Greek European Culture

Art, Orthodox Christianity, Western Christianity

Theology in Iconography.

By Sylvain Rey















In the West, there are also representations of the Christ, the Mother of God, the saints and prophets. These, however, take a different form. Instead of icons, they are depicted in the form of statues and stain glass. The most strking difference comes from the representation of Christ. Here, He is typically presented not above, but facing the faithful, usually behind and slightly above the altar, overlooking everything, but lower that the highest vaults. Also, he is put on the cross, eyes closed, and not alive. Thus, the faithfull may remeber His sacrifice for us and the meaning of divine Love and Mercy. We have here a pattern that will distinguish Western from Eastern iconography: while in the East the Christ Pantocrator would necessarily get higher as the architectural plan of the church gets higher, in the West, it is not the case. The crucified Christ remains always at the same height, while the roof of the church becomes higher with the vaults.

The men of the 13th century built these cathedrals out of faith, in the feeling that the increased height would reach to heaven–although there was also some competition between towns and cities to have the largest, most beautiful cathedral. Yet, we already feel, at the dawn of the Gothic age–the age of faith par excellence in the West– that man is attempting to surpass God Himself in his construction: the new techniques of the ogival arch, flying butresses, and ribbed vault were used to show the faith of the builders, yet they are also a first witness to the Western man’s nascent desire to conquer nature by his own means. If the spires testify to his sincere wish to go up to heaven, they also testify to this wish as an attempt to build a ladder to heaven and enter the Kingdom by human means only. it is perhaps why the term ‘Gothic’ was condescendingly coined in the Renaissance to qualify an art seen as degenerate, inharmonious and barbarian–although the renaissance did not result in a purer faith. We have the contradiction of the Western man: his faith drove him to test his own strength. This process, which will later turn into a liberation from God, started in the Middle-ages, and would continue in the Renaissance and with the advent of the scientific age.

The other element, the crucified Christ, points in the same direction. By the presence quasi-exclusive of the dead Christ, the western Church made of the sacrifice and the cross the focus of worship. His death was due to our sins, an art that illustrates the Augustinian concept of original sin. But if we forget God, the cross becomes a symbol not of life but of death. It is perhaps why the West has been so passionate about death, depicting in its art and music themes relating to death (Mozart’s Requiem, the intense human suffering emanating from the pieta sculptures, etc). But as we forgot God, death became not a passage to life, but a closed door. Thus, the cross was turned from a salvific instrument to the symbol of abyss, an element of Western culture that continues even today.

1 Comment

  1. Vasiliki

    The thing that is MOST striking about the Aghia Sophia when you enter is that you do indeed feel as if you are in heaven … although it is stripped completely of its Orthodox identity – heaven is in this building and most people will leave with a cense of overwhelming emotions inside them that they can not explain! That was also my experience … involuntary tears and wonder …

    I learnt that Iconography is not the only window to heaven. Post iconoclasm, we show a great emphasis on icons as part of our Orthodox culture but prior to this the Christians places a great emphasis on the architecture of the churces; this almost being forgotten in our day and age.

    Architecture (as well as art) is a critical window to heaven and patristically, in early church writings, we find many architectural analogies describing salvation in heaven …

    All these together – art, iconography, architecture and the spiritual and prayerful atmosphere of the participants all assist in creating heaven on earth!