“The Church is the earthly heaven; in these heavenly spaces, God lives and walks about.” In these words of Patriarch Germanus, we get a glimpse of the dizzying heights of the church building’s significance. The Byzantines treated space as God’s dwelling place. Their architectural problem was to create harmony between the natural scale of the human and the transcendent scale of the infinite.
Recent attempts to find forms adapted to the modern mentality have often resulted in drowning architecture in the surrounding landscape and in local preoccupations. It has become an anthropocentric religious art. It expresses man and his emotions and the aesthetic search for expressions and forms. Such art has completely forgotten the initial plan of the great workers and builders, the very mystery of the church, and sacred art which is always theocentric in its attempts to express God’s descent into his creation. It is perfectly legitimate to search for new forms, but these forms must express a symbolic content that remains the same throughout the centuries because it has a heavenly origin. Modern builders must listen to and appreciate the suggestions of the chief architect, the Angel of the temple (Rev. 21:15).
Paul Evdokimov in The Art of the Icon: a theology of beauty
In thinking about the “heavenly spaces,” I write about something in which I am a neophyte. I have no long-considered opinions or thoughts about architecture. I do, however, know that many of the spaces we are forced to endure in our modern age have something terribly wrong about them. It is also worth noting that I write as a modern American (whose architectural experience often differs from that of many others).
There are many things that drive the construction of space in the modern world. Utility (usefulness) is clearly an important question in a world predicated on productivity and similar concerns. The neighborhood in which I live is strung with wires, connecting homes with the cable grid and the rest of our electronic and electric world. For most days, the wires have a way of disappearing – a mind’s trick that wishes to ignore their intrusion into landscape.
Last summer I began to hunger for “beautiful space.” Living next door to the Great Smokey Mountains, nature’s beautiful space is never far away – though I was looking for somewhere closer. Actually, I was looking for a place to walk and a place to relax and eat. For the former, I wanted a space whose beauty would give my soul something of the same “peace” I was giving my body in exercise. For the latter, I wanted a simple place where I could eat a non-franchised meal and not be assaulted by various schemes of faux decor.
The same is often true of religious space. Churches today are more commonly constructed with an eye to seating capacity than with an eye to God. The noted exception in America are the number (though still relatively small) of new Orthodox Churches being built. Some of them are truly wonderful spaces.
But there is something about the soul of man in the modern world (in many places) that makes beauty difficult to find or construct. If beauty is lacking within the soul itself, it is likely to be unseen even when it is confronted. I am certain that my “hunger” last year was far more than the desire for pleasant leisure. It was my heart telling me to pay attention to the disorder and distortions within myself.
Orthodoxy, in its fullest expression, has always urged human beings towards the beautiful. It is a recognition that God Himself is beautiful and the source of every good (kalos) thing.
One thing have I desired of the LORD, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple (Psalm 27:4).