Home > Uncategorized > Greece I: questions and thoughts

Greece I: questions and thoughts

Greece, of course, presents insights galore: as a non-specialist viewer who is going to have to write about this stuff before the end of the year, both are crucial.

First – moving backwards in time – there is Greece’s Christian heritage. More than anything else, the experience of being in the homeland of ‘Greek’ orthodoxy is a forceful reminder of how the world looks from the faith’s heartland. For exampe, and in spite of Rome’s crucial role in the faith’s early years, Catholicism as we know it — let alone the various Protestantisms and Nonconformisms that have happened since — is a johnny-come-lately compared to this. Nowhere else is the New Testament in its first form also the vernacular; nowhere else is Kyrie Eleison, and much else, more than an exotic-sounding incantation. Not only does this version of the faith go back as close to its roots as any (give or take a Syriac or a Copt or two), but it has comparitively speaking changed comparitively little since its inception. Attendance at an Orthodox mass is not an experience of C3 or C4 Christianity — but it is certainly relevant to understanding that of, say, the C8 or the C9, and the culture from which the western Christian world grew, and which was a continuum with what (for example) Anglo-Saxon religion looked like.

Most astonishing, in this respect, is the density of the ‘popular’ sacred landscape. It is not unusual to see five, six, or more small churches, chapel or shrines in a patch of now-depopulated countryside much smaller than the average English parish; they presumably have developed through complex accretion of two thousand years of unbroken development; one may have parochial status, another have been founded as a burial chapel, a third be associated with a well or rock of cultic significance. Often they are tiny, perched on dramatic hilltops, nestling in hollows. A great many replaced or reused classical temples, and there may well be continuities of holy places, too: such claims, we should remember, while easily contested here in Britain, are less so in a place whose paganism (unlike ours) we know much about, and which was perfectly alive and well when the new cult from Palestine was officialised.

Much medieval practise is alive, too. Roadside shrines, maintained (presumably) by an invisible army of black-clad old ladies, dot every road we drive down, often more frequently than emergency telephones on an English motorway; some are old and neglected, but others are brand new — you can pick up a two-foot Orthodox chapel on a plinth from any builder’s merchants – and contain a few icons, some candles, oil, and a lighter. The respectable self-made businessman will place a walk-in concrete chapel in his garden. And the images on the iconostatis in any parish church, especially those of Mary or Christ, are hung with ex votos just like those we know were left at medieval shrines: here, little metal models of healed limbs, or even offerings such as watches and jewellery.

Yet it is only an accident of history that Greek Orthodoxy is so alive and kicking in Greece: the original epicentre of this culture was significantly to the east: until it was hemmed in by Islam, Greek Byzantium and Anatolia where were it was at. Indeed years of foreign domination, as with Poland, have probably done much to keep the faith vital. No splittist Reformation, no Dissolution, no iconoclasm since the C9, though in the modern world attendance is fading. It is from this root that the culture I study, younger and further west, bifurcated, and as much is explained by seeing this as by knowing it for an intellectual fact.

Hagia Sophia is obviously the Great Church of this world; yet moving around this landscape one is struck by the conservatism of its architecture thereafter. The most ambitious buildings are no more elaborate or large than a medium-sized monastic house in medieval western Europe; architectural development involves complex calibrations of dome-and-aisles, dome-and-transepts, pursued within a far narrower range of possibilites than one sees in western Europe in the same time-frame, that is the long C9-c18 from which most churches in both landscapes date. It is an astonishing fact that, after Hagia Sophia in the C6, there is simply nothing in Orthodoxy to match any number of cathedrals in Italy, Germany, France, Iberia or Britain.

There’s nothing wrong with this: the ceaseless inventiveness and ridiculous ambition of western architecture is a unique thing, and born, by coincidence, at precisely this period. And the buildings that result are exhausting in number and scintillating in internal presence; richly painted internally, clothed in whitewash externally, and thick with images, they are merely a reminder of how we once looked.

But still, this conservatism begs questions. Not least about the role of architecture in this culture. This is architecture as a setting for painted imagery, and the significance of the painted image is extraordinary even by medieval western standards. Not stained glass, or sculpture, but icons and frescoes; the former to this day attracting a constrant stream of people who wish to kiss them. Arguably, more than anything else, this architecture is designed as a setting for sacred image-making, and by no means an end in itself. But one would love to get to grips with these tensions between image and its architectural setting, and development or the lack of it.

This is even truer of Classical architecture. I went to Greece wanting to contextualise, to put the rabbit of precocious modernity back in its iron age box. After all, the philosophers were few in number, and didn’t build temples: most people were busy making sacrifices in front of brightly painted and sculpted backdrops, rather than questioning the nature of reality. These all-too familiar myths were once a faith, these gods were real. Indeed it is rather intriguing that Classical paganism, in spite of its disinterment by Robert Graves, does not seem (unlike our home-grown variety) to have been reinvented by New Agers. Perhaps we know too much about it to be able to make things up of our own.  

Yet none of this explains the remarkable thing that happens to architecture from around the C6BCE. These buildings were the backdrop for an exhaustingly complex series of stories and rituals; their interiors were stores of valuable offerings centred on a single great image. They are invariably set carefully in their landscape, and embody a modular architectural canon best compared to the Classical architecture of East Asia.

But they also do something new, something architecture had never done before. For example the developments of orders, in particular the Doric and the Ionic — one rarely sees Corinthian in Greece, except as a Roman re-importation — enables buildings to strike different emotional registers, and I don’t think buildings had ever done this previously. Those of contemporary China, India and Egypt were elaborate and impressive, and did their one thing very well: but it was only one thing. The Orders intimate that architecture can do many things,  have many moods and calibrations, like music does, or painting. That is their most lasting contribution.

One might think that a culture which makes this discovery — obvious in retrospect, but brilliant when first made — would be seeking histrionic effects, would be trying to go all baroque or gothic or safavid or mughal with the many voices it is finding it can make. But no, this impressive discovery is seived always through a matrix of reason, moderation, of a sense that as well as having an expressive range, architecture has a grammar as complex and rich as language. So the achievement is double impressive.

Can it be explained, then, in terms of the religious culture alone? There are certainly contextual things going on that might suggest this would be the case. Homer, writing in probably the C8BCE, had turned the gods into personalities, immortal, super-powered beings, yes, but ones who nevertheless have the emotional complexities and wiles of ordinary human beings.  This rewriting is all, as far as I can see, that seperates the religion out from a myriad other Indo-European paganisms. Did this, I wonder, also have an impact on the cultural artefacts that developed? If one’s gods have the emotions of people, does one not want to please and delight them, rather than simply propitiate terrifying and distant forces? And if one treats one gods like one treats one’s friends, does one not, without hardly noticing, start to create art to please *real* people, too, so that ritual theatre spins out into theatre as we understand it: art/entertainment, and likewise sport, and poetic competitions, and so much else that seems so modern to us about this world? And does that not in turn explain the enormous focus on the sculptud human form which is key to understanding this art, and the grace, discipine and quiet range of the architecture that was its setting?

It’s a good theory, but that’s all it is. And as one walks round the sculptures in the National Archaeological Museum, or reads about the way the most important of these buildings where as much expressions of civic identity, politics and ceremonial as of anything we would recognise as spiritual, it is hard not to escape the simple fact that, contextualise it all you like, something truly extraordinary, precocious and, yes, modern happened here all those years ago. Something about much more than religion, even though the religion was very much alive: something considered, clever, human.

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