Exploring Byzantine Aesthetics
Orthodox Christians, throughout their entire journey on earth, may attend thousands of church services and visit hundreds of different churches. The novelty of Orthodox ecclesiastical beauty and byzantine arts, may simply wear off after a certain number of visits or church services, but for those professionals who work to create Orthodox art and structures, the struggle is to make their fellow Christians more aware of the heavenly greatness of our churches.
Khouria Krista West is a professional seamstress and has been running Krista West Vestments for over 18 years. Invited by Father Philip Zymaris, Professor of Liturgics at Hellenic College Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, Khouria Krista gave a lecture in the school’s Reading Room entitled: Facets of Orthodox Aesthetics. She discussed the theology of beauty in the church and the significance of liturgical art in our services.
The study of beauty
Khouria Krista shared some of the detailed research she has done into the science of aesthetics (the study of beauty) and how we can use that knowledge to build the beauty in our churches. She began with a bold statement that, in the classical world, aesthetics was the grand philosophical umbrella under which all other ideas existed, even theology was considered part of the study of beauty.
The Beautiful and The Sublime
There are six categories of aesthetics, 2 major ones and 4 adjunct. The two major categories are The Beautiful, categorized by orderliness and harmony, and The Sublime, defined by spaciousness, power, grandness, and a sense of being uplifted. To help the listeners visualize the difference, she gave examples. The Parthenon would be the quintessentially beautiful piece of art while the Hagia Sophia is the best example of something sublime.
The Graceful, The Comic, The Ugly, and The Tragic
The four adjunct categories are The Graceful, The Comic, The Ugly, and The Tragic. Graceful art is delicate, airy, and spacious in surface area like the buildings of Downton Abbey. Comic pieces, like professional caricatures have levity but are considered to be fleeting in their value. Bitterness, sadness, and evocativeness define Tragic art, such as ballads or the works of Mozart. The Ugly, is pretty self-explanatory. Khouria Krista gave the example of very dissonant music or a McDonald’s store.
She stressed the fact that objects are pulled into a category whether or not they were intentionally created with those characteristics. One student in the audience questioned whether a McDonald’s store could be considered ugly when business people clearly would not want their storefronts to be known with such a label, but since the designers made no effort to push for the graceful, beautiful, or sublime, by default, the stores fall into the lower, less noble categories.
Father Zymaris added that the lack of beauty in modern American art and architecture can be considered reflective of the decline in Christian adherence.
We Christians seek beauty because Christ has become incarnate as a man and, in rising from the dead, has united the earth with the spiritual heights. In Christ, all things are sanctified, even base forms of matter. Thus, when we create and bless beautiful items, we are allowing the presence of the Kingdom to manifest itself and confessing the reality of the Resurrection.
Father Zymaris called this kind of art incarnational while the art of the world in anti-incarnational.
Building on this, Khouria Krista proposed the idea that anything that falls into the categories of Sublime, Beautiful, or Graceful could be appropriate for liturgical spaces and be blessed for use. Altar cloths or other linens are not liturgical items simply because they may have a cross on them. Our cloths, vestments, icons, and woodwork must be harmonious, uplifting, and grand in their beauty.
When people walk into our churches, do they feel the presence of the kingdom? Do our spaces communicate the theology of the incarnation? If they do not, we still have work to do.
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