Catholic Churches: A Synthesis of Forms
by James Haverty Smith
The few examples of Christian churches that predate 313 A.D. were
private residences. Following the Edict of Milan, issued that
year, and the foundation of Constantinople in 330, Emperor
Constantine I initiated a campaign to design and construct
Christian churches to commemorate the significant landmarks of the
Empire's new religion. Over the next century, the number of these
new structures proved to be substantial, especially in Rome and
These new Christian churches fell into either of two broad design
categories: the Roman basilica and the Byzantine dome. The more
linear basilican church, whose design was borrowed from the Roman
marketplace, primarily served to handle congregational assemblies
and the celebration of the Eucharist. The centralized, domed
church was typically a rotunda that, like the place markers of
antiquity upon which they were modeled, served as the demarcation
for some sacred site such as the tomb of a martyr. Most Catholic
churches today are a development of one of these designs or a
synthesis of the two.
The basilican form served as an all-purpose shape for many secular
uses in Roman antiquity. But it was most widely used to house the
Roman markets. Several of the earliest Christian churches were
converted basilican markets. The location of the common vault
translated conveniently into the location for the altar, and the
shopping stalls off the aisles became side chapels. This design is
still widely used with only slight modification.
There has been conjecture that the secular nature of the Roman
basilica appealed to early Christians because the form was not
associated with pagan temples. But its main appeal seems to have
been practicality. Early Roman Christians found the design
convenient, practically suited for assemblies, and easy and
inexpensive to construct.
Byzantine domed structures commissioned by Constantine proved to
be much more ambitious and complex constructions than the
relatively straightforward basilican churches. Constantine
considered the centralized domed plan, with its emphasis on the
vertical axis, to be more spiritually uplifting. But the
centralized, square plan supporting a circular dome, while quite
spectacular, was difficult to construct.
Moreover, the shape of the Byzantine plan also proved to be less
practical for large assemblies. Typically, the central space was
reserved to house a tomb or reliquary. The clergy performed their
rites with the congregation gathered around. Eventually, this
dramatic new church prototype reverted to its ancient use as a
place marker, now housing Christian relics or tombs.
During the sixth century, with the influence of Emperor Justinian,
there was renewed interest in the design and construction of
churches. This surge in church construction brought together the
architecture of Byzantium and the West in several ways. A notable
example was Justinian's imperial complex at Ravenna. After one of
his trips to Constantinople, Justinian called for a chapel modeled
on the Byzantine dome to be connected to a Roman basilican church
by a cloistered courtyard. Appropriately, the chapel faced east
while the basilica faced west.
One of the most remarkable developments in church architecture
during this period was the domed basilica which was a direct
synthesis of the linear basilica with the centralized dome. This
was most often accomplished by the introduction of the transept-or
second rectangular section running perpendicular to the
longitudinal basilica and forming a cross. A dome was placed over
the transept, resting on the square formed at the intersection of
the cross. In the East, the domed basilica often took the shape of
a Greek Cross; in the West, it took the shape of the Latin Cross.
In both, however, the transept would typically be reserved for a
tomb or special object of honor.
With the rise of Islam in the West from the sixth through the
ninth centuries, there was virtually no new church construction,
leaving most architectural development to occur in Byzantium.
Perhaps the most spectacular was the Hagia Sophia, completed in
Constantinople in 537. Interestingly, while from the outside, this
huge, domed church appears to be square, its interior plan is
rectilinear. Over the next several centuries in Byzantium, the
centralized plan and the domed basilica became highly developed,
culminating in the Quincux, or five-spot church, comprised of a
large, centralized dome surrounded by four smaller domes.
Charlemagne to Chartres
By the late eighth century, Charles Martel and his son,
Charlemagne, had managed to subdue the Islamic threat from the
south. In the year 800, Charlemagne attempted to rebuild at Aachen
the chapel and basilica complex built by Emperor Justinian at
Ravenna almost three hundred years earlier. There, at Aachen,
where Charlemagne would reside as the first Holy Roman Emperor,
the basilican church was expanded to the west to include two
towers which straddled the main entrance. This towered entrance
later evolved into the westworks.
The westworks became an exterior counterbalance to the tower over
the church sanctuary, while inside the westworks a throne was
designed so that Charlemagne could sit facing opposite the
sanctuary. Charlemagne's towered entrance served as a visible
reminder, both inside and outside of the church, of the role of
the Holy Roman Emperor opposite that of the clergy, and in
particular of the papacy. Four hundred years later, the westworks
evolved into the great western towers of Chartres.
With the ascendance of the Holy Roman Empire, western Europe found
its footing. Meanwhile in the East, Byzantium was no longer able
to forestall the Islamic threat. The empire had been effectively
divided, and its center now shifted to the West. By the time of
the 1054 schism, the cultural division between East and West was
With the second millennium, church architecture began to flourish
in western Europe. Charlemagne's earlier basilican plan, with its
westworks and its transept crossing, became the basis for the
Romanesque designs of the eleventh century. The construction of a
Gothic church, built by artisans and entire towns, was a process
of trial and error that often took decades to complete. Those that
have survived remain today unparalleled in their beauty and
With few exceptions, Gothic architecture never took hold in Italy.
The Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe was at the height of its
development in the fourteenth century just as the Renaissance
began to unfold in Italy.
Renaissance architects saw in the Byzantine dome the most rational
and idealized shape for a church with its the resolution of the
two purest shapes-the circle within the square. Bramante's
Tempieto, which marks the spot where St. Peter was crucified,
perhaps best embodies this idealized church.
Still, the design did not comfortably accommodate assemblies. Most
of these centrally planned churches were designed as markers.
Those that were designed for liturgical purposes often were later
modified. Even St. Peter's, originally designed by Bramante and
Michelangelo in the configuration of a domed Greek Cross, was
modified, somewhat unsuccessfully, into a Latin Cross.
JAMES HAVERTY SMITH is an architect in Atlanta.
This article was taken from the November 1996 issue of "Crisis"
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