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

IMAGE: Icon from
Novgorod (1450s)


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.

Broadly speaking, the architecture of a cathedral can almost be seen as the ultimate unifying element for the aesthetic experience of the Orthodox service.  It regulates the availability of natural light, guides the motions of worshippers by the apportionment of its spaces, conditions the acoustics of the chanting, and sets limit points both visually and physically beyond which certain persons are ritually not allowed to pass.  Church architecture encompasses all other aesthetic media of the liturgy within itself.  Florenskii himself made this claim when he wrote that

in a church everything is interlinked: church architecture, for example, takes into account even so apparently minor an effect as the ribbons of bluish incense curling across the frescoes and entwining the pillars of the dome, almost infinitely expanding the architectural spaces of the church with their movement and interlacing, softening the dryness and stiffness of the lines and investing them with movement and life, as if melting them.[2]

The architectural composition of a church must anticipate all of these aesthetic factors if it is to offer an appropriate ecclesiastical environment.  Just as the ritual performances that take place in any given Orthodox cathedral are shaped by its architecture, so also is the design of new cathedrals shaped by the practical requirements of the organic body of traditions existing in a particular time and location.  Church architecture through the ages must respond to the demands placed on it by an evolving set of traditions so that it can synthesize all the parts of the ritual into a unified whole.

A cathedral’s architecture provides the general setting for the liturgy.  This does not imply, however, that it is simply a backdrop for the main action, as a stage is for a theatrical performance.  On the contrary, church architecture surrounds the worshippers and actively participates in the creation of the total aesthetic field of the ritual.  Unlike the open-air setting found in the classic Greek amphitheater or Roman stadium, the Orthodox cathedral wraps itself completely around those pass through its threshold.  In this way, it represents a sort of self-enclosed totality.  For this reason, the church’s architecture is that much more important to the distribution of light and incense, since, without the inclusion of windows or doors, it potentially describes a perfectly opaque pneumatic seal, shut off from all light and allowing no air to circulate in from outside.  This also sets it apart from the theatrical stage.  The structure of a church thus determines above all the total circumambience of the liturgy.  It thereby allows all the other aesthetic components of the service within its limits to constitute an ensemble.

So central is this function of the church structure that one of the most astute Russian commentators on Orthodox architecture, Evgenii Trubetskoi, went so far as to assert the priority of the church over the celebrated icon:

In intent, the church and its icons form an indivisible whole.  Hence the icon is subordinated to the architectural design of the church.  This explains the remarkable architectural quality of our religious painting.  Subordination to architectural form is felt not only in the church as a whole but in every single painted image.  Every icon has its special internal architecture, visible even apart from its connection with the church building.[3]

The removal of these icons from their rightful place within the church would therefore completely negate their aesthetic effect.  It is on this account that Florenskii railed against the displaying of icons in museums.  “Gold, which is the conventional attribute of the celestial world and which in a museum is something contrived and allegorical, in a church with flickering icon lamps and a multitude of burning candles is a living symbol, it is representation.”[4] These paintings were meant to be witnessed in the church, before “the uneven and irregular flickering, one might almost say winking, light of the icon lamp,” for they had been “[c]alculated [to be seen] in the play of a flickering flame that moves with every breath of wind.”[5]

Beyond those artifacts whose viewing is inappropriate outside of a church setting, an Orthodox church contains a number of ritual components which are not even easily detached from its physical structure.  Mosaics, murals, and frescoes are built into its walls. In the earliest sites of Christian worship, in fact, all painting was done directly onto the walls.  “Historically,” Florenskii points out in his 1922 work Iconostasis, “icon painting arose from the technique of wall-painting.”  Even after the nearly universal popularization of icons throughout the Eastern Church, mosaics and wall-frescoes continued to adorn the architecture of its monasteries and cathedrals.  While Florenskii refers to “wall-painting” as “that noblest form of fine art,” he asserts that in the icon the “essential aliveness of painting [was] released from the strictures of external dependence on the accidents of architecture.”[6] Conversely, Trubetskoi was for his part extremely grateful for the way that the figures represented in this fashion were warped or distorted to fit the contours of the church.  Like Florenskii, he opposed the use of linear perspective in church iconography.  “The architectural aspect more than any other deepens the chasm between ancient icon painting and realistic painting,” wrote Trubetskoi.  “We see how human figures shaped to conform to the lines of a church, now too rectilinear, now unnaturally curved, to harmonize with the curve of a vault.”[7] The murals’ direct subservience to architecture offered an escape from the naturalism that had made its way into Russian religious art.

By that same token, Trubetskoi also delighted at those iconostases that had been built too tall, so that the icons made to its proportions were stretched out: “The heavenward thrust of a narrow, tall iconostasis may call for extremely elongated fogures; the heads then look disproportionately small for the bodies; the shoulders are unnaturally narrow, which emphasize the ascetic emaciation of the whole image.”[8] Apart from the murals, mosaics, and frescoes — which are fully attached and practically inseparable from the architecture of the church — the iconostasis can also be understood as an integral part of church architecture.  It is in most cases fixed between the sanctuary and the nave of the cathedral for all intents and purposes.  Occasionally an iconostasis will be moved from one church to another and then grafted onto its structure.  Usually, however, each screen is designed for the specific church of which it is to be a part.  While it is certainly possible, on account of its extraordinary role in church ritual, to abstract from its situated context in the architectural whole and conceive of it as an independent unit, the iconostasis is best understood in its specific capacity as a barrier between two larger spatial systems within the general structure of the church.  This is the sense in which Florenskii understood the iconostasis:

The wall that separates two worlds is an iconostasis…[T]he iconostasis is a boundary between the visible and invisible worlds, and it functions as a boundary by being an obstacle to our seeing the altar, thereby making it accessible to our consciousness by means of its unified row of saints (i.e., by its cloud of witnesses) that surround the altar where God is, the sphere where heavenly glory dwells, thus proclaiming the Mystery.  Iconostasis is vision.[9]

Architecture, acting through the iconostasis, erects a wall that serves as a visual and physical limit-point in the Orthodox ritual.  Only the clergy, the initiated, can pass beyond its limits.  Here, Florenskii’s views were in complete accord with those of the great Greek theologian Maximus Confessor.  “For while [the church] is one house in its construction,” wrote Maximus, “it admits of a certain diversity in the disposition of its plan by being divided into an area exclusively assigned to priests and ministers, which we call a sanctuary, and one accessible to all the faithful, which we call a nave.”  The partition that stands between them (of which the iconostasis was a later Muscovite development) for Maximus served to symbolically recapitulate the broader division between the sensible and supersensible: “In this [same] way the entire world of beings produced by God in creation is divided into a spiritual world filled with intelligible and incorporeal essences and into this sensible and bodily world which is ingeniously woven together of many forms and natures.”[10]

Though the iconostasis is perhaps the most important architectural feature regulating an Orthodox church’s distribution of space, it is far from being the only one that acts in this way.  Every element of a cathedral’s architecture contributes to the greater spatial network it helps to comprise.  The floor-plan becomes the circuit that guides the choreogaphy of the church ritual.  “[A] temple service,” explained Florenskii, “is…an organized action in space, an action whose surface ‘membranes’ continually direct us to the central kernel…The temple’s spatial center, or kernel, is defined by ‘membranes’: narthex, vestibule, the temple itself, sanctuary, altar-table, antemension, chalice, the Holy Mysteries, Christ, the Father.”[11] Church architecture first creates a circumambient space conveying the mood or general atmosphere — in a word, the sanctity[12] — in which the liturgy can be articulated.  Its main purpose thereafter is to effectively regulate the space in which the ritual is actually executed.  The former can be thought of as expressing a primarily psychological function of church architecture, the latter as satisfying purely physical requirements through an economy of space and material.

The first of these functions, the psychological, consists in the creation of a spatial arrangement which is appropriate to the performance of church ritual.  Its sense is neatly summed up by a passage from the great Russian theologian Sergei Bulgakov, who contrasted the mood created by an Orthodox architectural setting against its Catholic equivalent (clearly preferring the former):

The whole Office takes on the value of a divine life of which the Temple is the fitting locality.  This trait is manifest in the very architecture of the Orthodox Church, whether it is the dome of St. Sophia in Constantinople, which so admirably represents the heaven of Divine Wisdom reflected on earth, or whether it is the cupola of stone or wood of a Russian village church full of sweetness and warmth — the impression is the same.  The Gothic temple rises in pride toward the transcendent, but in spite of the unnatural feeling striving toward the heights, there is always the feeling of an insurmountable distance, yet unattained.  Under the Orthodox dome, on the other hand, one has the sense of a bowed humility in which assembles and reunites [sic]; there is the feeling of life in the house of the Father, after the union between divine and human was created.[13]

Leonid Ouspensky agreed that while they certainly represent impressive technical achievements, Catholic cathedrals ultimately failed in their most crucial task, the creation of a proper environment for worship.  This task, he held, was accomplished in even the least elaborate Orthodox churches.[14] The architecture of the church, as both Ouspensky and Bulgakov agreed, should set the correct aesthetic mood for the performance of a service.  Trubetskoi shared this sentiment completely, stressing that each architectural feature should contribute to the production of this mood.  “The rise to supreme joy,” he declared, “is expressed in the whole architecture of the church, in its colorful ceramic tiles, in the patterns of imaginative ornaments with lovely fantastic flowers climbing the outside columns of the building, up and up to its glowing, golden, flame-like domes.”[15]

Turning now to the historical dimension of our analysis, one can see how the changing demands placed on church architecture by tradition were reflected in the phases of its past development, as its structure evolved to accommodate new practices and conventions.  This relates to the more straightforwardly physical function of cathedral design.  In his famous lectures on Aesthetics, Hegel described how the early architecture of the Eastern Church was modified to meet certain ritual exigencies.  “[I]n the Eastern Empire [church architecture] seems to have remained true to this style up to Justinian’s time,” wrote Hegel.  “Nevertheless in the later architecture of the Byzantine Empire several changes were introduced.  The center was formed by a dome on four great pillars, then various sorts of construction were added for the particular purposes of the Greek, as distinct from the Roman, rite.”[16] From this it is clear, as was suggested earlier, that the design of a church in Orthodoxy must respond not only to the different pressures of climate, but to the ritual demands exacted by shifting conventions.

Besides its practical role in the organization of the ritual space, the architectural layout of a church also carries a number of symbolic meanings.  This symbolic aspect of church architecture can be understood as a further elaboration of its psychological function, though some doubtless felt that this symbolism went beyond creating a proper mood and held real cosmotheological significance in itself.  The most obvious symbolic meaning of a church’s architecture, of course, is its basic shape.  While this shape cannot be discerned immediately from the interior of a church or from a close distance on the ground, worshippers gradually comes to understand its shape through a continued interaction with its spaces.  While the ancient Roman basilica predominated for many centuries after the ascendency of Christianity in the East, in the ninth and tenth century a new standard form came to replace it.  As Ouspensky explained, this occurred “when the type of cruciform cupola church — the architectural principle of which is a cube with a dome on top — became universal.  In architecture, such a building is the perfect expression of the principles of Orthodox liturgical thought.”[17] In Eastern Orthodoxy, cruciform (cross-shaped) churches symbolize the crucifixion.  Ovular churches, while less common, symbolize Noah’s ark.

The general design of Russian Orthodox cathedrals was adapted from their Byzantine antecedents, the older basilica model and altered cruciform basilica.  “The domed basilica spread from Byzantium and Armenia into Russia,” wrote the critic and philosopher Oswald Spengler, whose architectural theories commanded the respect of a number of great architects in the twentieth century.  There, in Russia, “it came by slow degrees to be felt as an element of exterior architecture belonging to a symbolism concentrated in the roof.”[18] Specifically, the dome is described as symbolizing the “celestial space” of heaven.  Trubetskoi explained that “[t]he dome of Byzantine churches represents the firmament covering the earth like a lid.”[19] This aesthetic effect of the hemispheric dome was recognized even by non-Orthodox intellects like Schelling.  “The most perfect and significant closure of the whole [structure], however, is a perfectly vaulted or arched top, that is, the cupola.  Here the concentric position is most perfect, and by virtue of the fact that the individual parts mutually carry and support one another, the most perfect totality emerges, an image of the universal all-supporting organism and the vault of heaven.”[20]

Apart from these grander symbolic motivations, Russian Orthodox churches are also arranged according to a number of structural conventions that make no claim to profound religious meaning.  For example, the altar is invariably situated in the eastern section of the church.  The bell-tower, by contrast, is always built west of it.  The reason traditionally given for this choice is that the sun rises in the east.  Clearly, however, this is not rooted in a deeper scriptural or theological rationale.  Certain national peculiarities also enter into Russian Orthodox churches that distinguish it from Greek counterparts, such as the steeples common to Muscovite cathedrals and its use of different building materials, especially the extensive use of wooden architecture throughout northern Russia.  The country’s famous “onion-domes” also set Russian church architecture apart from Greek models, which employ a more perfectly rounded shape.  The precise reason behind this, as will be seen, has been the subject of some controversy over the last hundred or so years.  Some have claimed its invention was borne of utility; others that it expresses some national spirit.  Within Russia itself, however, there are further regional variations.

The final dimension determining the design of Russian Orthodox churches it holds in common with all architecture: utilitarian considerations.  In order to even build a structure, of course, it is necessary to first determine the means and materials by which one can construct it.  As is always the case, construction is constrained by the material and technical limitations of a culture in any given period of history.  Builders must use the resources that are at hand and the most advanced assembly techniques available.  “In any country it always depends largely upon local conditions such as climate, soil, and available building material as well as upon the customs and needs of the people,” wrote the historian and liberal politician Pavel Miliukov in his 1903 book, Outlines of Russian Culture.   With its great wealth of forests, this meant that in the Russian north the majority of its churches (as with all of its buildings) were for centuries predominantly made of wood.  “In a country so rich in forests [as Russia],” Miliukov continued, “it was natural for the original architectural style to be developed along the lines of wooden construction, while building in stone for a long time under foreign influence.”[21] By contrast, stone and brick churches were possible at an earlier date in cities like Novgorod and Moscow.  Even here, though, the techniques employed in wooden architectural design reappeared in their stone and brick churches.

Once a structure has been built, a structure must, of course, continue to meet certain basic conditions in order to even maintain its existence as a structure.  That is to say, a building must be able to endure the physical stresses of gravity and shifting weather patterns.  Moreover, as more buildings are produced in a single location undergoing a stable or at least predictable cycle of environmental pressures, architects seek economic solutions to the problem of their upkeep.  This is a further extension of the utilitarian principle in architectural design in general.  Some scholars have argued that such utilitarian factors motivated most of the historical innovations of Russian architecture, not least of all church architecture.  In Russia, the extremely cold climate in some of its regions had a sharply influenced the structure of its churches.  The majority of the designs imported from Byzantium were not suited to Russian conditions.  Therefore, these designs were changed so as to better survive the Russian winter, among other things.

Many have speculated that this is the reason behind the distinctive “onion domes” of the Russian church — that they were designed so as to prevent the heavy buildup of snow.  One major representative of this school of thought was Miliukov, cited above.  He traced its origin to a new roof design developed by the Russian called a “cask,” which had a much higher slope and height than anything found in Byzantine architecture.  “The steep slope and relative height of the roof,” he maintained, “caused the moisture to fall more rapidly and easily, thus preserving the roof from decay.”  Miliukov supported his claim further by explaining that “[t]he flat cornice that edged it was also adapted to climatic conditions and usually was broad and overlapped far over the walls in order to protect them from the heavy drip of water.”[22] In a country whose buildings repeatedly suffer from the heavy snow buildup like Russia, this would be an especially useful design.  The elaboration of this design to include cathedral domes could well have led to a modification of its original shape.  Miliukov therefore contended that “this method of roof construction [eventually] produced the Russian bulb-shaped dome.”[23]

Not everyone found was convinced by this utilitarian explanation of the genesis of the Russian Orthodox onion-dome.  Trubetskoi, for example, emphatically rejected this version of events: “All the attempts to explain our bulbous domes by utilitarian reasons (for example, that the pointed roof prevents snow and water from accumulating on it) fail to explain the most essential, their religious-esthetic meaning.”  Against this explanation, he maintained that

our national “bulb” represents a deep prayerful yearning toward heaven, a flame of prayer, as it were, through which our earthly world participates in otherworldly riches.  The Russian dome is like a tongue of flame topped by a cross, pointed toward the cross.  Looking at the Ivan Velikii belfry in Moscow, we see, as it were, a gigantic candle burning to the Moscow skies.  The many-domed Kremlin cathedrals are like enormous candle holders full of candles.[24]

This is an image to which Trubetskoi would return again and again in his essays over the next two years.  In a 1916 piece he wrote on the “Two Worlds in Old-Russian Icon Painting,” he continued this metaphor: “In the ancient church not only the main domes but also the subsidiary ones above the outer walls, and the climbing exterior ornaments, often have the flame-like, pointed form of a bulb.  Sometimes all these parts combine into a pyramidal bulbous shape.  In the general elan toward the cross everything seeks the flame, imitates the form, narrows to a peak of gradual ascent.”[25]

Trubetskoi’s beautiful interpretation of the bulbous domes of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Russian churches mounted atop their tall vertical towers as the flames from a burning candle almost has the tone of a mystical vision, even though he insisted that it described the true origin of these shapes.  Indeed, for Trubetskoi, the image of the cluster of onion-domes and towers as an immense candelabra served as the basis for an exploration into the cosmological symbolism of Russian Orthodox church architecture.  He had earlier asserted that the ultimate ideal of Orthodoxy is the transformation of present reality into a “world-encompassing church”: “The church is seen as the principle that must rule the world.  The whole universe must become a temple of God…In this idea of a world-embracing church rests the religious hope for peace among all creation.”[26] The exterior form of the church as symbolizing a collection of candles burning toward heaven offered Trubetskoi a point of entry into the interpretation of the church as a whole.

Trubetskoi understood this ideal as being expressed not only by the exterior form of the Russian cathedral, however, but also by its interior.  The interior and exterior design of the church complement each other’s symbolic meanings and together comprise a dialectic.  Trubetskoi described the different sides of the dialectic as follows:

The architecture of the interior expresses the ideal of the all-embracing church where God Himself resides and beyond which there is nothing.  Naturally the dome represents the highest, extreme limit of the universe, the crowning celestial sphere where the Lord of Saboath reigns.

The outside is a different story: There above the church, is the real sky, a reminder that the earthly church has not yet reached the highest sphere.  That is why the same dome assumes on the outside the mobile form of an upward-pointing flame.

The “perfect harmony” between these two architectural spheres is thus constituted as a seamless passage from one into the other: “It is through the flame that heaven descends to earth, enters the church, and becomes the ultimate completion of the church, the consummation, in which the hand of God covers everything earthly, in a benediction from the dark blue dome.”[27]

Shifting then to an analysis of the interior architecture of the church, Trubetskoi remarked upon a few trends in older Russian church design that he considered to be extraordinary precursors pointing toward the coming world-church.  Though his reasoning up to this point was already characterized by a clearly poetic (Kant would have said “rhapsodic”) logic, the series of inferences following Trubetskoi’s gloss on the interior must strike one as even more incredible.  Citing some instances of sculptured representations of animals in the twelfth-century cathedral of Saint Demetrius, he maintained that this “leav[es] no doubt that the ancient Russian church was understood as a gathering not just of angels and saints but of all creatures.”  Trubetskoi took this to imply the wholly universal characterization of salvation.  Moreover, he accounted for the unrealistic quality of their appearance by saying that “[t]hese are not realistic animals but idealized, beautiful images…They are not the animals we know now but those envisioned by God in his wisdom – that is, glorified and gathered into the church, into a living as well as architectural whole.”[28] Their unrealistic appearance signified a more beautiful world to come.

Also, though Trubetskoi often (rightfully) stressed the subordination of icon paintings and other ritual elements to the architectural totality of the church, the real springboard for his cosmological interpretation of the world as a church lay the way that churches were depicted in a few key older icon paintings.  In these paintings Trubetskoi felt a premonition of the world church he described earlier.  One primary set of icons, he argued, shows evidence of an inherent “architectural ideal” at work in its symbolism.  Numerous iconographical representations of the Virgin from the cathedral of Saint Sophia in Kiev, Trubetskoi claimed, exhibited this idea.  He wrote that “[i]n [these] icons of the Virgin, the architectural idea emerges not only in the symmetrical figures surrounding her but also in the representation of a cathedral in the background.”  To Trubetskoi, its meaning was clear: “The symmetry here expresses neither more nor less than the communal oneness of men and angels: their individual lives are subordinated to the communal plan.”[29]

This subordination of individuality to a common plan, of the particular case to its universal rule, constitutes the fundamental concept underpinning Trubetskoi’s interpretation of the church as a world-encompassing architectural entity.  It lay in the universal communality, or sobornost’, embodied in the church.  The Orthodox cathedral, or sobor, stood at the center of the concept of sobornost’ at the level of its very architecture.  Sobornost’ was thus to be understood in a far more literal sense than indicated by the definitions it had hitherto been given.  Trubetskoi simultaneously connected this notion of sobornost’ to the architectural quality of icons while retroactively grounding his earlier claim regarding the subordination of the icon to the structure of the church: “The subordination of painting to architecture is not determined by external, fortuitous considerations of architectural convenience.  The architectural character of the icon expresses one of its central, essential ideas, the idea of universal communality [sobornost’].”  He also inferred from this the analogous subordination of human beings to God’s plan: “The dominance of architectural lines over the human form expresses man’s subordination to the communal, the preponderance of the universal over the individual.  Man here ceases to be a self-contained person and submits to the overall design.”[30]

Perhaps the most stunning interpretive feat performed by Trubetskoi is witnessed in his analysis of the symbolism underlying an older series of icons belonging to a single type, the “King Cosmos” icons.[31] From the symbolism he found represented here, he inferred more than just the conceptual framework of the ideal world as mirroring the architecture of a church.  Far more significantly, he asserted that these icons portended the inevitable realization of the world-encompassing church.  He explained:

These icons are divided into two parts.  In the lower part a prisoner languishes under a cellar vault — King Cosmos, wearing a crown; the upper part depicts Pentecost: tongues of flame descend on the apostles seated on thrones in a church.  From the very fact that Pentecost is counterposed to King Cosmos it is clear [!] that the church in which the apostles are enthroned is seen as the new universe and new kingdom — the cosmic ideal which is to liberate the actual cosmos.  In order to receive the royal prisoner, the church must encompass not only a new heaven but also a new earth.[32]

With this hermeneutic angle thus established, Trubetskoi argued that this “cosmic ideal” should be seen as both a moral imperative and an historic inevitability.  Again, his tone reminds one of a religious vision — a prophetic vision, no less.  Trubetskoi felt that he had discovered “the central idea of all Russian icon painting.  As we have seen, it subordinated all the separate creatures — men, angels, animals — and even the world of plants — to the common architectural design.”  “[W]hat we have here is the communality of creatures within the church,” he further elucidated.[33]

It would be incorrect to fault Trubetskoi for the poetic nature of his logic; it should be obvious that he was not attempting to present a discursive argument.  His assertions follow neither from first principles strictly construed nor from a web of empirical inferences.  They arise, rather, out of an inspired wisdom granting him insight into the symbolic meanings of the objects he is investigating.  This is something with which I am sure Trubetskoi himself would agree.  But even beyond this, it would be equally mistaken to see in Trubetskoi’s vision of the world-encompassing church some dangerous innovation, the fantastic product of intellectual speculation disguised as Orthodox mysticism (just as Bulgakov and others would later be accused of with regards to their Sophiology).  This image found precedent in an authority as reputable as Maximus, who had written that “the world is a church since it possesses heaven corresponding to a sanctuary, and for a nave it has the adornment of the earth.”[34]

Nevertheless, there is still ample ground for a critique of certain tendencies in Trubetskoi’s writings which are symptomatic of a deeper problem in his thought.  Even on the surface of his essays it is not hard to notice the overt nationalism of Trubetskoi’s arguments.  Writing in the context of the First World War, one might be tempted to excuse his patriotic effusions in light of the situation.  It is easy, after all, to dismiss his call to arms in defense of the nation such as the following as simply an attempt to rally the populace against a foreign invader:  “Could Saint Sergius have tolerated the profanation of churches by the Tatars? Can we now let the Novgorod or Kiev churches become German stables?”[35] It would be an error, however, to let Trubetskoi off the hook so cheaply.  For his ideological nationalism possesses more worrying undertones less obvious than the ones contained in this passage.

To begin with, there are his numerous disparagements of Greek icon painting as compared with the Russian practice.  These remarks are often made in passing, so it is easy to miss them.  A few examples will illustrate this, however.  Trubetskoi wrote, for instance, that “[o]nly a non-religious or superficial mind will find the old-Russian icons lifeless.  There may be a certain coldness and abstractness in old Greek icons, but the Russian icons are the very opposite in this respect.”[36] He is not even just referring to those Greek icons which later came under a Western influence, but even the older Greek tradition.  In the depiction of Joseph, Jesus’ adopted father, Trubetskoi claimed that “[o]nly Russian icon painting, in the wake of very imperfect Greek models, looked with penetrating insight into [Joseph’s] soul — and made an important discovery.”[37] He also lamented the fact that prior to the fifteenth century, Russian Orthodox artists and architects “did not dare to be Russian.”[38] Before it asserted its cultural independence from Byzantium, he wrote that “[c]hurch architecture [were] also Greek, or of a transitional style between Greek and Russian.  The domes [were] almost round, very slightly pointed: the Russian bulbous dome is barely taking shape.  Inside, the churches have upper galleries — again the Greek style, strange to Russian eyes.”[39]

Another somewhat disturbing feature of Trubetskoi’s thought, though perhaps not altogether unjustified, is his general appraisal of modern Russia as suffering from decline.  He, along with several other major religious philosophers of his generations, looked back on fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Russia (especially around Novgorod) as a golden age.  Trubetskoi saw this in “fifteenth- and sixteenth- century [Russian] icons,” where one can find “a radical change [from the derivative Greek styles of the earlier period].  Everything in [these icons] is Russian — the faces, the church architecture, even the minor details of daily life.  This is hardly surprising since…all…of Russian society, had lived through a powerful upsurge of national feelings.”[40] Since this time, however, the state of  Russian culture had grown increasingly degenerate.  In one of his most bitter tirades against modern Russian society, he wrote: “Present-day Russia is divided from this image [of her golden age] by the abyss of her spiritual decline.  [In Moscow all one can see are] classical monuments to mindlessness, that is, meaninglessness.”  Trubetskoi credited this apparent meaninglessness to a loss of spiritual sensitivity to the symbolism conveyed in its architecture.  “Most of the domes [in present-day Moscow],” he sighed, nostalgically, “betray the fact that the bulb’s revelation has been lost, that its meaning is not at all understood: one does not sense the presence of the inner cupola beneath the dome.”[41] All these passages indicate Trubetskoi’s distinctly reactionary view of modernity.

One final quote from Trubetskoi should be critically examined in connection with this tendency.  In his essay “A World View in Painting,” he posed the dilemma of which order should rule the day, biologism or spiritualism: “Which will it be? Is the world destined to become a zoo — or a church?”  He followed these questions with the remark that “[t]he question itself fills us with deep confidence in Russia.  We know which of the two she perceives as her national vocation, which view of the world is expressed in the finest creations of her popular genius, among which her religious architecture and painting unquestionably belong.”[42] It is important, of course, not to read too much into this.  The idea of Russia serving as the savior of Europe and of the world in general has its roots in some of the later apocalyptic writings of Solov’ev and other turn-of-the-century religious thinkers.  Even further back it can be seen within certain Slavophile strains.  Still, the language of “popular genius,” which carries pseudo-Völkisch connotations, and the plainly German (Fichtean) nationalist idea of a “national vocation” should be cause for some alarm.  Again, it would be wrong to identify these phrases as definitively proto-Fascist or something of that sort.  But it should be remembered that Fascism did grow out of nationalist reactions to World War I.

None of this diminishes in any way the beauty of Trubetskoi’s poetic interpretation of Russian Orthodox church architecture, nor does it cast into doubt the fundamental ideas expressed concerning the aesthetic effects of church architecture and architecture in general.  If anything it should be taken as a reminder that Orthodoxy, at its best, understood itself to be working toward universal (catholic) salvation — not through the superiority of the architecture or customs of this or that particular nation, but rather through the basic truth of its doctrines for all mankind.  Architecture can be seen as facilitating certain moods and activities, influencing behavior along definite lines.  This is so whether it is in church or in other contexts throughout human existence.  To create a more humane environment, to work toward the universal salvation or emancipation of humanity — that should be the goal of religious and secular architecture alike.  This is the greatest truth to be gleaned from religions with a global mandate, religions such as Orthodoxy.

[1] Florenskii, Pavel.  “The Church Ritual as a Synthesis of the Arts.”  Translated by Wendy Salmond.  From Beyond Vision: Essays on the Perception of Art.  (Reaktion Books.  London: 2002).

[2] Ibid., pg. 109.

[3] Trubetskoi, Evgenii.  “A World View in Painting.”  From Icons: Theology in Color.  Translated by Gertrude Vahar (Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press.  New York, NY: 1973).  Pg. 25.

[4] Florenskii, “The Church Ritual as a Synthesis of the Arts.”  Pg. 108.

[5] Ibid., pg. 107.  Florenskii continues: “No one will deny that electric light kills colour and destroys the balance of colour masses.  If I say that icons should not be looked at in electric light, with its wealth of dark blue and violet rays, few people would argue with me.  Everyone knows that, like a burn, electric light also destroys psychic receptivity.”  Pg. 108.

Almost a decade later, Aleksei Losev would almost directly repeat Florenskii’s words.  Losev, however, launches into a much more bitter tirade: “One cannot make love in electric light, but only spy out a victim.  One cannot pray in electric light, but only present a bill.  The flickering light of an icon lamp flows from Orthodox dogmatics with the same dialectical necessity as the Tsar’s power in the state…To have an electric light in front of an icon is just as absurd and nihilistic for an Orthodox believer as to fly on airplanes or pour kerosene instead of lamp oil into an icon lamp.”  Losev, Aleksei.  The Dialectics of Myth.  Translated by Vladimir Marchenkov.  Pg. 106.

[6] Florenskii, Pavel.  Iconostasis.  Translated by Donald Sheehan and Olga Andrejev.  (Oakwood Publications).  Pg. 133.

[7] Trubetskoi, “A World View in Painting.”  Pg. 25.

[8] Ibid.,  pg. 25.

[9] Florenskii, Iconostasis.  Pg. 62.

[10] Maximus Confessor.  Mystagogy.  From Maximus Confessor: Selected Writings.  Translated by George C. Berthold.  (Paulist Press.  New York, NY: 1985).  Pg. 188.

[11] Florenskii, Iconostasis.  Pg. 59.

[12] On a purely aesthetic level, understanding that technically for a site to be declared “sacred” it may have to satisfy any number of criteria established by a religious institution.

[13] Bulgakov, Sergei.  The Orthodox Church.  Translated by Thomas Hopko.  (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.  1997).  Pgs. 150-151.

[14] “In Catholicism, church architecture and decoration are marked by great variety, and the architectural style is sometimes radically different, depending on the spiritual traditions.  The Orthodox world, by contrast, has always been guided by a faithful search for an architectural, artistic expression that best translates the meaning of a temple understood as a symbolic image of the Church and the universe.  Unlike in Roman Catholicism, regardless of the richness and diversity of architectural solutions, when a suitable expression was found, it was definitely adopted, at least in its main features.”  Ouspensky, Leonid.  The Theology of the Icon, Volume II.  Pg. 223.

[15] Trubetskoi, “A World View in Painting.”  Pgs. 28-29.

[16] Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Freidrich.  Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, Volume II.  Translated by T.M. Knox.  (Oxford University Press.  New York, NY: 1998).  Pg. 697.

[17] Ouspensky, Leonid.  The Theology of the Icon, Volume II.  Pg. 220.

[18] Spengler, Oswald.  The Decline of the West.  Pg. 113.

[19] Trubetskoi, “A World View in Painting.”  Pgs. 16-17.

[20] Schelling, F.W.J.  The Philosophy of Art.  Pg. 174.

[21] “Low and stockily built Novgorod churches, with their intersected double-sloped roofs, forming a garble on each side of the four sides of the cube,…already bore evidence of the local climate and the influence of wooden architecture.  Thus the original traits acquired by ecclesiastical architecture in Russia became apparent in this style.”  Miliukov, Pavel.  Outlines of Russian Culture, Volume III.  Translated by Paul Karpovich.  (University of Pennsylvania Press.  1942).  Pg. 6.

[22] Ibid., pg. 13.

[23] Ibid., pg. 10.

[24] Trubetskoi, “A World View in Painting.”  Pg. 17.

[25] Trubetskoi, “Two Worlds in Old-Russian Icon Painting.”  Pg. 65.

[26] Trubetskoi, “A World View in Painting.”  Pg. 16.

[27] Ibid., pg. 18.

[28] Ibid., pg. 29.

[29] Ibid., pg. 26.

[30] Ibid., pgs. 26-27.

[31] “I have in mind the ‘King Cosmos’ icons, a frequent theme of ancient Novgorod painting.  Examples can be seen at the Alexander III Museum in Petrograd and in the Old Believers’ church of the Assumption in Moscow.”  Ibid., pg. 31.

[32] Ibid., pg. 31.

[33] Ibid., pg. 32.

[34] Maximus, Mystagogy.  Pg. 189.

[35] Trubetskoi, “A World View in Painting.”  Pg. 38.

[36] Ibid., pg. 24.

[37] Trubetskoi, “Two Worlds in Old-Russian Icon Painting.”  Pg. 58.

[38] Trubetskoi, Evgenii.  “Russia and Her Icons.”  From Icons: Theology in Color.  Translated by Gertrude Vahar (Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press.  New York, NY: 1973).  Pg. 73.

[39] Ibid., pgs. 73-74.

[40] Ibid., pg. 75.

[41] Trubetskoi, “Two Worlds in Old-Russian Icon Painting.”  Pgs. 65-66.

[42] Trubetskoi, “A World View in Painting.”  Pg. 37.

2 thoughts on “The aesthetics of Russian Orthodox Church architecture: A philosophical, historical, and critical investigation

  1. Pingback: There is evidence of its tiles

  2. Many orthodox persons boast of their historical heritage but so what? For a half a century I too often clearly notice that many of the Orthodox persons I know they do not practice what their church preaches still. My very religious Orthodox father used to often visit the grave site of many of his deceased friends to pray for them but my father was never known to be charitable or kind to anyone , not even to himself. He used to justify it by saying to me why should I do something good to someone else when they never did anything good to me. Many orthodox persons do honor and venerate St. John to a extreme such as my father also had often did too but I had often wondered why when my father was never willing to make the needed personal changes in his own life, to bring fruit worthy of repentances.. Maybe that was why they admired St John so much cause he did make the necessary changes. All People who are willfully disobedient to God, falsely still insist on doing their own thing and not doing it God’s way will next miss the boat, and they will not enter into heaven.. for God does not bless disobediences. Cain was a good example of this.

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