Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Semiotics of Sacred Architecture

The role of images in churches and the various levels of signification in liturgical objects and architecture contribute toward a complex semiotics of sacred space. This system of symbol, index and icon provides a framework for understanding visual experience, aesthetic response and concepts of space. When considering the meaning of the space, it is important to pay attention to the architecture, the objects within the space, the people accessing the space and the action that takes place, as parts of an inseparable whole. Neglecting the architecture when contemplating the image or ignoring the image when considering the space will almost always result in our only half-grasping the meaning of sacred space. Spatial experience and the context for the display and use of the image are influential in both signification and interpretation.
Mircea Eliade used the term “hierophany” to describe how heaven, earth, and the underworld are linked together by the vertical “axis mundi” of a sacred space. The use of light and the height of the ceilings in Gothic Churches form an axis mundi which serves to signify transcendence and inspire awe. The signifier (high ceilings and ethereal light) and the signified (transcendence) unite to form the sign which is ‘transcendental space.’ The message of transcendence cannot be disassociated from the space as long as the signifier forms an integral part of the church and is weighted with the definite signified. A space of similar dimensions and volume outside of a building reserved for religious ritual will not function as a sign in the same way. The purpose and function of the building therefore determines the making of the sign. The signifier becomes just an empty space or void without the signified. An arbitrary endowment of meaning upon the architecture of sacred spaces transforms the building into a signification of religious aspiration for the aesthete and a sign of divine presence for the believer. The Romanesque signifier of transcendence is itself formed of the sum of a series of signs. The high arches, large entrances, and narrow windows all function as signs independent of one another yet cooperate toward a global signification of holiness and transcendence.

Roland Barthes defined 'myth' as a type of speech, conceiving language, discourse and speech to be “any significant unit or synthesis” that carries meaning. For Barthes, the signifier can be seen as either the final term of the linguistic system or the first term of the mythical system. Rituals, architecture and symbols as materials of mythical speech are reduced to a pure signifying function as soon as they are caught up with myth. According to Barthe “Myth can be defined neither by its object nor by its material, for any material can arbitrarily be endowed with meaning.” The stone altar endowed with significance represents an iconic iconicity where the form of the sign is similar to its meaning. Iconicity is the extent to which a sign has the properties of its denotatum or referent. On the plane of language, the meaning of the stone and its signification are already complete. The marble has a history, geology and geography. On the mythic plane, the altar is stripped back to its physicality as form and regresses from a linguistic sign to a mythical signifier. As soon as myth is involved, the stone is emptied and becomes a form awaiting signification to fill it. The altar as mythic form does not suppress the linguistic meaning of the stone, it only “impoverishes it, puts it at a distance, and holds it at [it's] disposal.” The concept of an altar and the signified sacrifice/offering will inevitably appeal to the believer in ways different to the aesthete. It is by no means an “abstract, purified essence” but a “formless, unstable, nebulous condensation, whose unity and coherence are above all due to its function.” For Christians, the altar is the site of sacrifice and nourishment; offering a liturgical point of reference for their joys and sufferings. Images in the vicinity of the altar have been customary since the days of the catacombs.

The church as a repository for symbols and ideas functions as a container or vessel filled with memories that cue the mind to recall previous encounters with the Divine. A Church could therefore be a kind of memory temple, layered with stories and symbols which embed themselves in the mind and heart, something to sustain the soul when no longer there.

An architectonic formation consists o transmitted information carried by a variety of co-present sign types. The primary unit in the code which is directly significative is the space-cell, having two alternate formal realisations: (1) a distinctive spatial configuration bounded by masses (a closed cell), and (2) a distinctive mass configuration bounded by space, which may or may not be artifactually delimited (an open cell or locus).
The space-cell enters into aggregations of cells (matrices) defined principally by the geometry of their tridimensional syntax or interaction. In general the matrix as an architectonic sign consists of an abstract diagram of arrangements which may have a wide variety of formal and material realisations. Essentially, at this level of organisation the focus of analysis is upon the relative arrangements of other signs (cells).
The architectonic code is built upon a principle of duality or double articulation. The 'smallest' directly-significative unit in a code, the space-cell, is built out of the sign-units which are not directly significative in themeselves, but are rather systematically-significant. Such forms function principally in a sense-discriminative manner to distinguish once cell from another, and are meaningful primaril in this sense. Forms may also serve sense-determinative functions as in the cases where a given facade or cell-component is directly significative of a certain conceptual domainArchitectonic forms may serve a dual significative role. They reveal a systematic function to discriminate one from from another in perceptuallu-palpable ways, and take on sense-determinative or sematectonic roles. (Preziosi, 1979. pg90)
An architectonic code comprises a hierarchical ordering of sign types in the following manner:
(a) features: formal / planar / topological
(b) systematic units: forms / planes / domains
(c) directly significative units: cells
(d) aggrgates of units
A church or liturgical environment is a complex spatiotemporal framework for human action and interaction whose components are less like building blocks and more like patterns of potential signification; their structures are not to be found as a definitive arrangement

There are two types of Architectonic signs; those with direct signification and those whose signification was indirect or systematic.

The Network of Architectonic Signs

A: Minimal sense-discriminative units, encoded as paradigmatic binary oppositions
B: Encoded as syntagmatically-simultaneous clusters of (A)
C: Maximal sense-discriminative units, encoded as syntagmatically-sequential arrays of (B), patterned alternations of (B) manifesting mass (consonantal) and space (vocalic) distinctive features
D: Minimal sense-determinative units, comprising one or more of (A), (B), or (C), either singly, simultaneously, or sequentially
E: Maximal sense-determinative units encoded as such in a system, comprising one or more of (D)
F: Minimal patterns of aggregation of sense-determinative units, comprising one or more of (E)
n: Maximal patterns of aggregation, comprising one or more of (F)

1. Marble; 2. Sidheropetra (ironstone); 3. Alablaster; 4. Breccia; 5. Kouskouras; 6. Gypsum; 7. Sandstone; 8. Shist; 9. Lime mortar; 10. Pozzolana; 11. Calcestruzzo; 12. Adobe; 13. Lepidha; 14. Rough stucco; 15. Terracotta; 16. Beaten earth; 17. Timber (mostly cypress); 18. Reeds

Contemporary Sacred Architecture

Alvaro Siza, Parish Church, Marco de Canavezes, Portugal, 1990-96

Giovanni Michelucci, Church of the Immaculate Conception, Longarone, Italy, 1966-78

Dominkis Bohm, Saint Engelbert Church, Cologne, 1930-32

Erik Gunnar Aspland, Woodland Cemetery Chapel, Stockholm 1918-20

Church of the Highlands, Baton Rouge, Louisiana - Trahan Architects

La Chapelle des Diaconesses de Reuilly, Versailles - Marc Rolinet

Takashi Yamaguchi, Buddhist Temple, Kyoto

Le Corbusier and Sacred Geometry

Le Corbusier, Modular, 1950. Source: Penwick, Nigel. Sacred Geometry: Symbolism and Purpose in Religious Structures. pg151

"I would like to present architecture's true image. It is determined by spiritual values derived from a particular state of consciousness, and by technical factors that assure the practical strength of an idea." Le Corbusier, Textes et dessins pour Ronchamp. Paris: Forces Vives, 1965

Annotations to Le Corbusier’s own copies of the journal L’Art Sacré indicate that he gave much thought to the ways in which he could revitalize the ceremonies of the Church with architecture.
"Ce protestant a rèussi la plus belle èglise catholique du siècle!"

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

William James and Mystical Experience

William James' four characteristics of mystical experience
“1. Ineffability.—The handiest of the marks by which I classify a state of mind as mystical is negative. The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words. It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. In this peculiarity mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect. No one can make clear to another who has never had a certain feeling, in what the quality or worth of it consists. One must have musical ears to know the value of a symphony; one must have been in love one’s self to understand a lover’s state of mind. Lacking the heart or ear, we cannot interpret the musician or the lover justly, and are even likely to consider him weak-minded or absurd. The mystic finds that most of us accord to his experiences an equally incompetent treatment.
2. Noetic quality.—Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time.
These two characters will entitle any state to be called mystical, in the sense in which I use the word. Two other qualities are less sharply marked, but are usually found. These are:
3. Transiency.—Mystical states cannot be sustained for long. Except in rare instances, half an hour, or at most an hour or two, seems to be the limit beyond which they fade into the light of common day. Often, when faded, their quality can but imperfectly be reproduced in memory; but when they recur it is recognized; and from one recurrence to another it is susceptible of continuous development in what is felt as inner richness and importance.
4. Passivity.—Although the oncoming of mystical states may be facilitated by preliminary voluntary operations, as by fixing the attention, or going through certain bodily performances, or in other ways which manuals of mysticism prescribe; yet when the characteristic sort of consciousness once has set in, the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power. This latter peculiarity connects mystical states with certain definite phenomena of secondary or alternative personality, such as prophetic speech, automatic writing, or the mediumistic trance. When these latter conditions are well pronounced, however, there may be no recollection whatever of the phenomenon and it may have no significance for the subject’s usual inner life, to which, as it were, it makes a mere interruption. Mystical states, strictly so called, are never merely interruptive. Some memory of their content always remains, and a profound sense of their importance. They modify the inner life of the subject between the times of their recurrence. Sharp divisions in this region are, however, difficult to make, and we find all sorts of gradations and mixtures.” Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. London: Routledge, 1902 pg 235-236

Spiritual Experience, Kali, Yin-Yang and Morality

Kali, the Hindu deity simultaneously destroys and creates; embodying chaos and order in one being. This inseparability between creation and destruction makes no distinction between a positive and negative act, considering them both as one. Kali and the Chinese diagram Yin-Yang represent the paradox of antagonistic principles co-existing in the same divinity. In Western thinking, there is a tendency to see the two as separable and distinguishable. In simple terms, the creative act is essentially good and the destructive act, evil. They stand in opposition and do not belong to one another. An act which gives life and one that takes it away cannot be given equal value. But this dualist alternative to co-incidentia oppositorum has not always been the dominant Western approach, nor need it be. In ancient Celtic times, it was customary for couples to make love outside the home of the recently deceased thus performing a life-giving act in defiance of death. Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Christ fulfilled a divine plan for the salvation of the world even though it was an abhorrent act. In terms of spirituality, taking and giving life are both potentially as spiritual as one another. Meditative prayer can lead to consolation, peace and tranquillity but it can also prompt horrific, dark visions. St Jerome of the Desert and Padre Pio were frequented by grotesque demonic creatures during their prayers. If it be possible to adapt the Eastern notion that destruction and creation, chaos and order co-exist paradoxically in the same divinity to the Western concept of good and evil, then the two become in essence the same. The act of killing another human being is potentially as spiritual as saving one (serving as an instrument of grace in the salvation of another). Perhaps this is why a killer often craves the next kill and the experience of stillness is craved by the monk. Both are being ‘fed’ by the experience of taking life.
Turning to digital games, where the first-person shooter variety simulates reality in an eerily convincing manner. The experience of killing (albeit simulated) is potentially as spiritual as having encountered a religious experience in a virtual environment. Once the psycho-conceptual gap is closed between the artificial simulation of reality and the player’s sense of being present in real space, the game becomes real. This moment may only last for a few seconds or minutes and only after prolonged play; not too different from the experience of consolation during prayer – rarely does it last for more than a couple of minutes. The impact of the experience however, may last for a lifetime. When the player is convinced that the virtual environment is real, all subsequent emotional, psychological, physiological and spiritual responses are perceived as genuine and authentic. Prior to a shift from simulation to reality, all responses are judged in relationship to the real. Killing in a computer game only becomes real when the simulation convinces the player of being present in real space. This entry into the world of the game is not too unlike the meditative entry into ‘paradisic’ space. Afterall, focused prayer can lead to a convincing sense that one occupies a space far from that which one might physically occupy. In this sense it is likely and possible that the experience of simulated killing, under the right circumstances and after prolonged or frequent use, the player becomes so entranced by the game, that there is little perceived difference between the simulation and reality. Therefore, the player experiences the same cravings for the next kill (spiritual experience) as any serial killer might. Of course it would take a substantial conceptual leap for the player to actually plan and go about killing in real terms and at some level, there remains an acknowledgement and acceptance that what happens in the virtual world of the game, remains there.

The graphics in a game do not necessarily determine the potential for the experience of playing to convince the player that the experience is real. A sense of presence can be induced and evoked by simple suggestion and through the use of appropriate signifiers. A game like Wolfenstein 3D, with its primitive graphics, can potentially have the same effect on the player’s sense of reality within the game as a far more advanced game like Far Cry. Comparing the playing of digital games with meditative contemplation is however problematic. In some sense, the only thing the two have in common is that they both require prolonged or frequent use in order to have the desired effect. A player with a predisposition for spiritual experience may be more likely to find themselves absorbed in the game. The player is ‘lost in a game’ to the extent that all sense of being present in the physical environment is exchanged for the sense of being present in the simulated space of the game.

Michael Somoroff, Bill Viola, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller


Janet Cardiff, The Forty Part Motet / Rideau Chapel, National Gallery of Canada

Walking on water

Michael Cross, Bridge, 2006

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Contemporary Art in Churches

Victoria Jones, Forgive us for we know not what we do, 2005, St Bride's London

Tadashi Kawamata, Merz/Delm, France, 1999

Michael Cross, Bridge, 2006. Dilston Grove, London

Angela Di Fronzo, I AM ?, 2006. St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne, Australia

Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey, Dilston Grove, 2003

Angela Glajcar, Terforation (Raum), 2009, Sankt Peter Kunst Station, Cologne

Gottfried Heinwein, Kindskopf (Head of a Child), 1991. Minoriten Church, Krems, Austria