Orthodox Survival Course
St. Irene Orthodox Church
Rochester Hills, Michigan
Class 5 – The Church of the Romans: Topic 3, Sacred Art – A. Theory
Now, if the essences (ousiai) and orders above us, of which we have already made reverent mention, are without bodies, their hierarchy is intellectual and above sense. We supply by the variety of sensible symbols the visible order, which is according to our own measure. Those sensible symbols lead us naturally to intellectual conception, to God and His divine attributes. Spiritual minds form their own spiritual conceptions, but we are led to the divine vision by sensible images. – St. Dionysios the Areopagite, On the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, quoted by St. John of Damascus in On the Divine Images
…Then we went on to Greece, and the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendour or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty… – the words of the emissaries of Great Prince (St.) Vladimir of Kiev, describing their visit to Constantinople in the 10th century, from The Primary Chronicle
In its content as well as in its type, ideational art articulates the major premise of ideational culture that the true reality-value is God. Therefore the topic of ideational art is the supersensory kingdom of God…Its objective is not to amuse, entertain, or give pleasure, but to bring the believer into a closer union with God. It is a part of religion, and functions as a religious service. It is a communion of the human soul with itself and with God. As such it is sacred in content and form. As such it does not admit any sensualism, eroticism, satire, comedy, caricature, farce, or anything extraneous to its nature. Its emotional tone is pious, ethereal, and ascetic. – Pitirim A. Sorokin, The Crisis of Our Age, p. 31 (First Edition, E.P. Dutton, 1941)
Introduction – We all know that Orthodoxy is extremely beautiful in all of its artistic manifestations: visual art, architecture, literature, chant, liturgical movement, etc. Why is this so? It is because, in all of history, the body of Orthodox Christian art comprises the highest and most faithful artistic manifestations of the highest unseen realities: above all things God Himself, and then, after God, the sacred hierarchy of the Mother of God, the angels, and the saints, which continues in the visible world in the hierarchy of the Church on earth.
St. Dionysios the Areopagite, the disciple of St. Paul, explains, in his treatise On the Ecclesiastical Hierarchies, how our visible rituals and symbols are anagogical, that is, they lead our minds up to the invisible realities which are their prototypes. (“Anagogical” comes from the Greek ana – “up” and ago – “to carry” or “to lead” [used of living things; for inanimate objects the verb is fero]; so “anagogical” means “pertaining to leading someone upwards”). This naturally flows from what we have already discussed in regards to Orthodox spiritual life and theological language, which are human participations in the life of God Himself, synergistic operations uniting the created powers of the human organism – body and soul – to the uncreated energies of God. Orthodoxy is a completely integrated whole, and it is only natural that its art should manifest accurately and beautifully its accurate and beautiful spiritual life and theological expression.
In discussing the history of this art, let us recall the organic image of the growth of a tree, which we employed earlier to describe the Church’s maturation of Her outward characteristics, which reached their mature form by the ninth century. She took the previously existing art of the Old Testament worship and the art of the Greco-Roman culture, and transformed and synthesized them in an unsurpassed (indeed by nature unsurpassable), breathtakingly magnificent and perfectly integrated ensemble manifesting aesthetic virtue in the highest degree, in every type of art – especially the visual, auditory, and architectonic – both in their public and domestic forms, those dedicated both to official ceremony and daily life, to explicitly sacred purposes and to apparently mundane activities.
In our classes tonight and next week, we cannot possibly cover the entire history of Orthodox sacred art or fully describe it. Our purpose is to give a brief historical overview, to summarize the character of genuine sacred art, and to relate this to our previous insights about the characteristics of the Church and of Her spiritual life and theology.
Historical Development – The New Testament Church had simultaneously to preserve the teaching of the incomprehensibility of God against the temptation of idolatry while preserving, against Manicheism and other dualisms, the teaching of the inherent goodness of creation and its instrumentality in lifting man from knowledge of the creation to knowledge of the Creator, a reality underscored by, indeed completed and made fully possible by, the Incarnation. Just as She took the Old Testament faith to the Gentiles and gave birth to the New Israel of the New Testament, so She took the highest aspects of the externals of the Old Testament worship and united them to the highest aspects of the art of the ancient world (primarily the Greco-Roman but also aspects of the Persian and other Middle Eastern cultures), to give birth to the externals of the worship of this New Israel. What we call Orthodox art can only be understood entirely within the framework of Orthodox worship, life of prayer, and theology.
The Worship of the Old Testament – It is obvious that the Early Church saw Her worship as the continuation and fulfilment of the worship of the Old Testament. Thus She preserved and elevated this worship in its chant, the use of the Psalms of David, the symbolism of the priestly service – garments, movements, rituals, etc. – and symbolism of the visual arts and architecture. The Holy Fathers constantly recur to the instructions given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai regarding the worship of Israel, and to the description of the Temple of Solomon in Kings, when discussing both the inner life of the soul as well as the outward worship of the Church, two manifestations of the one reality of the anagogical movement of man towards God.
In Christianizing the Old Testament worship, the Apostles and Fathers led this worship up from being a typos – a type, a foreshadowing – of the true worship into being the true worship, from being merely outward ritual to being the worship of God in Spirit and in Truth that Our Lord spoke of to the Samaritan Woman (John 4:23). One example of this was eliminating instrumental music, so that the chant of the Church would become more conducive to interior prayer. Another example was changing the basis of the selection of the priests from that of physical descent to spiritual fitness, as most fully explicated by St. Dionysios.
The Arts of the Greco-Roman Civilization – We must keep in mind that what we call Greco-Roman civilization was already extremely old at the time the New Testament Church came into being, and that its arts were also old and had undergone many phases and changes. But we may safely characterize the art of the late ancient world as highly developed sensate art, art that emphasized this-worldly realities, albeit in a beautiful and technically brilliant way. There was a great emphasis on sculpture, for example, whose three-dimensional character is necessarily opaque and sensual – it can convey ideas and feelings of something noble, but because it lacks transparency, because it calls attention to itself, it cannot anagogically lead the mind to the direct experience of that which is above the material. It can remind one of higher things – which are “somewhere else” – but it cannot mediate the higher things, bringing one into direct contact with them. The architecture and the use of the temple is another example of this opacity. The great temples were not built primarily to gather people for worship within but to provide magnificent backdrops for public ceremonies without. The outside of the temple was more important than the inside. This exteriority was completely appropriate to a culture in which religion was primarily a civic cult, a support to a powerful and proud this-worldly society.
The baptism of Greco-Roman art and architecture by the Church –
Visual Art – The visual art of the Early Church was for the most part either purely abstract and symbolic – as in the use of the Chi-Rho (ΧΡ, ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ, Christ) and the Fish anagram (ΙΧΤΗΥΣ – ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ ΘΕΟΥ ΥΙΟΣ ΣΩΤΗΡ – Jesus Christ Son of God Savior), or consisted of simple Scriptural images such as the basket with the bread and the fishes, etc. Prime examples include the simple, childlike art of the catacombs in Rome and the house-church at Dura-Europos in Syria, which either present abstract symbolism or Scriptural themes. There are, by contrast, a few examples of Christian-themed Late Antique sculpture. So we have either something very simple and undeveloped on the one hand, or a few isolated uses of the sophisticated Late Antique techniques on the other hand.
Architecture – In regards to church architecture, we must remember that the Church first gathered for the Liturgy in people’s homes. The earliest term known for a place of worship is o oikos tes ekklesias/domus ecclesiae – “house of the Church.” The first stage after the house-church was the titulus, a house purchased by the local Church and dedicated completely to Church use. This domestic character of the place of worship was to endure throughout the Church’s history; indeed, it is one of the enduring and distinguishing characteristics of good Church architecture – no matter how large or grand church buildings become, the best examples retain an interior and familial quality, and do not become purely official or monumental structures. Their purpose is both to gather people together for communal, familial worship and to encourage the interior worship of the heart. The genius of great Orthodox church architecture is that it can produce a very large building that is also warm, familial, and inviting, that does not crush the worshipper with its weight or grandeur, but rather simultaneously warms and elevates him, makes him feel at home while it performs its anagogical function, leading him upward to realize his higher calling.
Literature and Music – Greek and Roman literature produced language that was extraordinarily powerful, supple, and precise. Though its content, not being the direct revelation of God, obviously could not rise to the level of Holy Scripture, its form, being words, was not as opaque as pagan sculpture or temple architecture, and therefore it lent itself more easily to the use of the Apostles and Fathers. This is probably true of the pagan Greek music as well, but it is very difficult to ascertain exactly what this music sounded like, or, for that matter, what the music of the Old Testament worship sounded like. The consensus is that Christian chant was eventually a synthesis of the two, systematizing the content of the Old Testament Church’s chant (the actual melodies) by using the theory and notation of the Greek musical tradition (a process analogous to the Apologists and the Cappadocian Fathers systematizing and articulating the content of the Scriptural revelation using the “tools” of the Greek philosophical language). The roots of what today we call “Byzantine” and “Gregorian” chant are thus the same; the two are just the respective Eastern and Western developments of the original chant of the early Church, which continued the tradition of psalmodizing inherited from the Temple and synagogue worship.
The “baptism” of the inherited linguistic and musical arts during the period we are studying are both less radical and less obvious than in the visual arts, and more complicated to explain. For our purposes, it will be enough to talk about how the Church baptized the visual arts and architecture of the ancient world.
The transformation: In the realm of the visual arts, late antique portrait painting provided much better material for Christian artists to work with than did sculpture. The famous Fayum mummy portraits provide the best example of this genre. One can easily see how this school lent itself to the later, more spiritualized iconography of the Church, for though it is essentially realistic and worldly, it is at the same time formal and serene, while, being two-dimensional and providing a “window” into the soul of its subject, especially through the expressive depiction of the eyes, it also conveys an interiority that sculpture cannot.
In the realm of architecture: When the Church was free to build large public places of worship, She chose the form of the basilica, which was a secular type of building used for civic gatherings, such as political assemblies, courts, and markets. This only makes sense, since the worship of the Church consisted of the gathering (qahal, ekklesia) of the faithful for corporate praise and the Eucharistic Sacrifice. It took place on the inside, not the outside, and so what mattered was the inside, not the outside of the building. Of course, the Christians re-organized and adorned the interior of the basilicas to fit their new, spiritual function.
What we see in the course of the fifth and sixth centuries is a transition from what can be called Late Antique art to Early Byzantine art. One microcosm that illustrates this transition beautifully and accurately is the collection of sacred buildings in the northeastern Italian city of Ravenna, containing churches, baptisteries, and mausolea from the fifth and sixth centuries. Another, most famous example, is the Sinai icon of Christ, from the sixth century. What is taking place here is that the Church took the most spiritual forms of late Antique Art and gradually refined them into something completely Christian, which we today call Byzantine art.
The Characteristics of Genuine Christian Sacred Art
Recall our first class, on the Early Church, whose character we described as eschatological, otherworldly, martyric, and ascetical. The insights we discussed in our later two classes, regarding the Church’s true spiritual school and true theological method lead us in the same direction, which is to conclude that a genuine sacred art must lead the believer into purification of the senses, cleansing from the passions, and pure prayer in this life, and thus to the Heavenly Kingdom in the next life, which Kingdom he will already have experienced through mysteriological and prayerful communion with God. It is anagogical – Its purpose is not to “celebrate the world,” but to lead the soul upwards to union with God.
This anagogical function necessitates that true sacred art must be hierarchical and hieratic. The forms and images here below are part of a great hierarchy of forms which extend downward from the heavenly archetypes to their earthly representations, as explained by St. Dionysios. This art is hieratic, that is, priestly, in that it has a specific priestly function, which is to offer to the believer the sacred mystery and then transform the believer so that he may offer his heart – himself – as a spiritual sacrifice to the Father Who reigns at the height of this cosmic and super-cosmic hierarchy, He Who sacrificed the Lamb of God before the ages for us.
The techniques of this art, in all of its media, must therefore produce a certain transparency, for its function is not to call attention to itself but to lead up, beyond itself, to that which is truly real. It is also an art that is anonymous, both because the artist is working as a member of a community, not on his own, and because he is performing his work as an act of worship to God, not for personal aggrandizement.
Next week we will look at actual examples to illustrate these themes of anagogy, hierarchy, hieraticism, transparency, and anonymity, to form a clear picture of this fully developed, peculiarly Christian art.
You can listen to a podcast of this class at