Religious Symbolism and the Modern City, Part One: From the Reformation to Today

Mario BaghosSymbolic World Icon
November 7, 2023


Mircea Eliade famously argued that ancient cities were envisaged by their makers and inhabitants as intersecting and encompassing the three basic cosmic tiers of heaven, earth, and the underworld. This intersection would often take place at hierophanic or theophanic junctures, perhaps originally natural ones such as mountains, where the sacred was manifested. The hierophany prompted in turn a response on the part of human beings that organised themselves around these junctures. Examples of this sort of activity can be discerned in ancient Mesopotamia, where the first cities in the historical record, Eridu, Nippur, and later Babylon, were viewed as imagines et axes mundi (images and centres of the world). It was at these imagines et axes mundi that the cosmic realms were recapitulated and the gods revealed themselves. Thus, their principal temples, the ziggurats, were made to resemble mountains. In Egypt, the primordial mound that, illo tempore, was believed to have emerged from the watery cosmic abyss—the Nun—was recapitulated within temples that were the focal point of Egyptian cities, such as Hermopolis and Heliopolis.

For the Greeks, such perceptions of cities were manifested in Minoan and Mycenaean temple structures and palaces, before becoming popularised through Delphi and Troy. Rome took Greece’s attitude towards the city and amplified it more than any other, with many symbols in its Forum demonstrating that it was at the crossroads of the world and the cosmos (hence, Roma aeterna and Roma caput mundi). Jerusalem was considered as having been built over the abyss holding back the subterranean waters, and through its temple it reflected the theophanic imago et axis mundi symbolism expressed by the narrative of the garden of Eden which was embodied in its architectural design. For cities in Christendom, symbolic objects—icons and statues—were deployed both within churches and public spaces in order to manifest that civilisation’s worldview, which included the cosmic harmony punctuated by the sacred in particular places (the Holy Land, Rome), people (the cult of relics), and in every shrine. This gave Christians a sense of belonging to an ordered universe, which is especially manifested in domed Orthodox churches—the dome symbolising the cosmos—marked by the image of Jesus Christ as Pantokrator or ‘Master of All’ giving the blessing of peace in its centre; thereby denoting that Christ is the engenderer of peace, well-being, and salvation for the cosmos that had been recapitulated in this space.

Modern cities, on the other hand, are not mainly conditioned by religious structures, temples or churches that recapitulate the cosmos within which the sacred is revealed. They are instead shaped by economic and materialistic forces: by glass and metal skyscrapers belonging, for the most part, to corporations that advertise their products in various ways through electronic billboards and signs. This reflects a financially driven utilitarian mentality that is distinct from—and contrasts to—representations of the cosmos and God that prevailed in ancient and medieval cities. But the modern city as described above did not emerge overnight. It is the end result of various ideological and socio-political/economic developments that, it will be argued, were marked by anthropocentrism—the belief and heuristic that the human being is the most important element in the universe, above both God (or the sacred) and the cosmos;1 an anthropocentrism that was manifested especially in neoclassicism—the return to Graeco-Roman humanist aesthetics—and civil religion, the veneration of soldiers as national heroes.

This article is in two parts. The first part will account for the difference between ancient and medieval cities, on the one hand, and modern cities, on the other, by addressing the decline of Christian symbolism in the public space via the rise of anthropocentrism in the West from the time of the Reformation. This, it will be shown, influenced the nature and shape of the contemporary urban environment. In the second part we shall see that this anthropocentrism, which conditioned the city space through neoclassicism and civil religion, eventually failed, and was replaced by the corporate commoditisation of goods and services which are sold through advertising. The latter thus conditions and even dominates the modern city space: new symbols for our new sensibilities. It will conclude with a reflection on the impact this has had on our psychological—and spiritual—wellbeing.

The Rise and Fall of Anthropocentrism and its Impact on the City

It would be unrealistic to assume that anthropocentrism, which occludes, in various ways, both the cosmos and the sacred, is an entirely new phenomenon. Anthropocentrism has been with humanity for a long time, and, on a superficial level, is simply part of the subjective way in which human beings view the world. But the emphasis on the human person as the only hermeneutical factor in the interpretation—and thus calibration—of the sacred, in stark contrast to their belonging to a cosmos imbued with the sacred, is reflected in the Protestant Reformation. Specifically, it can be discerned in Martin Luther’s slogan of sola fide2, with sola scriptura leading, in some Reformation milieus (like Zwingli’s Switzerland, Calvinist Scotland, and Reformed England) to the destruction of symbols in the ecclesial and public space; to iconoclasm3.

This mindset betrayed an anti-material approach towards the sacred, which could only be revealed through scripture, and not through the material elements of Church tradition that included not just the sacraments (baptism, the Eucharist, etc.), but also symbolic art and architecture. It also stemmed from a dualism that had been canonised centuries earlier, on a theological level, with the separation of theology from the liturgical space by the scholastics4—who sharply divided the natural and supernatural realms—and which was furthered by the Reformers (e.g. Luther’s sharp division of the spiritual and bodily man).5

There are nuances in the many reforms that took place and their effects on public life. Max Weber pointed out that the rise of capitalism actually had its source in the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. Jean Calvin famously posited that the righteous are predestined for heaven and the unrighteous for hell. The only caveat, however, was that both the righteous and the unrighteous could never have any certainty about their salvation in this life. This caused interminable anxiety, and there were two interconnected ways in which the Calvinist was called to alleviate it. The first was through an active self confidence in one’s election by God, which was in turn (and secondly) bolstered with “intense worldly activity” as exemplified by their vigorous mercantilism.6

In order to account for the overwhelming majority of Protestants, as opposed to Catholics, in commercial enterprises in the twentieth century, Weber argued that the difference cannot simply be reduced to Catholics being more interested in spirituality and Protestants in materialism.7 I would argue that the dissolution of Christian art, statues, etc.—and the symbols they were comprised of and contained—in some Protestant milieus severed the existential bridges needed for them to be more preoccupied with genuine spirituality. This led gradually to a preponderant interest in material-producing-labour, undertaken for the service of God and neighbour.

In any case, the gradual destruction of Christian symbols and the rise of anthropocentrism brought about by individualistic readings of scripture (compounded by Renaissance sensibilities concerning the importance of ‘man’),8 the ensuing battles between Protestants and Catholics throughout the European continent (such as the Thirty Years’ War), and the involvement of governments in these conflicts9 led to a dissolution of religion within the public space, and in cities in particular.

John Locke’s theory of the relationship between Church and state, which underpinned the emergence of modern nations, was drafted precisely as a reaction to the religious conflicts sparked by the Reformation.10 In it, Locke stated that “the business of civil government” and “that of religion” should be strictly demarcated. The former should concern itself with “civil interests” only, i.e. “life, liberty, health, and indolency of body, and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like.” Religious interests, on the other hand, should be confined to the “salvation of souls.”11 That this formulation reflects the Protestant dualistic depreciation of material devices such as symbols is evident in the fact that religion is only concerned here with “inner” experience. It must not therefore impinge on the external domain, or public life, which was indeed heretofore conditioned by religious symbols. Public life was instead to be regulated and controlled by governments which have both materialistic and financial concerns.

The occlusion of God from the public space was made even more emphatic in the Enlightenment, with its anthropocentric emphasis on human reason as the highest authority in all spheres of life.12 The Enlightenment critiques of religion, especially of Christianity,13 that had supplied much of the aesthetic of cities for so many centuries, led to the further dissolution of Christian symbolism in the public space. This was related to the rise of deism that posited that God was not interested in the affairs of human beings, who in turn should now govern themselves according to reason.14 But in this period, like in any other, human beings still needed to express their deepest yearnings and aspirations with symbols. Thus, it is no surprise that majority Protestant countries, such as England, Scotland, and North America (and later Europe) witnessed the proliferation of secretive fraternities, like the Freemasons, who syncretistically deployed symbols from ancient paganism, Judaism, and Christianity, in their rituals.

Deism was galvanised in the public arena by figures such as Locke, Voltaire (himself a Freemason), and Thomas Jefferson, who affirmed that religion, which is to be separated from the state, “is a matter which lies solely between man and his god.”15 This privatisation of religious experience reflects not only some Protestant trends, but also the policies of Adam Smith,16 who suggested that the existence of a single predominant religious institution in any country would rival, both politically and economically, the abiding sovereignty; and that governments would benefit from not allying with churches.17 According to Smith, this would result positively in a natural multiplication of religious sects that would negate the economic threat posed to the government by churches and other religious institutions.18 But what would be the concrete outcome of such ways of thinking in the public domain, in cities? What would cities be populated with, from a symbolic point of view, if religion was entirely privatised?

Of course, Christian symbols did not disappear entirely: they were still utilised in this period. But they were not as ubiquitous as before, and indeed became less and less attractive to those countries that embraced Protestant sensibilities. Thus, substitutes were needed, and were to be found in two main sources. The first was in the replacement of Jesus Christ and the saints—who in artistic form would have populated the public spaces of cities in Christendom—with secular alternatives.

These were the national heroes of the French and American revolutions, commemorated in various war memorials, treated as sacred spaces,19 that were designed according to the paradigm of the second and related substitute for Christian symbolism: neoclassicism.

Melbourne, Australia’s Shrine of Remembrance is an example of late neoclassicism (it was completed in 1934). It is based on the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the ancient seven wonders of the world, forming a stepped pyramid (ziggurat) with classical porticoes—comprised of eight Doric columns each—on its northern and southern sides. (Photo by author, 2013)

Neoclassicism refers to “the revival of classical art and architecture beginning in Europe in the 1750s and lasting until around 1830, with late neoclassicism lingering on through the 1870s.”20 This movement witnessed a return to ancient Greek and Roman aesthetics that conditioned most early modern cities, and not just in the war memorials that began cropping up from the eighteenth century onwards. One need only observe the Capitol building in Washington D.C. or the many other domed buildings in the National Mall in this city to discern the impact of ancient Greece and Rome on its aesthetics.21

The Capitol in Washington D.C. was finally completed by 1819. The second dome was completed by 1863. Its upper half is supported by forty peristyle columns which, in their circular form, are modelled on the ancient Greek tholos (and also resemble the temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum). (Photo by author, 2013)

Greek key designs, called a meander or meandros (Μαίανδρος), would come to adorn the façades of various modern structures. These were popular in ancient Greek and Roman buildings as signifiers of the Maeander River in southwestern Turkey. Moreover, as Karl Kerenyi has argued, the meander represents “the figure of the labyrinth in linear form.”22

The meander on the Department of Commerce building in Washington D.C. (Photo by author, 2013)

The meander in a New York subway. (Photo by author, 2013)
The meander in Grand Central Terminal, New York. (Photo by author, 2013)
The meander above the lintel of a Masonic Hall in Manhattan’s Flatiron district, New York. (Photo by author, 2013)

The erection of obelisks—symbolising the advent of wisdom and democracy23—in various capitals from Washington D.C.24 to Sydney, points to the Masonic influence on the design of modern cities,25 and the erection of triumphal arches in Paris, Berlin, and New York,26 showcases the return of imperial symbols of prestige and power at a time when nations were embracing various forms of democratic government.\

The Washington Monument, completed in 1886. (Source: Wikipedia)
The Hyde Park Obelisk in Sydney, erected in 1857. There are sphinxes at the base of the obelisk where it meets the pedestal, demonstrating that neoclassicism also drew on other ancient civilisations. (Source: Wikipedia)
The Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile (The Triumphal Arch of the Star) in Paris, completed in 1836, honours those who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. (Photo by Gregory Vetsikas)
The Washington Square Arch in New York, completed in various stages between late 1800s/early 1900s to commemorate the centennial of George Washington’s 1789 inauguration as first president of the United States of America. (Photo by author, 2013)

But it is a characteristic of neoclassicism that it was antiquarian in nature. The rehabilitation of ancient Greek and Roman aesthetics was not necessarily associated with a unilateral revival of the Greek or Roman religious ideas that produced these aesthetics (except for perhaps among theosophists and the like). In other words, early modern cities were filled with non-Christian religious structures that imitated the form of the temples and images of the ancient world, but not their content, meaning that they were not to be construed as symbolically imaging the cosmos through which the sacred could be participated in.

A late example of the neoclassical style, the domed Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C. was completed in 1943. (Photo by author, 2013)
The underside of the dome in the Jefferson Memorial. It is empty. (Photo by author, 2013)

The underside of domes in buildings that look like the Pantheon in Rome or Byzantine churches like Hagia Sophia were thus often empty, and attempts to fill them with content that was religious or cosmic in nature can only be interpreted as romantic idealism. See, for examples, the fresco of the apotheosis of George Washington on the underside of the dome of the Capitol building in D.C.,27 or the depiction of the signs of the zodiac on the ceiling of New York’s Grand Central Terminal.28

The underside of the dome of the Capitol building showing George Washington ascending to heaven and becoming a god (apotheosis). It was painted by Greek-Italian artist Constantino Brumidi in 1865. (Source: Wikipedia)
Mercury (centre), Hercules (left), and Minerva (right) comprising ‘The Glory of Commerce’ group of statues atop the façade of Grand Central Terminal, unveiled in 1914. (Photo by author, 2013)
Grand Central Terminal’s Main Concourse ceiling is an elliptical barrel vault that depicts the zodiacal constellations as seen in a Mediterranean winter sky. It was installed in 1944. (Photo by author, 2013)

It would be remiss of me not to say something about the impact of these trends, particularly anthropocentrism, upon human perspectives of the cosmos that includes the natural world. Of course, the rise of mercantilism in the sixteenth century would mean that human beings would be even more compelled to exploit nature to produce material goods, and we have seen that Weber highlighted the Calvinist contribution to capitalism,29 which in fact exacerbated this problem. But the anthropocentrism that, in the modern epoch, construes the human being as having its own history apart from the cosmos, nature and God, really took off in the nineteenth century. This is a period which Lewis Mumford identified as capitalistic par excellence,30 and which was marked by the emergence of philosophies of history—Marxist, liberalist, etc.—that did not positively consider the cosmos or the natural world. Developments in the human sciences, in economics, sociology, anthropology, archaeology, and, gradually, psychology, also attest to this anthropocentrism that addressed humanity as that which, according to Michel Foucault, constituted itself “in Western culture as both that which must be conceived of and that which is to be known.”31 In the beginning of the twentieth century—which more than any other testified to the exploitation of natural resources for material gain—Alfred North-Whitehead summarised the anthropocentric mentality, that denied nature, as follows:

…nature gets credit which in truth should be reserved for ourselves: the rose for its scent: the nightingale for his song: the sun for his radiance. The poets are entirely mistaken. They should address their lyrics to themselves, and should turn them into odes of self-congratulation on the excellency of the human mind. Nature is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colourless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly.32

Modernity thus confirmed the belief that human beings are the only meaningful agent, not necessarily in nature—which is ‘dull’ and ‘meaningless’—but in the history that we create for ourselves. This does not mean that advances were not taking place in the sciences, such as astronomy, quantum physics, etc., that dealt with the cosmos. Indeed, their immense popularity today can be traced to their steady rise from around the same period with which we began our assessment: for Galileo Galilei belonged to the generation that succeeded Martin Luther, and Isaac Newton and John Locke were near contemporaries. Nevertheless, the degradation of the natural world, and the problem of global warming, fuelled by capitalist interests that are the main preoccupation of modern governments, are outcomes of such a mentality. These problems, however, are gradually being addressed, to the degree that alarmist views of ecological degradation do not sufficiently acknowledge successful ecological restoration in many parts of the world, or technological advances that are helping to clean our water supplies.33

In relation to the modern city, recently there have been positive attempts to re-connect human activities to nature within buildings, with construction ecology helping to articulate “the philosophical and technical foundations for the international movement most commonly referred to as the green building.”34 This movement has done much to help reduce resource consumption, promote recycling, protect existing ecosystems, incorporate plant life into buildings, and raise the general awareness for the plight of the natural world in the construction of modern buildings.35 Nevertheless the contrast between buildings as products of human industry—especially in modernity—and natural ecological systems,36 is just too great. And although the “green building” movement has made us aware of the need to connect with nature, still, the fact that we belong to a cosmos seems to be something that only ancient, medieval, and early modern persons were able to include in the buildings and monuments of their cities.

In the next part of this article, we will see that the modern city is conditioned by the capitalist enterprise that emerged from the anthropocentrism that we addressed above. However, due to various factors, including the onset of nihilism in the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries, the two world wars and postmodernism, the emphasis on human beings/reason as an ideal was eroded. Instead, corporations, driven by capitalist interests including the buying and selling of goods, increasingly influenced the urban landscape through advertisements—a form of symbolism—such that the human person was endowed with value only insofar as he or she was a consumer. Moreover, the decisive influence that capitalism and corporations had on the shape and form of modern cities can be discerned in the deployment of symbols that did not—as in ancient and medieval cities—function as imagines et axes mundi trying to bring heaven down to earth. Instead, these symbols were reflexive, beginning with the products advertised and their immediate satiation of human desires (vanity, appetite, sex, etc.). The impact of such symbols on human psychological and spiritual wellbeing will be addressed in the conclusion in part two.

Dr Mario Baghos is Senior Lecturer in Patristics and Church History at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College, Sydney, Australia, and Chief Publishing Officer of St Andrew’s Orthodox Press. His book, From the Ancient Near East to Christian Byzantium: Kings, Symbols, and Cities (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2021), comprehensively addresses themes related to religious symbolism in ancient and medieval cities both diachronically and cross-culturally. The present article comprises a coda to this book.

This article is currently being edited and will be reposted soon

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  1. It is important to note that by anthropocentrism, I do not mean general human subjectivism, or even selfishness.
  2. Martin Luther, Preface to the Epistle of St Paul to the Romans, in Martin Luther: Selections from his Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (New York: Doubleday, 1961), 22
  3. Lee Palmer Wandel, ‘The Reformation and the Visual Arts,’ in The Cambridge History of Christianity, vol. 6: Reform and Expansion 1500-1660, ed. R. Po-Chia Hsia (Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 348-349, 353.
  4. Robert Bartlett, The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 9-17.
  5. Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian, in Martin Luther: Selections from his Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (New York: Doubleday, 1961), 53.
  6. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (London and New York: Routldge, 2001), 66-67.
  7. Ibid., 7.
  8. Roger Smith, The Fontana History of the Human Sciences, ed. Roy Porter (London: Fontana Press, 1997), 80.
  9. Hartmut Lehmann, ‘Lutheranism in the Seventeenth Century,’ in The Cambridge History of Christianity, Reform and Expansion: 1500-1660, ed. R. Po-chia Hsia (Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 65-66.
  10. John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration, in Two Treatises of Government and a Letter Concerning Toleration, ed. Ian Shapiro (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003), 213-214.
  11. Ibid., 218.
  12. Samuel Enoch Stumpf and James Fieser, Socrates to Sartre and Beyond: A History of Philosophy (New York: McGraw Hill, 2008), 257.
  13. C. J. Betts, Early Deism in France: From the so-called déistes of Lyon (1564) to Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques (1734) (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1984), 238-239, 246, 251.
  14. Stumpf and Fieser, Socrates to Sartre and Beyond, 254-255.
  15. Religious Liberty and Toleration VII.3, in Jefferson: Political Writings, ed. Joyce Appleby and Terence Ball (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 397.
  16. Samuel Fleischacker, ‘Adam Smith’s Reception among the American Founders 1776-1790,’ The William and Mary Quarterly 59:4 (2002), 903.
  17. Samuel Fleischacker, On Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004), 237.
  18. Ibid., 237-238
  19. James M. Mayo, ‘War Memorials as Political Memory,’ Geographical Review 78:1 (1988): 62-63.
  20. Allison Lee Palmer, Historical Dictionary of Neoclassical Art and Architecture (Plymouth, UK: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2011), 1.
  21. William C. Allen, History of the United States Capitol: A Chronicle of Design, Construction, and Politics (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2001), 13.
  22. Karl Kerenyi, Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 89.
  23. John Zukowsky, ‘Monumental American Obelisks: Centennial Vistas,’ The Art Bulletin 58:4 (1976): 574.
  24. Ibid., 577
  25. John A. Weiss, The Obelisk and Freemasonry according to the Discoveries of Belzoni and Commander Gorringe (New York: J. W. Bouton, 1880), 9.
  26. S. D. Adshead, ‘The Decoration and Furnishing of the City,’ The Town Planning Review 2:1 (1911): plates 19, 21, and 23.
  27. Allen, History of the United States Capitol, 340.
  28. Kurt C. Schlichting, Grand Central Terminal: Railroads, Engineering, and Architecture in New York City (Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 217-218.
  29. Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 66-67, 175.
  30. Lewis Mumford, The City in History: its Origins, its Transformations, and its Prospects (London: Secker and Warburg, 1961), 426.
  31. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (Oxford: Routledge, 2008), 376.
  32. Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World: Lowell Lectures, 1925 (USA: Pelican Mentor Book, 1948), 56.
  33. Ronald Bailey and Marian L. Tupy, Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know: And Many Others You Will Find Interesting (Washington D.C.: Cato Institute, 2020), 35, 105.
  34. Charles J. Kibert, ‘Introduction,’ in Construction Ecology: Nature as the basis for green buildings, ed. Kibert, Jan Sendzimir, and G. Bradley Guy (London and New York: Spon Press, 2002), 1.
  35. Ibid., 2.
  36. Ibid., 1.

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