- The Sacred Architecture of Byzantium: Art, Liturgy and Symbolism in Early Christian Churches by Nicholas N. Patricio
In this book, Nicholas Patricios extends his research beyond the limits of Byzantium or of early Christian churches to build an understanding of Eastern Orthodox church architecture and art as interrelated to liturgy. A rather poetic prologue, in which the author takes the reader into the magic atmosphere of contemporary Saturday liturgy in the Ionian island of Ithaka, reveals the suggestion that brought him to write this book. After a brief introduction, chapter I presents an outline of Christianity and Byzantine history. Chapter II introduces the realm of “Sacred Architecture,” which for the author is the architecture of congregational churches that can be grouped into seven major types according to their features. Following this grouping, chapter III outlines Patricios’s analyses of church architecture [End Page 599] in several major cities. Chapter IV and chapter V focus on figurative themes and particular iconographies, which appeared in church decoration. In chapter VI, the author discusses the liturgy of the Eucharist through time and relates it to both the development of church architecture and the location of specific religious images within the church building. Finally, chapter VII seeks to exemplify the symbolism of both the church building, with its space and liturgical furnishing, and the liturgy of the Eucharist within ecclesiastical architecture, through translations from various ancient texts. In the epilogue, a poem by Konstantine Kavafy closes this journey through Byzantine ecclesiastical architecture and art.
The book is richly illustrated with an enormous number of images that provide a real compendium to the text. In fact, these are rarely discussed but are meant to support Patricios’s words with evidence of architecture and art. Unfortunately, the captions often do not include dates that would help the reader with a sense of the chronological distance among buildings and artworks represented side by side. As this book is addressed to a wide audience, the author has chosen to add very few endnotes; a limited list of further readings; and a short bibliography that includes a wide range of secondary literature, from guidebooks to educational and scholarly readings, but unfortunately lacks most recent research.
The value of this book resides in the author’s sensitivity for the ecclesiastical architecture of Byzantium that he is able to make accessible to the reader by means of simple explanations and clear schematizations. This approach, however, does not reflect theological, political, and economic issues that affected building practice and art in the long course of Byzantine history and within the changing geographical areas of influence of the Byzantine Empire. Patricios’s grouping of Byzantine ecclesiastical architecture into seven church types is worth noticing for the architectural historian of Byzantium, as it is based on close inspection of buildings as well as reflection upon previous scholarly theories. Nevertheless, his overview of church buildings and art is inaccurate, as it presents the evidence as part of a “Byzantine” original project without considering historical events or restorations and changes that evidently altered buildings and artworks. The approach to symbolism and liturgy is also problematic as it is characterized by generalizations that do not do justice to the multiple meanings of iconographies and rites. Similarly, the author uses ancient texts that are sometimes culturally and chronologically very distant with the sole purpose to support his arguments, without considering the often-contrasting environments in which these arose.
Although Patricios’s book is deceiving for a scholar expecting a new interpretation of Byzantine architecture, art, and liturgy, it represents a useful reading for nonexperts who are first approaching Orthodox Christianity and the great fascination of its architecture. It provides a valuable tool for making the complex world of Byzantine church architecture and art accessible to nonspecialists and will—hopefully—inspire the readers with curiosity to improve their knowledge and understanding of such complexity. [End Page 600]