Symbols in Sacred Architecture and Iconongraphy

by Camilian Demetrescu, appearing in Volume 3

To speak of sacred architecture today in front of a Church which is crushed, humiliated and degraded by the ignorance of its symbols, by the painful alienation of the remaining iconography, drowned in the schemes of a disembodied abstraction, is equivalent to turning a knife in the wound. Times have changed, the “humanists” of our times say; the foolish virgins of the ancient Psychomachie have rebelled against the abuse of “sanctimonious morality,” the virtues trampled by vices have lost their shield and lance. At the same time, they say, modern iconography no longer needs familiar themes. Christ can be incarnated in geometric forms, arbitrary and indefinite; the words of the priest are sufficient to remember that God made himself man.

The lack of significance substitutes for mystery, aestheticism must be refined, hermetic, while the ideal space for a modern church must be comfortable, like the foyer of a five star hotel. Nothing more need be said. We all have, in front of our eyes, the prototype of the new parish church which Sedlmayr calls “a garage for souls.”

Our subject is that of rediscovering sacred space in the light of Christian symbolism, unchangeable by definition. The architect today who agrees to design and build a house of worship has the right and the duty to belong to his historical era, and, at the same time, to the perpetual era of sacredness. Freedom of expression is not in question. Modernity is perfectly compatible with the symbolic criteria of a sacred edifice. Freedom to create new forms is unlimited, and clearly within the impartial limits of stability and functionality, and I do not mean this in the physical sense alone. In sacred architecture, in addition to the material stability of the building, there is the symbolism of its spiritual function.

The church is not a work of engineering. It is a symbol. A building of stone becomes a church only after it has been consecrated, in the same way that a child becomes a Christian in baptism. To see the church as only a building, a material structure, is like deconsecrating it, emptying it of its fundamental significance as a symbol.

The church is the body of Christ. How can one explain the body of Christ by measuring it in meters, cataloguing the material and the building techniques used in constructing an edifice? The major part of the studies which today are dedicated to Christian temples treat the symbols quite briefly, if at all. They limit themselves to classifying information concerning materials used, aesthetics and the function of the building.

How can one define the Christian temple?

The Church was born with Christ, its doors have been open to the world for about two thousand years and will remain open until the Parousia, until the Second Coming, when they will close forever and the Last Judgment will begin. For everyone: for those who will be within and those who will be left outside. After the Last Judgment, there will no longer be any reason for the temple to exist, as has been written in the Apocalypse of John of Patmos, because in the sacred City, in the heavenly Jerusalem, the Temple will be God Himself.

The Ark, Etimasia, and the Body of Christ
The terrestrial Church takes on three meanings in the time which separates Bethlehem from the Parousia: the Ark, Etimasia, and the Body of Christ. The Church is the new Ark of salvation from the deluge of evil which is rooted in history itself. When, at the end of time history ends, the living will descend from the Ark which has settled on the sacred mountain, and the dead who have remained outside the Ark will rise to judgment from the valley of mud.

The Church is at the same time Etimasia, which in Greek means preparation (Etoimasia), in expectation of the Second Coming. During the entire period of waiting for the Parousia, the church takes the place of the presence-absence of Christ, and, in this sense, is the Body of Christ.

Ark, Etimasia, divine Body: the symbol of the temple centers on this trio. It is not possible to understand the complexity of the meanings which are at the base of Christian architecture and Christian iconography, without beginning from these three fundamental symbols.

By definition, the church is the mirror which reflects the heavenly world (the Templum was an ancient instrument for observing the heavens). All of the earthly temples reflect the perfection of creation, and in it divine perfection. The Christian temple—and this is the great novelty—is no longer the reflected image of the divine, but the body itself of God made man: the abside is the head, the nave the body and the transept the open arms, the altar is the heart of Christ. (Onorio di Autun).

When Jesus chased the merchants from the temple, the Jews asked for an explanation: What sign can you show us for doing these things? Christ replied, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will rebuild it.” The Jews replied: “It took forty-six years to build this temple and you, in three days, would make it rise again?” “But He spoke of the temple of his body,” comments Saint John (Jn 2:18-21). The Christian Church is the Church of the incarnation. It can, therefore, be defined as the incarnation of the ancient Jewish temple: “The great curtain which covered the Sancta Sanctorum split in two, from top to bottom” (Matthew 27:51). The mystery, hidden from the eyes of the people in the Hebrew temple, revealed itself to mankind. The spirit showed itself to reason. In the place of the God of the great priests, of the severe and vindictive God of the Old Law, there came the God of the humble, the Christian Adonai, of mercy and forgiveness. This is the essence of the temple of Christ. All of its symbolism is summed up in the meaning of the Incarnation of the Word, the image of the invisible God.

As for Noah’s Ark, for the Tabernacle of Moses, and for the Temple of Solomon, the proportions of the church are revealed by God Himself. “Behold, I have made the design for you on the palm of my hand, your walls are always before me,” says the Lord to Israel (Isaiah 49:16). Ezechiel received in a dream the measurements of the new Temple of Jerusalem, the structure of which shows a surprising analogy with the Romanesque church. The rules of construction come from God who is the real architect. The builders imitate God, carrying out His plan. For this reason the Romanesque church is not signed. The medieval anonymity renders homage to the Master Builder of the Temple, built with the living stones of mankind, a church made of souls, not of stone.

Symbol of the center, the church rises in a sacred space, consecrated in times long gone by. The consecration of the sacred place begins with its separation from the profane spaces by means of a fence and its cosmic orientation. The building of every new altar reflects the cosmogony of creation.

The analogy “man-church-cosmos” helps us to understand the meaning of that which is called the cosmic orientation. The construction of new altars takes up the cosmogonic myth of creation.

This analogy helps us to understand the meaning of that which is called “orientatio.” Modern anthropology defines man as a spiritually oriented animal; his orientation acts in two directions: toward the light (eliotropism), and toward that which is higher (theotropism). Man has always been attracted by the light of the sun and the mystery of the blue skies. His double orientation, horizontal and vertical, toward the Sunrise which gives life and towards the North Star which is the center of the cosmos, indicate the two coordinates of his being in the world: survival and spirituality.

The Christian church is oriented in the same way: the longitudinal axis, called the solar axis, is oriented toward the rising sun, toward the East, (as the word itself indicates), while the vertical axis, the axis mundi (axis of the world), connects the temple to the North Star. The solar axis goes between light and darkness: in all mythology Paradise is in the East, the cradle of the sun, while Hades is in the West, in the cosmic cavern of darkness. Adam was cast out of Paradise by the western door, into a world without light. The Ascension of Christ into Heaven took place above the rising sun. The great primeval battle between the Archangel Michael and Lucifer, for the domination of creation, took place on the threshold of the kingdom of the sun and the abyss of darkness, in the deep West. Up until the fifth century, Christians prayed before the rising sun, while the Hebrews looked toward the temple. The tombs in the first Christian cemeteries were oriented, the dead looked toward the sun which overcomes the darkness.

The vertical axis, the axis mundi, oriented the church upward, bringing together the Heavens, the earth and hell—the divine and the diabolic. In ancient times, in the center of the step which separated the nave from the Holy of Holies, there was embedded a stone which marked the “cosmic center” of the church. The North Star, a fixed star in the northern hemisphere around which the constellation of Ursa Major rotates, is the sacred point of stellar cosmology; the throne of God, a star which never sets, the pivot of the universe. For Saint Gregory the Great, “the Great Dipper is the Church which rotates around the Truth,” while for Madeleine Davy, the North Star is “the key to ancient secrets lost by modern man who is cut off from the cosmos” (Initiation to the Roman Symbolism).

Oriented upwards, toward the throne of God, the church can “be oriented horizontally as well towards the north, indicated by the North Star. The builder of Romanesque churches usually oriented the altar towards the East, but in some temples, like, for example, that of Santa Maria di Bominaco, near Aquila in Italy, the altar faces north. This “orientation” in relation to the North Star can be found as well in places where, in ancient times, there had been pagan or Celtic temples.

If the church is the center of the universe, the altar is the center of the church itself. The word altar comes from the Latin altus, which means a high place. The steps which normally lead to the altar bring to mind the climb to the Temple of Jerusalem, the sacred mountain on which it was built. The heart of the church is in the heart of the sacred mountain on which it was built. The Holy Mountain remains the heart of the church, the altar is the microcosm in which is concentrated the world and all of creation. The liturgy which takes place on the altar, under Christ Pantocrator, creator of the universe, reflects the heavenly liturgy of Genesis.

Sacred Geometry
The geometry of sacred architecture is rigorously symbolic. The plan of the building, based on a dialogue between circles and squares, summarizes the fundamental relationship between God and man. The circle stands for Heaven, the sacred, the spiritual world. The square, on the other hand, represents the cosmos, material things, the terrestrial condition. The concept of the Incarnation of the Word, on which all of the symbolism of the Christian temple rests, is illustrated by certain medieval images. In the evangelistary of Saint Omero, under the foot of Christ in a throne there can be seen a square drawn in a circle: a divine symbol, the circle becomes a square, spirit becomes material, God descends in flesh.

For centuries the Byzantine church was built on a cube topped by a dome. Santa Sofia in Constantinople is the prototype. In Romanesque architecture, the apse and the cupola are circular, dedicated to God, while the nave, destined for the people, is rectangular. God and man, spirit and material meet in the sacred temple and in the earthly space of the temple and the liturgy. The Cistercian apse of the twelfth century is still square, then it becomes polygonal, while in the Romanesque churches and the churches of the Templars it is always circular. The cupola, like that of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, reflects the vault of the world.

That which distinguishes the Romanesque architecture from the Gothic or Renaissance is the frequent irregularity of the plan of the building. As an analogy with the human body, Romanesque churches flee from the rigor of symmetry: life is not geometric. Romanesque column capitals are never the same, and the same ornamental motif is never repeated as it is in neoclassical temples where modular repetition is the rule. Sometimes the Romanesque apse deviates with respect to the longitudinal axis of the church, in memory of the bent head of Christ on the cross. This supremacy of the human aspect over geometric rigor will be eliminated by the rationalism of the new architecture of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when the temple becomes a palace and the symbol dies in sheer decorative pretext. The warmth of the God-man who breathes with the faithful in the Romanesque space, alive and imperfect like life itself, will disappear gradually, finally to be abandoned by the “parking garages of souls” of our time.

The deliberate geometric imperfection of the Romanesque architecture is contrasted by the symbolic rigor of numbers. The ideal relationship between the height and the length of the building must be one to ten, and one to six between width and length (we cannot insist enough here on the symbolism of numbers, essential in sacred architecture).

The Portal and the Via Salutis
If the axis mundi is the cosmic road by which the heavenly miracle descends on the temple, the earthly world can enter through the portal. “I am the Door,” says Christ (John 10:9), “if one enters through me, he shall be saved.” The portal is, first of all, “an arch of triumph and a throne of glory” (Burckhardt). But a triumphal arch which opens not in space but in time: he who enters it does not pass from one place to another place, but from one time to another time; from the time of the Old to that of the New law. The portal is the threshold which divides history from eternity: entering into the temple one enters into the mystery of creation and salvation.

The portal repeats the plan of the building; the rectangle of the double doors reproduces the nave, while the lunetta above takes on the circular form of the apse. The people pass through the square of the doors, while the semicircular tympanum above, like the apse and the cupola, portrays Christ in glory blessing the faithful.

If the form of the portal recalls the plan of the temple, in an iconographic sense it announces the themes of the apse: Christ in glory and His Blessed Mother, symbol of the Church Militant. The portal of the apse forms two poles—cosmic and mystical—of the Via Salutis (the way of Salvation), the initiatory steps of which lead from the threshold of the temple to the altar. The Christian enters the church by the western portal. From the darkness of the West he gradually draws near to the light of the Sun which shines on the altar. The western door was destined for the people while the southern door, bathed in the light of mid- day, was reserved for the initiated (priests, theologians, wise men), already illuminated by knowledge.

The importance of the threshold, like that of the entire portal, is immense. The entry to the Carolingian church was guarded by archangels; strong lions defended the Romanesque portals from the “spirit of the desert” and from heresy. Enemies, destroyers of the faith, false prophets and false messiahs were forbidden entry.

Once over the threshold one enters into the mystery of the temple. Just inside, the pilgrim already feels himself in the bowels of an Ark which is navigating the waters of this world, but in another time. The “Via Salutis” begins at the portal and leads toward the altar, guided by the milestones of symbols, portrayed on the capitals, frescos, windows, mosaics, etc. The entire biblical story of the world and of the life of Christ passes before the eyes of the pilgrim, reminding him of the epic of human destiny.

The first initiatory test which the Christian must face when he has just stepped over the threshold is the test of the Maze. Contrary to the mythical labyrinth of Dedalus, the Christian labyrinth does not have dead ends, misleading crossroads or deadly traps. Built into the pavement with blocks of contrasting colors, the labyrinth signifies the difficult journey of man toward the truth. Symbolically, man enters into the labyrinth at birth and during the long and tortuous course of his life advances toward the Heavenly Jerusalem. The Faith is the thread of Arianna which will lead him to salvation.

We cannot go into detail about the vast range of subjects which accompany this redeeming journey. There is not enough space to do so. Can we still speak of symbols in modern architecture and iconography? What is there to say, for example, about the so-called abstract or informal windows insisted upon by different clients, with the permission of the agency for the conservation of cultural treasures, in certain Romanesque monuments in France? To encourage ourselves we turn our thoughts to the windows of the Cathedral of Chartres. In the twelfth century forty-five brotherhoods of artisans sponsored the creation of one of the most marvelous works of stained glass ever seen, up to the present time. The extraordinary history of Charlemagne, told in flaming colors, was donated by the society of drapers. How can we manage not to smile bitterly when we think of the use made of both public and private funds destined for modern “sacred” culture? Is the crisis really irreversible? History teaches us that nothing is final, neither the good nor the bad. Otherwise, why would we be meeting here in Rome, if not in the hope that a reversal of this crisis is still possible?

Let us summarize the essential characteristics which define the sacred space of a church:

The orientation (in modern architecture, dis-orientation). The dialogue between the circle and the square in the geometric and symbolic structure of the building (and not the arbitrary use of geometry according to criteria which are only aesthetic or utilitarian), then the requirement that the apse be circular and the nave rectangular. The integration of the symbolism of number in the proportions and in the rhythms of the architectonic development. The significance of the portal (which cannot be the entry to just any sort of public building, as we often see). The planning of the iconographic message is inherent in the very design of the building (too often considered of secondary importance and reduced to a minimum). All within the knowledge that the Christian temple incarnates the body of Christ, the Symbol of symbols.

It is not my task to speak about the causes which have led to the degradation of sacred space. I can only say that the study of symbols is lacking in the teaching of architecture, in the same way that theological seminaries do not offer a specific course on iconographic symbolism. It is easy to imagine the consequences of this double ignorance for the construction of churches today. We are witnessing an epidemic hybridization of architecture and iconography, that little which remains due in the first place to the lack of a culture of symbols, substituted for by the good or bad taste of the client and the builder.

To convince Talleyrand to introduce the teaching of color, as equal to that of music, into the schools, Delacroix said that the laws of color could be learned in a quarter of an hour, and this quarter of an hour is what is lacking in many of the famous painters. It is true that the knowledge of symbols can not be learned in only fifteen minutes, but if priests and architects could agree to learn the symbolism of sacred architecture once again, sooner or later the “garage for souls” will become that which is commonly called a church.