The Pessimistic Cultural Atmosphere of Petrarch’s Christendom

By the late middle ages, western Christianity contained within it the distinctly pessimistic anthropology I described in my previous post. As I noted, this contrasted sharply with the anthropological vision of the east, recently defended by Gregory Palamas in the form of hesychasm. And when disasters struck in the west beginning with the fourteenth century, this pessimism was exposed and began to assume an even greater force. The Black Death in the middle of that century killed more than half of the population of western Europe. The Hundred Years War, by the time it was over in the middle of the fifteenth century, brought France and England to a point of exhaustion. Despair and the pessimism that accompanies it ran deep. Continue reading

A Cathedral, a Skyscraper, and a Swimming Pool

The story of Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow is a remarkable one, and well known by many Orthodox Christians in our time. Like so many of the stories of the New Martryrdom, however, few Americans know about it. cathedral_of_christ_the_savior_russia_moscow_hdr_95755_3840x2160One of the largest Orthodox churches in the world, it was originally built in the nineteenth century. But it was blown up on orders of Joseph Stalin in 1931, and became the site of a remarkable–and almost comic–effort by the Communists to establish a new, post-Christian culture. Rebuilt after the collapse of Communism, it is in some ways a monument to the resilience of Christianity in the modern world and of the durability of Christendom.  Continue reading

The Fool Says . . .

One of the really remarkable things about the Soviet cult of Vladimir Lenin was its religious character. It is a reminder that strict atheism is rare, even in the modern world.

There is a Psalm verse that speaks of how unusual and even ridiculous atheism is: “The fool says in his heart, there is no god” (Psalm 14:1). The Communists were adherents to the philosophy of Karl Marx and therefore strict atheists. They were convinced religion is an “opiate of the masses” imposed by class oppressors upon the workers and that there is in reality no god whatsoever. The Soviet Union was the first government in world history that committed itself to atheism. And yet, it was also the first government in history to invent a new culture, or system of beliefs and values, that was pseudo-religious. This can be seen in several features of the Lenin cult. Continue reading

From Christ Pantocrator to George Washington Pantocrator

In a post earlier this week, I asked how paradise was manifested in early Christendom. To illustrate, I described the convention within the eastern Church of building temples with a central dome within which an icon of Christ Pantocrator was painted. The effect was that worshipers looking up into the dome experienced “heaven on earth,” or paradise.

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The original model of the Christian dome was the cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, the largest church in the world when it was rebuilt by Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. (By the way, this became the model for Muslim architecture as well, which began to proliferate after the conquest of large parts of Christian Byzantium during the following century and culminated with the actual conquest of Constantinople in 1453, when Hagia Sophia was first desecrated by the Muslim conquerors and then converted into a mosque–to hear that story, readers can listen to my podcast episode about it here). In the centuries that followed the construction of Hagia Sophia, paradise continued to be experienced in the world through Christian worship and the liturgical art that accompanied it.

However, in the nineteenth century, at the close of the American Civil War, another building with a huge central dome was being completed: the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C.

What a difference a millennium makes! On the one hand, the Capitol building grew out of the tradition within Christendom of erecting monumental structures with central domes within which icons, or “images,” were painted. In this case, however, the design for the image was motivated by modern Christendom’s alternative to paradise, utopia.

The painting can be seen by any tourist to (or resident of) the nation’s capital to this day. Standing within the famous rotunda below, a proud citizen or respectful foreigner gazes up one hundred and eighty feet into this most symbolic of American domes to behold  the image of . . . George Washington.

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One is tempted to call it “George Washington Pantocrator” because in addition to appearing in majesty as Christ did in early Christian dome icons (the right hand is even outstretched as if in blessing), the first president is surrounded by figures emphasizing the greatness of America and her power to build a perfect civilization on earth.

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Farming and industry, science and commerce: the whole range of earthly potential is celebrated. A personified War even appears there, wielding a sword against the nation’s enemies as did the Archangel Michael against the Church’s foes in ancient Christian iconography.

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It is a good example of modern Christendom’s secularization of paradise.

What is also of much interest is that the actual title of the painting is The Apotheosis of George Washington.  One translation of apotheosis (from the Greek word for deity) is “deification.” It is the word that was used by the pagan Roman state when it claimed its departed emperors were gods and called upon Christians, among others, to worship them.

What does this fascinating painting within one of our nation’s most famous buildings say about the  Christian heritage of American civilization?

How Was Paradise Manifested in Early Christendom?

I have defined Christendom as a civilization with a supporting culture that directs its members toward the transformation of the world around them. ISR-2013-Jerusalem-Holy_Sepulchre-dome

A very long time ago, this core value was grounded in the traditional Christian experience of paradise. This experience, the very kingdom of heaven, was joined to life in the world. God was everywhere present within it. Having entered into the world and assimilated it to himself through the incarnation, he gave new life to it and this in turn inspired a totally new approach to it. Christians now saw every aspect of worldly existence in light of the kingdom of heaven, which, while not of this world, was nevertheless in this world through the presence of the Church.

As a result, family life was transformed from a means toward security, status, affection, or sexual gratification into a real encounter with God and a taste of salvation. More problematic was the state, which after Emperor Constantine’s conversion rolled back the blood sports of pagan Rome, but did little to eliminate slavery and continued to descend into savage cruelty in its irrepressible lust for power. I will write about these and other examples of early Christendom in due time.

For now, though, let me direct your attention toward the way ancient Christian worship and the liturgical arts manifested paradise. Perhaps the best example of this is the central dome of a church building, which hovered over the inhabitants of Christendom (especially in the east) as the heavens do over one standing in the middle of a field in the darkness of the night. But instead of looking upward to behold the moon and stars, Christians beheld the face of God incarnate. An icon of Christ Pantocrator (which means “all-mighty” in Greek) was typically painted within the interior of the dome and gazed down majestically on those assembled.

To be sure, this was a breakthrough in the history of architecture and painting. But it was much more than that. It was a proclamation that “the kingdom of heaven has drawn near” to this world.

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An interesting question to ask is, If a great percentage of the population of Christendom regularly stood within a church building and gazed upward into the face of an incarnate God who was visibly manifested in their midst, what effect would it have on their vision of the world around them?

So What’s with the Women?

This blog is about the history of Christendom, so what’s with the curious-looking women in the header’s image?

Well, these are very special women and they have a great deal to say about the content of my blog. They adorn one of the most famous temples in Christendom, and one that brings both its eastern and the western halves together in a common experience of paradise. It is the Basilica of Saint Appolinare the New in Ravenna, Italy. Listeners of my podcast already know of its importance in the history of western civilization’s architecture and painting. (If you haven’t listened to that episode, you can do so here). It was built in the sixth century by the western Ostrogoth King Theodoric the Great but consecrated in the time of eastern Byzantine Emperor Justinian (who proved to be even greater).

These women are also noteworthy because they are, after all, women. Christendom transformed ancient society’s attitudes toward women, elevating them according to traditional Christianity’s standards of sexual dignity and the value of the human person, female as well as male. (You can listen to my podcast on this topic here).Sharing equally in “the image of God”–that essential feature of the traditional Christian vision of humanity–they are depicted here standing equal to and not behind a matching image of men on the wall opposite to them. They hold crowns of glory in their hands.

But most importantly, the image I chose for the blog’s header features one of the most explicit statements about the core experience of Christendom. These women have a purpose. They are going somewhere. What is their destination? The iconographer who depicted them, by integrating his work with the very architecture of the temple, subtly directed their bodies toward the altar area at the easternmost part of the building (to the right of the image we see). The women are therefore oriented, which literally means “facing east.” That is their destination. And not just that, but facing east and moving in its direction they are experiencing paradise, because according to traditional Christianity (and Judaism) paradise is planted in the east (Gen. 2:8). Living in this world, they belong to the kingdom of heaven which is not of this world but which has broken into it and is already present within it. They live in paradise.

This is the core experience of Christendom.