When in 1703 Andrea Pozzo painted the ceiling of the Jesuit church in Vienna, he included in his design a dome rendered in trompe l’oeil that creates the illusion of a real architectural element (Fig. 1). More or less at the same time, in the Balkans, itinerant decorators were painting imitation domes on the ceilings of village churches. Although the approach may be similar the intention is very different. For Pozzo, one of the most accomplished masters of Baroque illusionism in Italy, this was a sophisticated invenzione and an exercise in virtuosity. But for the provincial iconographers working in the restrictive milieu of the Ottoman Balkans, style and originality of invention were of little concern. Their painted domes were intended to compensate for the village communities’ inability to procure churches with masonry domes. This was no small matter for the dome is an extremely important component in the Byzantine tradition. A church without a dome was deficient. Although crudely painted these two-dimensional depictions are more ‘real’ than Pozzo’s sophisticated exercise in geometry. They are not realistic in the sense of visual illusion — as the Italian master’s dome — but ‘real’ in terms of their function. Exactly like real domes they assume their place within the Neo-Platonic microcosm of the church as the heavenly domain and the abode of God. We encounter more elaborate examples of such non-structural architectural components at the church of Dečani Monastery in the medieval Serbian kingdom. (Fig. 2) An extraordinary design principle devised here to adapt the Romanesque building type to Byzantine liturgical practice articulates the layout of the church’s interior solely t hrough the iconography of the frescoes. The non-structural spaces thus defined assume the functional properties of real architectural units: they emulate chapels, baptisteries, ambulatories, and narthexes in terms of their liturgical function and according to strict typological convention.
This mimicry of architectural space that I have dubbed ‘conceptual’ belongs in a symbolic and emblematic order envisioned by a mindset unbiased by architectural theory and notions of style. We are likely to overlook such conceptual spatial entities for we seek design and style whereas pre-modern architecture developed around the invisible and the imagined: it was more about the sacred locus that marks the site of a battle, miracle, or tomb of a saint than about its enclosure (a temple or a monument). The medieval understanding of space was two-dimensional; it made no distinction between physical and conceptual demarcation as long as the locus was clearly set out.
In the pre-Cartesian world there was always a grander existence underlying daily life and routine — a transcendental reality coexisting with and inextricably interwoven into the visible world. Narrative programs unfolding across church facades provided a glimpse of this other facet of reality. These were the main source of visual and narrative communication for the illiterate majority. Even more than the horrifying features of the demons and monsters that stare down from amongst cathedral spires and the cataclysmic connotations of the Last Judgment above the entrances, it is the notion of proximity that caused terror in the hearts of the faithful. (Figs. 3-4) These images were not just representations of another domain, but also catalysts of magical transposition that provides direct access to the transcendental. They are signs that designate the two-dimensional loci as gateways to the event depicted (i.e. the Last Judgment) and which is perpetually reiterated within the extended reality of conflated time and space. But these signs themselves embody some of the properties of the original. They are like icons, or relics, which embody aspects of the represented saint and possess some of his properties. They are venerated by the faithful who adorn them with votive offerings and apotropaic charms. Touching the icon or kissing it is like touching and kissing the saint for it provides direct access to the saint himself. Such is the bronze foot of Saint Peter in the Vatican, depleted by centuries of osculation. (Fig. 5) By kissing the sculpture’s foot the faithful kiss the real foot of the saint; the saint in turn blesses them. The sculpture is the vehicle for this magical transaction. It is a gateway to the abode of the holy. But this passageway into the extended reality is not about a specific religion. It is integrated into the dogmas of established creeds — from Christianity to Buddhism and Islam — but it transcends religion. It is about the perennial fears and inner demons that possess man in dealing with his mortality. What else is the mihrab, the niche in mosques that resembles a portal, but a gateway? It is not only a sign indicating to the faithful the direction of the quibla but a spiritual passageway to Mecca and thus to Paradise and eternal life. Or the altar in a church — the table on which the priest reenacts the Christ’s sacrifice through the magical transformation of bread and wine into flesh and blood (lat. transsubstantiatio) which is nothing else but the place of crossing into the extended reality where the faithful partake in the eternal reenactment of the Last Supper and where they witness the sacrifice. It is the gateway to Salvation. In ancient Egypt we find that these interwoven realities are connected by doors carved into the walls of tombs. The purpose of these stone doors was to facilitate the passage of the spirit from one domain to the other. One particularly striking example (of unknown origin) is the marble door in Saint Sophia, which features even locks, hinges, and handles (Fig. 6). Such detailed realism was necessary to enhance the door’s functionality, for within the extended reality the imitation door is as real as those painted domes; its impenetrable marble screen opens up to those who believe.
We witness such continuous interaction between the two domains in the tendency to use a blueprint or design, a building type or even only a dimension copied from a prototype to elevate an otherwise ordinary structure into the domain of the extended reality. Such are the numerous copies of Jerusalem’s church of the Holy Sepulcher which contain some of the sanctity of Christianity’s premier locus sanctus — the (purported) tomb of Jesus Christ. Or the basilica of San Marco in Venice built in the likeness of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, tomb of Roman emperors since Constantine, to assert the republic’s imperial ambition. Or the great mosques of Istanbul which emulate the venerable prototype of Saint Sophia and through it the biblical Temple of Solomon. Spolia, reused fragments of older or particularly revered buildings, provide even more efficient access to the holy. Very much like icons and relics spolia contain some of the properties of the building they originated from. Thus the porphyry columns of Justinian’s Saint Sophia and Süleyman’s mosque in Istanbul were purportedly brought all the way from the Temple of Jupiter at Baalbek in Lebanon to establish a connection with the sacred site associated with the biblical king Solomon. One thousand years lay between Saint Sophia and Süleymaniye. The magical bond remained.
The locus sanctus is the gateway to the transcendental. The temple on the other hand is only an enclosure. It is for no other reason that Byzantine churches were converted into mosques by the Ottoman conquerors than to preserve the continuity of the sacred loci. Some churches were demolished but were replaced with mosques as their new enclosures. Mehmed II demolished the church of the Holy Apostles and built a mosque in its place. This was not only a statement of political supremacy. He had in mind the magical and symbolic properties of this locus. Temples are ephemeral, as are religions, but the locus sanctus remains. The mosque known as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem stands on the site of the church of the Holy Wisdom, which in turn was built on top of a pagan temple that the Romans had erected on the spot where the Jewish Second Temple stood. Going back even further in time, we find that this was the location of the temple built by Solomon himself (as described in the Old Testament). And if we were to go back yet more into the distant past we would discover that this locus sanctus harks all the way back to some sacred grove where ancestors of our ancestors worshipped trees.
Reality in the pre-Cartesian world was the imagined, not the observed. Modernity lacks that capacity for abstraction. It is much harder for us to transcend established concepts and nomenclatures. Our imagination fails us because we require external stimuli that will engage all our senses — multidimensional illusionism framed within a set of visual conventions developed along the lines of Baroque theatricality and the cinematic spectacle. The pre-modern mind did not require such elaborate devices. Imagination was stimulated internally, on a poetic and fantastical level and was unburdened by the overwhelming need to explain and categorize, to regularize and systematize. The Last Judgment rendered in a tympanum above a church entrance such as the colored sculpture of Sainte-Foy at Conques or that of Vézelay triggered powerful feelings and emotions. (Fig. 4) These are similar to our own experience in the darkness of the cinema where, for a single magical moment, we discard our fears and inhibitions and thrust ourselves into a domain of fantasy. But for us this is only a temporary excursion: when transported back to our own existence, we are expected to denounce this flight of the imagination as a moment of embarrassing frailty. Modernity proscribes and suppresses fantasy and casts it into the shady domain of the intimate. Just as it does faith. Only in unguarded moments can it escape this strict and controlling environment: in times of pain and fear when even staunchly positivistic mindsets resort to God. Indeed, the temple, like the theater, is a venue of magic. Its projection as a Neo-Platonic microcosm ceases to be a metaphor and becomes the locus of the divine order; it is the pageant of all pageants and the world stage in small. Faith and fantasy make possible this extended reality where everything is conceivable: omens in the skies, weeping Madonnas, mystical visions, lurking demons and bodily possessions. (Fig. 7) God is truly present here as long as we sustain the magic. And we do sustain it, albeit clandestinely, for in those moments we are closest to our dreams.
* This article was published in Natama No.4, 2013