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Date: 17-Aug-2010

I, Tudor Rebengiuc ,
hereby submit this original work as part of the requirements for the degree of:
Master of Science in Architecture
in Architecture
It is entitled:
The Nature of Language in Orthodox Church Architecture:

A Hermeneutical Approach

Student Signature: Tudor Rebengiuc

This work and its defense approved by:

Committee Chair: John Eliot Hancock, MARCH
John Eliot Hancock, MARCH

David Saile, PhD

David Saile, PhD

8/18/2010 1,070
The Nature of Language in Orthodox Church Architecture
A Hermeneutical Approach

A Thesis submitted to the

Division of Research and Advanced Studies
of the University of Cincinnati

In partial fulfillment of the

requirements for the degree of


In the School of Architecture and Interior Design

of the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning


Tudor Rebengiuc

Bachelor of Architecture, “Ion Mincu” University of Architecture and Urban

Planning, Bucharest, Romania, 2000

Committee Members:
John E. Hancock (Chair)
David G. Saile



In places like Romania, despite massive post-communist building activity, the current practice

of Orthodox Church architecture does not match the quality of its predecessors. This paper

locates the source of these difficulties within the intricate historical legacy of the interaction

between its Byzantine origins and its modern interpretations. As part of the liturgical arts of the

Orthodox Church, the understanding of Orthodox Church architecture is linked with that of the

icon, central to Orthodoxy. This study will not only offer an insight into the importance of

iconic language but will attempt to reveal the particular nature of language as implied in the

Orthodox Church tradition.

The array of present interpretations of the icon and of the Orthodox Church architecture is

dependent to a large extent on a modern, instrumental understanding of language, basic to

western metaphysics, and prevalent in the education system at all levels. Conceived of in an

instrumental way, as a mere tool, the icon loses its original meaning and makes the

understanding and practice of all liturgical arts of lesser value. In order to address this

challenging situation we need to part from any modern interpretation of this building tradition

and to focus instead on the nature of interpretation and above all on language itself.

We can gain a better understanding of the iconic language of the Orthodox Church by drawing

on the hermeneutics of Hans Georg Gadamer. Hermeneutics questions the philosophy of

Abstract iii

language, the nature of historical understanding and the roots of interpretation. Hermeneutics

provides the opportunity to grasp the icon on its own terms, while using a method true to its

nature, bypassing the instrumental framework of western metaphysics, and restoring the basis

on which liturgical arts can attain their full potential once again. A hermeneutical insight into

the iconic language of the Orthodox Church will enrich our horizon of Orthodox liturgical arts,

serving those who want to research, critique, restore, maintain, design, and build this type of



Orthodox Church Architecture, Byzantium, Hans-Georg Gadamer, hermeneutics,

language, sign, symbol, icon, liturgical arts

Abstract iv
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To my wife, Viorica

Dedication vi


I would like to thank all my professors at the University of Cincinnati, especially to John E.

Hancock and James Bradford. It is their passion for thinking about architecture that I’ve tried to

emulate in this thesis.

I am grateful to Professor David Saile for his mentoring over the years I have been in the MS

Arch program.

To Ellen Guerrettaz for the help she provided when I most needed it.

To my wife Viorica Popescu, who has convinced me to write and without whose love, help and

support I would be lost.

To my father and mother, who have given me the freedom to find my own path in life, and who

are always there for me.

And finally to my mentor, painter Paul Gherasim, who believes silence is better.

Preface viii

Table of Contents

Abstract ________________________________________________________ iii

Keywords ______________________________________________________ iv
Dedication _____________________________________________________ vi
Acknowledgement _____________________________________________ viii
Table of Contents _______________________________________________ ix
Table of Figures _________________________________________________ xi
1 Introduction ___________________________________________________ 1
1.1 Problem Statement____________________________________________________________ 2
1.2 Background __________________________________________________________________ 4
1.3 Research objectives– scope and limitations ______________________________________ 8
1.4 Thematic Structuring _________________________________________________________ 11

2 The Iconic Language ___________________________________________ 13

2.1 The Key Role of Language in the Elucidation of the Icon _________________________ 14
2.2 The nature of language _______________________________________________________ 16
2.3 The Concepts of Sign, Symbol and Image ______________________________________ 32
2.4 The Iconic Language _________________________________________________________ 46

3 The Hermeneutics of Orthodox Church Architecture ______________ 52

3.1 The Church as an Icon ________________________________________________________ 53
3.2 The Theological Concept of Incarnation ________________________________________ 57

Conclusion- Tradition as Ongoing Conversation ____________________ 64

Bibliography ___________________________________________________ 67

Table of Contents ix

Table of Figures

Page 1: Figure 1 – Interior of Stavropoleos Church, Source: Author, Bucharest, Romania, 2009.

Page 15: Figure 2 – Iconostasis of Stavropoleos Church, Source: Author, Bucharest, Romania,


Page 29: Figure 3 – Stavropoleos Church, Source: Author, Bucharest, Romania, 2009.

Page 35: Figure 4 – Interior of Stavropoleos Church, Source: Author, Bucharest, Romania, 2009.

Table of Figures xi

“And it came to pass, as they departed from him, Peter said unto Jesus, Master, it
is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles; one for thee, and one
for Moses, and one for Elias: not knowing what he said.”

Luke 9:33, King James Bible


1 Introduction

Figure 1- Interior of Stavropoleos Church, Bucharest, Romania, 2009

Introduction 1

1.1 Problem Statement

If the well-known Hagia Sophia (the church of Holy Wisdom) in modern Istanbul, and

Byzantine architecture in general, have elicited words as “Heaven on earth” 1 or “Monuments of

unageing intellect” 2, the Post-Byzantine building tradition of Orthodox Churches is largely

ignored and considered to have no theoretical impact or practical significance on the

contemporary architectural environment. Following the resurgence of the institutions and

practices of the Orthodox Church after the fall of communism, many new places of worship are

getting designed and built in Eastern Europe without the benefit of theoretical surveys. Over

two thousand projects for orthodox churches, cathedrals, monasteries, and chapels have been

initiated in Romania alone, but, despite this massive design initiative, comparatively little

literature has been created on the topic. The situation where only a handful of these projects

were deemed as “acceptable” by the National Commission for Approving Religious Architecture

constitutes strong evidence of what the lack of meaningful contemporary interpretations of this

building tradition has led to.

1 Safran, Linda (ed.). Heaven on Earth: Art and the Church in Byzantium. Pennsylvania State University
Press, 1998.
2 Yeats, B. W. “Sailing to Byzantium”. In The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats. Scribner Paperback Poetry,

Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996.

Introduction 2

The current situation is markedly different from the one during the Byzantine Empire, when

church architecture benefited from a context that allowed it to flourish. Byzantine Architecture

was not merely sharing its name and its historical age with the Byzantine Empire but an entire

cultural ethos, more of a world philosophy. The demise of the Eastern Roman Empire

represented for the tradition of Byzantine architecture and, later, of Orthodox Church

Architecture, the annihilation of its cultural foundation and caused it to ramble across centuries.

This has been further aggravated by the political situation of the Eastern European countries

within the last century, the prevalence of communism with its prohibitive state policy regarding

religion and religious architecture. At present, Orthodox Church architecture strives to exist in

a world with different conceptual roots and, in this struggle to adapt, it borrows concepts that

fail to express its spirituality. This thesis aims to address the state of the contemporary practice

of Orthodox Church design which currently oscillates between formally replicating its well-

known precursor, Byzantine architecture, and elaborating on national characteristics, while

finding content from within a formal practice heavily influenced by the western tradition both

theologically, through Western Christianity, and architecturally, through applying,

unknowingly, the principles of modernist architecture. The main objective of this thesis is to

draw attention to the theoretical background of Orthodox Church architecture and,

subsequently, to suggest directions for its better understanding. This thesis will rely on Hans

Georg Gadamer’s critique of the western metaphysical tradition, in his book, Truth and Method,

and especially on his discussion of the relationship between language and thought.

Introduction 3

At first glance, it seems difficult to talk about Orthodox Church architecture as a whole since the

few theoretical writings that exist are built on the distinctions between different historical

periods or ethnic groups instead of establishing a common ground. The most common

divisions are between the Byzantine and Post-Byzantine periods (before and after 1453, the fall

of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire), or between the national traditions of distinct ethnic

groups that compose the Orthodox “family” today (Greeks, Slavs, Armenians, Ethiopians,

Romanians, etc.) with their distinct “national” architectures. Nevertheless, each of these

entities claims not to be fundamentally separated from the others, and accepts that their

common spiritual heritage overlaps the apparent differences. Each of them is distinct and

autonomous but part of the “Orthodox family”, part of the same tradition.

1.2 Background

Despite an extensive literature on historical Byzantine architecture, there are few studies on

Post-Byzantine Orthodox architecture as a whole. Christos Yannaras, a contemporary Greek

philosopher and theologian, remarks as well on the scarcity of significant studies of this

architecture. In the chapter of his book, The Freedom of Morality, dedicated to “The Ethos of

Liturgical Arts” he writes: “there are to my knowledge no works on the theological view and

interpretation of Orthodox church architecture” 3.

3 Yannaras, Christos. The Freedom of Morality. St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, N.Y., 1984.

Introduction 4

Even the research on Byzantine architecture has traditionally been limited to a chronologically

linear presentation of history. Writers like Cyril Mango (Byzantine Architecture 1976) and

Richard Krautheimer (Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture, 1986) limit themselves to

describing the history of major monuments without enquiring into the intellectual context that

has generated them. In his book (Master Builders of Byzantium, 1999), Robert Ousterhout

presented this architecture from the point of view of its builders. Alexei Lidov has recently

introduced a new concept called “hierotopy” that integrates all the liturgical arts into a new

unified vision that attempts to replace the concept of “sacred space.” 4

However, there are some titles that can provide the starting point for a theoretical exploration of

the Orthodox Church tradition in architecture. Hans Buchwald, in his book Form, Style and

Meaning in Byzantine Church Architecture, talks about the relationship between Platonic thought

and Byzantine architecture. Constantine Cavarnos (Byzantine Sacred Art, Byzantine Thought and

Art) builds on the relation of Byzantium with its Hellenistic heritage and on the theological

aspects of Orthodox liturgical art. Christos Yannaras (On the Absence and Unknowability of God –

Heidegger and the Areopagite 5) points to the similarities between Martin Heidegger’s

philosophical thinking and the “apophatic” theological tradition of the Orthodox Church. The

apophatic or negative theology attempts to describe God by negation, by saying what God is not.

Yannaras argues that “apophatic theology” -- central to the orthodox tradition -- is closer to the

4 Lidov, Alexei. Hierotopy- The Creation of Sacred Spaces in Byzantium and Medieval Russia. Indrik, Moscow,
2006, 32.
5 Yannaras, Christos. On the Absence and Unknowability of God – Heidegger and the Areopagite. T & T Clark

International, 2007.

Introduction 5

philosophy of Martin Heidegger than to “modernity” or the “western scholastic and

metaphysical tradition”. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) was a German philosopher who was

critical of the western metaphysical tradition. In his main work, Being and Time, Heidegger

argues that the western philosophical tradition, starting with Plato, has misunderstood “the

question of being” such as instead of inquiring about the nature of being itself, it has dealt with

different kinds of being in the world.

As first set forth by Heidegger, and later elaborated on by his student Hans-Georg Gadamer,

the western tradition is characterized, among other things, by an increased understanding of the

world as being centered on man (he becomes a subject) and an attempt to simplify factual life

(as in scientific reduction, for example) in order to exert control over it. This objectification of

the world (the understanding of things as instruments) influenced both directly and indirectly

the Orthodox Church through the multiple aspects involved: philosophical, theological, and

architectural. For example, church architecture, although immersed within the domain of the

liturgical arts, is nowadays being “judged”, especially by architects, with the means available to

contemporary architectural discourse which are so much infused, theoretically as well as

visually, with the assumptions of modern architecture.

Recognizing the philosophical foundation of the western tradition as the key source of the

directionless drifting of Orthodox Church architecture within the present day’s conceptual

context is a first step in discussing the influence this exerts upon the building of new Orthodox

churches. To this purpose, I will introduce Gadamer’s account of the historical process whereby

Introduction 6

art as well as language have been separated from the factual life, and abstracted to the point of

becoming devoid of any meaning. His discussion of language as the medium of understanding

and his account of picture, sign, symbol, and icon, as they relate to the concept of art, provide

the theoretical framework that will assist the elucidation of the icon and therefore of Orthodox

Church architecture.

Gadamer (1900-2002) is a German philosopher known for developing the concept of

“philosophical hermeneutics,” anticipated by Martin Heidegger. According to Gadamer,

hermeneutics is the philosophical analysis of what is involved in every act of understanding or

interpretation. In his main work, Truth and Method, he argues that people have a “historically

effected consciousness” (wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewußtsein), meaning they are embedded in the

particular history and culture that shaped them. One such vantage point is called a horizon. A

horizon, however, is not a fixed set of opinions, but one that is continuously changing, as we

test our prejudices against other horizons. Understanding is the “fusion of horizons”, as

opposed to a mere transportation in a horizon alien to us 6. Gadamer points out that

philosophical hermeneutics is far from being solely a question of method, and even further from

being a question of methodology specific to human sciences, as some of his contemporaries took

it to be. Hermeneutics is equally relevant to history as it is to science. 7

6 Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. Second, revised edition. Continuum, London, New York, 300-
7 Gadamer, xx.

Introduction 7

1.3 Research objectives– scope and limitations

As previously declared, this thesis aims to address the state of contemporary Orthodox Church

design by contributing to a richer understanding of its theoretical background. Thus, it aspires


x Identify the source of the confusion that seems to dominate the contemporary practice of

Orthodox Church architecture.

x Elaborate on the theoretical background this practice emerges out of and the manner in

which this background can be better understood.

x Interpret the architecture of Orthodox churches from a different perspective and build

on the implications of this renewed understanding.

The scope of this discussion will be, nonetheless, limited. Since the theological and

philosophical background of Orthodox Church architecture is so complex, withstanding almost

the whole history of western metaphysics and theological thinking, this thesis will be limited to

exploring how the hermeneutical perspective, as formulated by Gadamer, can contribute to a

fruitful interpretation of Orthodox Church architecture.

This study will also disregard the extensive literature on icons and iconography. Although

such literature is very valuable from a theological perspective, most notably that of Russian

theologians like Paul Evdokimov and Leonid Uspensky, it is the concept of the icon as

presented by Gadamer that will take the central place in our discussion of Orthodox Church


Introduction 8

This research will use the concept of icon (Greek eikon = image) to talk about the church, both as

a building and as a community. The interpretation of the church within an iconographic system

is not foreign to theology. For example, St. Maximus the Confessor, a seventh century

Orthodox theologian who authored the Mystagogia, or Teaching of the Mysteries, talks about the

church as an icon of God, an icon of the cosmos, an icon of the visible world, an icon of man,

and finally an icon of the soul of the human being.

The concept of icon is central to Orthodox theology because of its relation to the doctrine of

incarnation. The icon is not considered merely a picture of the divinity, but a way of making

present the divinity, hence the Orthodox practice of venerating icons. The Orthodox view is

very similar to Hans Georg Gadamer’s conception of the pictorial image. For Gadamer, an

image is never separated from the object that is represents, but co-exist with the original in a

symbiotic relationship, in which the image is an essential part of what it represents, an

“emanation” of the original. By contrast, the relationship between an original and a copy is a

one-sided relationship, always flowing from the original to the copy and never vice-versa.

Gadamer’s picture ontology is able to explain the sacredness, the irreplaceability of the picture,

which infuses even the modern art consciousness despite its different theoretical background.

Gadamer, however, rejects the modern conception of a picture as a self contained unity, which

is independent of the context that generated it, and that can therefore be hung in a gallery

alongside other pictures, in an indistinct order.

Introduction 9

Gadamer’s rejection of the modern conception of art is part of his larger critique of western

metaphysics, and particularly of the western view of the relationship between language and

thought. For Gadamer, language is the medium whereby any understanding occurs, while the

prevalent conception holds language to be a mere instrument through which thought is

communicated. This instrumental view of language can be traced, according to Gadamer, all

the way back to Plato’s discussion of language in Cratylus, which places the locus of truth

outside of language, into the realm of Ideas, as a way to counteract the Sophist rhetoric.

The relation between the unity and thought and language, or word and object and the Christian

idea of incarnation was noted by Gadamer himself: “There is however an idea that is not Greek

and that does more justice to the nature of language and prevented the forgetfulness of

language in Western thought from being complete. This is the Christian idea of incarnation.” 8

While Plato’s philosophy was an attempt to overcome language and promote the purity of

thought, incarnation is, for Gadamer, a return to the word.

Gadamer clearly differentiates the Christian idea of incarnation from that of embodiment that

corresponds to the religious idea of the migration of souls, pertaining, for example, to the

Platonic and Pythagorean philosophies. Right from the start the Church Fathers tried to explain

incarnation through analogy with the human language. This resulted in an evaluation of the

understanding of language previously established by Greek philosophy. From this new

8 Gadamer, 418.

Introduction 10

interpretation Gadamer retains the idea of discursiveness of thought that agrees with his

emphasis on the unity between thought and language.

Considering Gadamer’s conclusion regarding the discursiveness of thought that he takes on

from the Church Fathers, that helps to validate language, and discourse in particular, as the

locus of truth, we can take the analogy between human language and the doctrine of

incarnation further and interpret the icon as the medium of discourse, as the facilitator of the

dialogue between the believer and divinity. This is a dialogue in which, as Gadamer’s

hermeneutical perspective reveals, neither partner can claim control over what is said or what

emerges out of it, its finality. Thus, it is not only in its capacity as image, which makes present

what it represents, that the icon brings an increase of being, but also through what can be seen

as its linguistic characteristics, its discursiveness and its facilitation of dialogue, through which

the icon actively contributes to believers’ relationship with God. Similarly, it is in this way,

rather than as an object or an instrument, that the Orthodox Church as a building needs to be


1.4 Thematic Structuring

The introductory chapter of my thesis positions the problem of contemporary Orthodox Church

architecture into the proper theoretical setting by pointing to the context it is arising out of, how

I will go about investigating it, and the anticipated conclusions of this investigation.

Introduction 11

The second chapter has as its overall intent to steadily build on the concept of iconic as the

general framework within which Orthodox Church architecture can be interpreted. The iconic

language will be differentiated from the semiotic language which lies at the basis of western

metaphysics. To this purpose, I will introduce the concepts of picture, sign, symbol, and icon as

presented by Gadamer‘s Truth and Method. This endeavor will have to begin by considering the

concept of language itself for which I will again make use of Gadamer’s account.

Having determined the particularity and importance of the iconic language, in the third chapter, I

will take on the task of showing the specific way in which the iconic language, together with the

concepts of incarnation and tradition, can throw a new light on the understanding of Orthodox


Introduction 12

2 The Iconic Language

Figure 2- Iconostasis of Stavropoleos Church, Bucharest, Romania, 2009

The Iconic Language 13


2.1 The Key Role of Language in the Elucidation of the Icon

“…the hermeneutical problem concerns not the correct mastery of language, but
coming to a proper understanding about the subject matter, which takes place in
the medium of language.” 9

As anticipated in the Introduction to this thesis, the understanding of Orthodox Church

architecture, together with all the liturgical arts of Orthodox Christianity, are reliant upon the

understanding of the icon. I further argue in this research that in order to better grasp the

nature of the icon we need to first consider Gadamer’s account of what is involved in the

process of understanding itself and, consequently, to recall the long-obscured, in Gadamer’s

view, nature of language as the medium whereby all understanding takes place. This will be

the main focus of this second chapter. But before that, I will briefly touch upon some issues that

attempt to clarify the direction of this thesis:

x Why do we need to talk about the icon? In what way is elucidating the icon going to

help us understand Orthodox Church architecture?


x Why do we need to consider language to understand the icon? How is Gadamer’s

discussion on the nature of language going to guide us toward its understanding?

9 Gadamer, 387.

The Iconic Language 14


Etymologically from the Greek eikon (image, likeness, to be like) the icon is an image of God. It

is a central concept in Orthodox theology because of its relation with the doctrine of the

incarnation. It is the incarnation of God that makes imagery possible.

The central place that the icons have in Eastern Orthodox theology was not without challenges.

In two different periods in the history of the Byzantine Empire, icons were banished and

destroyed by order of the emperor. Both times the icon came out victorious, an event that is

marked even today as the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” and is celebrated every year on the first

Sunday in Lent. The Synodikon of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (the text that conveys the

decisions of the ecumenical synod), which refers to and reinstates the veneration of holy icons,

announces: “A yearly thanksgiving is due to God on account of that day when we recovered the

Church of God, with the demonstration of the dogmas of true religion … .” 10

The motivation behind the decision of the Seventh Ecumenical Council revealed the

unsurpassed value of the icon in the Orthodox tradition: “…the very existence of the icon is a

statement of the fundamental faith of the Church: that God truly became man and that

therefore human nature, what we are, can become God. The icon of Christ affirms the

deification of man because it is a picture of the visible, material human body which is God.” 11

10 Synodikon of Orthodoxy. Translated by Archimandrite Ephrem Lash after a translation of the full text
made by Professor Andrew Louth, 2001. http://web.ukonline.co.uk/ephrem/synodikon.htm (accessed on
August 1st, 2010).
11 Perl, Eric. D. “…That Man Might Become God: Central Themes in Byzantine Theology”. In Heaven on

Earth: Art and the Church in Byzantium, by Linda Safran (ed.), 39-57. Pennsylvania State University Press,

The Iconic Language 15


Although resilient as one of the pillars of Orthodox spirituality, the ordinary understanding of

the icon is sometimes surrounded by confusion, being infused by the instrumentalism

characteristic of the modern world. Gadamer’s hermeneutical account of the image as well as

his emphasis on the ontological value of language as the locus of truth comes to validate and

reinforce the understanding of icons in Byzantium and subsequently in the Orthodox Christian


2.2 The nature of language

“Let us, therefore, turn our attention to the Greeks, who did not have a word for
what we call language, when the all-embracing unity of the word and thing
became problematical for them and hence worthy of attention. We will also
consider Christian thought in the Middle Ages, which, because of its interest in
dogmatic theology, rethought the mystery of this unity.” 12

To this day, the heritage of ancient Greek language and thought is acknowledged to be an

essential part both of the western world as well as of Byzantium (or the Eastern Roman

Empire). At a closer look, all Latin-based European languages, to which we can add the English

language, make us think, more or less, within a simplified framework of the Greek language.

The translation from Greek to Latin was not, however, flawless. If Gadamer and hermeneutics

insists on making explicit the history behind the concepts we take for granted today, it is also

because the process of Latinization of Greek terms has obscured the roots of our thinking.

12 Gadamer, 405-406.

The Iconic Language 16


Contemporary architects, for example, frequently use terms like “space”, “form”, or “matter”

without giving any thought to the often problematic histories behind them.

In this large historical and philosophical context, the place of what we call today “the Byzantine

tradition” (which includes the Orthodox Churches) needs to be clarified. These two European

traditions, western and eastern, are so close to each other, and their history so intertwined, that

most of the time we are inclined to think that we can apply without reservations western

European concepts and methods in understanding the other. For example most of the modern

commentaries on the liturgical arts of the Orthodox Church still use Kantian terminology to

understand and describe it. In a way this historical process is inevitable, but this doesn’t mean

that western categories can give a range of interpretations of these arts capable of nurturing a

level of quality (in interpretation or in design) worthy of its heritage. And if tradition is so

important for the Orthodox Churches a way of understanding it capable of sustaining that

quality is needed. Without the presumption, however, that hermeneutics is the correct way to

understand the architecture of Orthodox churches, that its creators had a hermeneutical

understanding of it, or that hermeneutics would even work in interpreting its long history, I

hope in this study to show that hermeneutics can do better in recapturing a tradition that seems

to have been lost during its journey to the present.

In preparation for the exposure of the ontological value of language that Gadamer carries out in

the third chapter of Truth and Method, he first discusses the act of understanding. According to

Gadamer, any understanding has a question-and-answer structure. That is, in any attempt to

The Iconic Language 17


understand, one must inquire into the background of what is said. Furthermore, we

understand what is said only by “acquiring the horizon of the question” that what is said is an

answer to, “a horizon that, as such, necessarily includes other possible answers.” 13 Moreover, in

Gadamer’s view, the words and concepts we use are historically conditioned and they prejudice

our understanding and interpretation. So we should not immediately assume their

straightforwardness, but rather enquire into their origin and history. This going behind the text

is neither a mere reconstruction of the author’s intentions nor a repetition of the process

whereby the text came into being. Consequently, the meaning exceeds the statement that we

initially sought to understand, as well as the intentions of the author. Additionally, the

reconstructed question cannot belong to its original historical horizon, but rather to the

questioner’s historical horizon. “Anticipating an answer itself presupposes that the questioner

is part of the tradition and regards himself as addressed by it.” 14

Following the elucidation of what is involved in the process of understanding, whether

understanding of texts or coming to an understanding in a conversation, Gadamer goes on to

identify language as the form by which the understanding of the subject matter happens. For

the understanding is not afterwards put into words, but “rather, the way understanding occurs

[…] is the coming-into-language of the thing itself.” 15 Thus, language is not an instrument we

use to control a conversation with, as it is regarded in modern times. Gadamer arrives at these

13 Gadamer, 363.
14 Gadamer, 370.
15 Gadamer, 370-371.

The Iconic Language 18


conclusions by first starting to inquire into the origin and history of language as the word and

the concept that it itself is. Gadamer discusses the transition from unconsciousness of language

in the case of the ancient Greeks, manifested also through the fact that they apparently had no

word for what we now call language, to the consciousness of language in modern times. This

process refers to language becoming an object of reflection, while unconsciousness of language

continues to be the common modality of speech.

According to Gadamer, in the earliest times the unity between the word and the thing that it

designated was unquestionable. The word was thought to belong to the being of the thing that

it referred to. It was mainly understood as a name, more precisely as a proper name, and the

name was thought of as being a name because it belonged to its bearer, the rightness of the

name being confirmed when someone answered to it. And so, Gadamer sees the beginning of

Greek philosophy from the moment that this unity was disturbed and the word was reduced to

being “only a name”. This is precisely, in Gadamer’s words, “the breakthrough of philosophical

inquiry into the territory over which the name had undisputed rule.” In Gadamer’s view, this

insight sidetracked the subsequent debates on the nature of language: instead of presenting the

thing that it named, the word was left with pointing to it, substituting for it, more in the manner

of signs and symbols. The fact that the word was even imagined as possibly being altered at

will raised even more doubt as to its capacity to “represent true being.” This raised questions as

to the rightness of names and the rightness of words, issues that are discussed in Plato’s

dialogue Cratylus so thoroughly that the dialogue has become the reference for all further

discussions on the issue of language.

The Iconic Language 19


In analyzing the relationship between the word and the object, Plato’s Cratylus starts with an

account of the theories of language prevalent at the time. The “conventionalist theory”,

wherein meaning of language is reached by agreement and practice, is defended by

Hermogenes while the “phusei [by nature] theory”, wherein there is a “natural agreement

between word and object that is described by the idea of correctness (orthotes)” is highly praised

by Cratylus. According to Gadamer, both these interpretations of language start “too late”,

namely “from the existence and instrumentality of words, and regard the subject matter as

something we know about previously from an independent source.”16 While trying to show

both these positions as being untenable, Plato’s intention is, in Gadamer’s view, “to

demonstrate that no truth (aletheia ton onton) can be attained in language -- in language’s claim

to correctness (orthotes ton onomaton) -- and that without words (aneu ton onomaton) being must

be known purely from itself (auta ex heauton).” 17 So, rather than discussing the relationship

between the word and the object, Plato moves the discussion to the question of how we can

know being. As Gadamer conveys, Plato concludes that thought is independent not only from

words but from language in general, that the true objects of thought are the “ideas” and

language is only the instrument of externalization of this wordless logos, “the stream that flows

from this thought and sounds out through the mouth.” 18 According to Gadamer, Plato’s

conclusion further expands the gap between language and being, for it still shares the

16 Gadamer, 407.
17 Gadamer, 407.
18 Plato in Gadamer, 408.

The Iconic Language 20


presupposition common to both theories previously presented, the priority of knowledge to

language. This presupposition is, in Gadamer’s view, what links Cratylus to modern


While Gadamer agrees that “it is not the word that opens up the truth”, that the truth is not to be

found in a dictionary, he sees Plato’s additional inference, namely the idea that thought is

independent from language, as flawed. In Plato’s view, Gadamer reckons, language is only an

instrument, “a tool, an image that is constructed and judged in terms of the original, the objects

themselves.” 19 And since these objects are to be known independently and prior to their

naming and a name is to be given to them, Plato does not leave the sphere of the ‘correctness of

names’ as intended, and still retains resemblance (homoion) as the criterion for their correctness.

Consequently, in Gadamer’s opinion, the discussion concerning the “correctness of names” that

develops in Cratylus acquires a particular importance regardless of Plato’s intentions. For

considered in their full weight the two theories alone can provide valuable insights into the

nature of language.

The advocates of the so called conventionalist theory saw agreement and practice as the only

source for the meaning of language and consequently for the meaning of words. In disputing

this theory Socrates started with the distinction between true and false logos and he inferred

from here that the same truth values could be applied to words, “thus relating naming […] to

19 Gadamer, 408.

The Iconic Language 21


the revelation of being (ousia) that takes place in speech.” 20 This is in understandable

disagreement to the conventionalist theory, which refused to recognize words as having any

cognitive value. Despite the obvious flaw of Socrates’ argument, his inference “from the truth

of speech to that of the word”, which Gadamer points to, this gives him the opportunity to

explore the phusei theory as an alternative.

As far as this second theory is concerned, it is to some degree refuted by Socrates as well. He

first remarks on the possibility that, in this case, where the correctness is understood as the

word’s adequacy to the object, although the word is only to some degree adequate and

consequently only to some degree correct, since it still conveys the outline of the object the word

is still usable. Socrates further counters this theory by mentioning the circumstances of the

names for numbers, where we cannot speak of similarity between name and object. So far, both

theories presented have failed to satisfy simultaneously our perception of the factual variability

and relative arbitrariness of words and our sense that certain words are right and others not. In

the attempt to resolve its shortcomings, each theory employs the aid of the other. And the

insufficiency of both theories points, in Gadamer’s analysis, to the inseparable nature of the

word and the object.

Following the abandonment of the similarity principle as a general rule, due to its inadequacy

in the case of numbers, Plato goes on to admit that convention is the one that “operates in

20 Gadamer, 409.

The Iconic Language 22


practical usage and alone constitutes the correctness of words” 21, although the similarity

principle is still to be regarded as valid and used whenever appropriate. The return to

convention in regard to the naming of things implies once more that “words have no real

cognitive significance of their own.” 22 This insight has consequences that go beyond the

apparent topic of Plato’s dialogue, the words and the question of their correctness, to the

knowledge of objects, which is, in Gadamer’s opinion, Plato’s concern. Despite Plato’s

conciliatory conclusions regarding the coexisting of the two theories in the process of the

naming of things, we can sense that Plato retains a preference for the resemblance theory since

in his view the original and the copy is the standard model of knowledge. Plato does not

endorse any of the two theories but he can’t fundamentally reject them either for, in introducing

his theory of the ideas, he does not part from their common presupposition, the priority of

knowledge over language, which, in Gadamer’s view, links the Cratylus to modern

instrumentalism. 23 In his book, Gadamer’s Hermeneutics: A reading of Truth and Method, Joel C.

Weinsheimer joins Gadamer’s interpretation of Plato’s dialogue and his theory of Ideas and says:

“In this way Plato hoped to preserve that knowledge from the doubts cast on it by the verbal

paradoxes and linguistic aporias typical of the sophists. To obviate these problems it was

necessary to obviate words.” 24 In his critique of the correctness of words in Cratylus, Plato

attempts to direct the attention away from language as the possible locus of truth and instead

introduce the notion of a non-linguistic thought.

21 Gadamer, 410.
22 Gadamer, 410.
23 Weinsheimer, Joel C. Gadamer’s Hermeneutics: A Reading of Truth and Method. Yale University Press, New

Haven and London, 1985, 230.

24 Weinsheimer, 230.

The Iconic Language 23


Refuting the two theories so swiftly and settling with such ease inside the cognitive framework

of “the original and the copy”, however, has sidetracked the discussion about the nature of

language. Socrates’ argument against Cratylus regarding the varying degrees of the correctness

of the word obscures, in Gadamer’s view, a number of valuable insights. First of all, if the word

were a mere tool that “we construct in order to deal with the object in terms of instruction and

differentiation, and so an entity that can be more or less adequate to and in accord with its

being” 25, this dealing with the object has the character of a representation. For the name to be

correct, to perform its function, it needs to make the object apparent. But we are not talking

about an imitative representation that is concerned with “the visual or aural appearance of

something” 26; rather, it is the being of the thing that it is to be brought to presence, revealed. So,

according to Gadamer, we shouldn’t necessarily speak of a relation of original and copy in the

case of words, since, unlike the case of mere imitation, where the copy is a different thing that,

through its similarity, points to the original, there is no ontological gap between the word and

its meaning. Gadamer agrees with Cratylus that the question of the degree of similarity is not

appropriately applied to words since “inasmuch as a word is a word, it must be ‘correct’, it

must fit correctly.” Therefore, we can talk about an “absolute perfection of the word”. 27

Eventually, Socrates joins Cratylus in admitting that “words, unlike pictures (zoa), can be not

only correct, but true (alethe).” 28 Unlike copies that, due to their varying degree of resemblance,

25 Gadamer, 410.
26 Gadamer, 410.
27 Gadamer, 411.

28 Gadamer, 411.

The Iconic Language 24


seem more or less correct when confronted with the appearance of the object, their being is

wholly absorbed by their meaning. But despite this concession, Socrates knows that the

revelation that takes place in speech is different from the meaning of the words and that the

meaning of words is not identical with the objects named. Disregarding these essential

differentiations we can be mislead to believe, as Cratylus does, that “in the word we have the

object”, that is, to regard the word as the gate to knowledge. Conversely, using the same kind

of inference as the one from the truth of logos to the truth of words, Socrates compels Cratylus

to admit that the truth of an utterance must be built out of the truth of words and that letters as

the elements of the word must share the same resemblance to the object that the word does.

But, according to Gadamer, “in all this the point is missed that the truth of objects resides in

speech, which means, ultimately, in the content of a unified meaning concerning objects and not

in the individual words -- not even in the stock of words of an entire language. It is this error

that enables Socrates to refute the objections of Cratylus, which are so apt in relation to the truth

of the word, i.e. to its significance.” 29

Referring to Gadamer’s position concerning Socrates’ argument and conclusion, Weinsheimer

reinforces the idea that the locus of truth is neither the word per se, nor is it some place outside

of language, but the organization of different words into discourse:

“Gadamer concurs that truth is not to be found in individual words or even in all
words in a language, but for him this admission does not require the
abandonment of language as the locus of truth in favor of a wordless logos. As
letters first become meaningful when they are linked in words, so words first

29 Gadamer, 412.

The Iconic Language 25


become capable of being true when they are organized in discourse. There can be
no decomposition of veridical units into their elements because truth can occur
only when a certain level of organization has been reached. Socrates is right,
then, that there is no truth in individual words, but that is not because truth
exists somewhere outside language but rather because truth belongs to
discourse. That truth is not to be found in a dictionary says nothing against its
presence in language, for language is not to be found there either but instead in
speaking and writing.” 30

Thus, we conclude that Socrates, in his attempt to establish how we can know things, is parting

from words as the possible provider of understanding and settles in a non-linguistic

investigation of the things themselves. As a result, in this equation expression is secondary, as

language, in all its forms, is only the means of externalization of whatever happens

independently in the mind. Gadamer concludes that Plato’s dialogue aims at illustrating the

sphere of the noetic as best represented by the number as a “pure structure of intelligibility, an

“ens rationis”, a fact that “influences all further thinking about language” for “if the sphere of

the logos represents the sphere of the noetic in the variety of its associations, then the word, just

like the number, becomes the mere sign of a being that is well-defined and hence pre-known.” 31

Weinsheimer comments on the emergence of the idea of the word as sign as opposed to the

word as copy: “if logos is best represented in the rational sequence of numbers, then (Socrates

implies) words best serve their purpose when they function like numbers, pure signs. A copy

(the basis of similarity theory) exists in its own right even when the original is absent or no

longer exists at all; by means of its own characteristics a copy resembles its original. But by

contrast to the copy, the purity of a pure sign consists in the fact that ideally it points or refers

30 Weinsheimer, 231.
31 Gadamer, 413.

The Iconic Language 26


without existing. It means without being. Or if it must have some existence in order to signify at

all, then a sign’s purity means that its specific characteristics do not matter. They can be varied

at will, as accords with the conventionalist theory.” 32

Earlier in Truth and Method, Gadamer places the essence of the picture midway between the sign

and the symbol, that is, between the pure indication of the sign and the pure representation of

the symbol. If we were to summarize Gadamer’s account of the differences and similarities

between sign and image or copy we see that:

1. The being of a sign is fully absorbed by its representational function. It does not

establish a content of its own that contributes to its function of pointing but rather, it is

the object indicated that it gains its signifying function from. Thus, in the case of the

sign, “the difference between its being and its significance is an absolute one”.

2. While the copy shares the same conflict between its being and its significance this is

resolved within it through the resemblance between its content and the represented

object. Unlike the sign, the copy has a content of its own that its signifying function is

derived from. It is from its content and through this similarity that the object copied is


According to Gadamer “the legitimate question whether the word is nothing but a ‘pure sign‘

or instead something like a ’copy‘ or an ’image‘ is thoroughly discredited by the Cratylus. Since

there the argument that the word is a copy is derived ad absurdum, the only alternative seems

32 Weinsheimer, 231.

The Iconic Language 27


to be that it is a sign. Although it is not especially emphasized, this consequence results from

the negative discussion of the Cratylus and is sealed by knowledge being banished to the

intelligible sphere.” 33 As a result of replacing the concept of image (eikon) with that of the sign

(semeion) language is reduced to its pointing characteristic. Thus, it becomes a system of signs

of a mathematical type where the place of words within it is rigorously controlled and their

significance is precisely defined. In this well-devised system where the word is to have a

clearly defined meaning, the variety of connotations that words have in their use is seen rather

as a handicap, an impediment to their usefulness.

As Gadamer points out, this view of language fueled the attempts made during the

Enlightenment period to devise a universal language. Although artificial and untenable in its

concrete form, the idea of a universal language has surprisingly not been discredited as an

ideal. Weinsheimer also identifies the transition from iconic language to symbolic language as

the source for the instrumental view that lies at the base of universal language schemes that

started with modernity: “The epoch-making decision about language implied in the transition

from language as eikon to language as semeion in the Cratylus leads to the universal language

schemes of the seventeenth and eighteen centuries and also to the more ambitious construction

of artificial languages in the twentieth. It leads to the notion that language is a means in the

service of techne” 34 (in ancient Greek: an art, skill, or craft; a technique, principle, or method by

33 Gadamer, 414.
34 Weinsheimer, 232.

The Iconic Language 28


which something is achieved or created 35). “In Plato’s emphasis on the silent logos, in his

insistence on the independence of thought and its object from words, there was already implicit

the technologization of language.” 36

According to Gadamer, the steady development of scientific terminology contributed as well to

the process of the instrumentalisation of language, for a technical term is nothing but “a word,

the meaning of which is univocally defined, inasmuch as it signifies a defined concept.” 37 In the

case of scientific terminology either the word is artificially created or, even more often, a word

already in use is stripped out of its variety of meanings to be bestowed upon “only one

particular conceptual meaning.” “In contrast to the living meaning of words in spoken

language- to which, as Wilhelm von Humboldt rightly showed, a certain range of variation is

essential- a technical term is a word that has become ossified. The terminological use of a word

is an act of violence against language.” 38 But the inevitable dissemination of the technical terms

back into the spoken language, as there is no “pure technical speech”, is, Gadamer notices,

circumscribed to the demands of language. Thus, even when interpreting scientific texts one

must take notice of the “juxtaposition of the technical and the freer use of the word.” Modern

commentators on classical texts are even more in danger of overlooking the variety and breadth

of meanings that a word has, being accustomed now to the multitude of artificially formed

concepts with fixed meanings that pervade the modern scientific usage of language. It was

35 Oxford English Dictionary.

36 Weinsheimer, 232.
37 Gadamer, 415.

38 Gadamer, 415.

The Iconic Language 29


Leibniz’s idea that this sign system is allowing us to overcome the elusiveness of concepts that

the historical languages present us with and to acquire truths of mathematical certainty. The

ideal language of Leibniz was envisaged according to the laws of the system of combinations, in

advance of and independent from experience. In conclusion, the construction of an artificial

language is the ultimate consequence, according to Gadamer, of a process of abstraction at the

beginning of which language was taken to be entirely detached from the considered object, to

be rather an instrument at one’s disposal.

This technologization of language is, according to Weinsheimer, precisely what Gadamer

rejects: “In Gadamer’s view […] language is not an instrument at the disposal of will, desire,

consciousness, or subjectivity generally.” Instead, Gadamer proposes that, similar to the

mimesis theory of art, there’s still something right about the iconic theory of language presented

in Cratylus, the one which holds that there is a natural similarity between the word and the

object. “This affirmation does not imply that he asserts some visual or aural similarity between

discourse and its object, only that they belong together.” 39 Objects cannot be understood apart

from language and there is no understanding of language apart from things.

The shortcoming of the artificial language schemes, such as Leibniz’s, is their presupposition

that knowledge can be attained in advance of experience, an idea firmly rejected by Gadamer.

“Experience is not wordless at first and then made an object of reflection by being named…

39 Weinsheimer, 232.

The Iconic Language 30


Rather, seeking and finding words to express it belong to experience itself. We seek for the

right word, i.e. the word that really belongs to the object, so that in it the object comes into

language.” 40 According to Gadamer, Aristotle seemed to have recognized as well the important

role of language in concept formation.

According to Weinsheimer, Gadamer shows that “one advantage of the resemblance theory is

that it recognizes this indivisible reciprocity between discourse and thing. A second advantage

is that a copy does not betray the embarrassment over its own existence that one finds in the

sign. A pure sign ideally means without being: and insofar as language is conceived of as

semiotic, its own being seems always an obstacle to be gotten around, superseded, or merely

concealed. But if semiotics finds its ideal in forgetting the being of language, the iconic theory

of language serves as a corrective and reminder that even the purest sign must exist in order to

be a sign. And in that existence the sign is like a copy, which –however it effaces itself in

deference to the original- nevertheless conveys meaning through its own characteristics and its

own existence. Conceived of as iconic, language is a thing that means, a being that can be

understood.” 41

Despite what happened in regard to the theories of language, where the form of language,

separated from all content, became the object of attention, unconsciousness of language

continues to be the actual modality of speech. We have seen that the critique of correctness of

40 Gadamer, 417.
41 Weinsheimer, 232-233.

The Iconic Language 31


names in Cratylus “is the first step in a direction at the end of which lies the modern

instrumental theory of language and the ideal of a sign system of reason. Wedged in between

image and sign, the nature of language could only be reduced to the level of pure sign.”42 But

we will later in this thesis see that, according to Gadamer, the Christian idea of Incarnation

prevented the complete obliviousness of language in the western tradition.

2.3 The Concepts of Sign, Symbol and Image

In this section, we will follow Gadamer’s use of the iconic image, as against the modern

aesthetic conception of a picture, and of art in general. Gadamer rejects the notion that

"aesthetic differentiation", that is, the process of abstraction whereby a work of art is removed

from its ontological background, could legitimately apply to the plastic arts. According to the

logic of aesthetic differentiation, a painting or a statue can be experienced in itself, without any

variation. Whenever there are variations of the conditions under which a painting or sculpture

is accessible, these belong to the viewer and not to the work of art proper. 43

This abstraction from the variability of representation lies at the center of modern aesthetics.

The epitome of the modern aesthetic view of art is the framed picture, hanging side by side in a

gallery, with no particular regard for order. Not only have pictures in a gallery been severed

from their connection to life and enclosed in frames, but modern paintings are executed with

42 Gadamer, 417.
43 Gadamer, 130.

The Iconic Language 32


the view to be exhibited in such a manner, and thus made to conform to the logic of abstraction

from the outset. The framed picture is the prototype for the kind of abstraction that has affected

practically all current discourse about works of art. Inquiring into the mode of being of the

picture will hopefully be instrumental in freeing all art forms, including the liturgical arts of the

Orthodox Church, the icon and church architecture, from the enclosure that they have been

subjected to by modern aesthetics. Incidentally, the revision of the “gallery” concept of painting

and sculpture goes hand in hand with a similar reevaluation in the field of art history;

historians of art have also sought to bring the modern concept of painting and sculpture more

in line with the contemporary appreciation for performance art. The purpose of the current

inquiry is, however, not aesthetical, but ontological.

According to Gadamer, the problem of the picture “corresponds to a historical problem of

philosophical aesthetics, which ultimately goes back to the role of the image in Platonism and is

expressed in the usage of the word.” 44 Still, the “picture” retains a general sense that is not

limited to any particular historical phase. The first step of the inquiry into the mode of being of

a picture is to look for commonalities between what historically has been called a picture.

Looking back in history, the self-sufficient type of picture was not seen until the high

Renaissance. Alberti's requirement of "concinnitas" (skillfully put together) is, according to

Gadamer, the theoretical expression of the new artistic ideal. Alberti, however, formulates his

"concinnitas" in terms that remind us of Aristotle's definition of the beautiful. According to

44 Gadamer, 131.

The Iconic Language 33


Aristotle, beautiful is that to which nothing can be added and nothing can be taken away,

without destroying it. It seems, therefore, that the concept of the picture cannot be extracted

from any particular historic period. Nor is the modern concept of a picture a suitable starting

point, as this is exactly what Gadamer is trying to overcome. In order to find a general concept

of the picture, Gadamer asks two questions. The first one is in what respect the picture is

different from a copy; the second one is, what is the picture's relationship with its world.

Gadamer starts by affirming that the mode of being of the work of art is presentation. The

concept of presentation is borrowed from performing arts, like drama and music. According to

Gadamer, the world that appears in a presentation is not a copy of the real world, but the real

world "in the heightened truth of its being." 45 The key difference between performing arts and

plastic arts, however, is the absence of an original. Typical of performance arts is a double

representation; both the performance and the script are representations that do not stand in

relation with an original. Neither does a first performance stand as an original that subsequent

performances relate to. The picture, however, unlike drama and music, does have a

relationship with an original. This makes the concept of picture necessarily larger than the

concept of presentation. In order to find out what presentation means for the mode of being of

a picture, a distinction will be made between the way a representation relates to an original and

the way a copy relates to an original.

45 Gadamer, 132.

The Iconic Language 34


According to Gadamer, the task of a copy is to resemble the original; a copy has no independent

existence, but serves only “to mediate what is copied”46. The ideal copy is “self-effacing”,

allowing the spotlight to be placed on the original. A picture, on the other hand, is not meant to

be self-effacing; it is not merely pointing at the original, but co-exists with the original in a

symbiotic relationship. The ideal copy is the mirror image. In fact, not only does a mirror

image disappear, but it has no being at all; it depends on the continuous presence of that which

is reflected in the mirror. The original and its mirror reflection are one, and not differentiated.

In the same way, the presentation (the picture) and what is represented are one. The model of

the mirror image serves to show the ontological inseparability between a picture and what is

represented, but does not cover the whole aesthetic conception about a picture: an image in the

mirror has no being of its own, but depends for its existence on the being that is reflected. The

picture, on the other hand, does have its own being.

Not only a picture has its own being, but, according to Gadamer, a picture brings about an

“increase in the being” of that which is being represented 47. The relationship between the

picture and what the picture represents is an ontological one: a specific presentation (picture)

becomes an essential part of what is represented. Even if multiple presentations (pictures) are

available they do not exhaust the original, but become part of, and increase, the being of the

original. One way to understand this non-exhausting relationship between a picture and its

original is by making use of the neoplatonic concept of "emanation." The concept of emanation

46 Gadamer, 133.
47 Gadamer, 135.

The Iconic Language 35


was meant to surpass Greek substance ontology, and capture the idea that the original One is

not diminished by the outflow of many from it. The logic of emanation was instrumental in

overcoming the Old Testament aversion to images.

„It seems that the Greek Fathers [of the church] used this kind of neoplatonist
thinking in overcoming the Old Testament’s hatred of images when it came to
Christology. In the incarnation of God they saw the fundamental recognition of
the visible appearance and thus legitimated works of art. In this overcoming of
the ban on images we can see the event through which the development of the
plastic arts became possible in the Christian West.” 48

So far, Gadamer has inquired into the relationship between a picture and its original, by

contrasting it with the relationship between a copy and its original. He concludes that a copy

has no being of its own, while a picture constitutes an autonomous reality that does not subtract

from the being of the original, but, on the contrary, adds to that being. At this point, Gadamer

introduces yet another concept, one that will help us further understand the relationship that a

picture has to an original. This concept is representation (Repräsentation) 49.

The concept of representation is meant to express the idea that a picture, in order to be granted

its own ontological status, must bring an essential modification to the original that it represents.

In a reversal of the ontological relationship between the picture and the original, we say that the

original only becomes original when represented in a picture. The quintessence of

representational art is found in the representation of the ruler, the statesman, or the hero. The

representation arises from the necessity of the ruler to show himself to his subjects. However,

48 Gadamer, 136.
49 Gadamer, 136.

The Iconic Language 36


once the picture comes into existence, the ruler must fulfill expectations that arise from his

picture; he cannot avoid his own representation and must show himself to his subjects in a

manner that is prescribed by the representation. We can say, therefore, that the representation

is made possible by the very fact that the being that is represented is showing itself as an

essential part of his being; representation would, therefore, not exist if it were not from the

outset a part of the being that is being represented.

An even better example of this two-way relationship is, according to Gadamer, the religious

picture. Gadamer thinks that the religious representation is solely capable of displaying “the

full ontological power of the picture" because it is only through the picture that the divine

acquires its "pictorial quality," or “appears for the first time as what it is.” This is a clear case of

a picture that is not just a copy, but in “ontological communion” with what is pictured. The

same is true about art work in general:

“... It is clear from this example that art as a whole and in a universal sense
brings an increase in ‘pictorialness’ to being. Word and picture are not mere
imitative illustrations, but allow what they represent to be for the first time what
it is.” 50

The act of imaging the divine, however, is not to be confused with the nineteenth century

anthropological interpretation of religious experience, which is, Gadamer thinks, just another

manifestation of the “subjectivism” that characterizes modern aesthetic thought. 51

Following this approach, Gadamer has shown that the picture is an event of being and cannot

50 Gadamer, 137.
51 Gadamer, 137.

The Iconic Language 37


be properly understood as merely the subject of aesthetic consciousness. Art is by nature

presentational, it does not reproduce or imitate an idea, but occasions the "appearing" of that

idea. According to Gadamer, once we give up the logic of aesthetic consciousness, many

phenomena that were problematic for modern aesthetics become less so. One such

phenomenon is occasional art, exemplified by the portrait, the dedicated poem, or

contemporary comic references. The reason occasional arts constitute a problem for modern

aesthetics is because their contents are partially determined by the occasion for which they are

intended, therefore they cannot easily abstract themselves from that context. Occasionality is

intrinsic to these art forms and not forced upon them by an interpreter. This can be seen by

looking at the difference between a portrait and a genre picture or a figure composition. In a

portrait, the original (the sitter) is to be recognized in the painting. In a figure composition or

genre picture, the sitter, or model, must disappear, or become unrecognizable in the painting.

We recognize a portrait as such, not because we are able to recognize the person portrayed

(although we do recognize that it is an individual and not a type), but because of the occasional

character that is impressed upon the work. 52

Occasionality does not diminish the work of art's claim to artistic status. Occasionality is just an

instance of a general relationship between the work of art and the world, or maybe even the

prototype of such a relationship. If the being of the work of art is presentation, then the work of

art experiences a continuous determination of its meaning from the "occasion of its coming-to-

52 Gadamer 140.

The Iconic Language 38



The determination of the meaning by the occasion is seen most clearly in the case of performing

arts, wherein only on the occasion of the performance everything that is in the play can be

brought out. The same is true of plastic arts, insofar as the work of art displays itself differently

under different conditions. It should be noted that the variation is proper of the work of art and

not just of the effects of a self-contained work of art, as modern aesthetics would have it. “The

viewer of today [as compared to the viewer in antiquity] not only sees things in a different

manner, he sees different things.” 53

The coming-into-presentation of the work of art is a community event. This is seen in the case of

performances, but also most clearly in the case of religious rites. For Orthodox Christians the

thought that the meaning of the architecture or the icon is only revealed in the context of the

liturgy was always a self-evident truth. An aesthetic consciousness, which sees the aesthetic

object in its own right, cannot make sense of the relationship between the religious picture and

the performance of religious rites, as essential to religious truth. It is Gadamer’s thesis that “the

being of art cannot be determined as an object of an aesthetic awareness because, on the

contrary, the aesthetic attitude is more than it knows of itself. It is part of the essential process

of representation.” 54

“…imitation, as representation, has a clear cognitive function. Therefore the idea

53 Gadamer, 141-142.
54 Gadamer, 115.

The Iconic Language 39


of imitation was able to continue in the theory of art for as long as the
significance of art as knowledge was unquestioned. But that is valid only while
it is held that knowledge of the true is knowledge of the essence, for art supports
this kind of knowledge in a convincing way. For the nominalism of modern
science, however, and its idea of reality, from which Kant drew the conclusion
that aesthetics has nothing to do with knowledge, the concept of mimesis has lost
its aesthetic force.
Having seen the difficulties of this subjective development in aesthetics, we are
forced to return to the older tradition.” 55

To conclude, occasionality is the fundamental condition of the work of art and a permanent part

of the work of art's claim to meaning and truth. Occasionality remains present in the work of

art even when the occasion that generated it is forgotten (we no longer know the sitter for a

portrait, or the saint that is depicted in an icon), and makes possible further fulfillment. This is

the reason why a portrait, for example, transcends its particular relation to its original and

becomes universally significant. ”A work of art belongs so closely to that to which it is related

that it enriches its being as if through a new event of being.” 56

According to Gadamer, religious or secular monuments are an even clearer expression of the

ontological valence of pictures than portraits. Monuments have as their particular function to

make present that which they represent. Monuments do not live through their power of

expression only, as in the logic of aesthetic consciousness. This is shown by the fact that

symbols and inscriptions can perform the same function as monuments, namely to keep that

which they represent present to the public, yet symbols and inscriptions are not works of art.

55 Gadamer, 114-115.
56 Gadamer, 141.

The Iconic Language 40


The work of art not only keeps in the public consciousness that which it represents, but it both

adds something of its own to it and says something of its own, which allows it to become

independent of the anterior knowledge.

For Gadamer, it is not accidental that religious concepts come to mind when defending the

special ontological status of the work of art, as there are elements of the sacred in every work of

art. The distinction between sacred and profane is only relative, however, as they presuppose

each other. We can feel that art resists desecration in any museum or antique shop, where

traces of life still remain in the works to be exhibited or offered for sale. Moreover, even

aesthetic consciousness is acquainted with the idea of desecration. That can be seen in the

reluctance to destroy works of art: "To destroy works of art is to break into a world protected

by its holiness." 57

So far Gadamer has characterized the work of art, and the picture in particular, as an event of

presentation, which brings about an increase of being to that which it represents. Now we need

to differentiate between the mode of presentation proper to the work of art and other modes of

presentation, such as the one proper to a symbol. A symbol does indicate something, therefore

it is a representation, but is not a work of art. In order to see the difference between the two,

and thus better understand the nature of a picture, we have to examine the concept of

57 Gadamer, 144.

The Iconic Language 41


indicating 58.

The picture lies halfway between two extremes of representation: the sign, "whose nature is

pure indicating", and the symbol, "whose nature is pure substitution". There is something of

both in a picture.” 59 The picture is not a sign, as the sign invites “no lingering over”, but points

away from itself (after initially drawing attention to itself). The memento, which serves to

remind us about the past, is, according to Gadamer, the only sign that seems to have a reality of

its own: it both points to the past and keeps the past alive for us. However, the memento's

quality of keeping the past alive is not something intrinsic to the memento, but depends on us

attaching significance to that past. Even the memento does not invite us to linger over itself, but

over the past that it points at. On the other hand, a picture does invite us to linger over itself, by

sharing in the being of what it represents.

We said that the difference between a picture and a sign is that the picture shares in the being of

what it represents, while the sign points away from itself to what it represents. A symbol

however, does share in the being of what it represents, and is therefore closer to a picture. The

symbol not only signals at what it symbolizes, but what is symbolized becomes present in the

symbol. What makes a symbol different form a picture, nonetheless, is that the symbol takes

the place of what is symbolizes. In that respect, a symbol is much more like a sign, as it does

not say anything about what it symbolizes. The symbolizing does not bring about an increase

58 Gadamer, 145.
59 Gadamer, 145.

The Iconic Language 42


of being for that which it is a symbol of. The picture, on the other hand, does bring an

increment of being to what it represents.

We can say, therefore, that a picture is halfway between a sign and a symbol, but has a unique

ontological status. Gadamer introduces the concept of "institution" in order to further

differentiate between a picture and a sign or symbol. Symbols represent and receive their

ontological function of representing from what they are supposed to represent. The origin of

their signifying function is called their “institution.” All signs and symbols are instituted; they

depend on a previously established linkage with their signified. Signs are established by

convention. Symbols take their significance not from their own ontological content but trough

an institution, installation, consecration. The artwork, pictorial or non-pictorial, is a structure

with a signifying function of its own; it does not owe its significance to such an institutional act,

“even when a public unveiling or consecration does take place.” Works of art are instituted only

because they themselves prescribe and help fashion this kind of functional context; the

consecration only validates what was to be found in the work itself:

„It is important to see that a work of art, on the other hand, does not owe its real
meaning to an institution of this kind even if it is a religious picture or a secular
memorial. The public act of consecration or unveiling which assigns to it its
purpose does not give it its significance. Rather it is already a structure with a
signifying-function of its own, as a pictorial or non-pictorial representation,
before it is assigned its function as a memorial. The setting-up and consecration
of a memorial – and it is not by accident that we talk of religious and secular
works of architecture as of architectural monuments, when historical distance
has consecrated them – therefore only realizes a function that is already implied
in the proper import of the work itself.” 60

60 Gadamer, 148.

The Iconic Language 43


Some forms of art that were peripheral within the logic of aesthetic consciousness take now a

central place. The most distinguished of these art forms is architecture. A work of architecture

extends beyond itself in two ways: it is determined by the aim it serves and the place it takes in

a certain spatial context. A building is a work of architecture only insofar as it successfully

meets both these requirements: it fulfills its purpose and adds something valuable to the

existing landscape or urban context, thus constituting a true increase of being. Moreover, a

work of architecture is not only a perfect solution to a purpose and context problem, but also a

perpetuator of its purpose and context, which continue to live through the building. When a

building stops pointing out at its original purpose and context, it becomes incomprehensible.

Architecture is a good example of why aesthetic differentiation (abstraction from a life context)

leads to a shadowy reality and a distorted life of the work of art.

„Works of architecture do not stand motionless on the shore of the stream of

history, but are borne along by it. Even if historically-minded ages seek to
reconstruct the architecture of an earlier age, they cannot try to turn back the
wheel of history, but must mediate in a new and better way between the past
and the present. Even the restorer, or the preserver of ancient monuments,
remains an artist of his time.” 61

Works of architecture not only present an original purpose and context, but they also mediate

between present and past, when other architectural monuments are part of the building context.

Attempts to reconstruct, or preserve architecture of the past are also instances of mediation

between past and present. Gadamer not only singles out architecture as occupying a special

61 Gadamer, 150.

The Iconic Language 44


place in the inquiry of the mode of being of the work of art, on account of its inalienable

connection to the world, but also identifies architecture as “embracing all other forms of

representation”, i.e. providing a context to them, on account of its space shaping function.

The context provided by architecture is present even when works of art seem to extract

themselves from the context, or seem to be physically translatable to different contexts:

"Even a free-standing statue on a pedestal is not removed from its decorative

context, but serves to heighten representationally a context of life with which it is
decoratively consonant. Even poetry and music, which have the freest mobility
and can be read and performed anywhere, are not suited to any space
whatsoever, but to one that is appropriate: a theater, concert hall, or church." 62

The point here is not to find a setting for a work that is complete in itself, but "to obey the space-

creating potentiality of the work itself (...) 63." Not only does architecture subsume all decorative

shaping of space, but it is decorative in itself. The nature of decoration, or ornament, is to not to

have attention linger over it, but merely to accompany that which it decorates. Architecture

subscribes to this definition, insofar as it at first is drawing attention to itself and then

redirecting this attention to the greater context of life which accompanies it.

Revealing the decorative task of architecture is yet another way to explode the abstraction

involved in the logic of aesthetic consciousness. The distinction between a work of art proper

and a mere decoration needs to be revised in the process. The antithesis between an artwork

and mere decoration used to be superimposed on an antithesis between the inspiration of a

62 Gadamer, 150.
63 Gadamer, 151.

The Iconic Language 45


genius (unique, irreplaceable) and craftsmanship, (means to end, replaceable). The ornament

needs to be “freed from this antithetical relation with the concept of art, and understood within

the ontological structure of representation:” the ornament is not a self-sufficient something that

is applied onto something else, but it is from the outset an essential part of the presentation of

that which is ornamented. “An ornament, a decoration, a piece of sculpture set up in a chosen

place, are representative in the same sense that, say, the church in which they are to be found is

itself representative.” 64

The conclusion of this inquiry is that there is no difference in the mode of being of performance

arts and that of plastic arts. Both of them have coming-into-representation as their specific

mode of being. Representation here is to be understood as "an ontological event, and not an

experiential event which occurs at the moment of the artistic creation and is repeated each time

in the minds of the viewers." 65

2.4 The Iconic Language

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was
John 1:1, King James Bible

“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory,
the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.”
John 1:14, King James Bible

64 Gadamer, 152.
65 Gadamer, 152.

The Iconic Language 46


The initially uncontested unity between thought and language, or word and object that has

been obscured by the historical enquiry into the nature of language, has been preserved,

according to Gadamer, in the Christian idea of incarnation. While, as previously suggested,

Plato’s philosophy is seen as an attempt to overcome language and hence to forget its existence,

Gadamer sees incarnation as a return of the word.

He differentiates the Christian idea of incarnation from that of embodiment that corresponds to

the religious idea of the migration of souls that relate, for example, to the Platonic and

Pythagorean philosophies. “The soul retains its own separate nature throughout all its

embodiments, and the separation from the body is regarded as a purification, i.e. a restoration

of its true and real being.” 66 Following Gadamer, Weinsheimer contrasts also the idea of

embodiment with that of incarnation: in embodiment “the relation of soul and body is

something like that between content and form, or the thing in itself and its appearance. The

content can take any number of forms but it is not itself any one of them.” 67 In incarnation these

separations are overcome. The Word became flesh. That is, God became man without a

diminution of His divinity, as the human appearance was not “a mere form either concealing or

revealing a content different from itself.” 68

66 Gadamer, 418.
67 Weinsheimer, 233.
68 Weinsheimer, 233.

The Iconic Language 47


Gadamer finds great interest in the idea of incarnation especially as it connects with the

problem of the word. The interpretation of the mystery of incarnation and that of the Trinity

has been based, ever since the Church Fathers, on the relationship between human speech and

thought. The dogmatic theology built its interpretation of the Trinity on the prologue to St.

John’s gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was

God.” 69 The important task that the Fathers were confronted with was not merely to explain the

mystery of the incarnation, that God became man, but that, in this becoming, God the Son

remained united with God the Father in the Holy Trinity. To solve this theological problem,

Gadamer recounts, they relied on Greek ideas. But in doing so they opened up directions

foreign to Greek philosophy. This is particularly manifest in the way in which the

interpretation of incarnation resulted in a reassessed understanding of language. The historicity

of the redemptive event, the incarnation of Christ, translates into the departing of language

from the “ideality of meaning” that the earlier Greek philosophy of the logos threw it in. In

summarizing Gadamer’s view, Weinsheimer concludes as well that “the advent [the

incarnation, the word made flesh] … is an event which, like all historical events, is unique; and

thus, in contrast to the ideality of the disembodied logos, the Christian doctrine of the incarnate

Verbum insists on the reality of history. In the event of the incarnation the word is uttered,

spoken, and thereby realized.” 70

69 John 1:1, King James Bible.

70 Weinsheimer, 233-234.

The Iconic Language 48


In the Church Fathers’ investigation of the problem of the Word, human language is only

indirectly an object of reflection, since the main focus was not language but rather the

theological problem. But since the “mystery of this unity is reflected in the phenomenon of

language” 71, through analogy, human language becomes part of the inquiry as well. To address

the theological problem of the infinite God, the Father, and the historical God, the Son, they

used as an analogy the stoic antithesis of the inner and the outer logos. Weinsheimer comments

as well on the way they dealt with the theological problem of the Trinity: “to explain the fact

that the Word was with God from all eternity, the Church Fathers distinguish the inner, mental,

or rational word from the external, spoken word; and it is by appeal to the former that they

elucidate the mysterious unity of the Trinity.” 72

The early Fathers used the analogy with language because the creation, as well as the

incarnation, is described in St. John’s gospel in terms of the word. “Exegesis interprets the

speaking of the word to be equally miraculous as the incarnation of God.”73 The act of

becoming, concerning both God and the word, is one in which the essence remains unaltered.

But the “direct reference to the utterance, to the speaking of the Word” has been eventually seen

in the Christian dogmatics as implying a rapport of subordination of the Son to the Father, and

therefore rejected. This has led to the reconsideration of language as well, the weight being

shifted towards the inner word: “The greater miracle of language does not lie in the fact that

71 Gadamer, 419.
72 Weinsheimer, 235.
73 Gadamer, 419.

The Iconic Language 49


the Word becomes flesh and emerges in external being, but that that which emerges and

expresses itself in utterance is still a word. That the Word is with God from all eternity is the

victorious doctrine of the church, as against subordinationism, and it places the problem of

language entirely within thought.” 74

Even though the Church Fathers eventually concentrated on the inner word, as opposed to the

outer, spoken word, as the solution to their theological problem, Gadamer is still able to derive

from here the union of thought and language. Although not an “expressive event”, the inner

word remains related to its possible utterance. When the object is conceived by the intellect the

inner word is the process of “thinking through the end.” Thus, “it is not utterance, but

thought.” 75 Because of our finite understanding the human thought passes from one thing to

another, that is, a mental process is involved. “As the word is never a single word but a

sequence, so thought is not intuitive but discursive.” 76 Although Gadamer sees “the particular

difficulty of enlisting the aid of scholastic thinking“ 77 for working out the problem of language,

since the Christian understanding of the word as rendered by the Church Fathers approached

once again the Greek concept of logos, thanks to Aristotle’s influence, he is able to draw from

their interpretation both inspiration and, at the same time, validation of his idea of the truth-

revealing quality of discourse.

74 Gadamer, 419.
75 Gadamer, 422.
76 Weinsheimer, 235.

77 Gadamer, 421.

The Iconic Language 50


Weinsheimer draws a parallel between the union of the Father and Son within the Trinity and

the unity of thought and language that Gadamer proposes: “When the church fathers affirmed

the Trinity and rejected the doctrine that the Son was subordinate to the Father, they denied the

subordination of the word to what it reveals, and Gadamer (in contrast to Plato) denies this as

well. It is the union of Father and Son that the theologians maintain, just as Gadamer maintains

the union of thought and language.” 78

So to conclude, Gadamer affirms that our modern perception of language as separated from

thought was prompted by Plato’s discussion in the Cratylus. By contrast, the understanding of

language implied in the Christian doctrine of the incarnation is more “hermeneutical” in its

nature. Contrary to what Weinsheimer calls the “iconic theory of language”, namely Cratylus’

resemblance theory, the Orthodox icon is not to be comprehended in an instrumental way. If it

is understood as a tool, we part from its orthodox interpretation. The icon is best

comprehended in a hermeneutical way that does not break the union between thought and

language and is consistent with the doctrine of the incarnation.

78 Weinsheimer, 234-235.

The Iconic Language 51


3 The Hermeneutics of Orthodox Church


Figure 3- Stavropoleos Church, Bucharest, Romania, 2009

The Hermeneutics of Orthodox Church Architecture 52


3.1 The Church as an Icon

“The icon, for the Byzantines, is a complete expression of the Tradition, a

proclamation of the incarnation of God and the deification of man.” 79

“Perhaps the church made with hands has been given to us wisely for the soul’s
sake, because by the complexity of the sacred things in it, it is meant to be a
symbolic pattern for the soul, for our guidance to the higher state.”80

The most important text at the foundation of Orthodox Church architecture is the Mystagogia of

St. Maximus the Confessor (580-662). In Mystagogia, which can be literally translated as The

Teaching of the Mysteries, St. Maximus introduces an elaborate iconographic system, which is

meant to render visible, in Maximus' own words, the work of God in us, through His Holy

Church. 81 St. Maximus is basing his work on an apparent division of being, only to show how

the division is overcome in the process.

The book addresses three main topics. The first one is the church, as both “divine/human

institution” and building. The second one is the Divine Liturgy, the same liturgy that the

Orthodox Church celebrates today. The third one is the soul, or, more specifically, how the

79 Perl, 46.
80 Maximus, the Confessor, Saint. The church, the liturgy, and the soul of man: the Mystagogia of St. Maximus
the Confessor. Translated with historical note and commentaries by Dom Julian Stead, St. Bede's
Publications, Still River, Massachusetts, 1982.
81 Maximus, the Confessor, 66.

The Hermeneutics of Orthodox Church Architecture 53


movement of the liturgy provides an interpretation of the movement of the individual soul

towards God. Although the three topics are intimately related, we will mainly follow Maximus'

teaching about the church and its different parts, in line with our inquiry about the

fundamentals of church architecture.

St. Maximus starts by presenting a series of ways in which the church can be seen as having a

multifaceted symbolism, or, more appropriately, iconography. The “doctrine” behind church

iconography was made explicit after the iconoclastic controversy, back in the ninth century. He

first interprets the Church, both as a world-wide community and a building, as (1) an icon of

God, since both bring about union. People very different from each other, "in race and

appearance", "of all languages, lifestyles, and ages," "of great differences in their mentalities,

customs, their social station, their skills, and their professions", "their fortunes, their characters

and their abilities" come together through faith. The church does not allow the differences to

stand out, but "softens" the diversity in them, and unifies them. Subsequently, the church is

said to be (2) an icon of “the whole visible and invisible universe” 82 or cosmos, for the division

of the church into sanctuary and nave (or clergy and laity) can be seen as corresponding to the

division of the cosmos into the invisible and the visible. But this differentiation of its parts does

not break the unity of the church. Nave and sanctuary are separated by being related. Each

part exists for the other. Similarly, the spiritual world and the world of the senses are strongly

82 Maximus, the Confessor, 68.

The Hermeneutics of Orthodox Church Architecture 54


related. Yet again, (3) “the church is an icon of the material world” 83, the distinction between

sanctuary and nave being reflected in the distinction between heaven and earth. Furthermore,

Maximus talks about (4) the church as an icon of man, with the soul being an analogy for the

sanctuary, the mind for the altar within the sanctuary, and the body for the nave. Conversely,

the human being is an icon of the church. This is followed by an interpretation of (5) the church

as an icon of the soul considered in itself and of a parallel between (6) the Holy Scripture and

the human person: body/soul corresponds to Old/New Testament (The New being the inner

reality of the Old), and also to text/meaning (the meaning being the inner reality of the text).

Maximus continues after that with drawing parallels between what he calls three human

beings: the cosmos, the Holy Scripture, and the human being “who is ourselves”.

According to Andrew Louth, in his commentary on Maximus the Confessor, "these divisions

are not oppositions, for one term always stands higher than the other: the visible world points

to the invisible world and in a way adumbrates it, similarly the nave/sanctuary, or body/soul, or

Old/New Testament, or Scripture/meaning." Neither are they "separations", "but

representations of a tension, a tension which draws onwards and upwards – towards the final

consummation." 84

“By holy communion of the spotless and life-giving mysteries we are given
fellowship and identity with him by participation in likeness, by which man is
deemed worthy from man to become God. For we believe that in this present life
we already have a share in these gifts of the Holy Spirit through the love that is
in faith, and in the future age after we have kept the commandments to the best

83 Maximus the Confessor, 71.

84 Louth, Andrew. Maximus the Confessor. Routledge, London and New York. 1996, 76.

The Hermeneutics of Orthodox Church Architecture 55


of our ability we believe that we shall have a share in them in very truth in their
concrete reality according to the steadfast hope of our faith and the solid and
unchangeable promise to which God has committed himself. Then we shall pass
from the grace which is in faith to the grace of vision, when our God and Savior
Jesus Christ shall indeed transform us into himself by taking away from us the
marks of corruption and bestow on us the original mysteries which have been
represented for us through sensible symbols here below.”

We can sense that the nature of these symbols is different from their normal meaning. The

“symbols” are not separated from what they “represent”, but take part in what they

“represent.” Therefore, they are not symbols, but icons. All the divisions we have seen set up a

series of echoing correspondences. Each division is interpreted through the others. It is a

circular movement, but subordinated to the movement from nave to sanctuary, from earth to

heaven. The divisions cease to separate and fragment, and become a kind of ladder. This

ladder “heals” the divisions. 85 The liturgy enables the participant to realize the healing power

of divine grace. The divisions are not dissolved but come to represent the richness and

diversity of God’s creation. Louth continues:

“The movement between God and humankind in the Incarnation, the ascetic struggle leading

to contemplation as a healing of divisions within the human person and the cosmos, the liturgy

as the celebration of the mutual encounter between divine self-emptying and human

deification: these are the themes Maximus draws together in his vision of the cosmic liturgy

that is the reality of the humblest celebration of the divine liturgy." 86

85 Louth, 77.
86 Louth, 77.

The Hermeneutics of Orthodox Church Architecture 56


3.2 The Theological Concept of Incarnation

“At the heart of all Byzantine theology are the words of Saint John the
Theologian: ‘The Word became flesh,’ that is God became man.” 87

“Divinity and humanity are united in him, in the words of the council, 88
‘without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.’” 89

“We needed an incarnate God, a God put to death, that we might live.” 90

For the Orthodox Church, the icon is a proclamation of the incarnation of God, a full expression

of the sacred tradition 91. One of the liturgical hymns celebrating the restoration of the icons in

the feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy says: “The uncircumscribed Word of the Father became

circumscribed, taking flesh from thee, O Theotokos, and He has restored the sullied image to its

ancient glory, filling it with divine beauty. This, our salvation we confess in deed and word,

and we depict it in the holy images.” 92

For the Byzantines in their day, as well as for the Orthodox Church today, the icons are not only

permissible but necessary. The Seventh Ecumenical Council of Nicaea plainly says “we define

with all precision and diligence that, like the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross, the

reverend and holy images are to be set up, made out of pigments and tesserae and other

87 Perl, 40.
88 The Fourth Ecumenical Council met in 451.
89 Perl, 43.

90 Gregory the Theologian, Saint. In Perl, 44.

91 In orthodox theology, tradition is capitalized when it means sacred Tradition, the source of all truth and

authority in the church, even of the Gospels –in contrast with the Protestant confessions where the
Gospels have the ultimate authority.
92 The Lenten Triodion. Translated by Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos. Ware, London, 1978, 306.

The Hermeneutics of Orthodox Church Architecture 57


appropriate material, in the holy churches of God, on the sacred vessels and vestments, on walls

and on panels, in houses and on the ways: the image of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus

Christ, of our immaculate Lady, the Holy Theotokos, of the honorable angels, and of saints and

holy men.” 93

One of the great defenders of the icons during iconoclasm, Saint John of Damascus, explains

why icons are a profound statement of the faith of the Church and of the incarnation, in contrast

with the interdiction of images in the Old Testament: “Of old God, the incorporeal and

shapeless could in no way be imaged. But now, when God is seen in the flesh and converses

with men, I image what is seen of God. I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of

matter, who for my sake became matter, and accepted to dwell in matter, and through matter

effected my salvation; and I will not cease to honor the matter through which my salvation is

effected. … Although the body of God is God, having become, without change, by union in

person, that which anoints it, it still remains what it was, flesh ensouled with a rational and

intellectual soul, made, not uncreated.” 94

And yet again, arguing for the icons against the iconoclasts, with the support of the incarnation,

Saint John of Damascus says: “How could the invisible be imaged? How could there be a

likeness of that to which none is like? How could the bodiless be painted? ... It is clear that,

when you see the bodiless become man for your sake, then you will make a picture of his

human shape. When the invisible becomes visible in the flesh, then you will image the likeness

93 Denzinger H. and A. Schonmetzer. Enchiridion symbolorum. 36th ed. Freiburg, 1976, 600, 201.
94 John of Damascus, Saint. De imaginibus I.16, PG 94, col. 1246A-B. In Perl, 45.

The Hermeneutics of Orthodox Church Architecture 58


of what is seen. When the bodiless and shapeless, unquantified and measureless and

immeasurable in the excellence of his nature, being in the form of God, taking the form of a

servant, contracts in it into quantity and measure, and puts on the character of a body: then

inscribe it on a panel, and set up for seeing, the one who accepted to be seen.” 95

The use of icons might appear at first to be a matter of religious practice rather than a central

doctrinal problem, but for the Byzantines, and the Orthodox Church, doctrine and practice are

inseparable. Icons as full expressions of the incarnation are central to Orthodox theological

thought. The centrality of icons goes back to the words of Saint John the Theologian: “In the

beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God. … And the

Word became flesh, and dwelt among us. … ; we have beheld his glory… .” 96 The ultimate

purpose of the “word becoming flesh,” or the incarnation, is the deification of man: “He

became man in order that we might become God.” 97 Therefore anything that might make it

unattainable for man to become God should be discarded as false, or as an altered form of the

faith. The ultimate purpose of theology is to maintain the possibility of man’s becoming God

through God’s becoming man. Incarnation does not imply that God the Son unites with a man,

but rather that God becomes man so that human nature can become God. Being an image of the

material body which is God the icon Christ, and therefore all icons, affirm the deification of

man. A rejection of the icons would mean a denial of the entire Orthodox tradition and a

negation of salvation. This is why during the period of Iconoclasm the Byzantines were willing

to die rather than to agree to the imperial policy of the destruction of the icons.

95 John of Damascus, Saint. De Imaginibus I.8, PG 94, cols. 1237D-1240A. in Perl, 44-45.
96 John the Theologian, Saint. The Gospel according to John 1:1, 14, King James Bible.
97 Athanasios, Saint. (ca.580-662). De Incarnatione. Robert W. Thomson (ed). Oxford, 1971, 54, 268.

The Hermeneutics of Orthodox Church Architecture 59


The revelation implied in the doctrine of incarnation and the resulting status of the icon is not

mere information that God gives to the faithful or only statements about himself that we

couldn’t find some other way, but rather God’s way of revealing himself to us: “And since the

revelation of God is the presence of God, to know God by that revelation is to enter into

communion with him, to be deified. This is why, for the Byzantines, an icon is the actual

presence of the person it depicts. When the Byzantines set up icons, in their churches, homes,

and elsewhere, it was not in order to have representations of a person who was absent, who

was not there. On the contrary, an image is an image precisely because it bears its archetype in

itself, so that a Byzantine icon is not merely a picture but a power.” 98 In the words of Saint John

of Damascus: “If he who is imaged is filled with grace, the materials [wood, paint, mosaic,

tesserae, etc.] become participants of grace in proportion to his faith.” 99

Moreover, the above transformation of man and the world, that is the result of the incarnation,

and finds its expression in the use of icons, is only realized in the context of a liturgical life, in

the celebration of the sacraments and especially in the Holy Eucharist. The icons are part of this

ongoing activity that is the Orthodox Liturgy. To make a parallel with the previous chapter one

might say that the liturgy is the ongoing “speech” of the Church, the place of the Truth within

the Church. The liturgy is the true place of the icons, the place where they work as icons, in the

same way words are capable of truth only in speech, as Gadamer 100 puts it.

98 Perl, 48.
99 John of Damascus, Saint. On the Divine Images. I, 36. In Perl, 48.
100 Gadamer, 412.

The Hermeneutics of Orthodox Church Architecture 60


The liturgy is much more important than written theology. Theology is not a separate science

but a part of prayer and as such it is already a component of the liturgy. Most Byzantine and

Orthodox theological treatises cite liturgical hymns, and statements made in theological

treatises are taken up in liturgical poetry. In this context theology is a liturgical act. Moreover,

the liturgy is not “a mere memorial of a past history”, but the participation here and now in the

First and the Second Coming of Christ: past, present, and future unified. The liturgy not only

commemorates or educates about deification but makes available the union with God now, in

this life, today. The Church alive in the liturgy is the world unified and filled with God. The

church building is the icon of the celebrating church, where all come together in the liturgy to

be unified with God. All the aspects of the liturgy, the architecture of the church, the

iconography, the liturgical movements, the lights, the gold and silver implements and all

decoration are to be thought of together as the incarnation of the liturgy. Numerous accounts

describe the first experience of Orthodox church interiors and liturgy as an overwhelming

appeal to all the senses: “we must think of the church not as silent and still, but rather alive,

with the priests moving about in procession clad in brightly embroidered vestments, as the

sweet-smelling incense goes up in clouds before the image of God and the singers chant the

splendid Byzantine hymns. In the Byzantine liturgy, nothing is left as an abstract idea. All

truth is incarnate and made flesh. There is no idea without a concrete, visible, audible, tangible

expression. And conversely, all the objects of the senses are filled with meaning, that is, with

light. Thus everything becomes icon, the manifestation, the presence of God. In the liturgy all

is transfigured.” 101 Or, as Saint Dionysios the Areopagite 102 says: “The sacrament of the divine

101 Perl, 54.

102 Also known as Pseudo-Dionysios the Areopagite.

The Hermeneutics of Orthodox Church Architecture 61


synaxis 103… is multiplied in love for man into the sacred variety of the symbols, and embraces

even all the hierarchical iconography, but in a unified manner gathers from these again into its

own singularity and makes one those who are sacredly led up to it.” 104

The concept of incarnation was unprecedented in the ‘ancient world’, that of the Old Testament

and of the Hellenistic culture (including Egypt, Greek classical culture and philosophy, etc.),

which operated with a fundamental, seemingly unsurpassable, division of Being. Man and

mankind were irremediably separated from the Gods and the Heavens. For the Hebrews of the

Old Testament even the righteous had no access to heaven when they died. Plato’s Myth of the

Cave, which is still at the heart of western culture and metaphysics, introduced new divisions:

the light of the sun in opposition with the shadows of the cave, to speak only of the extremes,

but does not deal with the fundamentals of ‘the Being question’. It only answers what Being is

by making new divisions among beings, and finds virtue in rejecting some of them [the

appearances] for others [ideas, forms]. This quest for explicit and expressible answers and

fundamental affirmations, implicit in the western tradition starting with Plato, is ”the dream of

the human controlled ‘logos’.”

Christianity brought a fundamental, ontological change to this picture. Christianity, in the

Apostolic and Patristic tradition, introduced a radical questioning and a new horizon for ‘the

Being question’. Because the ontological division of Being was convincingly breached in the

The assembly for the Eucharist.


Dionysios the Areopagite, Saint. De Ecclesiastica Hierarchia, in Corpus Dionysiacum, II, III.3, 82-83. In

Perl, 54.

The Hermeneutics of Orthodox Church Architecture 62


concept of incarnation – God became man – [not because of a human cause or virtue but as a

gift of love from God] a whole new horizon for the understanding of the Being question was

put into place, an entirely different world emerged, a different ontological setting was to be

lived, and even thought of and expressed so that the ‘old man’ could understand it in all its

implications. Because the incarnation goes beyond human knowledge and it is adequately

grasped only by love, and a certain kind of faith, it is not as if the question was answered. In a

certain sense the incarnation is possible to be ‘seen’ only somehow beyond human knowledge

and control, in the realm of love and ‘true faith’. If someone would take the incarnation as a

premise for thinking, as a certainty on which human knowledge is possible, then it would have

already missed it. Human affirmations and answers cannot ‘hold’ on to and control the Logos,

just explicitly and correctly ask about it; it is a world of ‘prologos’, of the tacit, of the silence of


The Hermeneutics of Orthodox Church Architecture 63


Conclusion- Tradition as Ongoing Conversation

Figure 4- Interior of Stavropoleos Church, Bucharest, Romania, 2009

Conclusion 64

“Historical tradition can be understood only as something always in the

process of being defined by the course of events.” 105

“In the Byzantine setting, theology was above all the work of expressing,
defending, and preserving Tradition. Its fundamental task was to keep the
faith of the Church the same in all times. No Byzantine theologian sought, or
claimed to seek, originality.” 106

The ‘Orthodox world’ was more careful in preserving the church tradition than its western

counterpart. The preservation of tradition, however, should not be understood as conservatism.

According to Andrew Louth, ”Orthodoxy is not conservative it is just radical”.

More often in the course of its history, however, the overwhelming authority of the Orthodox

tradition was wrongly understood, and its duty to constantly reinterpret and integrate all

possible human worlds (as it did with the Hellenistic and Roman worlds) within it, had been

forgotten. This stopping of the flow of interpretation and reinterpretation had historical

reasons, the most significant being the fall of Constantinople and the end of the Byzantine

Empire. The Orthodox tradition must start reinterpreting everything again, within the new

‘modern world’, and with the power of its ontological radicalism.

105 Gadamer, 366.

106 Perl, 39.

Conclusion 65

Another reason why it is so difficult to grasp the Orthodox concept of tradition, and its radical

ontology, is the fact that the Greek Fathers of the Church have used the vocabulary and

concepts of classical Greek philosophy to express themselves. An untrained eye, looking at the

concepts that are used cannot easily feel the different kinds of uses and different paideia at work

in the Fathers, as compared with classical Greek philosophers. This is the reason why, with

little formal justification, the Christian patristic theology was sometimes labeled as a neo-

platonic vision of the world.

We can conclude that this stopping of the flow of the Orthodox tradition is what plagues the

understanding and design of Orthodox Church architecture today. The confusion starts when

one thinks that excluding time and forcing things to stay into presence, in order that they might

be comprehensible and ultimately controlled, is the way of being faithful to the tradition.

Instead, the way to more fruitfully understand tradition (Uberlieferung) is, as Gadamer puts it,

like “ongoing conversation”, the active interpretative involvement in what we take over from

the past more or less tacitly. 107

107 Gadamer, xvi.

Conclusion 66


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