Modern cities are planned not around churches, shrines and crosses, but around temples of commerce, shopping shrines and the car-idol. It was not always so. Contemporary society has descended a long way from the aisles and galleries of churches with squares for religious processions, to the 'new, improved' aisles and mercantile galleries of today with their automobile processions. For there was once such a thing as Orthodox, i.e. Christian, town-planning. What was it?
The Sacred City In Orthodox Russia
The greatest expert on Orthodox town-planning
in Russia was undoubtedly the late historian and theologian Fr Lev Lebedev
(1939-1997). In a sequence of well-written articles, first published in
the 1970's and 1980's in samizdat and smuggled to the West, he described
how the plans of all the great mediæval cities, for example, Moscow,
Kiev, Novgorod, Arkhangelsk, Sergiev Posad, are all sacred designs in
theology. They embody the circle of God's completeness, the triangle of
the Holy Trinity, the centrality of the Cross, and the outline of the
Heavenly Jerusalem which St John the Divine describes at the end of the
Book of Revelation. Thus, in Moscow, the church of St John the Divine
is outside the city walls, for he bears witness to the City. Inside the
walls, the Kremlin, or stronghold, contains churches dedicated to the
Mother of God, the Archangel Michael and the Twelve Apostles - Heaven
and Earth meet. Outside it, 'Red Square', actually meaning 'Beautiful
Square', was in fact a giant open-air church. Its altar was the well-known
church of the Protecting Veil (usually miscalled St Basil's church)1.
Thus the whole city-centre was a sacred ecclesial space, its altar a church-building.
Russian city walls usually had twelve gates, again to correspond to the
description in the Book of Revelation (Rev. 21, 21). In this way the home-cities
of Orthodox Russians were images of the Heavenly Jerusalem, images of
the world to come in the here and now, Heaven on Earth.
The Sacred City in Orthodox England
Most English towns were laid out in a circle
or ellipse, symbolising the Unity and Eternity of the Holy Trinity. Within
the circle, however, there was a cross which drew together the circumference
of the circle around a central preaching cross or high cross. This usually
marked where the Gospel had first been preached in the town by monks,
who had then proceeded to baptise townsfolk in the nearest river or stream.
Such preaching-crosses, usually set high on steps and sometimes very ancient,
can be seen in countless villages all over England and even in many Roman-founded
cities, for instance, in Canterbury, York and Chester. (Nowadays, it must
be said, in many places this high cross is known as a 'market cross',
or else has been replaced by a twentieth-century war memorial, which sums
up the history of that dark and godless age).
Where better to start this brief survey than
in the City of England's Mother-Cathedral?
Bristol provides a classic example of a later
sacred town-plan. Built on untouched land on the north bank of the River
Avon from the eighth century on, by the eleventh century it was the most
important city in the West of England. To the south of Bristol ran the
River Avon, to the north the River Frome. Bristol was built within an
elliptical wall between these two natural features, with the north and
south sides of the wall touching on the two rivers. It presented then
the form of a circle. Within the circle, roads running north, south, east
and west, formed the sign of the cross. Thus the whole plan was that of
a cross within a circle, symbolising that the Cross triumphantly dominates
As Orthodox Christianity was gradually lost
in England, so the art of Orthodox town-planning was also lost. During
the 'Renaissance' (i.e. the rebirth of paganism), Western Europe became
obsessed with the rational logic of the 'Classics'. 'Enlightened' in the
eighteenth century by heathenism, it began planning towns in God-excluding
grids or curves. The few churches that were built took the form of heathen
temples. This was a reflection of the mechanistic rationalism of the age
and an obvious throwback to Roman paganism. Not so much post-Christian
as pre-Christian. Not so much progress as regress. The cross gave way
to squares, rows and crescents. The Victorian system went even further,
building rows of regimented houses for its serfs, together with a scattering
of mock-mediæval churches where the working classes could be made
obedient with bigoted puritan moralism.
1 For the universalist symbolism
of this church, see the Editor's 'The Saints of Russia and the Universality
of Orthodoxy', p. 268 of Orthodox Christianity and the English Tradition,
1995 and 1997.
(c) Orthodox England - Published within the English Deanery of the Church Outside Russia: with the blessing of the Very Reverend Mark, Archbishop of Great Britain and Ireland.