On the Symbolic Meaning of Domes, part four
This is the fourth part of a five-part article. The last remaining part will be published next Friday.
The Plan of the Article:1
Α. MORSE AUDITORIUM, BOSTON UNIVERSITY
Β. THE PANTHEON, ROME
Ξ. HAGIA SOPHIA, CONSTANTINOPLE
Ο. THE ONION DOME, LAND OF THE RUS’
Ω. BRUNELLESCHI’S DOME, FLORENCE
Ο. THE ONION DOME, LAND OF THE RUS’
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless His holy name. (Ps. 102:1)
Contemporaneous to my falling in love with Hagia Sophia, I also fell in love with the form of the onion dome. The onion dome first appeared in Kievan Rus’ as early as the twelfth century and began to proliferate on the Russian landscape in the troubled thirteenth century, when the Mongols invaded from the east, Swedes and Germans attacked from the west, and St. Alexander Nevsky preserved the Russian state and faith by rebuffing the Catholics and accepting subjugation to the Mongols. The onion dome established itself primarily as an emblem of the Russian faith, but it would also spread to the Mughal Empire in India to the east and the Holy Roman Empire in northern Europe to the west.
Unlike the domes we’ve discussed thus far, onion domes don’t figure into the interior plans of the churches they cap. There’s no looking up inside them from beneath. Yet they have more meaning to them than just being decorative fixtures that keep snow off the roof. Consider again the shape of the Pantheon, how the oculus was contained within the arc of the building. That meant that someone pursuing the apex of its cosmic image would reach it along a line that then just directed one back down again. The spherical temple with oculus offers hope of transcendence but remains disconnected from it by a distance as forbidding as the height of the sun. Hagia Sophia, on the other hand, representing faith in an incarnate God, finds a way to depict transcendence made immanent by placing a dome on top of a dome, symbolically speaking.
The onion dome presents a like solution to the same problem in a much simpler form. Hagia Sophia has inspired an architectural lineage that can be traced all over the world, including to a certain Jewish temple in Boston. But there has never been another Hagia Sophia; its grandeur is unmatched. The success of the onion dome, however, is something that can be repeated by skilled craftsmen ad infinitum — it may be a tough challenge to build one, but not too tough. It thereby can be used to forge a national identity across a vast land even in a time of captivity to hostile powers.
So much for the practicality necessary for all architecture — it remains to show how the onion dome repeats the symbolical success of Hagia Sophia. How does it constitute a Christian image of the cosmos? How does the onion dome present the church beneath it as an image of creation descending down from, and ascending back up into, the uncreated Godhead?
Let’s start to answer these questions by considering its construction. An onion dome consists of a frame and a surface. The frame has a variety of possible designs and can be wooden or metal. The surface too has a variety of possible designs and can be wooden or metal. Either way you cut it, there is a spherical body extended in a finite amount of space around a linear axis — with a surface that itself is relatively boundless.
This description requires explaining. Let’s only think about a sphere for a while.
Imagine you live on the surface of a sphere. (Just imagine.) You have the power to cross both land and sea, and terrain is not a problem. If you were, say, to start traveling east, you could keep going forever, never encountering any boundaries. Your movement would be boundless, and yet you would ever remain limited to the surface of the sphere. It would be like playing an endless game of Marco Polo in which you are never found. No matter how boundless your movement, you would be chasing an infinitely elusive horizon circling all around you, never getting any closer to it, no matter which direction you turn, no matter how fast you run.
The orbital movement of the moon around the earth operates by the same gravitational principle, and its regularity in the sky along with the other heavenly bodies is a material symbol of heaven’s eternity. The surface of a sphere is the same as any heavenly orbit. It’s a symbol of eternity — but a created eternity, an eternity bound by the horizon of its own createdness.
St. Maximus the Confessor writes about the distinction I’m trying to make in his Ambiguum 10. He says that sensible creation can be observed to have a beginning of its coming-to-be (archē geneseōs) and to seek an end in destruction. But intelligible creation has no beginning of its coming-to-be that we can discern, nor does it await an end in corruption because it was blessed by God to be by nature imperishable. To illustrate the difference he uses the analogy of Moses and Elijah’s combined presence at the Transfiguration. Moses symbolizes sensible creation since his birth and death are recounted in Scripture, but Elijah symbolizes intelligible creation since his birth is invisible to Scripture and instead of dying he was caught up into heaven on a chariot of fire.2
It is not that the intelligible world, or “heaven,” or eternity, does not have a genesis. It does; it is sequent to the God who created it out of nothing. But the sensible world, “earth” (not just the planet), that which is subject to the change wrought by time — this realm has a further layer of beginning and end within its genesis, within its coming-to-be. Though at an ontological remove from each other, the two worlds work together as one, joined by their common property of having come into being from nothing. As St. Maximus writes in his Ecclesiastical Mystagogy,
For the whole spiritual world seems mystically imprinted on the whole sensible world in symbolic forms, for those who are capable of seeing this, and conversely the whole sensible world is spiritually explained in the mind in the principles which it contains. In the spiritual world it is in principles; in the sensible world it is in figures. And their function was like a wheel within a wheel, as says the marvelous seer of extraordinary things, Ezekiel, in speaking, I think, of the two worlds.3
So if we continue to contemplate the onion dome in terms of its spheriness, we have in its frame and its surface a wheel within a wheel. When you consider the frame, the inner wheel, you can discern that its shape is limited by a beginning and end determined by the space surrounding it. The frame serves this specific purpose of carving the limits of a shape out of space. But when you consider specifically the surface, the outer wheel, on its own terms, there is no beginning or end discernible; it is just endlessly round, with no discernible starting point. These two elements, then, follow the same pattern of Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration as interpreted by St. Maximus. That is to say, the spheriness of the onion dome symbolizes heaven and earth, intelligible creation and sensible creation, doing so without reference to a square as we’ve previously seen. There is just a frame extended in space (earth) covered with an orbicular surface that is relatively boundless (heaven). And the two unite together like a wheel within a wheel.
But this is all Pantheon-level cosmology, as the word spheriness might imply. Let’s stop thinking of the onion dome as a sphere, though, for the apex of this domal form is not spherical. This is where the Incarnation becomes real. At the top of the onion dome, the curve of the sphere stops being the curve of a sphere. It instead inverts itself so as to rise above its form and indicate a source of creation that is not contained within it. Thus the sphere becomes a line. All the spheriness of heaven and earth, surface and frame, being revealed to have a single linear axis, is drawn up along it and gathered at a single point, identified symbolically as the foot of the Cross.
And how could it be otherwise? Creation with all its being yearns for the source of its being, for the Being that is above all being — Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless His holy name (Ps. 102:1). And the Creator too must come down in love to embrace that which He creates in love, though if we describe this motion as a necessity, it is only deemed so by the love that transcends all necessity. The onion dome so rightfully indicates the Cross as the symbol of the source of this love.
For the Cross atop the onion dome is the symbolic equivalent of the central dome on Hagia Sophia. It is the Word of God making landfall in His creation and drawing it up into Himself. At this point where the dome and the Cross touch, there is usually a little ball shape. Practically this is to cover the joint, and symbolically — this is to cover the joint. This point is where the divine and human natures are joined in the Incarnation. How that happens is a mystery which cannot be explained or understood, and yet the source and purpose of the world cannot be explained or understood without it. So let it be marked with a little ball. And let this ball reveal to us that we do not know how these two natures could possibly be united.
The divine nature not being referenced alone, moreover, the Cross atop the onion dome symbolizes the Trinity of Persons. In liturgical practice, Orthodox Christians cross themselves when invoking the Trinity. The unbegotten Father is the head. The begotten Son is the downward motion. The proceeding Spirit is the horizontal, integrating motion that perfects the form. The Trinity is the one uncreated, pre-eternal God who by nature has no relation whatsoever with the heaven and earth that the Father creates through the Son and perfects by the Spirit. Yet the two natures are nevertheless united in the Incarnation of the Son.
The human being running along the surface of a sphere shouldn’t ever be able to reach the horizon dividing created and Uncreated and enter it. But with the onion dome, it’s as if God is reaching down to the poor soul playing endless Marco Polo and drawing him up into the horizon from which he had been so infinitely separated.
The inverted arc of the onion dome, then, performs that crucial symbolic function that Hagia Sophia’s pendentives did in integrating the forms beneath it while opening up a space for God to make contact. What in Hagia Sophia was a wide mouth for God to fill, here is a single point for Him to touch down upon. The whole top of the onion dome, from the foot of the Cross down to where the arc of the sphere inverts, presents us with another image of what in macrocosm is the throne of God herself, and in microcosm is the soul-topping trinity of mind, spirit, and logos.
St. Ephraim the Syrian would call this paradise. Paradise is that place in the world, described as a mountain, where God’s presence is centered. It is the place where the river of grace springs forth, divides in four, and feeds the planet. It is a place on earth; St. Maximus in his hierarchy of creation positions it below even the material heavens.4 That’s its starting place at least. By virtue of God’s presence it is raised higher, just like the Theotokos whom it prefigures. For the Theotokos having been made a little lower than the angels (cf. Ps. 8, Heb. 2), and furthermore a little lower than men, being of a conquered people, and a little girl at that — was yet chosen as the vessel of God in creation, becoming higher than even the loftiest angels.
So it is with paradise as St. Ephraim describes it. It is a material place, insofar as the soul cannot perceive it without the body’s senses;5 it is an earthly place, insofar as God planted it on the third day of creation with the trees and vegetation;6 and yet God’s presence is at its center,7 so that it is filled with spiritual beings.8 It circumscribes all land and sea, so St. Ephraim says (which accords with St. Maximus’s account), yet he goes even further to call it a “wreath that circles all of creation.”9 If this garden planted on earth can be said to circumscribe all heaven and earth, it could only be because God’s presence there makes it a type of the Theotokos who draws into herself all symbols pertaining to her.
And the top part of the onion dome symbolizes this mountain, in macrocosm the Theotokos, in microcosm the oculus of the deified mind. St. Ephraim says of paradise, “The summit of every mountain is lower than its summit, the crest of the Flood reached only its foothills.”10 The land and the seas, the mountains and the flood waters, these all pertain to the sphere of this world. The top of the onion dome circumscribes that sphere. Being of this world, it yet is raised above it.
Jonathan Pageau, under the influence of St. Ephraim, has drawn an iconographic image of paradise11 that maps perfectly onto the image of the onion dome presented here:
The mountain corresponds to the top of the onion dome. The circular base references the sphere beneath. The Cross is the tree of life at the summit. The flood waters can rise no further than paradise’s foothills, even as the gravity of the sphere is outmatched by the incarnation of God. The fence is where the arc of the sphere inverts.
Cosmologists, take notice: We do not live on the surface of a sphere. The world is not flat, but the world is not a sphere. The world is an onion dome. Atop it is the Cross, and everything beneath swings on its axis.
I might have known this earlier than I did. In high school, though, I was inducted into knowledge of a different, if similar shape of the universe. Most lucidly, I read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, in which he describes a model of cosmology determined in real time by a big bang at its beginning and a big crunch at its end. The universe flows out of and back into itself. Beyond this model of real time, however, in which things are yet bound by the arrow of causality, Hawking also describes, lying above it, a level of imaginary time which is relatively boundless. The plane of imaginary time (a mathematical invention based on the square root of negative one) can be traveled endlessly in all directions, traversing even the poles of the bang and crunch at the beginning and end — yet it can never escape the horizon of its own existence.12 It has required some personal archeology on my part (I did not pursue study of physics or mathematics past high school), but I think the tools I’ve used to contemplate the onion dome, while enhanced and made sure by the teachings of the Church, were first given me by the likes of Stephen Hawking.
For the symbolic cosmology that I culturally inherited was like a crossless, inverted onion dome — a sphere the bottom of which rises to a point within itself. If one, reading Hawking, were to understand real time as a material body, finite and bounded, and imaginary time as its spiritual soul, finite but boundless, one would form in the mind an image of the cosmos as a macroanthropos. This composite nature would yield then a singular image. The bounded body and boundless soul are the frame and surface of a sphere. That they are nonetheless equally finite suggests a singularity out of which they descend and back to which they return. The onion dome has been reverse engineered with a bottom-up methodology — an inverted onion dome, frame and surface flowing out of and back into itself.
The shape is nearly the same, but most critically the source and purpose are identified differently. In place of God, there is the self. The Psalmist says that the Lord is our God, that “It is He that hath made us, and not we ourselves” (Ps. 99:2). When the scientist contrariwise depicts creation as self-contained, creation as creating itself, it is in support of a fractally egocentric cosmology, since in either system the cosmos is a macroanthropos and man is a microcosmos. Friedrich Nietzsche puts it in philosophical terms better than any other. “I live in my own light,” he writes; “I drink back into myself the flames that break out of me.”13
We have here the cardioid shape of the inverted onion dome, sans cross. In the animation above, we see geometrically how a cardioid shape is created. The black circle is the scientific self. The blue circle is the phantom of objective perspective assumed by scientism; it is tethered to the self that projects it. The red cardioid is the cosmology that results. Nietzsche preaches
The most comprehensive soul, which can run stray and roam farthest within itself; the most necessary soul, which out of sheer joy plunges itself into chance; the soul which, having being, dives into becoming; the soul which has, but wants to want and will; the soul which flees itself and catches up with itself in the widest circle; … the soul which loves itself most, in which all things have their sweep and countersweep and ebb and flood…14
How did my civilization, once based on Christian faith, get to the point of inverting the onion dome? Having been taught the loving, ever new, always exciting eternal return of the Other, how did we come to prefer the self-centered boring old eternal return of the same?
The next and final part of the article, on Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence, will be published next Friday.
The Plan of the Article:
Α. MORSE AUDITORIUM, BOSTON UNIVERSITY
α. it began as Temple Israel
β. dome on a box
χ. the risk of collapse
ο. hemispherical interior
ω. God, heaven, and earth
Β. THE PANTHEON, ROME
α. the cosmos separate from God
β. the rectangular portico
χ. the dome and oculus
ο. oculus as mind
ω. Christian conversion
Ξ. HAGIA SOPHIA, CONSTANTINOPLE
ς. the semi-domes
ζ. the pendentives
η. the dome
Ο. THE ONION DOME, LAND OF THE RUS’
α. history and practicality
β. frame and surface
ξ. the Cross
ο. tip as paradise
ω. potential for inversion
Ω. BRUNELLESCHI’S DOME, FLORENCE
α. a giant hole to fill
β. self-supporting walls
ξ. oculus complete
ο. the lantern
ω. ambiguity and judgment
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- I call this kind of structure a “ksiasmus.” It is related to the chiasmus, but whereas chiasmus is named after the Greek letter chi (Χ) because of its inverse parallel structure, a ksiasmus has a direct parallel structure and so is named after the Greek letter ksi (Ξ). It is a form not uncommonly found in Scripture. An easy example to point to is the arrangement of the camps of Israel around the tabernacle in Numbers 2. They are listed in the following order: east camp, south camp, central camp, west camp, north camp.
- See Maximos the Confessor, On Difficulties, Volume I, pp. 264–67. Cf. Maximus the Confessor (Routledge, 1996), p. 131.
- Maximus Confessor. Selected Writings, at 189.
- See Ambiguum 41. Maximos the Confessor, On Difficulties, Volume II, pp. 103–7.
- See St. Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns on Paradise (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1990), p. 132.
- Ibid., p. 200.
- Ibid., p. 89.
- Ibid., p. 105.
- Ibid., pp. 80–81.
- Ibid., pp. 78–79.
- See Jonathan Pageau, “Designing an Image of Everything,” Orthodox Arts Journal, July 30, 2020. Also idem, “Creating a Cosmic Image” (YouTube, July 30, 2020).
- See Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (Bantam Books, 1998), e.g., pp. 138–46.
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Penguin Books, 1966), p. 106.
- Ibid., pp. 208–09.