- continued, part 2 -


'Architecture and Language' is the title of an interesting book edited by C. Braegger. It looks at architecture from different linguistic angles. In his contribution on medieval descriptions of architecture A. Reinle, an expert in European medieval art, mentions how authors of medieval descriptions often refer to "general and very ancient 'topoi', to express what they saw and felt". This is certainly true of two descriptions of the Hagia Sophia dating from the time when this most important Byzantine building was constructed. The first is the report of Prokop in his 'de Aedificiis', which was written on Justinian’s instructions and published around 550 A.D.; the second and later report was written by Paulus Silentarius. Both are official texts praising Justinian's public merits, the first relating to the twenty–year old monument, the second describing the same building after the reconstruction of the dome, which collapsed around New Year in 562/3 A.D.

Reinle deals with the texts in the context of "architectural impressions". That is to say, as texts "in which the technical structure remains in the background" so that the "atmospheric values of a building" are recognized. In particular, he talks of "embedding into a particular landscape", "embedding into a garden" or of the "atmosphere of inner space" expressed with the means of materials and "lightning conditions". How simple! It is amazing to find such a lighthearted approach on the part of an expert in medieval art. In connection with the most important church of Justinian's Byzantine empire, one would have expected something of an all-embracing medieval religiousness.

Let us have a look at Prokop's text, starting, according to Reinle, <9> with a "poetical view" of the building in the centre of the city: "For, it seems to reach the firmament ..., being situated higher than the rest of the city, serving it as ornament because it is part of it." What does this sentence mean? The church as a whole is part of the city, but exceeds it, is different. Its function is not practical, it decorates it, it is the aesthetic ideal of the city. It represents an imagined ideal: it reaches to the skies. This sounds similar to our description of book illuminations. The church is the >pro< of the >portion< 'city'.

To cite further from Reinle's quotes from Prokop: "But it shines in its own beauty ...". This is trying to say: the church towering above the city owes its beauty not to humans and their city, it is its celestial significance that makes it beautiful. The church is as high as heaven, therefore its brilliance is of a heavenly quality. We might think that this is an example of medieval light-mysticism. But that is too simple. We might miss the 'architectonic mysticism'. "It is filled all over with the sun's light and overpowered with brilliance." This holds true for both, the interior and the exterior. "One would really like to say that the inner space was not illuminated from outside by the sun, but rather that its brilliance originates from the interior itself, of such splendour is the light pouring through the holy house." The irrational contradiction is remarkable. It is not clear whether the light comes from inside or outside. The verbs used by Prokop ('break out' and 'pour through') are spatially contradictory. But it is clear what is meant: the identity of internal church space and celestial space with regard to the intensity and origin of the light. Certainly these things are not said to describe 'optical effects'. There is a philosophy behind it and Prokop is aware of what he writes in advance . His description reflects the immanent structure of medieval iconic language. Very ancient 'topoi'?

It is interesting to note how Prokop's appraisal changes in the following. The massive bottom section and its weight are discussed. "And in the middle of the church there are, erected by human hands, four stone heaps they call pillars, ..." The first part of this sentence hints at the artificial origin of the pillars which he characterizes as 'stone heaps'. Here, in this domain, humans reign, their work, their power. This human concept is sketched with the position of the pillars: "...two on the north and two on the south side opposite each other and similar in form; each pair has four columns in between." The Hagia Sophia - though vertically central beneath its main dome - is at the same time orientated in an east-west axis. Then follow details of the construction. "The stone heaps are built with square stone blocks carefully selected and joined together by learned craftsmen and rising to great heights. They could be compared to steep rocks." This does not refer to the technical quality of the pillars, their firm stability is related to the category of the stable earth.

From such steep rocks the dome rises, according to Prokop: "From these four arches rise, forming a quadrangle and their bases touch each other mutually, resting securely upon the pillars, while the rest rises to immense heights." Who would nowadays describe an arch in this strange manner? The middle part which extends over an empty space is heightened excessively and the secure position of the bases is contrasted with this. The western and eastern arches are empty, they span "empty air", are related to the rising and setting sun; the other two "have below themselves something like a wall and a number of small columns." The following then no longer astonishes us. "Above the uppermost top of the arches a circular creation rises, a dome, through which daylight laughs early in the morning; for the dome towers - at least I think so - above the whole earth." The dome of the building is explicitly identified with the dome of heaven extending over the whole earth. This should not simply be taken as symbolic or poetic language; that would miss its deeper meaning.

Fundamental to this expression there is an iconic manner of thought, which - operating by analogy or homology of categorial relations - manages to identify objects that seem quite different by modern classification, but are in fact part of the same harmonious principle. Essential to this world view is not the individuality of heaven and dome, but their respective relations to earth and the 'stony heaps of the pillars'. These two connections are identical because they consist of homologous relations with regard to the categories of light, imaginary height, sacredness etc. on the one hand, and the stable heavy mass of weight on the other. That which dominates - and supplies the deeper meaning - are not the isolated objects but their relationship, their homologous internal tension, their harmonious quality. This view is supported by the basic impulse to perceive opposites as potentially disharmonious and, consequently, the intention to create harmony. Therefore what actually constitutes the harmonious relation is of secondary importance. <10> Anyone who has even only marginally dealt with medieval philosophy (coincidentia oppositorum) and religion, will agree that with this approach we come closer to the "medieval conception of architecture" than with Reinle's simple retro–projection. Prokop's description of the imperial church of the eastern Roman empire, is it merely an example of contemporary, i.e. medieval, "impressionist" space conception? This would mean to miss the spirit of those times completely.

Further, in the same book the art historian and architectural theoretician Adolf Max Vogt, contributing a commentary on the so-called 'icon/word debate' <11>, completely missed the point of this dome. Proceeding from Panofsky's problems with the >suspension of a body in an empty space< he goes on to explain to us the great connoisseur's distinction between a >secondary< (the hovering Christ at Isenheim) and a >primary [sensory] level of meaning< [primäre Sinnschicht] (the scene of the birth of Christ in a gospel book) with regard to the problem of suspension <12>. Proceeding from this basis, Vogt then interprets the dome of the Hagia Sophia as a kind of lampshade suspended from a celestial ceiling. What an awful technocratic retro–projection! "Hovering conditions" are, he continues, "surprisingly also a motif in architecture"! Apart from the "hovering effects" in the form of "winged figures" "applied" by sculptors and painters on architecture’s "epidermis", we suddenly discover - according to Vogt - "the vault, the cupola, the dome, which all express the hovering effect in purely architectonic terms". <13> Mosaics or paintings in these elements are of course just decorations to the "canopy of heaven". On this discursive level Vogt quickly and simply arrives at his favourite aspect of engineering: a "masterpiece of >suspension in empty space<", which always - according to Vogt - also exclusively expresses >suspension<.

Prokop's text is only valid to him in so far as it mentions "the perilousness of the construction" and that the main dome "suspending from heaven on a golden chain covers up the space". With these few sentences, Prokop, according to Vogt, "provides the most succinct explication of how to read (!) hovering architecture." Suggesting a "reversion of optical effects", Vogt twists Prokop’s text to mean just the opposite: the constructors created "a suspension, not a construction, their dome is not supported, it 'hangs'." It may be interesting to note that Vogt - in contrast to Reinle - uses an earlier translation (Schneider 1939), which dramatizes technical criteria and might have supported Vogt’s own fixation on technology. <14> Vogt continues, quoting very selectively. "All this is joined together incredibly high up in the air, one hanging onto the other and supported only by the next", he cites, suppressing the concluding part of the sentence: "in such ways that an excellent harmony of the whole is produced,...". This is expressed even more plainly in Kähler's (1967) translation: All this "produces a unique and extraordinary harmony in the work, ....". Harmony! The explanation lies in Prokop's text. Vogt's twisted technical retro–projection becomes obsolete. "Harmony in the work"! This is the true meaning, the sacred wisdom of the Hagia Sophia. Not this desperately stilted >suspension<, but simply the "harmony in the work". That there is an entire world view embodied in this simple expression, we have tried to demonstrate. Everything falls into place. Architectural harmony. The model of a world view, expressed in built form. The spiritual, the philosophical-religious principle of the Middle Ages included. <15>

With this world view of the 'coincidence of opposites' in mind, it becomes quite clear why Paulus Silentarius slightly later describes the same Hagia Sophia in a quite different way. He praises it in stark contrast to Prokop's 'chant of the sun', depicting the church in the mysterious twilight of candlesticks as a weakly illuminated space in the midst of an all-embracing night.

There is no doubt, the Hagia Sophia represents the 'holy wisdom' of harmony in its supreme generalization of heaven and earth. This makes much more sense for the main church of Justinian’s empire than Reinle's 'atmospheric impressions' and 'optical effects' or Vogt's 'motif of suspension'. <16> It is conceived as a model of an all-embracing view of the world, which creates harmony by reconciling opposites, as in the example of the celestial dome and the 'stony heaps' of the pillars.

With these 'huts' and elementary 'aedicula' which, composed of arch and columns, are found in medieval book illuminations, we tried to demonstrate that this >ontological proportion< was an established value system throughout the Middle Ages. Justinian could rely on his subjects to understand the message. That indeed, this was a common issue, may be deduced from the case of Heraclitus who, several hundred years earlier - but nearly in the same region - maintained that all existence arises from the contradiction of opposites. <17> In brief, we have found the wisdom of the Hagia Sophia (>Church of the Divine Wisdomontological proportion<.


In the following, we take a closer look at some pictures of Italian book illustration in the Renaissance period.

The Austrian National Library at Vienna keeps a manuscript written in the first quarter of the 15th century for Andrea Matteo Acquaviva, Duke of Atri (1458-1529), that contains Aristotle's >Nicomachian Ethics<. Angelos Konstantinos is thought to be its writer. Acquaviva himself was a scholar and member of the humanist Accademia Pontaniana at Naples. Each of the ten books on ethics contains a richly decorated title page, the conception of these is attributed to the Duke (Alexander 1977).

The picture discussed in the following (Fig. 33), has turned its back on Christian ontology, devoted to classical history and philosophy, it declares human reason as its highest principle. But the picture upholds the medieval articulation into two parts. Both sections deal with the same theme, reason, but the expression is entirely different – idealism dominates the upper, realism in the lower part. The ontological outlook has changed but the picture continues to maintain the concept of >ontological proportion<. In the upper section an imaginary building is presented, something already familiar to us: the celestial building. As usual, the bottom section is painted realistically. Depicted are rather coarse stories from Homer's Odyssey demonstrating the hero’s reason and cunning in three of his adventures.

The bottom part is characterized by realism: note the size of the figures, they are all, be it man or giant, depicted in conventional dimensions, meaning they cover the bottom section. Continuity! Though the spatial dimensions have been enlarged perspectively, the spatial arrangement of the elements remains traditional. A straits resembling a harbour, two wedge–shaped mountains at the sides, earth, a platform – represented are more or less symmetrical scenes, which are related to humans. In the central axis, there is the view on the wide sea, the horizon, and beyond, the sky. On the threshold between the close and the far, another platform is introduced: Odysseus, tied to the mast of his ship, flanked by two sirens in the foreground. The seduction is prevented! Reason! However, the strait, the ship and the sirens, point to the fact that the Renaissance was still familiar with Pre-Renaissance concepts of space organization.

But, what is most important in this picture, is, how the values have changed in the upper section. The 'celestial building'; we have come across it several times, as imaginary pole opposed to the human building, as attribute, generally depicted in the uppermost area of the tympanum, or, at most individualized as in fig. 19. In a wider sense, we have dealt with the whole structural concept of medieval book illuminations as 'celestial' buildings, in the sense of the >ontological proportion<, or >coincidence of opposites<.

About the former we can claim: what we superficially perceive as a Renaissance style through and through, in fact stands ideologically in clear continuity to the Middle Ages. With the help of the ‘ontological proportion’ we arrive at the same conclusion: the building evidently corresponds with the medieval pictorial schema. However, the tectonic element has moved into the upper section, is spatially reduced to its half, and, moreover, it is now located in the perspective landscape.

But it reproduces - now with the means of geometrically and perspectively elaborated techniques - the ontological proportion in a double encapsulation. The outer structure clearly adopts the arch-column-schema with an architrave in–between. Garlands, above and below, also indicate the union of heaven and earth. There still are primordial elements. The birds of paradise and the plants on the roof have disappeared. Instead there are two small arches covered in grass on which two tiny naked cherubs crawl around boldly.

In brief, the top section is related to the fantastic and imaginary. Though the tectonic elements are expressed in geometric forms and costly materials, though medallions and the decorations with garlands imply a palace, the allusion to the 'celestial building' is still present. The contents, however, have changed considerably. Where formerly the founders of the ecclesiastic hierarchy between God and humans received their legitimation by polar proportioning, the principle of reason has now entered the temple. It is symbolized by the seated female figure with sphinx. Any allusion to God or winged creatures are missing (except the winged animal on her knees, radiating a mysterious aura). The lower tympanum remains empty, is part of the perspective skies. A red carpet screens the figure, a garland is spanning the sky towards the medallion. The arch-column-schema with its central figure is now set back from the frontal plane and has lost its direct and immediate character as a sacred niche for believers, instead becoming part of a building positioned in the landscape. However, something still fundamentally expresses the 'celestial building': the palace now appears to represent - objectified and interpreted distantly in human terms - the new ontological wisdom. Note in this context, that in front of the dark central apsis the proportion is objectively represented!

Enclosing this like a shell, a new world, the perspective world, has formed. Relation to it is shown by a river, which leads towards the sea, depicting the horizon, new threshold between heaven and earth. Note that the upper end of the back wall delimits the lower section of the tympanum, is congruent with the natural horizon. The Middle Ages and the Renaissance are intimately welded together in this horizon or wall. Reason is modest; the head of the woman is no longer holy, and is thus essentially positioned below the blue tympanum, only a very small part projects into it and marks the spot where reason was localized. Certainly the well-defined palace gained its legitimation for being positioned in the upper section of the picture because of Platonic idealization. But what matters here, is that this new ontology is announced with exactly the same tectonic means and formal patterns we have discovered to be characteristic for the Middle Ages.

If we finally compare this picture with those simple 'celestial buildings' of the Evangelists, those elementary small temples and sacred niches, which symbolized the entire world, we can fathom the loss of order resulting from the discovery of the new world. Maybe the bottom part is only too accurate: the modern odyssey of discovering the world has begun.

A second picture of the same book goes even beyond that (fig. 34). The tectonic aspect chooses an originally classical >column-arch-schema<, the Roman triumphal arch. The world view, which - in Renaissance eyes - belonged to it, is depicted in the whole central section of the arch. Note, it is ontologically proportioned! The female figure in the centre probably personifies reason, signalling that the observance of virtues leads to happiness. Thus she is accompanied by intelligence, courage, justice, and restraint (Alexander 1977). The surrounding landscape reaches up to their waists, the upper part of their bodies and their heads project into heaven. Again this architectural object is positioned in a landscape, this time a scenic rendering of Plato's teachings. As a building, the triumphal arch becomes a rectangle. Above it - inversely - an arch opens the view into the deep blue dome of the transcendental sky in Plato’s sense. Behind this new bond between heaven and earth, now laid around the heavenly sphere, there are ideas, painted in gold, symbolizing their eternity. There are golden shadows, mainly humans and animals, which are depicted in a realist manner among the hilly landscape, and which formally correspond to certain figures. To make it quite plain, many figures in the landscape are explicitly connected with their idealized shadow, many lines of gold marking these relations. There is no doubt, what is depicted are Plato's teachings based on the "reality" of heavenly ideas. Any object, anything, including humans, has its eternally golden shadow in a wider cosmic world, that what is real in the highest sense of reality. Note that here too, this message is conveyed by the conventional bipartition of the image. Plato's concept of the reality of ideas in the upper section, in the lower the realistic scenes according to Herodotus. On the right, Croesus is saved from the stake by Apollo, on the left two naked men are harnessed to a wooden cart like oxen, pulling their poor mother who possesses no draught animal, to the temple of the goddess Hera. There, the mother prays to Hera that she may reward her virtuous sons with the highest bliss conceivable. Both die the following night, still at the temple. Here too, there are tectonical elements: columns and arches (at the right an individual celestial area for Apollo), between them landscape, but human figures dominate this bottom part.

We have compared two world views, from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, with regard to their mutual interaction with architecture, or more precisely, with the tectonical scheme >columns–arch–schema< and related forms. We succeeded in demonstrating that in the Renaissance period the schema stresses geometry, tends to the perspective in general and idealizes spherical speculations in the upper section. But to speak only of geometry would be fatal! Medieval concepts are preserved, the new parameters only manage to modify them. The new perspective world view is not all of a sudden photographically real. It always remains conditioned by the tectonic scheme, to ontological proportion, with regard to bipartition and its immanent evaluation of space, as well as to the use of tectonic elements and in their categorial implications, even with regard to human size in the lower section. The result may stimulate us as the new original creation of a Renaissance artist, but sometimes the artists - as we discussed above in connection with the "hovering effect" – evidently ends up in difficulties when handling the two different systems. This is particularly the case, when both concepts collide in one picture.

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