The Church of Hosios Loukas in Greece: Exploring Architectural Commonalities Between Christian East and West

The church of Hosios Loukas (St. Luke) is a monastic church located near the small town of Distomo, Greece. The main church (which is referred to as a 'Katholikon') was built in circa A.D. 1011-1012 and is considered one of the very best preserved examples of Middle Byzantine ecclesiastical art and architecture.

It goes without saying that this is an Eastern Orthodox church of course, so our readers may well wonder why we are showcasing it on LAJ given our own particular focus on Catholic liturgical art.  Quite simply, this particular church comes from a time when East and West were yet united and I believe this building provides us with a very good example of that unity and catholicity set into stone. Indeed, if you look at this particular church holistically and also in its various details, you will no doubt find that it will feel very familiar to you for it is a building that could as readily be found in Italy as it might be in Greece.

To drive the point home I've taken the liberty of digitally removing the icon panels that have been inserted into the balustrade -- or what the Byzantines would refer to as the templon. (See below.) In the first millennium what we would have more likely been found here are not the icon panels you see there now (which is a later development originating in the second millennium), but rather veils/curtains that could be drawn open or closed at particular points of the liturgy -- and typically these curtains have long since disappeared in both East and West.  By digitally removing the inserted icon panels, one gains an even better sense of just how similar a church such as this is to many that can likewise be found in the West.  Some of this is the result of the Byzantine influences that were imported into these regions of course, but to suggest it is only that would be to oversimplify the matter. While this is a certainly an aspect, it goes beyond this, shedding light on a shared liturgical inheritance that could be found within Christendom in both East and West in and around the first millennium. 

A digital reconstruction showing the church as it would appear without the icon panels that have been inserted into the balustrade/templon.

As you look at the photos that follow, I would invite our readers to consider just how many shared elements one can find here between a church such as this and so many that can be found in the Latin West.

First a look into the main body of the church. Do take note of the Romanesque like arches found at the gallery level.

The great cupola/dome located at the centre of the church (which must derive its inspiration from the great jewel of the Eastern Roman Empire: Hagia Sophia in Constantinople):

One will also take note here of the beautiful polychrome marble revetments that clothe the walls of the church. A very 'Roman' feature -- whether it be Eastern Roman (i.e. Byzantine) or Western. 

The windows of the church are covered in Roman style latticework called transennae. Like the marble revetments above, these too were commonly found in Roman influenced churches of both East and West, concurrently allowing light into the structure while also producing distinctive ornamental, decorative patterns. In the nineteenth century, many such windows were revived in many of the churches in Rome.  

The altar and behind the (very small) synthronon.

The pavement of some parts of the church is ccsmatesque which will be quite familiar to anyone who has bothered to looked down while walking in many of the churches of Rome (and if you haven't bothered, you really should):

Some samples of the mosaics. Byzantine artists flooding into Rome while fleeing the iconoclastic persecutions taking place in the Christian East in the eighth and ninth centuries filled many a Roman church with mosaics just such as these. If one looks at the details of these mosaics, one will note that they present the more naturalistic features that characterized pre-iconoclastic era Byzantine art, similar to its Western Roman counterpart.

We begin with the main apsidal mosaic of the Virgin and Child enthroned.

The church sits over a crypt dedicated to St. Barbara which is also worth showing.

I think our readers will agree, there are plenty of similarities. Of course, over time, and under the influence of the schism that would grow between East and West, the Byzantines' liturgical art and architecture would undergo its own course of evolution. Their iconographic programme and style would continue to develop, icons would fill in the balustradee/templon forming the iconostasis and we ultimately arrive at what we now tend to think of when we speak of a Byzantine or Greek church. The same holds true in the Latin West; the medieval style would continue to develop before finally culminating in the Renaissance (which marks the real point of the most significant artistic divergence between these two lungs of the Church).

Whatever divergences may be found now, when we look to examples like Hosios Loukas, we see rather more clearly the common root and inheritance that once characterized the liturgical art and architecture of both Christian East and West. 

Perhaps one of the most inspiring and intriguing things about this church and others like it is that they could as easily and naturally be used for the celebration of the Roman liturgy as they can the Byzantine. A powerful testimony to a common ancestry. 

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