Hierarchy is one of the most important aesthetic principles but it is today the most forgotten. And hierarchy is not just a principal in aesthetics but a principle in all of reality. Wikipedia says “Hierarchy is an important concept in a wide variety of fields, such as philosophy, mathematics, computer science, organizational theory, systems theory, and the social sciences (especially political philosophy).” And they even left out a bunch of fields like ethics, theology, and, um, science, you know genus, species or how atoms make up molecules that make up chemicals.
Life is hierarchical. You start in the morning and go to night, you do things first and then second. Bodies are hierarchically designed. The head with the brain and eyes, mouth and ears are hierarchically primary, then the mid-section containing the hands and torso, and then the legs.
And when things get out of their proper hierarchy, say, the belly gets too large then you have problems. In life, an improper hierarchy occurs when you focus too much on your job and not on your family, prioritizing a lesser task when the greater task should have hierarchical importance. Jesus tells the Pharisees that their moral hierarchy is unbalanced. They tithe dill, mint, and cumin but neglect the weightier, hierarchically more important matters of the law: justice, mercy and faithfulness.
This is a common musical problem. For instance when the drummer is playing too loud or the orchestral section playing the harmony drowns out the section playing the melody. So hierarchy is a property in every aspect of life.
But let’s get some definitions on the table. Hierarchy is when the different parts or elements in a composition have an order. In a visual composition like a painting or a page from a catalog, this means that the elements have been designed to guide the eye as to what should be looked at first, second, and third or however many elements there are. That is, by using size, color, position, texture, or identifiers (like arrows or pointers) you create the order. And this visual order should correspond to the internal order, that is, the order of content itself. So, the title of the play should be hierarchically first and not driving directions.
There is a great poster that demonstrates the power of hierarchy. It uses scale and weight to show how hierarchy guides the eye around a composition. (you will look at this first, this second, and this third).
In science, you have a hierarchy between the sciences. It is a hierarchy of size: physics studies the smallest constituents of reality, then chemistry, then biology and so on. Within each of those sciences there are hierarchies. The main taxonomy in biology that we all learned in high school is a hierarchy: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species.
The problem however is that because of political and ideological or philosophical reasons hierarchy has been abandoned or thought to be a bad thing. But just like any principle or good it can be perverted and perverted in a way particular to its nature. Remember Aristotle’s great axiom that virtue is the mean between the extremes of excess and deficiency. So a false hierarchy can be an excessive hierarchy, visually this would mean the big or important things were too big and the small things were too small, and there also can be a deficient hierarchy, where everything is the same size, same color, same weight. Just like you can have excessive political hierarchy, totalitarianism, and deficient political hierarchy, communism.
The common critique, however, is that any talk of hierarchy will inevitably be oppressive, the strong oppressing the weak, the wealthy oppressing the poor. But the good principle of hierarchy is very simple: some things are equal and some things are not equal. But even here these terms equal and not equal are often interpreted negatively, but they don’t have to be and they ought not be.
The problem is that when people hear the word equality they think about one type of equality: ontological equality, the equality of worth or value. But there are many types of equality.
There is mathematical or quantitative equality. The number one is not equal to the number two but one is not greater, ontologically more valuable than two. There are also many types of qualitative equality. A redheaded woman is not equal to a blond woman, but neither is ontologically superior.
It might be better to just change our language because equality is so fraught with misunderstanding. Instead, we could talk about sameness and difference. One is not the same as two, red hair is not the same as blond hair.
There are also many types of hierarchies other than better and worse. You can have hierarchies in time: before and after. Space: top to bottom, saturation: highly saturated to desaturated.
So in a work of art, just because there is hierarchy doesn’t mean there is an ontological hierarchy. Perhaps you make the red head hierarchically first because you’re making a label for shampoo that’s primarily designed for women with red hair. Other hair colors, like blonde, may use it so their picture is hierarchically second.
Let’s look at some examples of hierarchy in art and architecture.
Here is Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac. Caravaggio controls the hierarchy through luminance or brightness, contrast, size, leading lines, and expression. Isaac is hierarchically first with the largest quantity of space with the most luminous color. His skin tone while similar to the angel is brighter. Caravaggio also slices that light, drawing even more attention with the knife cutting the brightest section of the painting, a visual symbol of cutting or killing of Isaac himself, light is cut with darkness of the blade just as life is about to be ended. He is hierarchically first because he is the one being sacrificed.
From Isaac the leading line of the arms leads up to the angel, hierarchically second. And then the angel’s finger and Abraham’s shoulder guides us to Abraham, and then to the ram, and finally to the background. So here is the order of hierarchy, skillfully executed by Caravaggio. And the visual hierarchy matches the importance of the subjects depicted in the painting.
Next, let’s look at the great Hagia Sophia. Like many medieval churches it has a cruciform layout, embodying in its form what Christian’s should embody in their life, the form of the cross. But this form also naturally allows for a central axis that is hierarchically first. Isodore and Anthemius, the designers of the church, controlled the hierarchy by elevation, volume, and axiality. That is, the central dome is the highest, it has the largest space out of all the sections and all the lines of the architecture lead to and converge in the central dome.
The original painting on the ceiling of the central dome was the Christ Pantokrator, or “All-mighty”. Thus, Christ being the object of worship is hierarchically primary architecturally. The hierarchy then moves down as you have cascading domes on each axis.
There is also an axial hierarchy that begins when you enter the church, move through the nave where the laity would partake in the divine liturgy and finally to the apse containing the iconostasis, the apse and the ark containing the sacrament.
Indeed, Francis Ching in what has become a canonical architecture textbook, Architecture: Form, Space, and Order, says that:
“The principle of hierarchy implies that in most if not all architectural compositions, real differences exist among their forms and spaces. These differences reflect the degree of importance of these forms and spaces, as well as the functional, formal, and symbolic roles they play in the organization . . . the manner in which the functional or symbolic differences among a building’s elements are revealed is critical to the establishment of a visible, hierarchical order among its forms and spaces.” (358, Architecture: Form, Space, and Order)
Like all aesthetics properties, they are necessary because they are grounded in God himself. There is hierarchy in God. Within God there is a hierarchy of relation, the father then the Son, then the Holy Spirit.
God is not an undifferentiated Monad like Leibniz thought, but he is a diverse and ordered substantial relation of Father, Son, and Spirit. And this differentiation is not a bare difference but an ordered difference. The Father is logically (though not temporally) prior to the Son because a Father by his nature begats the Son. The Son does not begat the Father. The historian Roger Olson says that “There is no doubt in my mind that the Great Church as a whole (both East and West including the magisterial Protestant Reformers) believed in a hierarchy within the immanent Trinity.” (https://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2011/12/is-there-hierarchy-in-the-trinity-a-series-on-a-contemporary-evangelical-controversy/).
Footnote. I do not wish to enter into the debate that has arisen regarding the functional subordination of the Son. And these arguments are neither here nor there regarding those discussions. I am simply arguing that there is a relational hierarchy or order, the Father then the Son. This may be adopted by either camp.
So God’s very own hierarchical life is reflected in all of his creation. And when a work of design with a good hierarchy, then there is a peaceful unity. And that peacefulness, the loving intermingling of ordered difference says something deep and true about God. It communicates that God himself is a loving and peaceful unity ordered difference, properly and beautifully ordered.