On the Symbolic Meaning of Domes, parts one and two
These are the first two parts of a five-part article. The remaining three parts will be published weekly on the next three Fridays.
The Plan of the Article:1
Α. MORSE AUDITORIUM, BOSTON UNIVERSITY
Blessed is the man that hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly. (Ps. 1:1)
It began as Temple Israel, constructed in the early 1900s at 602 Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, Massachusetts, designed as the home for a growing community of Reformed Jews. In the 1960s, it was sold to Boston University when the congregation relocated. Since then it has been the Alfred A. Morse Auditorium, facility for sundry university functions. It was there around the turn of the millennium that I audited art history lectures in college, and it was in those lectures that I was first schooled in the structure of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
It was a good place to receive such a lesson, for, as the lecturer pointed out, the building itself possessed a design directly descended from that historic 6th-century cathedral. From the exterior, Morse Auditorium can be described quite simply: it is a cubic box with a round dome on top.
The problem is, architecturally, you can’t put a round dome in the middle of a square roof like this. The dome is too heavy and the roof will collapse. The vectors of the dome’s weight actually push outward as well as down, so even if the roof didn’t collapse first, the walls would eventually give way. In the interior of this box, a solution needs to be found that not only helps bear the downward thrust of the dome’s weight, but also — since there’s nothing exterior to the cube helping support its walls — helps bear the lateral thrust of the weight as well.
As can be seen in the picture above, the interior of the cube is not cubic but hemispherical (the windows at the top are along the base of the superior dome; by the hemispherical interior I refer to the shape of the walls beneath the dome). As I remember the professor describing it, the feat was something like putting a dome on top of a dome. The combination of a spherical interior and cubic exterior hold up the dome appearing to float above.
At the time I was auditing these lectures, I was at the beginning of my life as an Orthodox Christian. Hagia Sophia in Constantinople was a grander, more complex structure than the converted Jewish temple in which I was then sitting, but this was a righteous beginning to my understanding of the symbolism of domes. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth, and in Morse Auditorium we have a dome (God) visiting and presiding over a partnership of sphere and cube (heaven and earth). Or in microcosm: God (the dome) took dust from the earth (the cubic exterior) and breathed into it the breath of life (the hemispherical interior) — and man became a living soul.
Β. THE PANTHEON, ROME
Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great mercy. (Ps. 50:1)
Before anyone could think of putting a dome on top of a dome, though, there had to be a dome in the first place, and the best in the ancient world was the Pantheon in Rome, built in the early second century.
Originally a temple dedicated to all gods, the Pantheon presents us with an image of the cosmos separate from the God who created it. From a rectangular portico one enters into the suggested shape of a perfect sphere contained within a cylindrical base topped by a massive concrete dome.
The rectangular portico is symbolically important. As Jonathan Pageau will tell you in many different ways in his article, “Heaven Is Round. Earth Is Square,” the earth is square, and heaven is round.2 Like earth and heaven themselves, these geometrical symbols scale to different levels of the hierarchy. The circle and square correspond symbolically to heaven and earth, soul and body, spiritual realm and material realm. The earth is square because it is a plane that spreads in four directions and is materially stable. Heaven is round because it has an infinite amount of sides and contains the potential, the seed, for all other shapes.
With the Pantheon, the rectangular shape does not yet encompass the interior hemisphere in the way that it will with Hagia Sophia and Morse Auditorium, but still, if the experience of the building is considered sequentially, only by way of the rectangular portico does one enter the spherical space inside. Phenomenologically at least, the sphere is within the box. Originally, in fact, colonnades in the courtyard would have hidden the sides of the rotunda from the sight of those approaching the building.3 The innovative rounded internal space was thus held as a secret, concealed by the standard rectilinear facade. The marble floor design itself emphasizes the idea of circles inside squares in a checkerboard pattern.4) It’s rather the ceiling, though, where the secret is made known.
The dome of the building — largest in the world for a very long time — is supported vertically by a cylindrical structure behind the rectangular portico and horizontally by gradually thicker walls around its base (on account of which the exterior of the dome looks flatter than the perfectly round interior). The horizontal layers of square coffers in the concrete, descending from the top in increasing size symbolizing the hierarchy of the many (squares) beneath the one (circle), reduce the weight of the dome and give it rigidity, preventing it from collapsing. Equally helping in this regard is the weight of the stones used in the cement, starting with heavier, sturdier stones towards the base and gradually getting lighter, until porous volcanic rock is used at the top around the oculus. These architectural necessities are responding to the same natural law by which a cosmic hierarchy is perceived, whereby light airiness is found at top and thick materiality is found at bottom.
The oculus at the very top of the building — oculus is Latin for eye — is the only source of light besides the front doors when open. It is the apex of the dome, the cosmological symbol of the one that crowns the many, the principality from and to which the mountain of creation descends and ascends. The light coming from this window accordingly illumines the whole interior. By all accounts, the grand geometrical harmony of this building affords the person who steps into it a transcendent experience of space. Notice also in the picture above that the square coffers in the dome do not align with the row of rectangular frames directly beneath them. This effect makes the dome feel free and independent from the necessity of what occurs below. Thus the transcendent experience also gives the impression of liberation.
Do recognize, though, that the oculus represents a point that is not separate from the dome. It may be the highest point, but it is still contained within the arc of the whole. Though presented as the one from which the many descend, it yet is not worthy of being worshiped as the God who creates both the many and the one.
It would be the appropriate vantage point to perceive such a God, however, should the Creator of all choose to reveal Himself. If the cube is the body and the sphere is the soul, the oculus is the eye of the soul — the mind, or nous. Witness what St. John Damascene writes in Exact Exposition 2.12:
A soul is a living substance, simple and incorporeal, of its own nature invisible to bodily eyes, activating an organic body in which it is able to cause life, growth, sensation, and reproduction. It does not have the mind as something distinct from itself, but as its purest part, for, as the eye is to the body, so is the mind to the soul.5
If being in the Pantheon feels so transcendent and liberating, it must be from the fractal resonance, from the experience of seeing that which is inside you exteriorized around you so perfectly. It is also a cosmic image. But most wondrously it is a cosmic image created by men inside the cosmic image, made possible by our dominion over material creation combined with our spiritual ability to perceive heavenly forms.
Whereas on the microcosmic scale, the cube is the body, the sphere is the soul, and the oculus is the nous — on the macrocosmic scale, the cube is earth, the sphere is heaven, and the oculus is the throne of God, seen by prophets in their visions when taken up into heaven (e.g., Is. 6:1). There it is described as cherubim and seraphim, the highest ranks of angels, but the true identity of the throne in the end is revealed to be she who is made higher than them all.
The Pantheon was not constructed as a Christian building. Its oculus is contained within the arc of its dome, and a terrible distance remains between it and the sun illumining it from above. But a bereft soul could not prepare itself for visitation from above with any greater structure than this. In 609 the Roman emperor bequeathed the Pantheon to the pope of Rome, and it was converted into a church dedicated to St. Mary and the Martyrs. The oculus of the Pantheon, and all that it represents, was transferred to the Panagia. Twenty-eight cartloads of martyrs’ relics were transferred from the city’s catacombs and placed under a new altar.6 The historic building might not have survived to our times had it not been converted; it has remained an operating church for the past 1,400 years. Every Pentecost Sunday, firemen scale the top of the dome and drop red rose petals through the oculus, which drift down from above like tongues of fire.7 The Lord has great mercy.
The next part of the article, on Hagia Sophia, will be published next Friday, February 18.
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 Jonathan Pageau, “Heaven Is Round. Earth Is Square”, Orthodox Arts Journal, November 13, 2014. For further background, consult René Guénon, The Reign of Quantity and the Sign of the Times, Chapter 20, “From Sphere to Cube” (Sophia Perennis, 1945), pp. 137–43.
- See the illustration in the Khan Academy video “The Pantheon,” at 1:02.
- The floor we see today conforms to the original design, though it is estimated that two-thirds of its material have been replaced in restorations through the years. See Chris Legare, “The Pantheon,” https://www.atouchofrome.com/the_pantheon.html. (This article has a lot of information that goes beyond the standard Wikipedia content.)
- Saint John of Damascus, Writings (The Catholic University of America Press, 1958), p. 236.
- “Pope St. Boniface IV,” Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913.
- For moving video of this event, see Darius Arya Digs, “Pentecost Pantheon: Rose petal shower” (YouTube, May 31, 2020).