Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Light from Light

For the Byzantine architect, light operated the way pigment does for an icon painter.  Tonight, following a brilliant talk (no pun intended) by art historian Jelena Trkulja explaining how light was so manipulated in Middle Byzantine churches, Princeton Seminary's Paul Rorem asked that once in a semester question.

In essence, he suggested that the Byzantine architects who harnessed sunlight with reflective surfaces may have been evoking (intentionally or not) the Nicene Creed's assertion that Christ is "Light from Light" (φῶς ἐκ φωτός).  That is to say, the raw exterior sunlight represents the radiance of God's nature, but when it bounces off reflective windowsill tesserae, suffusing the church interior, it represents the light of Christ which mortal eyes can see.

Of course, as Trkulja pointed out, such metaphors can't be taken too literally.  (Byzantine semiotics is too interesting for that.)  But provided one is flexible enough - playful in that responsible way - Rorem's insight seemed to suggest that the building becomes a membrane, as if mortar itself represented that Eastern distinction between the Essence (sunlight) and Energies (interior light) of God.  All this is to say, when theologians encounter art historians things get very interesting, very fast.  It should happen more often.

Medieval churches were in line with the cosmos.  In the meantime, evangelical gigachurch architects might at least consider looking into which way is East.