Greek European Culture

Art, Orthodox Christianity, Western Christianity

Theology in Iconography.

By Sylvain Rey

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.

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.

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!