By Andrzej Piotrowski
Paper given at the 21st International Congress of Byzantine Studies (2006)
Introduction: This paper asserts that light-related phenomena were essential to the symbolic functioning of Middle Byzantine churches like the Katholikon in the Monastery of Hosios Loukas. Yet, because of the limitations of current dominant models of “knowing” architecture and art, the symbolic use of light in such buildings remains practically unrecognized. This study demonstrates, with the support of new technologies, that by changing certain epistemological assumptions, these previously unknown aspects of Byzantine churches can be revealed. Thus moving beyond the notion that buildings operate symbolically by communicating narratives, which in turn become meaningful and conclusive statements within a particular discourse, I assume that the material phenomena of architecture have always reached beyond the limits of verbal communication. A built environment operates symbolically when it triggers thoughts without concluding them. I propose here that the Katholikon was a crowning example of such a process, and that by using phenomena of light to represent the divine presence, its interior resonated with imagination in a way specific to the Byzantine constitution of religious ideas. By doing so, those experiences manifested, or rather followed in a non-verbal way, a modality of thought that characterized the thinking of early Byzantine theologians and that continued through Iconoclasm. Middle Byzantine architecture did not merely communicate dogma or impose a “correct” way of depicting divine beings. Rather, buildings like the Katholikon were constructed to mentally engage viewers in the difficulty of perceiving and understanding God.