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Western Church Architecture as a Reflection of Impoverished Theology and Heretical Condition

New-martyr Archbishop Hilarion (Troitsky) [+ 1929] composed a series of letters to a friend
about his experiences while travelling throughout Europe. This is one of those letters.


Third Letter: Cologne Cathedral

Do not think, my dear friend, that this letter will be entirely devoted to a description of the Cologne Cathedral or its history. No, the Cologne Cathedral this time will serve for me only as a symbol of the European religious consciousness. I chose the Cologne Cathedral for many reasons. Of the many Gothic cathedrals I have seen, Cologne made the most compelling impression on me. Several times I visited it, admiring it from the outside and from all sides; for a long time I indulged in the inner contemplation of its lancet tops. I examined other ancient cathedrals in Europe rather as historical monuments, visited with the cold attention of a tourist who must see all the sights. There, only a wave of historical memories and dreams attacked the soul. I remembered kings, feudal lords, knights, and tournaments. It was not that way near Cologne Cathedral. It beckoned me to it, with some incomprehensible force. I glared at it as I approached the city along the Rhine. Leaving Cologne, I came to the cathedral to say “goodbye.” Rarely, very rarely, have I had to experience such a strong impression of artistic unity as it was near the Cologne Cathedral. Vienna’s Stephansdom, the ancient Mainze Cathedral, Kaiserdom in Frankfurt am Main, Notre-Dame of Paris, Vienne’s Votivkirche and other Gothic cathedrals did not make such an impression on me. I, my friend, not coping with the courses in the history of medieval art, will tell you mine opinion: Cologne Cathedral seems to me the most striking example of the Gothic architectural style. Think about it, friend: the genius of a number of German artists was embodied in the dark gray masses of the Cologne Cathedral. The construction began in the 13th century, the cathedral was completely finished only in 1880. And regardless of the Cologne Cathedral, the Gothic style, I think, is the most typical for the Westin particular, for the religious consciousness of the West. What is the Gothic style, really? It is a purely Western art product. There is no trace of Greek or Roman influence in this style. This style in the West began already when the West fell away from the Church, when, consequently, the religious consciousness of the West separated itself from the Church-Christian consciousness. But what did this separation come from?

Take a closer look, dear friend, at least at these pictures of the Cologne Cathedral, take a closer lookcan you find an answer here?

The exterior view of the Cologne Cathedral can be captivating. Look at the complexity of the drawing, the complexity of the artistic design, the mass of architectural details? And for all that, what grace, what subtlety of work, what unity of the artistic whole. There are many patterns of architectural drawingand yet everything is in its place, nothing sticks out, nothing superfluous is visible. And everything is up, everything is up! When I first came close to the cathedral, I felt as if someone had pulled me up, too!

Let’s go now inside the cathedral. Inside, the impression remains the same impression of artistic unity. Only here the general tone is lighter: not dark gray, almost black, as outside, but gray-yellow. And here, inside, countless columns stretch upward, which are intertwined up there with complex arches. But it’s so high that it hurts your head when you throw it back to see the vaults.

Inside, the architecture is also complex: after all, there is not a single column; each column seems to be connected to a dozen separate columns. However, inside you soon notice—and even with an unpleasant feeling—monotony. The entire interior is filled with the same columns, and the columns are all exactly the same.

Some time passes and you begin to feel that something is missing in this beautiful, artistically constructed temple; something essential is missing. Your thought begins to work, trying to answer the question of what is lacking in the Cologne Cathedral and any Gothic temple. The answer soon emerges of itself: there is a lack of God, a lack of holiness, a lack of life. Take a look at the interior view of the cathedral! You will see only two rows of statues, along the columns of the middle nave, adorn the cathedral, but even these statues seem to have frozen, frozen—they are as gray as the columns.

What we call ecclesiastical splendor is not here. What is left? All that remains are the artistic tricks of the architect. The eyes diverge on architectural details—that’s all. Then enter our Orthodox church, decorated with all the beauty of Church splendor, for example, in the Trinity Cathedral of our St. Sergius Lavra. (I can’t find a temple its equal anywhere!)

Everything here is saturated with holiness; first of all, here you feel at the entrance that you have entered the house of God, and involuntarily a hand is raised to make the sign of the Cross.

In Orthodox churches, the architectural design itself stands as if in the background. I absolutely do not recognize Orthodox churches without Church splendor (iconography), and I cannot in any way approve, for example, of most of the Petrograd churches. Enter, for example, the Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky Lavra! Many times you need to remind yourself that you entered a temple, and not just some gallery.

We began to build empty temples when we contacted Western heretics and began to imitate them. Our pious ancestors always built churches with full Church decoration. Sacred painting covers the entire interior of our ancient temples. And in the new churches of the St. Petersburg era of Russian history, they began to hang only in some places pictures in frames and pictures that are completely ugly. It is remarkable that these paintings evoke, first of all, not religious, pious moods but only artistic emotions, as it would be outside any church, for example, in an art gallery. That is why many visit such temples in the way that temples should not be visited, but how you would visit only art galleries. I will never forget how one day, in the Cathedral of the Alexander Nevsky Lavra, a lady-tourist, looking at the guidebook, asked me a question: “Tell me, where are the icons of Van Dyck and Rubens (17th-C. painters)?” I answered: “Madam! We have no such saints.”

Such temples in our country, which can only excite sorrow and despondency, I say, appeared only in the unfortunate Petersburg period, when we lived with someone else’s mind and turned our backs on our native historical treasures.

But the Gothic style is such that a temple built in this style cannot be decorated in the Church way to resemble God’s dwelling. Columns, columns, a whole forest of columns—and there is nowhere to paint a sacred icon. They came up with the idea of making mosaic transparent windows, but from the middle of the nave you cannot see the window images, and sometimes there are just carpet decorations, without any sacred paintings. This is how the heretical Gothic temples stand—empty, as if uninhabited, some kind of soulless thing. Take furniture, paintings, and everything else out of any well-furnished apartment—it will be uncomfortable, unpleasant, you will want to leave as soon as possible. I will make, my friend, one harsh comparison. If, in a Gothic church, for example, in the Cologne Cathedral, tracks were laid and locomotives with carriages run, then, in essence there would be no insult to religious feelings.

In Dante’s Inferno heretics are tormented in hot, cramped coffins. This means that the sin of heretics is their narrowness, their one-sidedness. Everywhere outside of Orthodoxy, it is precisely narrowness, a kind of shortsightedness that is felt. For example, Western heretics care so much about the comfort of their own homes, how many styles have been invented! But for God’s dwelling, Gothic was invented, completely uncomfortable, gloomy, dry, and dead. Obviously, life departed from religion when heretics departed from the Church. It is remarkable that the Gothic style developed during the period of the dominance of Scholasticism. It seems to me, dear friend, that Gothic and Scholasticism are related to each other. The Scholastic system, like the Cologne Cathedral, can be complex and harmonious: there are many little things in it, but all these little things are connected to each other, hold on to each other. But if you approach any Scholastic system you will see death. Gothic style is Scholasticism in stone. Scholasticism among Western heretics has replaced the religious life with its varied colors of feeling, with its beautiful impulses of will. In Western religious thinking, Scholasticism dominates: Catholics study according to Thomas Aquinas, Protestants took up religious thinking for its own sake, without any connection with [personal] life. Even ancient Church writers reproached heretics for rationalism, and starting with A. S. Khomiakov (1804-1860), Orthodox theologians began to reproach Western heretics for rationalism. It is precisely this rationalization of Christian life that is preached, I think, by the Gothic architecture of Western churches. For this it is worth torturing Western heretics in cramped coffins! It is impossible to imagine more narrow and more one-sided people than rationalists.

Not in vain, my dear friend, some art historians called the Gothic style the German style; the French disowned this style back in the 18th century. Yes, not in vain, because rationalism has captured the German soul, it seems, more than any other. It was the Germans who decided to replace theology with theological science. After all, the Germans in philosophy did not spare the world for the triumph of abstract thought. The typical German, Kant, turned the whole world into the incomprehensible and inconceivable “Ding an sich.” Do you remember how Tolstoy wrote about their self-confidence? “Germans are self-confident on the basis of an abstract idea, science, that is, imaginary knowledge of perfect truth.... The German is self-confident worst of all, and hardest of all, and the most disgusting of all, because he imagines that he knows the truth, a science that he himself invented, but which for him is the absolute truth” (War and Peace). Here I hear the voice of a Slav. It is only a pity that Tolstoy himself, as a religious false teacher, has completely taken the position of contrary German rationalism, German science. In “The Four Gospels Unified and Translated,” he has on almost every page the German Reiss, one of the unimportant German scholars. It is no coincidence, I think, that the Gothic style could not take root in the Slavic countries: it certainly does not fit Orthodoxy, and even without Orthodoxy in the Slavic world, it will not find a sympathetic response. The Czechs in Prague have a Gothic cathedral, but love for it is not visible: it is extremely neglected and so crowded with buildings that in general it can only be seen from afar.

But you, my heartfelt friend, may object to me: “Is it possible that all religious life in the West has been replaced by Scholasticism and rationalism? Isn’t there mysticism, feeling?” Oh, undoubtedly there is, but the only mysticism and religious feeling in the West has an unhealthy imprint.

And you know, my friend, it seems to me that the shades of this unhealthy feeling, by the way, are also materialized in the Gothic style. We can find these shades present in the same Cologne Cathedral. Where did Gothic architecture come from? Some answered this question as follows: “The primary origin of Gothic is in the dense forests of Gaul and Germany with their intertwining peaks, with high and even trunks, with their mysterious twilight.” Chateaubriand, for example, said that in Gothic temples there is the same religious horror and mystery as in a dense forest. “Religious horror...” I like this expression; it conveys well the impression of Gothic temples. See the interior view of the Cologne Cathedral. Imagine that you are there, that twilight is deepening behind the patterned windows. Only a lamp flickers on the altar. The vaulted ceiling is completely dark.

I can recommend to you, friend, one experience. Take a closer look and take a longer look at, at least, the image of the interior of the Cologne Cathedral. Even from the picture, there is a certain spirit of dreaminess. Is there not? And in the cathedral itself, just sit on a bench closer to the column—now dreaminess will attack. And I imagine how you can sit in the twilight of the cathedral?! The sounds of the organ rush, you drown in the darkness under the arches, echoes in the far corners of the temple behind the rows of bizarre columns...horror and dreaminess—this, I think, is what would fill the soul of a person praying in a Gothic temple! Remember how Victor Hugo describes Notre Dame Cathedral! There, too, there is much that is eerie and dream-like, something even scary.

Slavish fear and sentimental daydreaming are what materialize in the Gothic architecture of the Cologne Cathedral, but these are precisely the features that distinguish Western religious feeling, Western religious mysticism. Recently we have, more often than necessary, remembered Francis of Assisi. But I personally cannot stand the sentimentalism of this Western mystic with his “swallow sisters” and the like. Our saints were free from morbid mysticism and corny sentimentality. Take St. Sergius, how his holy soul differs from the ecstatic sentimental soul of Francis! Thank you, M. V. Lodyzhensky, for the fact that in his mystical theology he showed the superiority of the soul of the Monk Seraphim [of Sarov] over the soul of Francis (“Invisible Light”). Our saints do not have even a shadow of dreaminess, let alone “religious horror.” And, in general, on this point, Orthodox Russian psychology differs significantly from Western, heretical psychology. Idealism and Realism, Postivism and Mysticism are combined together in the Russian soul. This was noted as a feature of the Russian soul by the Frenchmen Leroy-Beaulieu (L’empire des tsars et les russes, Vol. III). It is not for nothing that Russian monasteries have been known to run excellent properties and keep simplicity of heart, without reservations and conflicts and doubts.

Perhaps you, dear friend, will think, “But what is wrong if the Gothic style produces religious horror?” But I think that religious horror should not at all be the goal of a Christian church. After all, the temple is the place of the liturgical synaxis of the Church, here “the Sacrament of Synaxis or Communion” takes place, as the author of the essay “On the Church Hierarchy” says. Any communication, of course, drives away any “horror” from the soul. There is absolutely no sentimentality in Church worship, in Church music of the sacred eight tones. But how much of this disgusting sentimentality is there in various sectarian gatherings! It’s sickening to hear!

I will tell you frankly, friend, that I do not like huge churches, as, for example, St. Isaac’s Cathedral (St. Petersburg) or the Cathedral of Christ the Savior (Moscow), where thousands gather and where, therefore, there is no parish and where the sacrament (mystery) of the synaxis does not take place. It is dogmatically absurd when worship turns into some kind of spectacle, when the worshipers only observe what is happening, remaining complete strangers to each other.

It is a completely different matter when our own people gather, when our priest is serving. And you especially experience the Mystery of the Synaxis in uncrowded monasteries, for example, in the Paraclitus Hermitage, where everyone has their own place for worship and everyone gathers.

In such monastic churches, the Sacrament of the Church, the Mystery of the Synaxis, is perceptibly performed, but in St. Isaac’s this mystery does not in any way manifest itself, as if it did not exist at all. But after all, we began to build huge temples, again, by following the example of Western heretics.

So, my friend, this is what the Cathedral of Cologne tells us, if you take a closer look at it. It speaks to the rationalization of Christianity in the West; it speaks about the dreaminess of the morbid mysticism of the West. Rationalism absolutely does not tolerate Church splendor (iconography); it wants the temples to be as dry and lifeless as logical schemes, and this suppressed and hunted-down feeling turns into a stunted sentimentalism. In rationalism, both Catholicism and Protestantism are equal. And here, in my opinion, is a remarkable fact: they have the same church architecture, and the internal appearance of the temples is equally colorless, although the Catholics recognize the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which forever blessed every Church splendor. Rationalism fundamentally erodes the main nerve of Christianitythe ideal of the divinization of human nature, founded on the incarnation of the Son of God. The Orthodox Church lives by this ideal, as evidenced by our iconography. Indeed, according to the thought of the fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, the “depiction of icons” serves us “to confirm the true, and not imaginary, embodiment of God the Word.” The Protestants rejected the dogma of the veneration of icons, and now they are not all certain of the true incarnation of God the Word. What did Protestants turn Christianity into? They turned it into some kind of doctrinal system, which, moreover, everyone can compose in his own way. Protestantism—Christianity without Christ, the Son of Godis a religion of “Jesus of Nazareth.” But the Catholics, likewise, turned Christianity into a bargaining deal with God: good Catholics do “good deeds” and submit to the Lord God a detailed bill for payment with a “reward.” As in life, an earthly penalty can be transferred to another according to a writ of execution, so, according to the Catholic Faith, can one act in the matter of salvation: you can acquire someone else’s writ of execution, and the Lord God is obliged to fully pay the due “reward.” There is no place for the true incarnation of God the Word here either.

An amazing thing! I saw many Catholic and Protestant churches and involuntarily thought, “Here you, gentlemen heretics, decorated your churches with different architectural curves, and your altars sometimes look like the windows of furniture stores. Well, tell me, frankly, is this really better than our icon painting?” It seems to me, my dear friend, that the interior appearance of Western temples is not a mere consequence of taste. No, its basis is precisely the distortion of Christianity itself by the West, the darkening and even rejection of the true Christian ideal. If Christianity is a Scholastic system, then for Christian gatherings an audience is required, more or less comfortable, and not a temple. All Protestant, especially Reformed, churches are similar to auditoriums: benches and a pulpit—that’s all the interior decoration. You know, my friend, sometimes Western temples terrified me; I was indignant with all my soul when I saw these fruits of religious poverty, religious squalor. I will tell you about one of my similar experiences. It was in Dresden, Sunday; I heard all over the city the bells ringing, as if it was a city of ours. Even though the ringing was something pitiful, mournful and cracked, not our solemn, majestic, soul-raising ringing, yet it nevertheless pleased me. “Heretics,” it announced, “worship the Lord!” I went to Liturgy in an Orthodox church. It is especially pleasant to hear an Orthodox service “in a strange land.” After Liturgy, I went to the city center by tram. I see that almost the entire carriage was filled with pilgrims from an Orthodox church. Only Russian speech is heard. Here is a priest sitting in a cassock with a pectoral cross. (I was then still in independent clothes, that is, in secular clothes.) It was so nice! I got to Altmarkt. There is a large Protestant kirche (church) nearby. It may have been Frauenkirche. However, I don’t exactly remember now. I go through the entrance. The stairs lead up. I’m going up. Where? Quite like, for example, in the Moscow Bolshoi Theater, when it goes up to the gallery. You go up to the main floor—a door. Another floor—again a door. I still hesitate to enter, but I have risen too high, it seems, to the third floor. I opened the door and entered. What did it turn out to be? I was at the balcony of the second tier. The huge temple is designed in exactly the same way as theaters are arranged. Below is the parterre, and on the sides there are balconies in several tiers. In some places, not very densely, visitors are sitting. Near one of the balconies there is a high pulpit, and on it the preacher-pastor preaches a sermon, as if he were giving a lecture in a well-equipped auditorium. I remember well, such pity gripped me for the unfortunate heretics who so devastated, so discolored Christianity, and made it mortally boring! There are no sacred images in the temple: balconies, chairs, and a pulpit—that’s all, nothing else. Oh, how I felt all that time the incomparable superiority of holy Orthodoxy.

Yes, in the West, churches are constantly turning, if not into theaters, then into concert halls. You enter the church and see—posters hang on the porch. For what? It turns out that concerts are given in churches on certain days after the service. Such-and-such an organist, who came from a certain place. Everything is announced. One concert—the price is 1 mark or franc, 12 concerts—the price is 10 marks or francs. I especially remember one such concert I heard in the beautiful Swiss town of Interlaken at the foot of the Jungfrau. It was announced that a London organist was giving a concert on a huge organ driven by an electric motor. After the evening service, when the stragglers had all gone, the attendants walked between the benches and turned their backs to the altar. Just like in some Moscow trams, when you need to go in the opposite direction. Those who remained to listen to the concert sat down facing the organ, with their backs to the altar. My surprise increased even more when, having bought a ticket, I saw that it was secular music. In every concert, for example, the program included the piece “Sturm” (“The Tempest”), I don’t know which composer. But, listening to this in the temple, you have to forget in advance that you are in a temple. This is easy to do in the West. In all western temples, starting at least from the Cologne Cathedral, it is easy to forget about the temple, and precisely because in them, as I said at the beginning of the letter, there is a lack of God, a lack of holiness. You will not forget about God in our Orthodox churches. Try to face west in our Trinity Cathedral or in our academy church—instead of the iconostasis, you will see a formidable icon of the Last Judgment. At the sight of this picture, you will not dream of a musical “Tempest,” but rather think about how to calm down the storm of passions in your soul and disperse the black clouds of sin.

Archbishop Gregory
Dormition Skete
P.O. Box 3177
Buena Vista, CO 81211-3177
Contact: Archbishop Gregory
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