Saturday, October 31, 2015

Openings in Heaven

When I was a graduate student in Architecture School I took a course in Byzantine Architectural history.  I remember the professor talking about how the dome of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul seems visually suspended on a ring of light that floods in through numerous windows, an effect that the designers of the buildings must have intended because the Emperor Justinian’s vision to recreate Heaven on Earth was realized through the effect of light within the form of that vast space. The architects merged the technological achievements of the Romans with the magical experience the building evokes, so much so that in the tenth century a group of Russian envoys, after having visited the Hagia Sophia, reported to Tsar Vladimir I “We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth…and we know not how to tell of it.” (Hagia Sophia, n.d.)

Robert Grosseteste incorporated the works of classical and Arabic scholars into his own scientific treatises, and his most innovative treatise is De Luce, in which he describes a highly original cosmogony that identifies light as the first form of the universe.  Light became more than an analogy; it became the original form of creation, and through it all of creation, including humanity can partake in the divine light, which is constant and does not change at the lunar sphere.  The renewed interest in optics and light reinforced during the late Romanesque period a desire that sacred architecture evolve to become more transparent and light-filled, allowing the divine illumination to enter unimpeded and draw those within the church into closer communion with God. 
By the 12th century, light had become synonymous to the Essence of God.  When it became necessary to repair and expand the Basilica of St. Denis in Paris, the Abbot Suger oversaw the transformation into a new building form.  Suger’s description of the rebuilding of St.-Denis echoes language from Eriugena’s translation of the Celestial Hierarchy and as this new architecture developed and spread through Europe, there emerged many variations, each region imposing its own aesthetic and functional preferences.  Several features remain constant, among these the goal to increase the interior height, illumination and visual barriers between the differing segments of the structure.  Suger intended that there be as few obstacles to the path of light throughout the building as possible, in essence, his intention was to flood the interior with light, and thereby separating the building from the earthly realm and elevating it to the Heavenly plane.  Light provided the link between the physical and the non-physical world, between the visible and invisible and between Man and his Creator.  An inscription on the door at St. Denis reads
 The dull mind rises to truth through that which is material
 And, in seeing this light, is resurrected from its former submersion. (htt)
This colored pencil drawing entitled "Madison Dome" was done from a picture I took while visiting the Wisconsin State Capitol Building.  I was there to attend a Convention of the American Society of Architectural Illustrators and before I was scheduled to go to several seminars a friend and I had the opportunity to see some of the sights of the city as well as travel around Wisconsin for about a week.   
It’s no different trying to capture the fleeting light within a building than it is to wait for the perfect moment in which the sunset is at its most sublime.  The rays of the declining sun find an opening and come streaming in, illuminating the space and changing and charging the atmosphere.  The light of the day is the sun and the lights of the night are the stars.
“Love rides a beam of light” states an Eskimo proverb, “Perhaps they are not stars, but rather openings in heaven where the love of our lost ones pours through and shines down upon us to let us know they are happy.[1]  I like that imagery, that people I have at some time loved and lost sometimes come back to us, riding on a captured beam of light.

Works Cited

(n.d.). Retrieved from

Hagia Sophia. (n.d.). Retrieved from Europe Up Close:

[1] Eskimo Proverb quotes

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