Originally introduced by Alexei Lidov in 2001, the concept of hierotopy concerns the creation of sacred spaces as a special form of human creativity and brings together a wide variety of academic disciplines ranging from anthropology and art history to religious studies. The concept of hierotopy changes the way we reflect upon and experience religious art. When approached from this perspective, nearly all artefacts of sacred art can be seen, not as isolated objects created for religious veneration or artistic appreciation, but as integral components of larger hierotopical projects.The status of icons in iconographic programs and their role in the overall experience of the sacred space is one research field of particular interest. Generally, the concept of sacred space aims to broaden – or to add, quite literally, a certain depth to – the appreciation and understanding of religious art. Hierotopical research thus accounts for the value and significance of all the various media – e.g. the images, ritual practices and architectural settings, as well as the sounds, perfumes and lighting – that are employed in the creation of sacred spaces. Hierotopical projects were not only connected with the construction of churches and sanctuaries, but also with landscapes and architectural compounds, such as re-creations of the Holy City. Subjects of hierotopical research are quite versatile in nature and may include a variety of topics such as: the role of light in church architecture, sacred spaces of religious ceremonies and festivals, folk traditions, and the comparison of hierotopical models at work in different cultures.
The creation of sacred spaces can often be seen in the creative reproduction of a certain holy space in new settings. In some important cases original sacred spaces were not of human making, but rather were marked by an immediate presence of the divine. A classical example is seen in the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, which is consciously reproduced in Christian churches. This can be described in terms of a relationship between hierophany and hierotopy. While hierophany defines a place of divine visitation, hierotopy refers to the conscious creation of a sanctuary around this place and/or its further reproduction, when a sacred space was delimited and formed by means of art and rituals. While hierotopy may include the study of mystical experiences, it typically deals with the rational and artistic aspects at work in the conscious creation of spatial icons. The latter effectively invoke a unique and memorable experience of divine presence in the minds of beholders. Similarly to normal icons, such spatial icons act as images-mediators between our world and the heavenly realm, but, in contrast with the former, they encompass the entirety of the media involved in the creation of the sacred space intended to be a place where a person communicates with the divine. A crucial characteristic of spatial icons is their dynamic, performative character. Participants in these events (liturgies, processions) were not merely spectators but co-creators of the sacred space itself.
Hierotopic research also helps to shed light on a long neglected cultural phenomenon – namely the role played by the creators of sacred spaces. Though these individuals are not necessarily architects or artists, their activity has quite a significant artistic aspect to it. A classical example of this can be seen in Abbot Suger, who in the 1140s created the concept behind the first Gothic cathedral of Saint-Denis. He wrote that this concept was born in his meditations in which he saw himself dwelling “in some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of the earth nor entirely in the purity of Heaven”. Another famous example can be found in emperor Justinian, a mastermind of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, which was seen by his contemporaries, as a “heaven on earth”. Transcendent experiences of sacred spaces can be described in terms of image-paradigms, spatial visions, which are intentionally implemented by their creators. Image-paradigms are not illustrative pictures, but rather have to do with the perception of the sacred space as a whole. An image-paradigm is thus a core image-idea of the sacred space, which, by means of spatial icons, is communicated to beholders, who share the same spiritual world with the creator. One example of such an image-paradigm would be Heavenly Jerusalem, present in every Byzantine church.