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«FORMATION OF SACRED SPACE IN LATER BYZANTINE FIVE DOMED CHURCHES: A HIEROTOPIC APPROACH The dome is one of the most prominent features of Byzantine ...»

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Ida Sinkević




The dome is one of the most prominent features of Byzantine churches.

Within the spatial structure of a church, it caps the hierarchically designed

space. Conceived as a configuration in real space, its program, as Otto Demus pointed out, completes the monumental icon of the church1. Although symbolic meaning of the dome still remains enigmatic and a subject of many different interpretations, ranging from comparisons with eastern mandala, to a more recent association with imperial ideology2, on the most general level it is agreed that the dome represents, to refer to Demus again, the “celestial sphere of the microcosm of the church, an organic center from which the program of the church could be arranged radially”3.

Although generally valid within the context of single domed churches, this interpretation leaves a considerable void in the instances when the number of domes is multiplied. If the central dome is an organic center and a symbol of the celestial sphere, what is the symbolic meaning of subsidiary domes? Physically distant from one another, do subsidiary domes suggest that celestial sphere is multiplied and/or fragmented in the interior of multidomed churches? Moreover, were multi-domed churches evoking the same symbolic associations as the single-domed edifices on the mind of the beholders?

See: Demus O. Byzantine Mosaic Decoration. New York, 1976, p. 19.

See: Mathews T. The Transformation Symbolism in Byzantine Architecture and the Meaning of the Pantokrator in the Dome // Church and People in Byzantium / Ed. by R. Morris.

Birmingham, 1990, p. 191–214; Nordhagen P. J. The Absent Ruler. Reflections on the Origin of the Byzantine Domed Church and Its Pictorial Decoration // Acta ad archaeologiam et artium historiam pertinentia XV (2001), p. 319–335.

Demus. Byzantine Mosaic Decoration, p. 19.

Formation of Sacred Space in Later Byzantine Five Domed Churches 261 An interpretation of the symbolic meaning of multi-domed churches has been provided by Alexei Lidov in his studies on Byzantine understanding of Heavenly Jerusalem4. By drawing a distinction between western approach to Heavenly Jerusalem materialized in a concrete symbolic image, and its Byzantine counterpart characterized by conceptual and metaphorical representations, Lidov convincingly uses the images of multi-domed churches as important examples that embody the idea of the Holy City. As put concisely by Lidov, “Heavenly Jerusalem is treated as a metaphor, a symbolic image… is conceived of as a church, a place of incessant liturgy… is not identified with any single place of worship. It is the concentration of churches, a sort of city made up of churches”5. Indeed, a multi-domed church fits the description, and the Cathedral of St. Basil in Moscow, with its imaginative domes and towers that cap segregated and diverse architectural units, although postByzantine, provides, in my view, the most vivid example of Lidov’s claim.

Without any attempt to negate the association between multi-domed churches and the concept of Heavenly Jerusalem, this paper aims at exploring additional symbolic connotations of multi-domed churches. More specifically, the paper focuses on a small group of Middle and late Byzantine five-domed churches, characterized by four domed compartments placed around the cruciform core of the church (fig. 1). It is believed that the earliest church of this type is now destroyed Constantinopolitan foundation of the emperor Basil I (867–886), Nea Ekklesia, consecrated in 881 and known today only through written sources and a few summary drawings6. Its architectural type remained popular in Byzantium, however, as evidenced through the wide geographic spread of Middle and Late Byzantine five-domed churches7. While small in number, largely due to vulnerability and a high cost associated with erection of cupolas, five domed churches can be found throughout Byzantium and its borderlands, such as in Russia, Serbia, Greece, Armenia, and Italy8.

See: Lidov A. Heavenly Jerusalem: the Byzantine Approach // The Real and Ideal Jerusalem in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Art (Jewish Art 23/24), Jerusalem, 1998, p. 341–353.

Ibid., p. 342–343.

For architectural analysis, see: Krautheimer R. Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture, p. 356; Ćurčić S. Architectural Reconsideration of the Nea Ekklesia // Byzantine Studies Conference Abstracts 6 (1980), p. 11–12; Mango C., Ševčenko I. Some Churches and Monasteries on the Southern Shore of the Sea of Marmara // DOP 27 (1973), p. 235–277. For descriptions and the impact that the church had on visitors, see: Magdalino P. Observations on the Nea Ekklesia of Basil I // JŐB 37 (1987), p. 51–64; Majeska G. Russian Travelers to Constantinople in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries. Washington, 1984, p. 37, 247;

Mango C. The Art of the Byzantine Empire, 312–1453: Sources and Documents. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1972, p. 194; Anthony of Novgorod in S. Khitrovo // Itinéraires russes en Orient. Geneva, 1899, p. 98–102.

Krautheimer. Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture, p. 356.

For a discussion and bibliography, see: Sinkević I. The Church of St. Panteleimon at Nerezi:

Architecture, Programme, Patronage. Wiesbaden, 2000, p. 24–28.

262 Ida Sinkević Iconographically, these churches are seen by scholars as symbols of the capital, recalling its imperial spirit at various geographic locations of the empire9. Architecturally, the uniformity of size, shape and exterior decoration of subsidiary domes, as well as the strict symmetry of their disposition, indicates that this group of churches received special treatment by Byzantine architects.

The uniformity of their architectural features and the disposition of subsidiary domes separates this group of monuments from other multi-domed churches.

Placed at the outermost corners of the edifice and almost identical in their shape, size, and exterior decoration, the domes confirm that spatial articulation of these edifices is a consequence of the initial and intentional planning and not an afterthought. Thus, both the nature of their planning and the associations with the capital indicate that later Byzantine five domed churches reveal important principles of the creation of sacred space in Byzantium. It is a purpose of this paper to examine to what extant such carefully articulated architectural symmetry, that formed a spatial icon on the exterior, affected and/or is reflected in the iconographic program of the interior of subsidiary domes.

Traditionally, the program of subsidiary domes has been studied only in relation to images underneath. This vertical connection, while important, fostered the idea of spatial and programmatic segregation. A careful examination of a variety of both literary and visual sources, as well as a consideration of the role of the beholder in the perception of spatial construct of the church, pursued in this paper, aims at examining the relationship between spatial and programmatic solutions and thus expanding our understanding of the impact of domes on the making of sacred space by using a multifaceted approach termed hierotopy by Alexei Lidov10. A carefully planned, unified architectural features of the exterior of the domes, suggest that a parallel synthesis may have also occurred in their interior decoration, too. It is with the synergy of painted image and its architectural setting that Byzantine church embraces the beholder into its sacred messages. Thus, this paper ventures into looking at the sphere of domes in five domed churches of Middle and later Byzantine periods by examining the multiplicity of their structural, architectural, programmatic, and perceptional connections.


Although considerable losses prevent us from drawing any definitive conclusions about the iconography of domical vaults of five-domed Middle Byzantine churches, some reconstructions can be made on the basis of a Krautheimer. Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture, p. 356.

For a discussion on hierotopy, see: Lidov A. Hierotopy. The Creation of Sacred Space as a Form of Creativity and Subject of Cultural History // Hierotopy. Studies in the Making of Sacred Spaces. Moscow, 2004, p. 15–33, and in the present volume.

Formation of Sacred Space in Later Byzantine Five Domed Churches 263 careful examination of the single- and multi-domed churches, that is the churches displaying one central or several, usually asymmetrically positioned domes. According to preserved monuments, Middle Byzantine period introduced a number of different images, such as different portrayals of Christ, Virgin, and angels into domical vaults. Most notably, the image of the Pantokrator, the all ruler, gained in prominence11. In the katholikon of the Monastery dedicated to the Mother of God at Daphni (c. 1100), the central dome is reserved exclusively for the image of the Pantokrator, while the drum renders prophets12. Surrounded by now damaged, yet once powerful and large area of glittering golden mosaic, the Pantokrator at Daphni, stern and serious in its appearance, displays the sense of immediacy and urgency implied in its direct, uncluttered appeal. Although its imperial patronage cannot be established, the refinement of style and the use of golden mosaics make the association of the images at Daphni with the Byzantine capital very likely. After all, couple of centuries later, a similar iconography of the central dome is repeated in the fourteenth-century mosaic of the church of the Virgin Pammakaristos, or Fethiye Camii in Constantinople13.

In the more provincial locations, or in the churches of a more modest patronage, however, the central dome lacks the austerity of Daphni and displays much more crowded ensembles. For example, in the twelfthcentury Church of the Panagia at Lysi, the image of the Pantokrator is surrounded by a procession of angels14. Led by the Virgin and St. John, the angels at Lysi converge towards the prepared throne, Hetoimasia. Hetoimasia, angels, and the Virgin also encircle Christ in the church of St.

Hierotheos at Megara15. At Megara, we see the full figure of Christ who is enthroned and surrounded by angels in the pose of adoration and with medallions displaying the Virgin, the Hetoimasia, and the two archangels.

Parallels for iconographic program of the domes displaying the central medallion of Christ surrounded by the host of angels, as well as the Virgin and other celestial beings seen at both Lysi and Megara are found in nuFor bibliography on Pantokrator, see: ODB I, p. 439. See also: Matthews J. T. The Pantokrator: Title and Image / Ph. D. dissertation, Institute of Fine Arts of New York University, 1976.

See: Demus. Byzantine Mosaic Decoration, fig. 7. For a discussion, see: Mouriki D. Stylistic Trends in Monumental Painting in Greece during the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries // DOP 34–35 (1980–1981), p. 94–98; Panagopoulos B. K. Cistercian and Mendican Monasteries in Medieval Greece. Chicago, 1979, p. 56–62; Millet G. Le monastère de Daphni. Paris, 1899.

See: Belting H., Mango C., Mouriki D. The Mosaics and Frescoes of St. Mary Pammakaristos (Fethiye Camii) at Istanbul. Washington, 1978, pl. I; fig. 27.

W. Carr A., Morrocco L. J. A Byzantine Masterpiece Recovered, the Thirteenth-Century Murals of Lysi, Cyprus. Austin, 1991, p. 20–25, figs. 5–13.

Ibid., p. 51, fig. 17.

264 Ida Sinkević merous middle Byzantine churches throughout the empire, such as in Greece, Cyprus, Cappadocia, Sicily, and Russia16.

The popularity of these images is also witnessed in their appearance in multi-domed churches, too. For example, in a number of Cappadocian churches, such as in Elmali Kilise (1190/1200), Çarikli Kilise (second half of the 12th century), and Karanlik Kilise (c. 1200/1210), all located in Goreme Valley, central dome displays the image of the Pantokrator17. The Pantokrator is a sole image in the dome at Elmali Kilise, while the other two churches display Christ surrounded by angels. Moreover, along with angels, there is a medallion displaying the bust of Christ Emmanuel on the eastern axis of the central dome of Çarikli Kilise. This heavenly ensemble is further enhanced by images of archangels that appear in majority of subsidiary domes in these churches.

The monumental medallion of Christ is also surrounded by archangels in the central dome of the Cathedral of St. Sophia in Kiev. The archangels in Kiev are shown as full size standing figures holding a sphere with cross in the right hand and labarum with inscription Agios, Agios, Agios presumably referring to the Thrice Holy Hymn in the left. Additional images of archangels, this time in medallions, have been painted in the summit of auxiliary domes of the southern nave and southern part of the gallery18.

Similar program, especially regarding archangels, is also found in the domes of the eleventh-century church of the Virgin Eleousa at Veljusa located in Strumica region in the Republic of Macedonia19. The church was commissioned by a Greek bishop Manuel, as his funerary chapel, in 1080. It is a small domed quatrofoil with a narthex and a subsidiary chapel that also features a dome. The central dome at Veljusa displays the Pantokrator surrounded by the Virgin with her hands raised in prayer, and by two archangels dressed in imperial garbs and carrying labarum with inscription Hagios, thus very much reminding of those seen in the Kievan cathedral (fig. 2). In addition, the drum also displays the image of St. John and four prophets. The subsidiary domes at Veljusa exhibit different images of Christ: the Ancientof-Days in the narthex dome, and Emmanuel in the side chapel20.

The meaning of these new iconographic solutions of middle Byzantine domes has been interpreted differently by scholars. As discussed concisely For examples and discussion, see: Gkioles N. O Byzantinos Troulos kai to eikonografiko tou programma. Athens, 1990, figs. 9, 13, 16–17, 22–33.

See: Restle M. Byzantine Wall Painting in Asia Minor, 3 vols. Greenwich, Conn. 1967.

Vol. 2, figs. 161, 162, 195, 219, 220.

Lazarev V. Old Russian Murals and Mosaics. London, 1966, p. 224–225, fig. 1; p. 236, fig. 24–25.

Miljkovic-Pepek P. Veljusa: Manastir Sv. Bogorodica Milostiva vo seloto Veljusa kraj Strumica. Skopje, 1981.

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