Quote of the Day: Faith and Architecture

 

“We did not know where we were, on heaven or on earth.” — Russian Ambassadors upon visiting Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia in 987

A millennium ago, Prince Vladimir was the leader of the Kievan Rus’, the predecessors of the current Russian state. He was a rather nasty fellow, even among pagan autocrats, but he knew the times were changing. If he wanted to keep his newly conquered country unified, he needed to establish some level of civilized culture.

The first step was to decide on a single faith — not the current fractured collection of gods and the occasional monotheist deity. Time for some comparative religion!

He sent ambassadors to research Islam, the newest religion, which seemed on the rise. The Prince was horrified that Muslims couldn’t consume pork or, even worse, alcohol. What’s life without bacon and a stiff drink? No dice, said the prince.

What about Judaism? Again, the pork ban was a sticking point, but the Prince was more troubled that the Jews had lost their home city, Jerusalem. The warlike leader didn’t want to serve that kind of God.

German Catholics were next on the list, but his ambassadors described it as plain, austere, and dour. (Maybe if they had visited Rome, they would have had a different perspective.) Sounds like a drag, the Prince thought, and he scratched option number three off the list. Only one faith remained, so he sent an embassy to Constantinople.

Byzantine Emperor Basil II rolled out the proverbial red carpet for the ambassadors, inviting them to the Hagia Sophia; in English, “Holy Wisdom.”

The massive church was the most impressive edifice on earth, inspiring awe the world over. Emperor Justinian I commissioned the architectural marvel 450 years earlier, charging the architects with creating a structure unlike anything that had ever existed. Upon completion, the emperor exclaimed, “Solomon, I have outdone thee!” The Hagia Sophia remained the largest cathedral for the next 1,000 years.

The central dome measures more than 100 feet across and stands nearly 200 feet above the floor. Massive chandeliers are suspended above the ground and huge windows draw in sunlight to reflect on the golden walls. Nearly every surface was covered in elaborate icons representing Christ and the saints.

In case the Russian ambassadors weren’t already impressed, the emperor brought them to witness the elaborate Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church. Between the angelic choirs, heady incense, and reverent worship, the Prince’s embassy was astonished:

And we went into the Greek lands, and we were led into a place where they serve their God, and we did not know where we were, on heaven or on earth; and do not know how to tell about this. All we know is that God lives there with people and their service is better than in any other country. We cannot forget that beauty since each person, if he eats something sweet, will not take something bitter afterwards; so we cannot remain any more in paganism.

Upon hearing from his ambassadors, Vladimir sent away his pagan wives, asked to be baptized, and requested that the Emperor’s sister Anna be his bride. She arrived with several priests to further instruct him in his newfound faith.

Vladimir baptized his 12 sons and many among the aristocracy. He destroyed the pagan idols and tossed the statue of the Kievan’s supreme god into a river. Vladimir then told all the residents of Kiev to come to the Dnieper River to be baptized en masse. To this day, the Russian Church remains the largest Orthodox communion on earth.

Now, that is good architecture.

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  1. Joe Escalante Contributor
    Joe Escalante
    @JoeEscalante

    Thanks Jon. Rats, now I have to book a ticket to Istanbul so I can see what’s left of this place. To me, this is similar to what happens today when I tell people to go visit a Catholic service. You could get a moving reverent experience that will result in a conversion and baptism, or you could get a clown mass that isn’t even funny.

    • #1
  2. barbara lydick Inactive
    barbara lydick
    @barbaralydick

    Love the post.  Such fascinating history.   Thanks, Jon. 

    Ricochet is a veritable feast of, well, something for everyone.  Posts such as these encourage us to search further on so many subjects – history, politics, art, music, science…  Again, thanks.

    • #2
  3. kylez Member
    kylez
    @kylez

    This other quote from Vladimir seems sad, a thousand years on: “Drinking is the joy of all Rus’. We cannot exist without that pleasure.”

    • #3
  4. Could Be Anyone Member
    Could Be Anyone
    @CouldBeAnyone

    The story of Vladimir’s conversion that I read differs on the point that religious ambassadors were called to Kiev, same details on the sticking points though (fasting was noted as the austerity for Catholicism, which is odd since Orthodox also fast).

    The alleged point of conversion was that the Orthodox ambassador had brought a painting of the last judgement (two lines, one going to Heaven and the other going to Hell) from the Revelations and such cowed/frightened Vladimir into conversion. 

    Such a story though seems a little too good to be true given the Kievan Rus’s previous aggressive posture to Byzantium. The more likely reason for the conversion you mentioned at the end of your article was Vladimir marrying into a Byzantine dynasty. The Kievan Rus has failed to take Constantinople several times before and were looking for legitimacy and favorable trade treatment and they got it.

    • #4
  5. OccupantCDN Coolidge
    OccupantCDN
    @OccupantCDN

    We dont think of it very often now, but at it’s mid-evil height, Constantinople was Rome’s eastern rival. I always imagined it to have architecture just as grand as Rome.

    There is a short series from the BBC called “the Code” (I think its on netflix) one of the episodes examines mid-evil cathedrals for their numerology. Its pretty interesting series, and this one episode combines history and math, is especially interesting.

    • #5
  6. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    We are taught little of the Eastern Roman Empire, which outlasted the West by 1,000 years. I recommend Lars Brownworth’s genre-defining podcast 12 Byzantine Rulers. See also the very readable 2017 Ghost Empire: A Journey to the Legendary Constantinople. Nice interweaving of travelogue and history.

    • #6
  7. Vectorman Inactive
    Vectorman
    @Vectorman

    IIRC, there was a PBS program that described conservators unveiling original paintings (mosaics, frescos? etc.) from the Byzantine era in the Hagia Sophia. The Moslems covered them over for their images of man. Not sure if that’s still being done under Erdoğan.


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    • #7
  8. Kozak Member
    Kozak
    @Kozak

    And the muslims are trying to convert Hagia Sofia back into a mosque.  When I was there several years ago I ran into a pretty large demonstration, when I asked a local what was up, he told me “they want to pray at Hagia Sophia”.  I pointed out there were about 10000 mosques in Istanbul with the Blue Mosque about a 50 yard walk from where we were.  Since then that A##h### Erdogan has in fact prayed at Hagia Sophia.

    If they get their way those gorgeous mosiacs will once again be hidden from sight.

    • #8
  9. Kozak Member
    Kozak
    @Kozak

    Joe Escalante (View Comment):

    Thanks Jon. Rats, now I have to book a ticket to Istanbul so I can see what’s left of this place. To me, this is similar to what happens today when I tell people to go visit a Catholic service. You could get a moving reverent experience that will result in a conversion and baptism, or you could get a clown mass that isn’t even funny.

    Hey,  @joeescalante , (or any one visiting Istanbul), make sure you walk the city walls you can picture in your mind Mehmets army across the plain.  Take the ferry on the Golden Horn, get out at the last stop and walk the city walls.  Be sure you visit the Chora Church.   I was filled with an unbelievable sadness to think of that day when the walls were breached and Classical Civilization… ended.

    • #9
  10. Vectorman Inactive
    Vectorman
    @Vectorman

    Kozak (View Comment):
    And the muslims are trying to convert Hagia Sofia back into a mosque.

    Shows you how much power the UN has with its World Heritage Sites.

    • #10
  11. SkipSul Inactive
    SkipSul
    @skipsul

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):

    We are taught little of the Eastern Roman Empire, which outlasted the West by 1,000 years. I recommend Lars Brownworth’s genre-defining podcast 12 Byzantine Rulers. See also the very readable 2017 Ghost Empire: A Journey to the Legendary Constantinople. Nice interweaving of travelogue and history.

    Lars’s podcast is merely OK.  

    Far better is The History of Byzantium podcast.  

    I also highly recommend John Julius Norwich’s Byzantium trilogy as an excellent survey of the empire’s broad span of history.

    • #11
  12. SkipSul Inactive
    SkipSul
    @skipsul

    Kozak (View Comment):

    And the muslims are trying to convert Hagia Sofia back into a mosque. When I was there several years ago I ran into a pretty large demonstration, when I asked a local what was up, he told me “they want to pray at Hagia Sophia”. I pointed out there were about 10000 mosques in Istanbul with the Blue Mosque about a 50 yard walk from where we were. Since then that A##h### Erdogan has in fact prayed at Hagia Sophia.

    If they get their way those gorgeous mosiacs will once again be hidden from sight.

    Which is a damn shame as sonic surveys of the dome hint that the great Pantocrator mosaic is still present, hidden under 2nd rate plaster.

    The frescos and mosaics in the Chora, for instance, were only uncovered in the 1950s.

    • #12
  13. SkipSul Inactive
    SkipSul
    @skipsul

    Joe Escalante (View Comment):

    Thanks Jon. Rats, now I have to book a ticket to Istanbul so I can see what’s left of this place. To me, this is similar to what happens today when I tell people to go visit a Catholic service. You could get a moving reverent experience that will result in a conversion and baptism, or you could get a clown mass that isn’t even funny.

    Go to an Orthodox liturgy, they’re nearly always moving, whether the church is small like mine, or large like the Greek cathedral downtown.

    The little church I attend^^.
    Annunciation Cathedral in downtown Columbus.  It’s no Hagia Sophia in size, but its mosaics are marvelous. 

    • #13
  14. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    I loved this story. The Hagia Sophia brings back fond memories of a college class I took.

    • #14
  15. Jon Gabriel, Ed. Admin
    Jon Gabriel, Ed.
    @jon

    SkipSul (View Comment):

    Joe Escalante (View Comment):

    Thanks Jon. Rats, now I have to book a ticket to Istanbul so I can see what’s left of this place. To me, this is similar to what happens today when I tell people to go visit a Catholic service. You could get a moving reverent experience that will result in a conversion and baptism, or you could get a clown mass that isn’t even funny.

    Go to an Orthodox liturgy, they’re nearly always moving, whether the church is small like mine, or large like the Greek cathedral downtown.

    Annunciation Cathedral in downtown Columbus. It’s no Hagia Sophia in size, but its mosaics are marvelous.

    I’ve actually been attending Orthodox services for the past few weeks.  Quite an experience with my megachurch background.

    • #15
  16. milkchaser Member
    milkchaser
    @milkchaser

    Is there any other lover of liberty who wants to throw up at the thought of a dictator deciding what the official beliefs should be for the people he otherwise already oppresses? To me, this is not a tale of impressive architecture, but of enslavement of the body and mind. There are some who hear this story and imagine themselves as Prince Vladimir or one of the emissaries hoping to impress him. I imagine myself as one of the rational atheist serfs, forgotten by history, who is forced to keep his mouth shut while political and religious slavemasters lord their power over me.

    • #16
  17. Jon Gabriel, Ed. Admin
    Jon Gabriel, Ed.
    @jon

    milkchaser (View Comment):

    Is there any other lover of liberty who wants to throw up at the thought of a dictator deciding what the official beliefs should be for the people he otherwise already oppresses? To me, this is not a tale of impressive architecture, but of enslavement of the body and mind. There are some who hear this story and imagine themselves as Prince Vladimir or one of the emissaries hoping to impress him. I imagine myself as one of the rational atheist serfs, forgotten by history, who is forced to keep his mouth shut while political and religious slavemasters lord their power over me.

    To transfer modern norms onto foreign cultures 1,000 years ago isn’t rational. This was a time when state, church, and culture were one, everywhere.

    • #17
  18. Kozak Member
    Kozak
    @Kozak

    Jon Gabriel, Ed. (View Comment):

    SkipSul (View Comment):

    Joe Escalante (View Comment):

    Thanks Jon. Rats, now I have to book a ticket to Istanbul so I can see what’s left of this place. To me, this is similar to what happens today when I tell people to go visit a Catholic service. You could get a moving reverent experience that will result in a conversion and baptism, or you could get a clown mass that isn’t even funny.

    Go to an Orthodox liturgy, they’re nearly always moving, whether the church is small like mine, or large like the Greek cathedral downtown.

    Annunciation Cathedral in downtown Columbus. It’s no Hagia Sophia in size, but its mosaics are marvelous.

    I’ve actually been attending Orthodox services for the past few weeks. Quite an experience with my megachurch background.

    Try one of the Old time orthodox churches like in upstate New York.   I remember going to mass which was 3 hours and there are no seats. You stand or kneel.  The 80 year old ladies would crawl in with canes and handle it without batting an eye.

    • #18
  19. Kozak Member
    Kozak
    @Kozak

    Jon Gabriel, Ed. (View Comment):

    milkchaser (View Comment):

    Is there any other lover of liberty who wants to throw up at the thought of a dictator deciding what the official beliefs should be for the people he otherwise already oppresses? To me, this is not a tale of impressive architecture, but of enslavement of the body and mind. There are some who hear this story and imagine themselves as Prince Vladimir or one of the emissaries hoping to impress him. I imagine myself as one of the rational atheist serfs, forgotten by history, who is forced to keep his mouth shut while political and religious slavemasters lord their power over me.

    To transfer modern norms onto foreign cultures 1,000 years ago isn’t rational. This was a time when state, church, and culture were one, everywhere.

    This kind of teleporting modern norms onto the past is a big problem with  Progressives and the SJW crowd.  

    • #19
  20. Kozak Member
    Kozak
    @Kozak

    Vectorman (View Comment):

    Kozak (View Comment):
    And the muslims are trying to convert Hagia Sofia back into a mosque.

    Shows you how much power the UN has with its World Heritage Sites.

    Imagine Christians going to the Al Aqsa Mosque and holding a service….

    • #20
  21. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    Jon Gabriel, Ed. (View Comment):

    milkchaser (View Comment):

    Is there any other lover of liberty who wants to throw up at the thought of a dictator deciding what the official beliefs should be for the people he otherwise already oppresses? To me, this is not a tale of impressive architecture, but of enslavement of the body and mind. There are some who hear this story and imagine themselves as Prince Vladimir or one of the emissaries hoping to impress him. I imagine myself as one of the rational atheist serfs, forgotten by history, who is forced to keep his mouth shut while political and religious slavemasters lord their power over me.

    To transfer modern norms onto foreign cultures 1,000 years ago isn’t rational. This was a time when state, church, and culture were one, everywhere.

    Beyond that, there were no “rational atheist” serfs. People have always believed in forces beyond themselves and sought to avoid harm and get favorable outcomes with the correct rituals, simple or elaborate. Our society is shot through with dietary disciplines divorced from formal religion, but from what, really, is a millennial seeking to “cleanse” herself? 

    • #21
  22. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    SkipSul (View Comment):

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):

    We are taught little of the Eastern Roman Empire, which outlasted the West by 1,000 years. I recommend Lars Brownworth’s genre-defining podcast 12 Byzantine Rulers. See also the very readable 2017 Ghost Empire: A Journey to the Legendary Constantinople. Nice interweaving of travelogue and history.

    Lars’s podcast is merely OK.

    Far better is The History of Byzantium podcast.

    I also highly recommend John Julius Norwich’s Byzantium trilogy as an excellent survey of the empire’s broad span of history.

    Well, OK. I’ll take a listen, but I’m not committed to 165 episodes and counting. People can make it all the way through Brownworth’s series in a reasonable time. They then might listen to his series on the Normans, on whom The History of Byzantinium touch where the two peoples’ stories overlap. Just seems Brownworth gets there faster.

     

    • #22
  23. SkipSul Inactive
    SkipSul
    @skipsul

    Lars is doing snapshots, pictures with limited context.  Much changed over the millenium of Byzantium’s reign.

    • #23
  24. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is neither imitative nor duplicative of any other church in the world. Its architecture is Romanesque-Byzantine in style and its construction is entirely of stone, brick, tile and mortar—without steel structural beams, framework or columns.
    In 1847, at the petition of the bishops of the United States, Pope Pius IX named the Blessed Virgin Mary patroness of the United States under the title of the Immaculate Conception.
    In 1913, Pope Pius X approved plans for the building of a national shrine in the United States, and made a personal contribution for its construction.
    The cornerstone of the National Shrine was laid in 1920.
    The first Mass was held on Easter Sunday 1924.
    1n 1926, the Crypt Church was completed.
    The remainder of the Crypt level was completed in 1931.
    The Depression and World War II halted construction of the Shrine’s Great Upper Church superstructure.
    With the end of World War II and the prosperity of the post war years, construction resumed in the Marian Year of 1954.
    The superstructure or the Great Upper Church was completed in 1959. The National Shrine was dedicated on November 20, 1959.

    • #24
  25. milkchaser Member
    milkchaser
    @milkchaser

    Jon Gabriel, Ed. (View Comment):
    To transfer modern norms onto foreign cultures 1,000 years ago isn’t rational. This was a time when state, church, and culture were one, everywhere.

    Perhaps it is not rational, but we compare our normal experiences to others in history all the time. We sympathize with the ill-shod troops at frozen Valley Forge because we can imagine the discomfort. We feel a twinge of sympathy for the victims of Vesuvius at Pompei. It’s not at all rational. It’s emotional. Guilty as charged. If we did not do this, we would read the story of Exodus in bewilderment. Why, we would ask, didn’t the Hebrews rationally accept their fate in Egypt? Or we would regard the era of the Spanish Inquisition as no less appealing than the Age of Enlightenment.

    So I’ll repeat: Is there anyone who loves liberty who does not feel revolted when considering the fate of those forced into a religion not of their own choosing?

    • #25
  26. milkchaser Member
    milkchaser
    @milkchaser

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):
    Beyond that, there were no “rational atheist” serfs.

    “Rational agnostic serfs” would have been a better choice of words to describe those being forced at spearpoint to pretend to believe with no inherent urge to so.

    • #26
  27. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    milkchaser (View Comment):
    We sympathize with the ill-shod troops at frozen Valley Forge because we can imagine the discomfort.

    A closer parallel to your previous comment would be to berate them for not having female combat troops and embracing the gay lifestyle, or even for using single shot muskets when M-16s would be so much more effective.

    • #27
  28. Fredösphere Member
    Fredösphere
    @Fredosphere

    I have loooong regarded Orthodoxy with fascination. But can someone explain the seeming halt in Orthodox expansion? It seems they’ve lost their knack for speaking to cultures not already in their camp. The Orthodox experience in the Americas is especially disappointing.

    • #28
  29. SkipSul Inactive
    SkipSul
    @skipsul

    Fredösphere (View Comment):

    I have loooong regarded Orthodoxy with fascination. But can someone explain the seeming halt in Orthodox expansion? It seems they’ve lost their knack for speaking to cultures not already in their camp. The Orthodox experience in the Americas is especially disappointing.

    This is one of those questions whose answers could fill several books, but I can summarize some of the key ones:

    1. Orthodoxy has been on the front lines of defending Christian populations for 1500 years.  First the Persians, then the Muslim Arabs, then the Turks, Mongols, and then the Communists through much of the 20th century.  Often they were also fighting off other Christians (like in the 4th Crusade).  Orthodox Christians have been the minority religion in so many places for so long, where evangelism could bring death on you and your clan, that they just have no experience in the confident missions work common to western Christianity.  Russia did send missions throughout central Asia, and into Alaska, but communism stopped that.  Millions and millions of Orthodox Christians died over the centuries.  
    2. Orthodox Christians have an aversion to proselytizing other Christians.  As a Syrian family at my church explained to me, back in Damascus the differences between Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant are a lot thinner – oppression makes for common cause, and even when they have moved here, there is a reluctance to try to siphon off converts.  This is, however, also why Orthodox-majority countries do resent the influx of Protestant missionaries since the lifting of the Communist yoke – they’re only just now finding their footing again.
    3. In western Europe, America, and elsewhere that Orthodox Christians have emigrated, they have had to build up their churches, priesthoods, and seminaries from scratch, and without the wealth of cash or people that the Catholics have had when they came.  There was not an Orthodox bishop of any jurisdiction in North America until (I think) the late 1800s, nor a seminary until the 20th century.  Clergy had to come from Orthodox countries too, until the infrastructure was built up.  

      The first parishes were entirely immigrant, and were so geared entirely to shepherding their own communities – they lacked the tools, the resources, and above all the time to be seeking out new converts, especially when such converts would have had to learn the services in Greek, Russian, or Arabic.

      If you have the chance, listen to or read through Kallistos Ware’s own conversion difficulties in England of the 1950s and 60s.  He was actively discouraged for years because the only Orthodox parishes in England only spoke Greek or Russian, and those bishops worried that they would not be properly able to minister to him.

    These things are changing, however.  The liturgies are often in English now.  There are a number of wonderful Orthodox works now translated into English, and entirely new works authored every year.  Ancient Faith Radio is an active and prolific podcasting / internet radio service, with a publishing house as well.  

    There are Orthodox missionaries now too coming out of America, but their numbers are small.

    • #29
  30. SkipSul Inactive
    SkipSul
    @skipsul

    One such work translated to English was translated by none other than @seawriter ‘s brother.

    https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0884650464/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o04_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1

     

    • #30

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