(Having seen the many furious comments made by scientist types to my last article, I thought it might be necessary to slow things down a bit in order to make myself clearer, and so I will speak of sacred art more directly in the next instalment of this series.)
In 1922 fr. Pavel Florensky wrote an article in his “Imaginary Values in Geometry” in which he attempted to use the general theory of relativity to show that considering the relativity of motion, one could develop a perfectly coherent mathematical model in which the Earth is the reference of motion. This model would in fact correspond to Ptolemy’s cosmological descriptions. This article was one of the reasons the Communist State gave for his trial and execution, a dark irony considering the usual “violent religion” vs. “enlightening science” rhetoric we are taught in primary school regarding Galileo’s censorship. What is interesting about Florensky’s article is mostly his reason for writing it. He said that although the Copernican model is fine,
“Ptolemy’s system, however, has priority due to compliance with common sense and loyalty to earthly, truly credible experience, compliance with philosophical reason and finally, compliance with the rules of geometry.”1
His impulse would find other followers in the 20th century. Understanding the alienating effect of modern cosmology, several thinkers would reclaim the ancient cosmological vision to different degrees and in different ways in a desire to return knowledge to human experience and to pull human action back into the sphere of “wisdom”, that is giving a priority to what man SHOULD do rather than what man CAN do. These thinkers include CS.Lewis2 but also less obvious candidates such as the founders of the “phenomenology” school of philosophy Edmund Husserl3 and Martin Heidegger. For example in Heidegger’s “Origin of the work of Art” he reclaims the Earth as a Metaphysical category and so warns us:
“What this word (Earth) means here is far removed from the idea of a mass of matter and from the merely astronomical idea of a planet. Earth is that in which the arising of everything that arises is brought back – as, indeed, the very thing that it is- and sheltered. In the things that arise the earth presences as the protecting one.” 4
This is a very beautiful vision of Earth, one which I would dare say fits very well the Orthodox vision, it is the Matrix of the world, that from which all phenomena rises and returns “as indeed the very thing that it is” – “from dust you came and to dust you shall return”. But we also find Earth as protecting, sheltering, hiding the “seed” of the resurrection within it.
Heidegger’s formulation in this case is merely a restating of the ancient vision of Heaven and Earth as the two first “poles” of Creation, the two original metaphysical categories which were created “in the beginning” , in the Principle, in the ἀρχῇ, בְּרֵאשִׁית of creation. If we wish to understand the space of icons or of churches we need to face up to Heaven and Earth, we need to see them as being the same two categories which appear universally in all cultures, whether it is the Greek Uranos and Gaïa, the Chinese Yang and Yin or the Native American Father Heaven and Mother Earth.
In Florensky’s article on geocentrism he uses Dante’s Divine Comedy as the basis for his thought and even the basis for his calculations. I think that despite all we could criticize as to the Orthodoxy of Dante, Florensky’s intuition was very profound. For Dante stood at the brink of Western spiritual decline, facing maybe unknowingly the gradual evacuation of all Symbolic Realism from the Western experience5. In this position, Dante creates in his Comedy a beautiful synthesis of a traditional cosmos while making many pronouncements which act almost prophetically as both clarification and warning to the modern reader6.
Dante in the Divine Comedy moves through a spiritual Journey down to the bottom, the centre of the Earth, and then moves up the mountain of Purgatory and finally climbs the Heavenly spheres as if the entire cosmos was a ladder where:
…“All things whate’er they be
Have order among themselves, and this is form,
That makes the universe resemble God.
Here do the higher creatures see the footprints
Of the Eternal Power….7
This type of Hierarchy is of course profoundly based on St-Dyonisus the Aeropagite’s Celestial Hierarchy which reinterprets Neo-Platonic thinking in a Christian frame. In a way Dante joins the Ontological hierarchy of the Aeropagite with the Ladder of Virtues as we find in St-John of Climacus. In Canto 29 of Paradisio, Dante has reached the highest sphere of Creation proper, the Prime Mobile. And here, Beatrice his guide, beautifully unites the Ptolemeic vision with Aristotle’s ideas when she states:
Order was con-created and constructed
In substances, and summit of the world
Were those wherein the pure act was produced.
Pure potentiality held the lowest part;
Midway bound potentiality with act
Such bond that it shall never be unbound.8
This joining of Aristotle’s Metaphysical categories into a cosmological model that places Heaven and Earth as the two poles of Creation repeats with much clarity for us “what” Heaven and Earth are. This duality of “act” and “potential”, “energia” and “dynamis” mirror perfectly the Biblical vision of Creation where the Logos from our Father in Heaven commands Earth to “bring forth” creation, we could say to “presence ” the world if we wanted to use Heideggerian language.
In each level of Dante’s Cosmic ladder, all human activity is seen hierarchically as being closer or further from the Divine Light, participating in God “to the level of its capability” to paraphrase St-Maximos.
…all make beautiful the primal circle,
And have sweet life in different degrees,
By feeling more or less the eternal breath.9
So as Dante climbs the planetary spheres he encounters different levels of souls on the Moon, on Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. But as if to warn the modern Science Fiction reader of a kind of materialist interpretation, Beatrice explains to Dante at the lowest level of Heaven that the souls:
…showed themselves here, not because allotted
This sphere has been to them, but to give sign
Of the celestial which is least exalted.
To speak thus is adapted to your mind,
Since only through the sense it apprehendeth
What then it worthy makes of intellect.
On this account the Scripture condescends
Unto your faculties, and feet and hands
To God attributes, and means something else;
And Holy Church under an aspect human
Gabriel and Michael represent to you,
And him who made Tobias whole again.10
And so here is the crux. Here is the point where the modern reader might go astray and where it is important to pull in the reins of our mind. Beatrice is telling Dante that the souls do not inhabit the visible heavenly spheres of the planets but that his encounter is a “condescension”, it is a descent of higher truth into a language that can be grasped. She then tells him that this goes for Scripture as well. Depending on if the reader is a “conservative” type or a “liberal” type he or she might be either utterly offended or feel wonderfully liberated by such a proposition, thinking: “Aha!, he is saying that his own descriptions as well as Scripture are MERELY symbolic, metaphors!” implying a kind of free for all where any other image could have been used in order to render the same message.
Of course what Dante says through Beatrice would have been obvious to the Ancients. This is why the Bible speaks of the Heaven of Heaven (sometimes translated as the Highest Heaven). And so despite that we can say without flinching “Our Father who is in Heaven” , we know clearly that even “The Heaven of Heaven cannot contain you.” (1 Kings 8:27). But to say that God is in Heaven is the most proper image for God, it is not arbitrary or simplistic or materialist, but is rather anchored analogically on the way we encounter what is above us, the very manner in which “The invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and deity.” (Romans 1:20) This is not only a matter of interpretation of stories and texts but is the very mode by which the Heavens present themselves to us, the very mode through which, by their “logos”, all phenomena points to the Divine life. The visible heavens ARE an image of the Heaven of Heaven, and they are the best image for the spiritual hierarchy.
But what is it about this visible heaven, what is it about “up” that helps us understand God? The language of height is so woven into our language that we speak constantly of the hierarchy of things as being higher, being on top, being at the head, ascending or falling. Even the most atheist of scientific materialists could not avoid such expressions of heavenly hierarchy.
In the novel “Foucault’s Pendulum” by Umberto Ecco, there is a surprising scene where the main female character, like an inverted Beatrice attempts to topple all religious symbolism. She brings everything down to the human body and bodily experience starting by stating that “archetypes don’t exist; the body exists.”11 She says many things meant to be shocking of course, but when she gets to the idea of heaven she says
high is better than low, because if you have your head down, the blood goes to your brain, because feet stink and hair doesn’t stink as much, because it’s better to climb a tree and pick fruit than end up underground, food for worms, and because you rarely hurt yourself hitting something above-you really have to be in an attic-while you often hurt yourself falling. That’s why up is angelic and down devilish12.
Then relating to verticality:
vertical position is life, pointing sunward, and obelisks stand as trees stand, while the horizontal position and night are sleep, death. All cultures worship menhirs, monoliths, pyramids, columns, but nobody bows down to balconies and railings. Did you ever hear of an archaic cult of the sacred banister? You see? And another point: if you worship a vertical stone, even if there are a lot of you, you can all see it; but if you worship, instead, a horizontal stone,only those in the front row can see it, and the others start pushing, me too, me too, which is not a fitting sight for a magical ceremony…”13
If only most Christians had this insight so many problems would be avoided! Although it looks irreverent at first, and of course it is meant to be, it also hides something more profound despite itself. Dante’s guide Beatrice, as if anticipating such arguments tells us that “to speak thus is adapted to your mind, Since only through the sense it apprehendeth what then it worthy makes of intellect.” Symbolism is fully intuitive, it is fully in tune with how we experience the world. All the things Ecco’s protagonist says are true. It is only that she can but perceive the downward analogy and cannot perceive the very same analogy going up! Anyone who has watched rotting things become earth, but then has planted a seed in this very earth to watch it grow can understand what Earth is. If you can see that someone in a group of people placed higher than the others immediately becomes a centre, becomes the focus, for the very reason that this person can see everyone and everyone can see him whereas the other people in the group cannot see all the others but only those immediately next to them, then you might immediately get a glimpse of Heaven. If you put your face on the ground, you will see a very limited “particular” vision, a few blades of grass and some dirt maybe, but if you begin to ascend a mountain, then you can understand what Heaven is, for as you go up, you see more and more, your gaze encompasses more of Creation until the moment you reach the very summit and suddenly the entire horizon appears completely around you and you are as if at the summit of the world. There one could seize the relationship between the Heavens, the vertical and the centre. There one could hear God.
But to understand this symbolism one must first strip away that exterior vision, that alienated, amplified technical vision of modern science and technology for at least a moment and try to see the world with more immediacy. The icon and other sacred spaces can help us, for being also “artificial” in the sense of manmade spaces, they can act as a kind of memory in our confused state, they can show us what the arts can do in distilling and pointing clearly to how the world should be experienced in the light of its Creator.
1. Pavel Florensky. Imaginary Number in Geometry, 1922 (My translation)
2. See for example, CS. Lewis.The Discarded Image.
3. See for example, Edmund Husserl. “The Original Ark, Earth, Does Not Move”.
4. Martin Heidegger. Origin of the Work of Art, in “Off The Beaten Track”, translated by Julian Young and Kenneth Hayes, Cambridge Press, 2002.
5. In fact Dante saw in his own lifetime the transition between the very iconic painter Cimabue and Giotto who acts as a hinge to the Renaissance.
6. Dante in fact uses the spherical Earth in his cosmological model and does is it in a way that is very powerful and convincing to join the more ancient hierarchical vision of heaven and earth with how we experience a sphere in time as a cyclical movement. This goes to show that even the modern cosmological models could potentially be a support for spiritual truths though I have not yet seen anyone who can do this convincingly today.
7. Dante. Divine Comedy, Paradisio, Canto 1. Translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
8. Ibid. Canto 29.
9. Ibid. Canto 4.
10. Ibid. Canto 29.
11. Umberto Ecco, Foucault’s Pendulum, translated by William Weaver, p. 250 see link: http://www.cs.utexas.edu/users/acharya/Inputs/Books/Foucault’s%20Pendulum.pdf
12. Ibid. 251