Monday, 30 April 2018

The Homogeneity and Heterogeneity of the Sacred and Profane

The sacred may be understood in two ways which I think are necessary and complementary - and these two ways are sometimes also symbolized in sacred ritual, art, and especially architecture. In the first sense, the sacred is something set apart from the world, the profane or mundane, for the express purposes of an otherworldly action: worship. In this understanding, the sacred and the profane are heterogenous, because they are in some way separated from each other. In the use of space for the ritual of divine worship, one does not worship just anywhere; one worships in a place set apart and consecrated for that purpose, apart from any other purpose. One worships in a church, in the sanctuary, at or around an altar. This space is distinct from all other space; it is set apart, it is another world - quite literally, indeed, if we take a realist interpretation of liturgical symbolism. In the church, we enter into the New Jerusalem; we take part in the citizenship of heaven, not of the world.

In the second sense, however, the sacred is more like the extreme limit of the profane. This strikes me also as a profound understanding. In this sense, the consecration of a particular space is not simply the cutting off, setting apart, of that space; but also the concentration of all space at a particular point; it is a certain intensity of spatial meaning. The sacred becomes like the center of a circle which, still contained within the area of a circle, is yet an inner limit or boundary of the whole; or like the circumference, which is the outer limit, where the circle ends and a new sphere continues. In this understanding, the church is not only heaven - set over and against the world or the cosmos - but it is itself the very limit of the cosmos, a microcosmos. But it is indeed also heaven, for as a boundary, it is where different realities meet, as two cones converge and open into each other at their common vertex.

This is one characterization of the difference in emphasis between the Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles. With few windows and somewhat minimal natural light, the earlier Romanesque church was a place set apart for the purpose of divine worship, over and against all mundane purposes that were pursued outside the church space. Here is a distinct world, a sacred and indeed a secret place, protected from the outside world by fortress-like walls of stone. By contrast, the Gothic, though it loses nothing of the sense of being set apart, was also constructed to let the cosmos outside enter into itself - it was not just a setting apart from, but a sanctification of, the entire cosmos. Enormous stained glass windows let the natural light of the sun flood the space with the entire cosmic range of color. The copious use of fractal patterned ornamentation suggests continuity with the fractal geometry of nature. Here was not a confusion of the sacred and the profane, as occurs in much modern church architecture, but an integration of worlds by the consecrating of all profane space into a sacred sacred space: an intensified concentration of the cosmos, a microcosm.

The Romanesque

The Gothic

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