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The Monastery and its symbolism

Claudio Daniel Conenna


The Monastery and its Symbolism The monastery, in architectural terms, is a specific phenomenon that includes buildings, facilities, structural elements and a characteristic arrangement of volumes. It is a living reality of the material side of cenobite monasticism. On the other hand, as long as the monastery is considered an architectural construction, this means that it refers to more than a construction that was built to cover the monks' practical needs. In particular, it concerns the human psychological and spiritual existence, which is expressed in architecture and finds meaning in the expression of space and in symbolic forms. The viewpoint of the historian and architect Christian Norberg Schulz contributes particularly to the understanding of these properties of monastery architecture: this view considers architecture "the concretization of existential space", emphasizing in this way the importance of human existence, meaning, and symbolism in architecture. (1)

Another interesting view concerning symbolism in architecture is that of the Spanish historian and architect F. Chueca Goitia, who sustains that architecture is the art of the symbolic form, because it expresses from the finest and most human things, to the most composite and vast. He also emphasizes that art constitutes, since time immemorial, the most important contribution and the best morphological expression of the culture of a people, in its efforts to express all that is collective, historic, traditional, and even at the highest level, divine(2) , as also occurs in the case of the spiritual life of monasticism. With this rationale, we can understand the importance the Spanish historian gives to the role of architecture, by which symbolism is supported.

The Byzantine monastery, as a religious building and especially as a spiritual institution, is implemented architecturally according to a functional organization based on Christian faith and by extension, the morphological result may be interpreted symbolically. This symbolism refers to the placement of the elements of the architectural program, to the proportions and form of volumes, the use of materials, and unaffected forms. The founders usually used local materials in the construction of the monastery (stonework, brickwork, and wooden structures), which "spoke" architecturally with sincerity, as in primitive architecture (3). This is a sincerity that the monk is supposed to seek and is transferred to his architecture. The form and typology of the most basic elements of the monastery's plan vary, according to the space available in the monastery and its setting in the natural environment, which often imposes a specific architectural plan for the monastery.

The main characteristics of a monastery, as an architectural object, are its location in an isolated place, and its introverted form. We could say that these characteristics acquired a base in the early Christian community, when monasticism was established and founded itself on basic teachings of Christ, such as, for example, self-denial (4) and secret prayer (5).

The structure of the monastery symbolically reflects the Christ-centered nature of cenobitic monastic life, which has remained unaltered for more than 1000 years in Greece, and more than 1500 in the Christian East. The architecture of these buildings becomes symbolic for the Orthodox faith, and seals the identity of Eastern Christian and Greek monasticism. Both the architecture of the monasteries and the iconography which decorates it create a devout atmosphere which helps the monks in their spiritual task of prayer. Christ, who is the cornerstone of his church (6), based it on the central idea of contact with God through prayer of the heart: "the prayer of the mind, of Evagrios, in the East becomes the 'prayer of the heart', a personal prayer, which is clearly addressed to the Word made flesh, 'the prayer of Christ', where the remembrance of the Name occupies a central position…" (7)

We understand the symbolism which is mainly reflected individually in the places of worship and spiritual use of the monastery's plan in the following manner: The Katholikon: In the katholikon, the monk and the believer seek and find the presence of the Lord, and this, we would say, is the reason why the katholikon is completely differentiated in architectural terms from the remaining buildings of the monastery complex and is placed at the center. It has a general geometric plan which originates from a very composite architectural synthesis of pure symbolic forms and shapes: the cross, the rectangle, the cube, the circle, and the dome (8). This symbolism is completed, in some cases, by the use of visible brick, or by pigmented surfaces, painted an intense red (as some katholika of Mount Athos). In Christianity, the church as a symbol of the heavenly Jerusalem (9). Therefore, there is no monastery without a church: that would be illogical and possibly meaningless. The area of the katholikon, with its internal architectural articulation, the interplay of light and shadow, the "decoration" with the didactic iconography system, the iconostasis, and all the elements which aid the church's function, prove how essential its space is for the life of the building, just as the Holy Spirit is for the Christian.(10)

The Refectory: In this area, where the monks dine following the principles of protocol, the relationship among the abbot and the monks becomes more perceptible. Every meal resembles Christ's Last Supper with the Disciples. We could say that also, with the presence of the refectory, the existence of the brotherhood as an eschatological community living simply, as regards worldly items, is made real. The symbolic message of the refectory is made understandable through the brief duration and austerity of the meal, in an atmosphere of silence, where only one voice is heard, that of the reader of the word of God.

The Fiali: With this sculptural-architectural element, the holy sacrament of baptism is symbolized, the visitation of the Holy Spirit, the symbol of new life. Besides, monastic life is essentially a new life offered exclusively to God. In terms of shape, the fiali resembles a small area for baptizing (a baptistery). Its dome is painted on the inside with images of the holy sacrament of the baptism of Jesus Christ and other events from the Old Testament related to baptism, the prophetic announcements of this holy sacrament, and the reception of the Holy Spirit, as it is expressed in the scriptures. (11)

A symbolic reason why we would say that the fiali is centripetal and centrifugal in its architectural organization is the following: being centripetal emphasizes introversion, symbolizing self-knowledge, and being centrifugal means extroversion, symbolizing love for one's neighbor, two practices exercised in monasticism.

We could also suppose that if the fiali existed in all monasteries, the three sections of the monastery, the katholikon, the refectory, and the fiali, "would depict" the Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit receiving their respective architectural form in the katholikon, the refectory, and the fiali. In the oldest and most important monasteries of Mount Athos, these buildings are located along an axis which also "inscribes" the fundamental principle of Christian faith, the Holy Trinity.

The Bell Tower: This symbolizes the "calling", the "invitation". This invites the monks and pilgrims to the processions, and in essence, to prayer. The sound of the bell or the gong, as well as the rhythm and volume of this sound, remind every monk of his own personal talents, with which his life can be used to the advantage of good, and he can help his fellow men properly.

Thus, we understand the symbolism which the monastery contains overall as a spiritual institution and an architectural construction as follows:

· The monastery as a spiritual institution: Monasticism, as a mentality and a way of life, is based on the teaching of the perfection of man. Man and the whole of creation have lost their original, natural destination and are in the unnatural situation of fall, which, however, is reaching its end. Light and truth will dominate with the coming of the Kingdom of God (12). Monks distance themselves from worldly things not out of hatred for the world, but out of desire to live under the conditions of the will of God, in whose image and emulation they were created (13). Thus, poverty, chastity, and obedience are not simply three virtues which the monk tries to acquire, but three basic preconditions for the spirituality which aims at the eschatological perfection of human nature (14). The hesychastic method of prayer, with the concept of "return to oneself" (silence) (15), aims at the sight of the divine light and the theosis of human nature (16). However, the asceticism of the monks in Christ does not remain a personal matter for them, but through liturgical life and the cenobite way of life it maintains a clear ecclesiastic nature. The monk aims not only for his personal sanctification, but he is also responsible for the final return of creation to its Creator (17). The architecture of monasteries tries to express and to give precision to these perceptions, and not simply to create places for housing the monks as it might understand.

· The monastery as a work of architecture: this is the space that "houses" the spiritual concerns of the monks, while offering them physical safety at the same time. The katholikon is the spiritual refuge of the monks, and the defensive tower protects them from incursions. The fortress tower is the "eye" of the monastery towards the outside. We can say that the defensive tower and the walls towards which the cells are oriented make up a building unit. A similar unit is made up by the katholikon and the bell tower. The former protects the monks physically, while the other protects their soul and spirit. Observing the arrangement of enclosed monasteries, we could say that the fortress of the monastery "embraces" the fortress of the soul.

The outdoor area of the monastery, which can be characterized as its "soul", appears dynamic, with various shapes, and is never unitary. In fact, we could say symbolically that movement within it is like the movement of the soul of the monk in his spiritual life toward salvation and eternal life.

With these concepts and their symbolic parallels, we can consider that there is a symbolic correlation between the buildings of a monastery complex and the human organism. This correlation corresponds to modern architectural theories related to the human organism or biology. The first which we observe is Hugo Häring's (18) theory of organhaft (19), in which buildings are "organs" for the functions that they serve, as are the organs of our body. A second theory expresses the thoughts of Peter Collins (20) on architecture as a "biological organism", in which a biological structure can be applied to the architectural organization of a building. Related to such a concern is the biological parallelism that leads us to the separation of functions or organs, according to Le Corbusier: "The plan sets organs in an order, and thus an organism is created. Biology: a great word for architecture and urban planning" (21). In a similar way, Alvar Aalto (22) considers biology a source of inspiration for architecture, and notes that "biology has rich and abundant forms with the same construction, the same tissues, and the same principles of cellular organization, and it can create billions of combinations, where each one of these depicts a perfect and evolved shape…" From this point of view it is sustained that the things which surround man are cells and tissues, living beings like him. And he continues, "…as architectural components supplement human life, they must be harmonized with the human dimension…" Another thought on the same topic is that of the Greek cultural anthropologist G. Megas (23), who speaks of "organic evolution" in his research on traditional architecture in Greece. Evolution which is created by the variety of forms, which display coherence and interdependence.

Based on the above thoughts and approaches, we may sustain that there is the following correlation among the parts of the monastery's space and the parts of the human body:

The monastery + the outdoor area + the katholikon + the katholikon's interior

        The body + the soul + the heart + the spirit

The thought of this correlation coincides with the interpretation of some texts (24) on the mystic life of Byzantine hesychasm (25).

Thus, the Eastern Orthodox monasteries and especially the Greek ones are organized, in most architectural types, with the katholikon at the center of the cenobitic complex, as the "heart" of the monastery. The pure geometric shape of the katholikon, as a symbol of perfection, comes into contrast with the unregulated form of the monastery's remaining buildings. It is as though Christ himself were symbolically located at the center of the monastery.

Perfection and imperfection are expressed in the following ways:

a) Science determines that Euclidean geometry is an expression of the perfection of shapes (26), while irregular (non-Euclidean) geometry is an expression of imperfection.
b) Christian faith sets Christ as an example of perfection, and the better a Christian is, the more he will approach the perfection of God.

In order to express and reinforce the symbolic significance of the katholikon relative to the remaining buildings of the monastery complex, we can make a parallel with an excerpt from the Holy Scripture: "We hold this treasure in earthen vessels…" (II Corinthians 4:7-8). Therefore, we humans are vessels of clay with our heart as a valuable treasure, and the human body is considered a receptacle for divine grace, just as the Son of God himself was incarnated in the womb of Mary. A similar phenomenon takes place in the architecture of monasteries. The katholikon, expression of perfection, is the "treasure" found inside the "earthen vessel", the court, expression of imperfection.

In this sense, we can hold that in monastery architecture, human language (27) (art ) communicates with and meets the language of God (nature) (28).

Besides the religious symbolism contained in Byzantine and post-Byzantine architecture, it is important to note briefly the characteristics of design that make it interesting today.

The founders applied architectural solutions for the monks' buildings in a simple and natural way, empirically, we could say, with a free creative spirit, as was their faith. They constructed building with the materials that nature gave them in the place where they were located, with multiform organic shapes, in harmony with the setting of their asceticism, and in their own measure. They preferred closed shapes in order to aid concentration, asceticism, and protection. The final architectural result covered their monastic spiritual desire for silence and intimacy.

In further detail, we observe that in the ground plans of Greek Byzantine and post-Byzantine monasteries, beyond their organization by type, as we will see below, these are buildings that attach great importance to their setting. They attach themselves to the setting harmoniously, to the point that the architectural type is sacrificed. Therefore, the result in the ground plan is a flexible, organic, articulated but also always functional organization. In addition, the topography of the setting itself is many times so varied that it favors a diversified cross-section, which creates rich spatiality, that is, it provokes an interplay of various levels, with courts, balconies, squares, stoas, etc. This differentiated cross-section, combined with the architectural scale of monastery buildings, which is always at the human scale, could be said to provide the concept of a refuge.

Concerning the topic of the composition of monastery views, we could point out that with the passing of time, it constituted a composite design of dynamic composition, merging shapes, materials, and colors. Some order is always observed in the composition, where the relation between shape and background appears clearly. The internal views of the court, that is, those of the outdoor space, present a "dug" background, because in general, they consist of continuous stoas. Externally, the background is compact, because it consists of a fortress wall that encloses the monastery.

The plastic organization of the ground plan, the differentiated cross-section, and the articulated views (both the open internal view and the closed external one) create the following aspects in monastery architecture: internally, within the outdoor monastery area, a dynamic, fluid, and simultaneously united space is created. Externally, however, a compact, many-shaped, and expressive three-dimensional plasticity is created as the overall volumetric result.

Consequently, the Byzantine and post-Byzantine monastery can form a work of architecture with solutions for many issues of architectural design, which were known to be concerns for the creative architects of our age.


1.-Christian Norberg Schulz, Meaning, pp. 221-223; Norberg Schulz, Existence, pp. 17-33; Norberg Schulz, Intentions, pp. 62-64.
2.- F. Chueca Goitia, Arquitectura Española, p. 22.
3.- R. H. Hitchcock, Frank Lloyd Wright, p. 56.
4.-"… I say to you, that if the seed of grain does not die after falling on the ground, it alone remains. But if it dies, it brings much fruit. The one who loves his soul will lose it, and the one who hates his soul in this world, will keep it in eternal life. If anyone serves me, let him follow me, and wherever I am, my servant will also be there. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him." John 12:24-26.
5.- "But when you pray, go into your room, close your door, and pray to your Father in secret, and your Father, seeing you in secret, will reward you visibly…"
6.- Matthew 6:6-7. Matthew 21:42 "… the stone rejected by the builders became the head of the corner…"
7.- J. Meyendorf, St. Gregory Palamas, p. 40.
8.- G. Prokopiou, Lay Symbolism, pp. 99-133. "The rectangle (the Earth with the four spirits: the winds), the cube (the world), the dome (the heavens, where the Almighty is found0, the cross: the cruciform shape of the ground plan ( redeeming love, Christ, the Messiah, the Savior, the Word, the second person of the Trinity, the history of Jesus on Earth), the circle and the dome [symbolize] the heavens, or the semi-circular vault located towards the east [symbolizes] Paradise…" Also A. Guillou, Civilisation, pp. 378-382.
9.- G. Prokopiou, op. cit., p. 186, and A. Lagopoulos, Religious Symbolism, pp. 65-67.
10.- The symbolism of this idea is documented in the Holy Scripture: see Romans 8:1-17.
11.- See Matthew 28:19-20, 4:13-17, Ephesians 4:5-6, Romans 6:3-9, John 1:26-28, 1:31-34, 7:37-39.
12.- "The night has left, and the day arrived…" Romans 13:12.
13.- Genesis 1"26-27, 5:1, 9:6.
14.- Archimandrite Sophronios, Bases, p. 55ff.
15.- J. Meyendorff, St. Gregory Palamas, p. 138. Concerning the spiritual character of silence, see Matthew 6:18, Ephesians 1:11-19. The proverbs of monks concerning the value of silence are also characteristic: "Whoever has learned to be silent finds rest everywhere…. An abbot says that if you acquire the virtue of silence, do not boast that you have achieved something important. Rather, convince yourself that you are not worthy even to speak…" (The Abbot Poimen), T. Hambakis, Gerontiko, pp. 239-240.
16.- Concerning the spiritual meaning of light in the New Testament, se Matthew 5:13-16 and 6:22-24, John 1:8-9 and 8:12. In the spirituality of Orthodox monasticism, light obtained a fundamental importance: "When the prayer of Christ is turned into a prayer of the heart, its first result is enlightenment…" see J. Serr, Filocalia, p. 15.
17.- I. Zizioulas, Creation, pp. 118-119.
18.- C. Norberg Schulz, Genius Loci, p. 71, and Meaning, p. 203.
19.- Organhaf should not be confused with the concept of the "organic". The organs (the elements of the architectural plan) organically form a whole, where every element has its own function and correspondingly its own form, as well as its own placement within the whole. Another perception of organic architecture, as we will see below, it the way in which a building adjusts itself organically (in terms of shape, following the plasticity of nature) in the morphological variety of a specific environment.
20.- Peter Collins, Biological Analogy, pp. 303-306, and Modern Architecture, pp. 149-158.
21.- Le Corbusier, City, pp. 147, 231, 269, and C. Jencks, Le Corbusier, p. 123.
22.- G. Schildt, Alvar Aalto, p. 221. G.
23.- Megas, Popular Construction, p. 4.
24.- "… the body, soul, and spirit were considered as a single organism. Only sin rotted this unity, leading to an uprising of the body against the spirit, surrendering the spirit to imagined adventures, and enslaving the body to the tyranny of passions. Christ came to restore human harmony, and the hesychast, with the fixed memory of the Name of Christ, makes redeeming grace dwell deep within himself. In order for this grace to become truly effective, it is necessary for the hesychast to 'bring the spirit back into the heart,' that is, to give it the place that belonged to it, at the center of the organism of body and soul, and to restore thus the harmony among the various parts that compose it… (Pseudo-Macarius)", J. Meyendorff, op. cit., pp. 73-74. Pseudo-Macarius also sustains elsewhere that "… the heart is the part that dominates and possesses leadership of the body, and inside it, the Creator placed the source of internal warmth…", J. Meyendorff, op. cit., p. 73.
25.- Byzantine hesychasm of the 13th and 14th centuries is footed in the tradition of the Greek fathers and the ancient church, and completes the mystic tradition of Macarius (390), Evagrios (399), and pseudo-Macarius (473), who had oriented the mystic life of hesychasm in the direction of a unitary organism of body, soul, and spirit. J. Meyendorff, op. cit., p. 133.
26.- E. Papanoutsos, Logos, p. 124, and H. Papoutsopoulos, Pascal, p. 13.
27.- V. Scully, Louis Kahn, p. 36, and R. Giurgola - J. Metha, Louis Kahn, p. 34.
28.- J. Serr, op. cit.,


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Claudio Daniel Conenna