mechanical, a monolithic framework. "Our sense of stability is satisfied but amazed, because the parts are no longer connected organically but mechanically: they look like a human frame naked of flesh."16 It is technology, human will and logic, which subdues matter. The structure manifests the intellectual conception and will of the craftsman rather than the potentialities of the material– the moral obedience of matter to spirit, not the "glory" of matter, the revelation of God's energies in the inner principle of material things.17

Finally, Gothic architecture and the structure of scholastic thought alike restrict the possibility of experiencing truth exclusively to the intellectual faculty, logical analysis and emotional suggestion. This is why both these instances of "technique" leave us with the feeling of an inability to transcend the bounds of individual existence; we remain predetermined by the capacities of our individual nature, with no personal room left for the unforeseen, for freedom– a feeling that there is no escape. "In the Gothic form, excess and immensity are characteristic," says Worringer; "and this is due to the passion for seeking deliverance, a passion which finds an outlet in intoxication, vertigo and emotional ecstasy."18 The endeavor of Gothic architecture is to elicit an emotional response by demonstrating intellectually the antithesis of natural and supernatural, human smallness and the transcendent authority, the power from on high.19

"Gothic art," observes Choisy,20 "operates with antitheses, contrasting with the plains the elevation of its perpendicular lines and enormous spires." What we have here is not simply an aesthetic or proportional contrast, however, but an anthropocentric tendency, a demand for the earthly to be elevated to the transcendent. The union of created and uncreated is not here regarded as a personal event, as the transformation of man, the world and history in the person of God the Word incarnate. It is an encounter between two natures, with human nature clothed in the dignity and transcendent majesty of the divine nature– which is exactly what happens with papal primacy and infallibility, and with the totalitarian centralization of the Roman Catholic Church. "The vaulted construction of a Gothic church desires, and tends, to give the impression of a monolithic framework"21– it is the image that the Roman Catholic West has of the Church. Approaching the divine presupposes in this context a comparison between human smallness and the grandeur of divine authority an authority tangibly expressed by its monolithic, unified and majestic organization and its administrative structure. The Church is not the world in the dimension of the Kingdom, the harmonization of the inner principles of created things with the affirmation of human freedom in Christ's assumption of worldly flesh; but it is the visible, concrete potentiality for the individual to submit to divine authority. This is why in a Gothic church the material is not "saved," it is not "made word" and it is not "transfigured": it is subdued by a superior force. To use specialized terminology once again: "The supports prevail over the weight placed on them… the vaulting with its supple formation clearly shows that it concentrates there all the action in the forces, and compels matter to rise up to the heights."22 This compulsion of matter in Gothic architecture represents a technology which leads straight to contemporary technocracy.23

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3 There are to my knowledge no works on the theological view and interpretation of Orthodox church architecture. Perhaps unique of its kind is Gervase Mathew's Byzantine Aesthetics (London, 1963). For this chapter, I have made use of the following limited bibliography: P. A. Michelis, An Aesthetic Approach to Byzantine Art (Athens, 1946; Eng. trans. London, 1955); Marinos Kalligas, The Aesthetics of Space in the Medieval Greek Church (Athens, 1946) Erwin Panofsky, Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism (Latrobe, ig5i) Olivier Clement, Dialogues avec le Patriarche Athenagoras (Paris, 1969), pp. 278-283. Ch. Yannaras, "Teologia apofatica e architettura byzantina," in Symposio Cristiano (Milan, 1971), pp. 104-112; idem, "Scholasticism and Technology," Eastern Churches Review 6.2 (1974), pp. 162-169.

4 "This ontological monism which characterizes Greek philosophy from its inception leads Greek thought to the concept of the 'cosmos,' that is, of the harmonious relationship of existent things among themselves ... Greek thought creates a wonderful concept of the world, that is, of unity and harmony, a world full of interior dynamism and aesthetic plenitude, a world truly 'beautiful' and 'divine.' However, in such a world it is impossible for the unforeseen to happen or for freedom to operate: whatever threatens cosmic harmony and is not explained by 'reason' (logos) which draws all things together and leads them to this harmony and unity, is rejected and condemned": J. Zizioulas, "From Prosopeion to Prosopon," pp. 289-290.

5 "Against the world of chaos and fate, Doric thought opposes order and the victory of the intellect... The Parthenon is not merely a joy to the eye, it is also ethical beauty. With the strict calculation of its architecture and the harmonious equilibrium of its masses, its inner ethical system receives tangible expression. Its meaning is that life is subject to the aims set forth by a soldier mind. It is a chart of all the values in the Greek world: a heroic symphony of athletic virtues, an ethical ascesis. The severe outward form is nothing other than the tangible expression of inner obedience": Markos Augeris, "Mysticism in Greek art" (in Greek), in Greek Critical Thought– A Selection, ed. Z. Lorentzatos (Athens, 1976), pp. 120-121.

6 See Michelis, An Aesthetic Approach..., pp. 35-36.

7 "Like the High Scholastic Summa, the High Gothic Cathedral… sought to embody the whole of Christian knowledge, theological, moral, natural and historical ... in structural design, it similarly sought to synthesize all major motifs handed down by separate channels. and finally achieved an unparalleled balance": Panofsky, Gothic Architecture…, pp. 44-45. Cf. Auguste Choisy, Histoire de l'architecture, vol. 11 (Paris, 1899), pp. 260 and 265. Also Georges Duby, L'Europe des Cathedrales (Geneva, 1966), p. 40: "The calculation of the mathematicians secured the means of giving reality to these rational constructions... The universe ceases to be an ensemble of signs where the imagination gets lost; it is the clothing of a logical form which it is the cathedral's mission to restore by putting in their place all visible creatures."

8 See above, n. 3.

9 P. 27f. See also Duby, L'Europe des Cathedrales, p. 106: "The new cathedral appears… more concerned about a dialectical analysis of structures. It aims at the rational clarity of scholastic demonstrations."

10 "...this astonishingly synchronous development…," p. 20; cf. p. 3ff. Also M.-D. Chenu, Introduction a l'etude de Saint Thomas d'Aquin (Paris, 1974), pp. 51-60, where he concludes: "Theology is the first great technique of the Christian world... The men who built the cathedrals [also] constructed summae." This is affirmed also by Jacques Maritain, Les degres du savoir (Paris, 1932), p. 583.

11 P. 20, See also Duby, L'Europe des Cathedrales, p. 105: "These monuments inscribed in inert matter the thought of the professors, their dialectical ramblings. They demonstrated Catholic theology."

12 "...the construction of a knowledge within the faith. From this theology is established as a science": M.-D. Chenu, La theologie comme science au XIIIe siecle, p. 70. "The first preoccupation of every bishop in his cathedral... was to place the Christian faith beyond uncertainty and the obscurity of prelogical thought, to construct a spacious doctrinal edifice, varied but firmly ordered, to show to the people convincing deductions in it": Duby, L'Europe des Cathedrales, p. 9.

13 0p. cit., p. 34.

14 See Michelis, An Aesthetic Approach… pp. 89-90.

15 Michelis, p. 90.

16 Michelis, p. 90. Michelis refers also to Worringer, Formprobleme der Gotik (Munich, 1910), p. 73.

17 On the particular relationship between Gothic architecture and the cosmology evolved by the theologians of the medieval West, and the relationship between this cosmology and modern technocracy, see The Person and Eros §§ 34, 35.

18 Formprobleme der Gotik, pp. 113 and 50; quoted in Michelis, p. 40.

19 "It was nevertheless the art of the Gothic cathedrals which, in the whole of Christendom, then became the instrument– perhaps the most effective one– of Catholic repression": Duby, L'Europe des Cathidrales, p. 72. Direct experience alone can justify and verify these conclusions. In the cathedrals of Cologne, Milan or Ulm, and other European cities, anyone with experience of the theology and art of the Eastern Church can see the justification for the "rebellion" of the Reformation and for the various ways in which man revolts against this transcendent authority which is expressed with such genius in architecture: it is an authority which humiliates and degrades human personhood and even ultimately destroys it. Revolt is inevitable against such a God, who consents to encounter man on a scale of such crushing difference in size.

20 Histoire de l'architecture, vol. II, p. 414.

21 Michelis, pp. 52-53.

22 Michelis, P. 50.

23 See Ch. Yannaras, "Pollution of the Earth," Christian, vol. 3, no. 4 (1976), pp. 317-321. Idem, "Scholasticism and Technology," pp. 166-169.