The Problem with the Greek Orthodox Problem with Church Steeples


It is shameful when a sermon at the end of a Lenten service destroys the stillness that service was intended to inculcate in the faithful.

At the end of the Akathist service on the first Friday of Lent this year the priest at my local church gave a sermon in which he touched on two differences the Orthodox share with Roman Catholics:  The first difference articulated was the Orthodox rejection of the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.   Although it repeated the typical worn out tropes and was obviously unschooled in what the Catholics themselves say and how the Latins arrived at their position, was at least applicable to the service at hand, a hymn to the Theotokos for saving the City (of Constantinople) from an Avar attack in the sixth century.   I have no problem with arguments revolving around a doctrine controversial even within the Latin Church (controversial at least during the twelfth and nineteenth centuries), and opposed by the likes of the Catholic St Thomas Aquinas, the foremost of the scholastic theologians, and St Bernard of Clairvaux, the “last of the Fathers,” and who is generally portrayed as opposing the rise of scholasticism in Church theology.  The second part of the semon, however, I stronger dispute.

The second difference the priest articulated, using the Immaculate Conception as a springboard for an attack on “Western churches” entered the realm of architecture.  The priest contrasted the steeple of the “Western churches” which figures the “finger of God” with the dome which was representative of the Orthodox ethos.  This is not only historically debateable, it also ignores the simple fact that those Orthodox churches in snowy countries also have steeples, and Latin churches in the Mediterranean often do not.

Although I am Orthodox, I was raised in the Catholic province of Rheinland Pfalz in western Germany, in a town founded by the Romans to guard their frontier.  Maintaining its position as a crossroads of commerce through the medieval period, Mainz contains architecture representing nearly all the artistic periods of Northwest European history.  Growing up around these monuments and being taught the history of the city and its architecture, we (my classmates and I) naturally absorbed an understanding of the symbolism decorating its churches and cathedral.  Never was the steeple described as the “finger of God.”

What was taught, however, was the history and symbolism of the Gothic arch.   Seeming to appear in Europe only after the crusaders came back from the Middle East and North Africa, where double-centred arches became common in the ninth century, the classic pointed Gothic arch was incorporated into the architecture of the Roman basillica.  This latter building, the basillica, being the principle Roman governmental building of the northern frontiers, had become the template from which “Latin” churches based their architectural plans.  The pointed arch was fitting to incorporate into the church building because it pointed to heaven, reminding its viewers to elevate their hearts to God.   Everything about the Gothic period was designed to raise the consciousness of the viewer to the heavenly realms.  Interestingly, scenes of Jesus as Christos Pantocrator can be seen carved in relief within the arched entrance to the church building, reminding the devout that although the arches point towards heaven, the kingdom of heaven is within you; just as the cathedral is in the heart of the town, so also must you, the devout one, elevate your heart to remembrance of the one who dwells within you.

But this is Latin Catholic symbolism.  Perhaps the finger-pointing postdates the Reformation.  But this approach would then be reading something into an architectural motif clearly designed in an earlier period with other intentions in mind.

The steeple originated as the campinile, the bell-tower, in the Mediterranean.  Most of these bell-towers have flat roofs, and are often not attached to the church to which they belong.  (The leaning tower of Pisa is a perfect example.)  They can be found in Greece, Italy, Spain, Sicily, and Lebanon.  Eventually, the belltower was attached to the church building, either out of a desire to support the tower or the church strcture, or to conserve space in the crowded inner city.  Often a second tower woudl be added to “balance” the facade — but the second tower was not infrequently differentiated from the first.  The cathedral in Strasbourg comes immediately to mind.  Sometimes this distinction was made by the covering chosen for the belltower.  In time, the belltower evolved into the steeple, and was rarely (before the sixteenth century) to be found in the centre of the facade of the church.

This priest is not the first Orthodox, speaker or writer, to describe steeples as either fingers of God judging humanity or spears thrust by humans to take down heaven by force.  But I must wonder — have these writers never travleed?  never seen pictures of St Basil’s in Moscow (which is what, a bundle of fasces?), never seen photos of churches in Armenia or Georgia in the Caucasus, never paid a visit to Rossiko on the Holy Mountain?  All these have steeples.  Why?  The simple reason is snow.  The Mediterranean has no need for slanted roofs.  it does not, and did not, snow so heavily there.  It is northen churches which have steeples, so that the weight of snow does not collapse the roof.  Finnish and Scandanavian churches have several tiers of roofs for just this reason.  And since when can practicalities of architecture not be turned into decoration, and decoration not be given positive symbolism?

Interpretation, however, can go both ways.  The dome, which covers all can be interpreted as the canopy over the Colliseum, the Circus, the hippodrome, the theatre, the public baths.  None of those embody an Orthodox ethos, per se, and in fact, many of them are blatantly rejected by the Fathers and writers of the Church.  In any event, the dome was not perfected for the church building — that is, it did not become the ideal, until the reign of Justinian, when it was used for the Church of Holy Wisdom (the Hagia Sophia) in Constantinople.  And then it had to be rebuilt twice, the first time having collapsed during an earthquake.

Justinian, however, did not reconquer the whole empire:  not even all the Spains, Belisarios’ genius notwithstanding.  This left the northwest provinces to rely on more widespread forms of Roman architecture to develop into their church buildings.  As I noted above, this building was the basillica.  The dome was really only popularised within Justinian’s empire.

The sort of polemic this priest used in his sermon was improperly placed.  It does not edify the faithful.  It disintegrated us by showing ourselves divided into several orthodox churches (with Greek architecture being the only and singular ideal) rather than a single Church with a common theology manifested in a myriad forms.  It provides fodder for ignorant babble and hardly promotes understanding through the clarification of true differences.  It certainly betrays an uncultured mind unacquainted with both simple practicalities and a sense of the history of art and architecture — a history any schoolboy in Europe can recite.

Ethnocentric ignorance so easily disproven by simple visual examination should not be prattled out at the end of a liturgical service as if it builds up the faithful.  speak of what upbuilds, as the apostle exhorts us, lst we cause scandal and put stumbling blocks in the path of those who would walk with us.  It is stillness and wonder we are to impart to our people.  Simplicity of vision draws us to divine contemplation.  Let us leave the service gathered into ourselves and in peace, and not with words of discord and scorn.

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