“When you want to paint the walls of a church, begin with a circle of different colors at the top of the cupola, as if you were drawing a rainbow amidst the coulds during the storm. Inside the circle, represent the Christ blessing and carrying the Gospels with the letters IC XC. Below, around the circle, paint a row of seraphims and beneath them, the prophets…”
Manual of Painter by Denis of Fourna.
Anyone who visits Europe from East to West or West to East will be amazed at the churches and cathedrals that, in almost every town and city, is the center of the city: churches are often the largest and tallest buildings, and the entire community seems organized around it, a witness to the role that our religion played on our continent until recently. At first there seems to be unity in this European civilization that so many admire, a unity which the place granted our churches and cathedrals in olden times recalls. No doubt, we are here in Europe, and every visitor, whether European himself or not, coming from more distant lands, whether believer or not, will recognize and admit this fact: as we know that we are in Buddhist or Shinto land because of all the temples and shrines that exist all over the cities and towns of East Asia, we are here in Christian land.
Yet, beyond the apparent unity that seems to prevail in the former Christendom, a much deeper rift appear if we take even a little time to consider. We may have equal admiration for the cathedrals of Chartres and Notre-Dame as well as for those of St. Basil and Hagia Sophia, this admiration does not erase the obvious differences between the two pairs. The former pair, jewel of the triumphant Gothic style of the 13th century, is well known for the characteristic spires which rise up to the skies, resting on the gothic crossed vaults and arches. In Greek-speaking areas, the dome prevails, of which the Russian ‘onion bulb’ is but a variation.
It is the interior, however, that reveals the most differences. In the East, in the Greek- and Russian-speaking world, churches are always an explosion of light and colors, which combine to reflect the divine radiance as if it were given to men as a gift from the world to come. The first thing that strikes is the passage quoted above: the cupola is the highest element of the church, thus, with its round shape, it symbolizes the cosmos. The Christ Pantocrator, ruler of all things, is the first element painted; looking down, awake, the Christ blesses all the faithful as ruler of above, of a world that is not yet but still present. The Pantocrator dominates the church, He is above everything else: thus, He is truly ruler, king. The rest of the decoration is hierarchically organized with respect to this element: the angels, the apostles, the saints, the prophets, etc., and the walls are surrounded with icons. Thus, the church in the East is a microcosm filled with divine energy, an image of the world to come and a reminder that the Christ, source of all things, is always present, transcending everything.