The aesthetics of Russian Orthodox Church architecture: A philosophical, historical, and critical investigation

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IMAGE: Icon from
Novgorod (1450s)

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Though the subject of iconography has historically dominated the Orthodox discourse on aesthetics in terms of both the dogmas and philosophical reflections devoted to it, suggesting a certain “privileging” of the visual, church ritual engages all five of the senses.  Pavel Florenskii highlighted the comprehensive nature of the aesthetic experience of the Orthodox liturgy in his 1922 article “The Church Ritual as a Synthesis of the Arts.”  The ritual, as he pointed out, combines visual, audial, tactile, and olfactory phenomena to produce “the highest synthesis of heterogeneous artistic activities.”[1] The embroidered liturgical robes of the clergy, along with the smell of incense and the sound of the priest’s chanting or the singing of the choir, also form an essential part of the aesthetics of Orthodox ritual.  Less attention has been paid, however, to the role of church architecture in producing the total aesthetic effect of a service.  Aside from the work of architectural historians, this aspect of Orthodoxy has largely been overlooked.  The present study proposes to take up the question of architecture’s contribution to the aesthetics of Orthodoxy more generally, and then provide an historical account of the more traditional Russian style specifically.  Finally, it will critically engage the thoughts of one prominent 20th-century Russian writer whose work touched on this topic, Evgenii Trubetskoi.

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Continuities and discontinuities in the Russian perception of Europe

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IMAGE: Portrait of Aleksandr Herzen (1848)
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Since the reign of Peter the Great, there have existed a number of continuities and discontinuities in the Russian perception of Europe.  Even at any single given time, there was usually disagreement over how European society was to be interpreted, and whether the qualities it was thought to possess should or even could be emulated by Russia.  Often there was even a consensus about what characterized the West, but opinions were split when it came to the desirability of Europeanization.  As time passed, the set of terms used to discuss Europe changed slightly, and the positions of the various thinkers and schools of thought shifted as well.  Nevertheless, they nearly all agreed that there had been a fundamental difference between the development of Russian and mainstream (Western, Romano-German) European society.  And despite the changing nature of the Russian discourse on Europe, several categories remained fairly constant throughout and were continuously revisited by its participants.  So while the specific configuration of these categories was bound to be different in each age, a few common threads can be established between them.

In explaining the separate path of Western European development, a few factors were consistently identified by Russian intellectuals as accounting for this difference.  Most agreed that the religious establishment of Roman Catholicism had exerted a powerful influence on the subsequent social, political, and intellectual growth of Europe.  This was contrasted with Russia’s inheritance of Greek Christianity from Byzantium, which soon thereafter became estranged from the Western Church.  Many other Russians pointed to the residual impact of the Roman legal code on the political and juridical development of the West.  Some believed that the different geographical conditions of Russia and Western Europe had been a decisive determinant in their respective histories.  The precise relationship of these factors to one another and the particular emphasis given to each point shifted from thinker to thinker, but they were still the most common themes in the Russian discourse on European history.

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The transformation of utopia under capitalist modernity

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IMAGE: Ivan Leonidov’s
City of the Sun (1940s)

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Utopianism has always involved the imagination of a better world, a perfected society set against the imperfect society of the present.  Whether as an object of speculative philosophical reflection, a practical program for social transformation, or an idle daydream, utopia has always evinced the hope that reality might be made ideal.

Underneath this general rubric, however, “utopia” can be seen to signify several related but distinct things.  The term is commonly used to refer to that literary genre, deriving its name from Thomas More’s eponymous Utopia, which depicts various “ideal commonwealths.”  Beyond this meaning, many commentators have identified these literary utopias as belonging to a broader impulse that exists within the very structure of human experience, of which they are but one expression.[1] Karl Mannheim, for example, described utopianism as a mentalité, writing that “[a] state of mind is utopian when it is incongruous with the state of reality within which it occurs…and at the same breaks the bond of the existing order.”[2] Others have linked the idea of utopia to more metaphysical foundations, explaining how the condition for the possibility of utopia is carried by the category of possibility itself.  Understood in this way, a utopia could be an alternate social configuration that is imaginable either as a pure fantasy wholly apart from existing conditions, or as one that is potentially viable, somehow implied by those same conditions.[3] The former of these constitutes an abstract or merely logical possibility, whereas the latter represents a concrete or real possibility.

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