Orthodox Survival Course, Class 6

Orthodox Survival Course

St. Irene Orthodox Church

Rochester Hills, Michigan


Pre-Class 6 – Corrigenda, a Clarification, and an Amplification

As we go along, when I notice mistakes or lack of clarity in earlier notes or recordings, or something glossed over that I would like to expand on a bit, I will try to correct mistakes and clear things up.

In the Class 2 recording, I mistakenly said that the English historian Christopher Dawson was a “theologian.” He is not, not even in the modern sense. I actually meant to say “historian,” and “theologian” was a slip of the tongue. By the way, Dawson’s work is an excellent example, perhaps the best written in English in modern times, of “meta-history.” But his outlook is Roman Catholic, not Orthodox, and therefore you have to take that into account when reading him.

In the Class 3 recording, I called the quote from St. John Cassian’s Conference of Abba Moses one of the “locus classici.” Well, first of all, it’s either a locus classicus or one of the loci classici, to get the grammar straight. What this term signifies is a place in the literature of a topic where you find a key statement that makes a point or reveals a truth or some information that thereafter defined the consensus understanding of the topic at hand or marks a great turning point of some kind or that is considered permanently authoritative.

Last week I mentioned that the Parthenon became a Christian church for many centuries, but then went on to say the the Church did not use the pagan temples for churches, but rather chose the basilica form. In general, that is true, but there exceptions, and the Parthenon is perhaps the most striking. It is true, however, that the foundations or fragments of pagan temples were often used in new Christian constructions.

One of our quotes last week was from Pitirim Sorokin, who talked about “ideational” art, the category into which he would put all truly sacred art, such as Byzantine art. This category is part of an entire scheme for understanding history and cultures developed by Sorokin, a Russian emigre who founded the sociology department at Harvard University in the 1930’s. I hope to spend more time on his thought later on in our course, as a tool for understanding the course of our civilization in relation to the West’s departure from Orthodoxy.

One thing I want to clarify in advance is our use of Wikipedia sites in tonight’s class. Of course, I do not advocate Wikipedia as an authoritative or complete source by which to study a subject. It was just a handy place to go to start our exploration of photographs of some of the artefacts and buildings I wanted to talk about. Naturally, if you want to learn more, you need to do more research, but you could start with the links provided in the Wikipedia article. For example, the article on Hosios Loukas gives a link to another collection of photos of the art in the church.

Class 6 – The Church of the Romans: Topic 3, Sacred Art – B. Examples

Introduction – Last week we discussed the history and the principles of true Orthodox sacred art. This week, we shall look at examples. Before going on, however, let us briefly review the characteristics of this sacred 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.

Tonight we will look at good examples of Orthodox sacred art from the first millennium, which exhibit some or all of these characteristics.

The Art of the Early Church – Recall that last week we pointed out that the art of the Church of the first three centuries was very simple and undeveloped, due in some part to the Faith’s frequently illegal status inhibiting the building of churches and the elaborate development of outward forms. Christian art in this period was either purely symbolic (e.g., the fish anagram) or consisted of childlike paintings of Scriptural scenes and images. There are, however, a few instances of Late Antique Christian sculpture.

Let’s start with the Wikipedia article (where else?), which actually has some excellent images of illustrative examples from the catacombs in Rome: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Early_Christian_art_and_architecture. This article takes us also into the 4th and 5th centuries, and therefore the first great basilicas, illustrated here by St. Sabina in Rome.

The Church of Dura Europos in Syria is a remarkably complete example of the early house-church type. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dura-Europos. Providentially, the frescoes were removed carefully and are now on exhibit at Yale University. The village itself, the site of numerous, extremely valuable architectural sites, was destroyed recently by ISIS.

Early Christian sculpture usually took the form of bas relief, usually executed on sarcophagi. Completely three-dimensional sculpture was very rare. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Early_Christian_sarcophagi

Art historians, though they agree with church historians that the Early Church period, in most respects, ended with the Peace of the Church at the beginning of the fourth century, consider the period of Early Christian/Late Antique art to extend in places as late as the seventh century, because it took that long for the transition from one form to another to take place. This Late Antique art, though not strictly speaking sacred in character, already has the character of formality and serenity that suited it very well to taking on the characteristics of sacred art we delineate above.

Late Antique Portraiture – The Fayum Portraits

There is one surviving trove of Late Antique portraiture, the famous Fayum mummy portraits from Egypt, which date from the late 1st through the 3rd century. Remember that Egypt had been Hellenized for three centuries, and part of the Roman Empire for one century, before this time. This art is almost certainly representative of Greco-Roman portraiture at this period. The depictions are realistic but, again, formal and serene. There is liveliness and warmth in the depth of the faces, but no violent emotion or any pathological disturbance. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fayum_mummy_portraits

It is easy to see how this school of art lent itself to being transformed by the Church into a school providing the tools for a truly sacred iconography.

The Basilica – Recall that, when choosing a form for its church architecture, the Church chose not the pagan temple but the basilica, a large, rectangular building used originally for public gatherings. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basilica . Let’s look at the outline of a basilica as shown in the article, and photographs of Santa Sabina, a basilica in Rome that has retained its original form to a remarkable degree.   

Two Microcosms Illustrating our Subject: Ravenna and Mount Sinai

There are two simply wonderful places that are microcosms of early Christian architecture and art, living “visual aids” to our study of this wonderful subject: The larger is the city of Ravenna, where one finds a large number of sacred buildings from the fifth and sixth centuries. The other is the Monastery of St. Catherine (or more anciently, of the Burning Bush and the Transfiguration) at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Both places offer examples of the basilica form of church architecture, and both contain iconography – mosaics at Mt. Sinai and Ravenna, and three famous panel icons at Mt. Sinai – which illustrate beautifully the transitional period when Late Antique Art became Byzantine art.

Ravenna also offers the earliest great example of the round or octagonal church – San Vitale, which by a few years predates Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. (That is, the earliest great example built from scratch as a church. The Pantheon in Rome is several centuries older but not designed as a church, for originally it was a pagan temple. It is completely round, not a dome set on a cross, as are Hagia Sophia and San Vitale). San Vitale is not nearly the achievement that Hagia Sophia was, but both its architecture and especially its extant mosaics are enormously important in our understanding of early Byzantine art.

One exercise that will help you to see the transition from Late Antique to early Byzantine art is to look carefully at the decoration of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, which dates from the fifth century, and then look carefully at the mosaics from San Vitale and Sant’ Apollinare in Classe, which date from the sixth century, and the great apse mosaic of the Transfiguration at Mt. Sinai, also from the sixth century.



Fully Developed Byzantine Art

There are two extant ensembles of high Byzantine art in Greece, the catholicon of Hosios Loukas monastery in Boetia (10th century), and the church at Daphne near Athens (11th century), which illustrate the full development of Byzantine art after the restoration of the icons following the end of of iconoclasm in 843. Notice that by this time all of the naturalistic elements of Late Antique art have been highly spiritualized, and the elements of hierarchy and hieraticism are developed to the highest degree:



Sacred Art after the Schism

Later we will be looking at Byzantine art in the later middle ages, at the time when the Latins have already separated from the Church, to contrast it to the newfangled style of religious art in the West, which marks a transition from the truly sacred art of the Church in the strict sense to the humanistic art of the Renaissance. 

You can listen to a podcast recording of this class at   



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