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

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