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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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During the Palaeologan period, a new theme was introduced in the central dome: the Divine Liturgy. The introduction of this subject in the central dome made the liturgical tendencies evident in many twelfth-century domes, fully realized. Following the concept that terrestrial rite is but a mirror image of the rite performed in the celestial sphere, the Divine Liturgy is the celestial equivalent of the liturgical procession of the Great Entry36. Christ is shown as heavenly priest celebrating the liturgy with a host of his heavenly associates, the angels, who approach him processionally, like the deacons approach the minister in the terrestrial rite. They are commonly shown as wearing the robes of deacons, and carrying a large variety of liturgical vessels and implements, such as candles, fans, eucharistic bread and wine as seen, for example, at King’s Church in Studenica, at Ravanica, and at GraFor a discussion, see: Ćurčić. Gračanica, p. 70–80; see also: Ćurčić S. The Twin-Domed Narthex in Paleologan Architecture // Zbornik radova vizantoloskog instituta, 13 (1971), p.


For Holy Apostles: Stephen C. Ein byzantinisches Bildensemble: Die Mosaiken und Fresken der Apostolkirche zu Thessaloniki. Worms, 1986; Xyngopoulos A. Les fresques de l’église des Sts. Apôtres à Thessalonique // Art et société à Byzance sous les Paléologues.

Venice, 1971. For Ravanica, see: Djurić V. J. Ravanicki zivopis i liturgija // Manastir Ravanica — spomenica o sestoj stogodisnjici. Belgrade, 1981, p. 60–75.

On the Divine Liturgy, see: Townsley A. L. Eucharistic Doctrine and the Liturgy in Late Byzantine Painting // Oriens christianus 58 (1974), p. 58–61; Stefanescu J. D. L’illustration des liturgies dans l’art de Byzance et de l’Orient. Brussels, 1932. See also: Starodubcev T.

Contribution à l’étude de la representation de la liturgie céleste dans la coupole // Papers of the Third Yugoslav Byzantine Studies Conference. Belgrade, Krusevac, 2002, p. 381–416.

270 Ida Sinkević čanica37. The presence of altar signifies Christ’s ministry as well as his sacrifice. Sacrificial aspects are particularly emphasized at Gračanica by a presence of two altars, one of which displays Christ as Eucharistic host. Like the deacons in terrestrial rite, the angels are approaching the altar in a ceremonial motion. While specific iconographic features vary from one church to another, the parallelism between terrestrial and celestial liturgies remains a standard feature.

A presence of the Divine Liturgy in the dome alludes to Christ’s incarnation and sacrifice and explains the secrets of mystical re-enactment of Christ’s sacrifice in the liturgy. Thus, the concepts of incarnation, salvation, divine and human nature and the priesthood of Christ, implied in the images displayed traditionally in subsidiary domes, is encompassed in the new scene surrounding the image of the Pantokrator in the central dome. As a consequence, the space of subsidiary domes was opened for iconographic innovations.

For example, the domes at Aphendiko (c. 1310) and Pantanassa (late 14th century) at Mistra display images of prophets, and at Gračanica (begun 1311) and Staro Nagoričino (later phase of 1312/1313), both associated with Serbian King Milutin, we see the images of the prophets in the drums and evangelists in the summit of subsidiary domes.38 The evangelists, like the other images seen in cupolas, testify to Christ’s incarnation as they are witnesses of his epiphany, his life, and his salvafic mission. Iconographically, they were no strangers to the decoration of domical vaults. We see them, in their symbolic guise, already in early Byzantine monuments, such as in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (c. 430–450) and in Capella Arcivescovile (494–519) in Ravenna. Did this early and highly symbolic decoration of the dome present incipient stages of messages later developed in five-domed ceilings?

Textual evidence, although later in date, is nonetheless revealing. For example, in the Preface of Iraneus we read about symbols of evangelists and their associations with images of Christ: “On the Four Gospels and the four symbols. One must know that there are four Gospels, no more no less. Since there are four universal winds, there are also four Gospels, blowing immortality from all of them and regenerating men. From these Gospels it is evident that he, who was shown to men sitting on the cherubim, gave us the four-part Gospel, just as David, praying for his advent said, ‘You who sit in the cherubim show yourself’. For the Cherubim have four faces, and their faces are the images of the dispensation of the Son of God. The one like lion See: Babić G. Kraljeva crkva u Studenici. Belgrade, 1987, fig. I; Djuric V. J. Ravanicki zivopis i liturgija, p. 60–75; Todić B. Gračanica. Pristina, 1999, p. 138–140, figs. 6–25.

For Aphendiko and Pantanassa, see: Dufrenne S. Les programmes iconographiques des églises byzantines de Mistra. Paris, 1970, pls. 10–30, figs. 17–23; 28, 30, 31, 48–55, 58, 59.

For Gračanica, see: Todić, Gračanica, figs. 22–25; for a discussion on the meaning and significance of iconography in Staro Nagoričino, see: Todić B. Staro Nagoričino, p. 96–98.

Formation of Sacred Space in Later Byzantine Five Domed Churches 271 indicates the efficacious, royal, and authoritative nature”39, a description recalling the properties of the Pantokrator. “The one like the calf presents the sacerdotal and priestly nature. The manlike form depicts the incarnation”40, perhaps relating to the image of the Emmanuel, “and the one like the eagle represents the visitation of the Holy spirit”41. It is within the realm of these early Christian concepts about the images of the dispensation of the son of God that we may find the incipient stages of the developments of iconography of the domes in multi-domed churches.

In later Byzantine monuments, the images of evangelists are allocated to pendentives, supporting the heavenly realm of the church, that is its central dome, both physically and symbolically. However, in single-domed churches, they appear sporadically in the central dome, as seen, for example, in their symbolic guise in the late 10th/early 11th century church of the Metamorphosis near Koropi, Attika (fig. 8)42. Thus, the presence of evangelists in subsidiary domes is by no means surprising, since they harmonize thematically with the concepts presented in the central dome. The medallions of evangelists spread at four corners of the church very much remind of iconography of many preface miniatures, such as in the E. D. Clarke 10, f. 2v (Oxford, Bodl. Lib.) that illustrates Christ in mandorla, a sign of heavenly realm, surrounded by four symbols of evangelists that bespeak of the dispensation of the Son of God, as recorded by four synoptical gospels written by evangelists displayed in four corners (fig. 9)43.

A connection between the images rendered in the subsidiary domes and the program of the church as a whole, has been explored to a very limited degree. A general tendency has been to study the iconography of these domes only in relation to the program represented underneath, and that is applied in isolated, case studies of individual monuments. The role and interconnectedness of images in the horizontal register of the uppermost section of the domes is yet to be fully explored as it goes beyond individual units of the church and impacts our understanding of the five-domed church organism as a whole. As seen in five-domed churches discussed in this paper, the close association between images in subsidiary domes creates an additional vertical zone dedicated solely to images concerned with dispensation of the son of God and his For the discussion, bibliography, and text both in Greek and in English, see: Nelson R. The Iconography of Preface and Miniature in the Byzantine Gospel Book. New York, 1980, p. 6.



For a discussion, see: Panayotidi M. La représentation de l’Ascension dans la coupole de Sainte-Sophie de Thessalonique // Problèmes iconographiques. Thessaloniki, 1974, p. 88–

89. See also: Skawran M. The Development of Middle Byzantine Fresco Painting in Greece. Pretoria, 1982, p. 154–155.

Nelson, The Iconography of Preface and Miniature, p. 55–75, fig. 34.

272 Ida Sinkević various functions. These images hover not only over the central area of the church, as is a case in single-domed churches, but spread over the outermost compartments of the church as well.

A connection between the central and subsidiary domes is also sustained in the five-domed churches in Mistra, but the exclusivity of dome-specific iconography in these churches becomes ambiguous. For example in both Aphendiko and Pantanassa, the subsidiary domes that cover four corner compartments of the gallery display images of prophets. In doing so, they harmonize with the Old Testament figures displayed in the drum of the central dome, since prophets, like evangelists in Gračanica are witnesses of Christ’s divinity, his incarnation, and his life44. However, unlike previously discussed five-domed churches that confined specific images to the domes, at both Aphendiko and Pantanassa, the Old Testament prophets also occupy other areas of the church. In Aphendiko, we see the images of Old Testament prophets distributed throughout the ceiling of the gallery, and at Pantanssa they are present in both the upper and lower areas of the church. Thus, while the theme of the central dome — that of the genealogy and ancestry of Christ — has been developed in side cupolas, it is no longer exclusive of domical vaults. On the contrary, it spreads throughout the uppermost section of the church. While the dome retained its symbolic value on the exterior, it nonetheless appears to have lost its exclusivity and its dominant role in formulating the sacred space of the interior, its program indicating that it is just another segment of the ceiling. However, it is important to note that in both monuments, the ceiling of the side aisles contains a series of blind domes which, although not apparent from the exterior, likely preserved a function of the dome in the interior.

Whether Mistra’s programmatic solution is to be explained as a local and provincial or as specific to programs of the side domes that cover only upper chapels is difficult to say. It is also quite possible that the programmatic diffusion seen in the five-domed churches of Mistra introduced the iconography of later, post Byzantine multi-domed churches, such as many in Russia, where any correspondence between interior articulation and the exterior appearance of domes is lost. Multiplied in number, the domes spread throughout the entire edifice.

In sum, throughout Middle Byzantine period and Palaeologan times, five-domed churches displayed carefully articulated and programmatically unified programs of domical vaults. In doing so, they in a way created an additional level, hovering over the ceiling, and using additional space to spread a complex set of messages about function and nature of Christ For a discussion on the iconographic significance of prophets in these domes, see: Todić, Staro Nagoričino, p. 96–98.

Formation of Sacred Space in Later Byzantine Five Domed Churches 273 throughout the church. While their relative position within the interior of the church changes, their dominant architectural form and their programmatic unity function as active and distinguished elements of sacred space in Byzantine churches.

In single-domed churches, dome is, in general sense, understood as a symbol of Heavenly sphere. Its spread is, however, limited to the functional area of the naos, that is the space of the congregation. The content and interconnectedness of the programs of domes in five-domed churches, indicates that the cosmic sphere in these churches has been extended. The emphasis upon placing the side domes at the outermost corners of the buildings, seen in both Middle Byzantine and Palaeologan five-domed churches, may be seen as a purely formal, architectural concern. After all, they appear small and remote, as if suspended from Heaven, their images obscured by light and commonly accessible only through faith. However, very few, if any compositional elements, architectural or decorative, express purely formal and aesthetic concerns in Byzantine churches. Rather, the placement of subsidiary domes at the outermost corners of the building, along with a clearly expressed programmatic unity of the domes, suggest that five domes are not to be viewed as five isolated segments, but rather as one unified heavenly sphere that encompasses the entire church.

Be it the Judge or All Ruler, liturgical or dogmatic, or both, the program of domes in surviving five-domed churches is always about Christ, his incarnation and his salvafic mission. One is thus left to wonder was the scheme of five domes there to emphasize Christ’s omni-presence in the entire space of the church, and thus mirror his omni-presence in life? Was programmatic unification of five domes and their spatial spread over the entire area of the edifices in fact intended to conceptually break architectural barriers and extend the umbrella-like symbol of cosmos over the entire church? Would the fivedomed church, if built with today’s technology, look like a huge domed interior, with a huge image of Christ in the center, his various functions in concentric circles, and evangelists at the corners, as seen at Gračanica and Staro Nagoričino and revealed in a diagram-like manner in the Preface miniature discussed above (fig. 9)? A hypothetical, but a possible thought.

In his definition of hierotopy, Alexei Lidov articulated a need for a new, multidisciplinary methodology that would enable us to re-read the formation of sacred space by integrating its multifaceted components. This paper attempted to re-read the domes by considering them as dynamic elements with multi-dimensional impact on the structure and perception of the sacred space of Byzantine church.

274 Ida Sinkević

Ида Синкевич Lafayette College, USA




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