Christos Yannaras:
The Ethos of Orthodox Liturgical Art


4. The ethos of technology in Byzantine building

We have referred at such length to Gothic architecture in order to elucidate by comparison a prime characteristic of "Byzantine" architecture which we mentioned at the start: its respect for the construction material and its endeavor to bring out the "inner principle" [logos] in the material, "rational" potentialities of matter– to effect a "dialogue" between the architect and his material.

Contrary to what we have said about Gothic art, the Byzantine architect seems free and untramelled by any a priori ideological aim. This does not mean that he is unclear in his purpose: he too is trying to build the "Church," to manifest her truth, the space in which she lives, and not merely to house the gathering of the faithful. For the Byzantine, however, the point is precisely this: the truth of the Church is neither a set ideological system whereby we ascend by analogy to the transcendent– the excessive or the immense– nor a majestic organization with an authoritatively established administrative structure which mediates between man and God. The Church for the Byzantine is the event of the eucharist, the participation of what is created in the true life– the trinitarian mode of communion and relationship. And this mode is the body of the Church, the flesh of the world which has been assumed by Christ: it is the whole of creation in the dimensions of the Kingdom.

Byzantine architecture studies and reveals this reality of the worldly flesh of the Word, the fact of God's kenosis [i.e., his 'self-emptying' in the incarnation], and the 'deification' of created things, the way in which by taking on our material nature, God hypostasizes our existence in the divine life of incorruption and immortality. Like the ascetic in his direct encounter with his body, the architect encounters his material with the same freedom of humility and self-abnegation; and he studies the points of resistance and also the potentialities of nature. He looks for the inner principle, the "reason" [logos] in matter which was in abeyance before the incarnation but is now dynamic; that reason which connects the baseness and resistances of the natural material with the amazing potential in that same matter to contain the Uncontainable and give flesh to Him who is without flesh, to be exalted into the flesh of God the Word– into the Church.

Each Byzantine building is a eucharistic event; it is a dynamic act whereby each individual entity joins in the universal reality of ecclesial communion. This is a realization of personal distinctiveness, but a realization within the framework of communion, which means the rejection of [merely] individual emotions, [merely] individual intellectual certainty and [merely] individual aesthetics. Every Byzantine building embodies this ascetic rejection and self-abnegation on the part of the architect, and consequently manifests both his personal distinctiveness and at the same time the universal truth of the Church. As a technical construction, each work has a revelatory personal distinctiveness, and in this personal distinctiveness the universal truth of the Church is manifested. As Michelis writes in a technical description which unconsciously discerns the theological truth, Byzantine churches "are the dynamic compositions of a subjective sense, rather than the static arrangements of an objective theory... No work of Byzantine architecture is a pure type, a model which can be repeated... Each Byzantine church is an individuality, an act of emancipation from the model... It is not really important how precisely it fits together or how regularly it is laid out. The walls are not always at right angles, the roofs often have different inclines... the ground plans are not rectangular, the domes are not always absolutely circular at their base, the facades are irregular and the bricks fit together haphazardly. From the point of view of our very strict requirements, a Byzantine plan is always a mistake, but an acceptable mistake– one that works. The whole structure is a piece of music which the virtuoso craftsman has sung in a different way each time, and always so successfully that repetition is out of the question."24

The character of objective asymmetry and dissimilarity in each Byzantine building is the element which above all manifests the craftsman's respect for the peculiar "reason" [logos] in the natural material. It reveals his ascesis and his endeavor to fit the "rational qualities" of matter into an organic unity and a harmony of reasons– to "church" matter, which means leading it to the "end" [telos] or goal of its existence, which is to constitute the flesh of God the Word.25 The objective asymmetry and dissimilarity of each Byzantine building is simply the visible manifestation of the architect's love for his natural material; that love which respects and studies creation and reveals it as a means to salvation,26 an organic factor in the communion of created and uncreated, the recapitulation of all in the loving relationship between the Father and the incarnate Word.27

The ancient Greek temple expresses the Greek view of the world as a given harmony and order, and consequently it gives reason and meaning to the actual natural environment by reducing it to relationships of proportional harmony.28 By the same token, the Byzantine church expresses the Church's view of the world, of the world's participation in the dimensions of the life of the Kingdom. It therefore recapitulates the personal distinctiveness of both the site and the building material, summing up the mode of created order and beauty as the locus for the relationship between created and uncreated– as the Church. Material creation is given form: it takes the form of the flesh of the Word. The building of a Byzantine church is the body of the incarnate Word, the earthward movement of the "bowed heavens"; it shapes the incarnation into the form of a cross.

It is the Byzantine technique of constructing domes, apses and arches which provides the supreme possibility for personal and free study of the "reason" in matter. On the levels of appearance and symbolism alike, the first impression is that the domes, apses and arches enable the Byzantine architect to express tangibly the movement of the incarnation, of God's descent into the world, the movement of the "bowed heavens" ("He bowed the heavens and came down," Ps. 17:9). It is a movement which expresses the apophatic principle in the theory of theological knowledge, the principle that God's energy is the prime factor in man's knowledge of God: "…having known God, or rather being known of God" (Gal 4:9).29 As Michelis writes, "In the Byzantine building, we could say that the composition begins from the top and works downwards, rather than vice versa."30

Apart from the appearance of the building and its symbolic interpretation, the technology of the domes, apses and arches is a striking study in the potentialities of the natural material, the potentialities for transforming static balance into a dynamic composition. The weight of matter is not counterpoised statically, with rationalistically calculated mechanical supports; it is transferred dynamically in the form of thrusts, which are shared out, combined and annihilated reciprocally, as the apses succeed the domes and continue organically to the curved triangular tympana, the arches and the cross. vaults, to end in the decorated capitals, in a manner that is entirely imperceptible because the feeling of weight has flowed away, and the whole construction simply presents an image of a living body.

All this construction is done freely, without a mould. The Byzantines built their domes without using a form, building freely, in the void.31 Thus the natural material loses all weight, all artificial support; the weight of matter is transformed into relationship, into a connection and communion of "reasons." The material is no longer a neutral object: it is the product of an action, a personal operation. We may. recall here the words of St Gregory of Nyssa: "None of the things we consider attributes of the body is in itself the body; neither shape, nor color, nor weight, nor height, nor size, nor anything else that we consider as a quality; but each of these is a 'reason,' and it is the combination and union of these which becomes a body."32

So the body of the faithful which comes together in the church building to constitute and manifest the Church, the Kingdom of God and the new creation of grace, is not simply housed in this architectural construction, but forms with it a unified space of life and an event of life. The building joins the people in "celebrating" the eucharist of creation, the anaphora of the gifts of life to the Giver of life, forming an image of the new heavens and new earth through a dynamic "passage to the archetype." The building and the people together, the "reason" of matter harmonized with the hymn of glory which affirms human freedom, compose the universal liturgy of the Church, the manifestation of Christ's body. By His incarnation Christ enthroned the whole of material creation on the throne of God: creation became the flesh of the Word, and all the world became the Church.

This reality of God who has become man, and of the world which has become the Church, is expressed in Byzantine architecture by yet another technical concept of striking genius: the introduction of the human scale into the dimensions of the building. All parts of the church are measured according to man's dimensions. The doors, windows, railings and columns are to the measure of man, and retain the same measurements regardless of the size of the building. The measurements are multiplied but not increased. Thus in Haghia Sophia, for example, the lines of arches have five openings at ground level and seven on the upper level, and the windows in the tympana of the arches multiply in successive rows so that the smallest openings correspond with largest; the space increases the higher we look, broadening out and finally breaking into infinity amidst the forty windows in the crown of the dome.33

In this way, the Byzantine architect succeeds in preserving as the measure of his building the "great world in miniature" of the human body, creating the living unity of a body with organic members, the reality of a whole which does not do away with the part but makes it stand out, and the reality of the part which is not lost in the whole but defines it. This organic relationship between the part and the whole, the elevation of the human measure to the dimensions of the building as a whole, is the most thrilling tangible formulation of the truth of the Church, of the relationship between the person and the totality of nature. Nature is defined by the person; it does not define the person. The Church, as a new nature of grace, is not a monolithic organization which imposes itself in an authoritative manner upon the separate individuals; it is an organic unity of persons who go to make up life as communion, and communion as a unified, living body, without vanishing in the totality of that body. The image of the Church incarnate in the Byzantine building is an image of the body of the incarnate Word; it is also the space within which we see manifested the personal gifts and energies of the Comforter, and the personal, free submission of the Son to the Father's will, His participation in it, in the free "dialectic" of death and resurrection.

Byzantine architecture succeeded in conveying the image of Pentecost, the creative work of the Holy Spirit who builds the Church as flesh of the Word, which is also the flesh of the Virgin, an incarnate affirmation by man's personal freedom of the Father's pre-eternal will for the "deification" of the world. The Father "foreknows," the Word "effects," and the Spirit "perfects" the body of the Church– the created universe is "filled with the light" of the divine energy of the Trinity. In the Byzantine church building the light plays an organic role in forming the liturgical space. The brilliant natural light of the East is tamed by the position of the windows, their relatively small size and their large number. It enters the space at a slant, indirectly; it falls on the domes and apses, and "turns back on itself" to be diffused everywhere. It penetrates the marble slabs of the walls and becomes one with the colors in the icons, and folds back within the space to become "inner" light, "light of the heart," the light of the transfiguration of the created world.

It would be an immense subject to study the use of light in Byzantine architecture, the way it is totally transformed into a real "architecture of light,"34 a tangible expression of the space in which the Holy Spirit is personally present and personally received. Gothic architecture expresses an absolute Christological interpretation of the Church as a strictly constructed body, centralized in its organization; it makes use of a unified and concrete space which leads us progressively through the aisles to the high altar. By contrast Byzantine architecture, with its interpretation of the Church as the trinitarian mode of existence, marks out a space which is concrete and yet without bounds, a space continually divided up which yet has its center everywhere. The eucharist is accomplished everywhere, in the place where each Christian is present, bearing in himself Christ and the Spirit.

We have attempted briefly to demonstrate the ethos expressed in both the Gothic and the Byzantine edifice– the ontological, cosmological and theological premises for the human attitude to natural material expressed in the art of these two cultures. Because of its brevity, this account inevitably presents the subject schematically, in a way that may be arbitrary and is certainly incomplete. Any attempt to draw theoretical conclusions from a work of art runs some risk of being arbitrary, since art expresses experiences and not theorems, and "understanding" it requires participation in the same experiences, not the intellectual interpretation of them.

It is certain that neither in Byzantine nor in Gothic architecture did the craftsmen set out with the intention of expressing ontological, cosmological or theological dogmas and "principles" and imprinting them on the building. But inevitably– and this is where their artistic skill lies– they do express the living experience of those "principles" and dogmas, which in their time were not abstract ideas but the life and practical spirituality of their Church, the ethos of their culture. If we insist here on the spiritual and cultural differences expressed by art, this is to give a few hints as to the differentiation in the ethos of technology between East and West. Today the consquences of this differentiation can no longer be exploited for sterile theological polemic or for the sake of confessional self-satisfaction, for technology has created a problem common to East and West, an insoluble crisis for our entire civilization.

The techniques of Gothic architecture on the one hand and Byzantine on the other reveal two different attitudes towards the world, two different ways of using the world. Not only do both have specific starting-points in theology and living experience, but both find specific historical realization outside the realm of art– they express an entire ethos and influence the whole life of a society. As we have said above, we discern an organic link between Gothic architecture and the progressive development of technology, its growth into an absolute, and the alienation of man in industrial societies. And we discover the technique of Byzantine architecture behind the historical realization of the social and cultural ethos of Byzantium and the Greek people under Turkish domination– a realization which never had time properly to confront technocratic ethos of the West, but was rapidly assimilated by it.

The same differentiation in attitude towards the world, ways of using the world and natural material, which is pressed in architectural constructions can also be studied the technique of icon-painting– but with a much greater risk of becoming theoretical and schematic.

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24 Pp. 45-46.

25 St Maximus the Confessor sees all creation, from the angels down to inanimate matter, as a unified and continuing event of eros, a dynamically structured "erotic" relationship, and a universal "erotic" movement which forms creation– personal and impersonal, animate and inanimate– into a "communal" sequence with an impulse turned back towards God. Inanimate matter partakes in this universal "erotic" event "according to its customary role, which is its quality." See Scholia on the Divine Names, PG 4, 268C-269A.

26 Cf. John Damascene, First Homily in Defense of the Holy Icons, PG 94, 1245AB; critical edition by B. Kotter, vol. III, p. 89: "I shall never cease to venerate matter, through which my salvation was brought about."

27 "The mystery of the person as an ontological 'principle' and 'cause' consists in the fact that love is able to make something unique, to give it an absolute identity and name. This is precisely what is meant by the term 'eternal life,' which, for precisely this reason, means that the person is able to raise even inanimate objects to a personal dignity and life; it requires only that they be an organic part of a relationship of love. Thus, for example, the whole of creation can be saved through being 'recapitulated' in the loving relationship between the Father and the Son": J. Zizioulas, "From Prosopeion to Prosopon," p. 307, n. 35.

28 Purely by way of parenthesis, we may note here that our admiration for the monuments of ancient Greek architecture is extremely superficial if we ignore the cosmic truth they embody and isolate them from the natural environment which they seek to interpret. the beauty of the buildings on the Acropolis, for instance, is essentially impossible to understand now that modern development has destroyed its natural surroundings and changed the lines and appearance of the Attic landscape.

29 See N. Nisiotis, Preface to the Theory of Theological Knowledge (Athens, 1965).

30 P.50.

31 Michelis, p. 50.

32 On the Soul and the Resurrection, PG 46, 124C.

33 Michelis, P. 37.

34 Olivier Clement, Dialogues avec le Patriarche Athenagoras, pp. 278-283.