In light of the discussion that has been happening on the OAJ concerning the question of technical means and the production of liturgical arts (starting with fr. Silouan Justiniano’s article, my short post and Andrew Gould’s response), I thought I would attempt something I have been contemplating for quite some time now, that is looking at technical means through the lens of an ontological hierarchy such as the ones given to us by Dionysius the Areopagite in his Celestial and Ecclesiastical Hierarchies.
Today, we are faced with an increasingly pressing question of production and material in the building of churches, the creation of holy icons and the making of objects used for liturgy. The Ancients, though being certainly concerned with the materials used to make church utensils and such, were not as overwhelmed with the type of technologies we are being pressed with today. This multiplication of technologies, of hybrid materials and cheap reproduction are difficult to ignore considering the often dismal budgets churches have to contend with, because as technology lowers the price of mass produced items it simultaneously makes refined hand-made craftsmanship that much more out of reach. Parishes and artists are left to face questions of production their ancestors did not have to face, and to do this without explicit canons from councils or sensible theological argument to help them.
I believe the threads for making out an approach to technical usage in the church are already there in our Tradition, in the Bible and in the existing forms of our hierarchies, we now only need to pull these threads together to weave a solid cord which can support our decision making. I have been hinting at some of the ideas in my past articles, especially my series on The Recovery of the Arts.
In the Book of Daniel, the king of Babylon has a dream which only the prophet can interpret for him. The king has a vision of a giant statue:
This image’s head was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. You watched while a stone was cut out without hands, which struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces.
In the context of the vision, the parts of the statue are seen as different empires, starting with Nebuchadnezzar himself and moving in time towards successive kingdoms:
But after you shall arise another kingdom inferior to yours; then another, a third kingdom of bronze, which shall rule over all the earth. And the fourth kingdom shall be as strong as iron, inasmuch as iron breaks in pieces and shatters everything; and like iron that crushes, that kingdom will break in pieces and crush all the others. Whereas you saw the feet and toes, partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron, the kingdom shall be divided; yet the strength of the iron shall be in it, just as you saw the iron mixed with ceramic clay. And as the toes of the feet were partly of iron and partly of clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong and partly fragile. As you saw iron mixed with ceramic clay, they will mingle with the seed of men; but they will not adhere to one another, just as iron does not mix with clay. Daniel 2: 39-43
Although the purpose of the vision is to relate the history of empires, the fact that it uses different metals in a statue can help us see how the analogy of degrading kingdoms is portrayed through degrading metals. The Body, from head to toe is often seen as a hierarchy in the Bible and in the Fathers, the head acting as principle ( ex. 1 Cor. 11:3), while the feet are seen as the “bottom” and linked to death, being closer to the dust from which man was made ( ex. Prov. 5:5, but also in St-Gregory of Nyssa there is the idea of the “feet of the soul”, sandals as the garments of skin, etc.) It is also important to know that in the Bible, craftsmanship is linked closely to metallurgy, in fact the first craftsman, Tubal-Cain, the descendant of Cain, is said explicitly to be the first metallurgist.
There are many things going on in this structure of four metals. Many aspects of the structure find their analogy in other hierarchical structures found in Tradition, and so as we move down the hierarchy we find:
- Increase in quantity: Gold is the rarest of metals, and as we move down the line we have an increase in the general availability of the material.
- Increase in corruptibility: Gold is the most incorruptible of metals, it does not tarnish. The metals that follow are increasingly corruptible, coming finally to iron which readily rusts, but also “breaks in pieces” as the text explains
- Increase in power: Gold is the softest of metals, the most malleable, whilst the next metals are more and more powerful, harder, leading to iron which is used to make tools, weapons, war chariots, shackles and other objects of strength.
- An increase in “technicity”: The need of technical skill increases as we move down, from gold which can be manipulated with great ease and with less heat at melting point, we come to iron which has the highest melting point and requires more sophisticated tools and is generally physically more demanding to work with. The image of a goldsmith is different from the image of a sweating blacksmith (even the notion of blackness enters the symbolism here) beating his iron bars under the fire.
- The tipping point: The tipping point appears in the feet made of iron mixed with clay. This tipping point shows where the increase in quantity leads to extreme dilution of quality through mixture and fragmentation, the increase in corruptibility leads to outright disintegration, the increase in “power” leads to brittleness and glass-like fragility, the increase in technicity leads to “monstrous mixture”,the impossible made possible and the hybrid as limit. (for more on hybrid as limit see my article on St-Christopher).
To help us understand the meaning of these categories, we can look simultaneously at the hierarchy created by the structure of the Old Testament Temple and of an Orthodox Churches in order to see similar movements. The OT Temple was made as a series of rooms, from the Holy of Holies, the most sacred place where only the High priest could enter, through different rooms and finally different courts, all arranged as concentric spaces. As one moved away from the Holy of Holies, each room or court was “less holy” and was also accessible to more people, first the priests, then the male Israelite, then there was a court for women and finally there was the “Court of the Gentiles” where even the non-Jewish could come. This is similar to the theological construct of an Orthodox Church building, which has the altar area for clergy, the nave for the faithful, the narthex for the catechumen, and finally the exonarthex where anyone could in theory come (of course this is no longer practiced, though we still retain at least the theological meaning of this structure.) From the rarity of the holiest place, we move through quantification all the way to the outer limit where we encounter mixture and hybridity. All of this also echoes in structure the ecclesiastical hierarchy itself, from the single bishop, to the priests, the deacons to the large number of the faithful (moving out even to the catechumen and non-baptised). And finally to bring it closer to home, the structure presented is the same as the anthropological structure of man, moving from the singularity of the heart where the nous is found, to the multiplying thoughts, out to the senses where man encounters “mixture” and animality.
In terms of technical uses of matter, it is not too difficult to see how the basic structure of the statue, moving from gold to iron and even iron mixed with clay, can become for us, not a rule, but rather a general principle to guide our choices in creating objects to the glory of God. For in the building of the temple, the requirements of metals follows, if not strictly, but generally this tendency. There are no iron objects in the holy of holies! Other hierarchies are possible of course, for example many see the use of wood or egg yolk as living materials worthy of the church and I think there is much to say about this.
The layering which happens in the structure of the temple, a layering which moves out towards periphery is one which we can see very much in modern technologies. Much of modern technology is what I would call “iron mixed with clay”, that is through a refinement of very complicated technical exploits, modern man is able to create hybrid materials, materials which often imitate others, and though these are often cheap and fast, they also exhibit the very fragility which can be seen in the feet of the statue seen in Nebuchanezzar’s dream. This fragility is not only an ephemeral material existence which these materials indeed frequently exhibit, but there is also fragility in the very complexity and “layering” of their means of production. In my opinion, we have seen in our very lives a strong passage to the “tipping point” from iron to iron mixed with clay, and we can experience the effects of this all around us. Think for example of the difference between a vinyl record and an mp3 music file. A vinyl record is the direct transcription of vibrations caused by sound unto a surface, so it is once removed from the source of that sound. It is called “analog” in the sense that it is analogical by having the same structure but only in different mediums. To use the image of the temple/church again, we could say that the “event” of recording represents the “holy of holies” for that sound, and the record is the “holy” place. Now for the mp3 to exist, you need to translate that recording into a digital coded language, which then is interpreted by a machine that also has its own languages, the language of the software, the language of the operating system, the language of the device itself, downloaded from the internet and all its own languages, protocols and codes, which must all be interpreted in order to hear the sound of that mp3 file. If I were really going to count all the “layers” traversed for the mp3 to arrive to your ears, and compare that to the church or the temple, I don’t think there are enough courts to account for them all. Indeed when we look at the technocratic world around us, when we see it through the lens of an ontological hierarchy, we see how close we are coming to an “uncut stone”, a raw event “not made by hand”, not subject to technological refinements, which will sweep all of this away. The most drastic vision of this movement away from the gold head is seen in the effects of technology on food production, where hybridity, mixture and layering of modifications have created “seedless” fruit, food without a heart — a situation of which the fragility is not seen by men only for their pride in their capacity to control the environment. But no one controls the “uncut stone”.
Apocalypticism aside, What then does this mean for us? Well, I did not write this to lay out a series of rules. I hope people will be able to draw their own conclusions based on what I have presented. But I can give a few principles I believe can come out of this for liturgical arts.
1. In our own churches, we should be aware of the hierarchy of the sacred, from the altar to the exonarthex and at least make decisions based on this. Some parishes, because the altar space is not very visible to most parish members, seem to make the opposite conclusion, with plywood altars, cheaply plated or spray painted objects on the holy table. If you need to spray paint something, do it further down the hierarchy and at least try to make the altar space a precious place. If the parish cannot afford gold, then it is best to stick with wood, brass, be careful to avoid “fake” materials, materials that pretend to be something else through human artifice.
2. As artists, in our own productions we should be able to identify a hierarchy of production, so to not either demonize or overly abuse digital or mechanical tools, but use them as the peripheral objects they should be, honing in towards human and direct production as much as possible. Long ago in a traditional workshop, there would always be a hierarchy of production, where assistants and apprentices would accomplish the more mechanical and repetitive work, .ie mixing pigments, preparing surfaces, gessoing, polishing, sharpening tools etc., while the masters would do the more artistic and involved work. We can reproduce this hierarchy in our own smaller workshop with machines. For example, I have begun using a router to clear the background of my icons, but all the details, clothing, face etc. are done directly. I also use Photoshop to adjust hand-drawn patterns to the size they need to be for a specific support. Other artists can come to different decisions regarding this, as Andrew Gould describes in his article.
3. Finally, I think we need to keep in mind that there is nothing inherently good or bad in this, it is always a question of hierarchy. Clay is not bad, it is what we use to make bricks to build churches. Iron is not bad, we need it for tools and other things. We live in difficult times, and we should avoid using such a hierarchy to judge or demean this or that practice, this or that parish. Rather we should look at ourselves, our own choices as parishes and ask ourselves to whose glory we are making this or that decision for our altar, our iconostasis, our parish icons and our own personal icon walls.