Catholic Churches: A Synthesis of Forms

Author: James Haverty Smith

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 Constantinople.

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.

Roman Markets

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 Dome

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 complete.

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 majesty.

Pure Shapes

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" magazine. To subscribe please write: Box 1006, Notre Dame, IN 46556 or call 1-800-852-9962. Subscriptions are $25.00 per year. Editorial correspondence should be sent to 1511 K Street, N.W., Ste. 525, Washington, D.C., 20005, 202-347-7411; E-mail: