August 26, 2009
The small medieval Greek church, the bulbous Byzantine beauty, one can never say it rises above its landscape of field or village. It squats.
There is one in Athens, holy and immovable, which squats on the pavement underneath the concrete arcading of a skyscraper built round and above it; the ancient brick huddles itself closer to itself, cosy as a curled cat, while harsh new rectilinear pillars haughtily roof it in, separating it from sky and God with the glass offices of man. It does not mind. Its independence squats secure; below, but above it all.
Sometimes from a distance in the open country the close huddle of cupolas and domes has an unmistakable look of sheep clustered together, the round backs of sheep gathered together in communion against a dangerous world beyond. The whole system of interlaced cupolas can be analyzed in terms of squinch and pendentive, but for the layman looking on its supreme effect is one of cluster,as if a number of separate single-domed chapels or shrines had ambled in from their isolation to nestle up close to a central mother. The feeling is of love and completeness. No spires to search out God from the sky. God is there, right inside.
Some of the larger small churches boast bells. But again, the bell towers are built stepped downwards to earth, rather than aspired upwards. Strung from white arched frameworks, the bells-often black-hang like luscious dark fruit ripening against a blue Aegean sky. White! Though one dome may be blued, though tiles may be red or apricot-colored, these churches are often painted a most dazzling white. In a brown landscape of great distance they Iook like white pimples, Ionely mushrooms, lost golf balls: in the village, close to, they scorch the eye. Such is the gentle moulding of line and rotundity, one might be excused if one demanded, Is this church or cheese? Much Arab-inspired Mediterranean architecture has the same quality, the moulding rather than cutting of corners, a dislike of or an inability to contrive sharpness-the white farms of Ibiza, the domed houses of Positano, even modern copyists on the Sardinian Costa Smeralda. The white, as with a Panama hat and a gabardine suit, is for coolness. A familiar experiment in the physics laboratory may be recalled-two kettles, one matt black and the other shining bright, are heated at the same time. Similar metals, similar heat-but the black one boils far the faster, for the bright one throws off heat.
So the whiteness of these churches is there for a purpose. And it results in the only paradox, almost a dishonesty, in such pure and plain building; for against the exterior simplicity, the inside has a richness of gilding and icons and candelabra and painting much in excess of the most decorated Roman Catholic Church. Even, in one Corfiote church I know, a strange assembly of grandfather clocks. But dishonest? The plain white eggshell conceals a richness of golden yolk, the simple melon rind a wealth of pink pips. And then-the white is not always white. It changes with the course of the sun. At dawn it is golden, pale rose; at sunset, bright pink or purple; in moonshine, blue. As one goes to the far north to see the winter snows make color magic in a theatrically lateral sunlight, so one might go to Greece in winter to digest the changing colors of these comforting cupolas. Rainbows with both ends firm in the earth, a luxury for the few.