Research Paper: Christian Transformation: The Evolution of the Architecture

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¶ … Christian Transformation: The Evolution of the Architecture of the Christian Church, from Early Christianity to the Modern Eastern (Greek) Orthodox Christian Church

Over the course of a thousand years, the architecture of the early Christian churches underwent an evolution from the modest to the basilicas and cathedrals that remain standing today. To determine how and why this transformation occurred, this paper reviews the relevant literature to identify specific examples of church architecture to demonstrate the gradual changes in Christian architecture that took place from the earliest Christians (in the 1st-6th centuries) to the architecture of the modern Greek (or Eastern) Orthodox Christian Church. An analysis concerning the transition of Greek orthodox churches into a cruciform and its rationale is followed by a discussion of the major churches that contributed to this evolution, including St. Peter's basilica, the Hagia Sophia and others. Finally, a discussion of religious and outside contemporary society that contributed to the evolution of this particular building form is followed by a summary of the research in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

Fortunately, many of the early Christian churches of Europe have histories that are well documented that can help inform modern scholars concerning the methods used in their construction as well as how they were altered, with the determination of the types of changes that occurred over time based on religious and outside influences from contemporary society being a critical element in this analysis (Stollard). For instance, Stollard notes that, "What is less frequently considered, however, are the reasons why they were built in the way they were, and how they were intended to be used. An appreciation of the social history of the period is often the essential key to understanding the architectural development" (15).

Rather than a unified religion, the first through the sixth centuries were a developmental period for Christianity, with numerous sects and cults practicing their own versions of the faith (Stollard). Not surprisingly, then, the architecture that was used for these very early churches differed in substantive ways, including the size, artistic decorations and function (Stollard). During this early period in Christian history, in some cases, existing pagan buildings were simply converted into early Christian churches with little or no alteration to the architecture (Taylor). In other cases, demolished statutes and other scavenged materials from pagan buildings were used as building materials for early Christian churches (Hodges). Notwithstanding these differences, though, early Christian churches were reflections of the Christian faith in various ways. For instance, architectural design during this early period was based on important events in the life of Christ: "The resurrection of Christ occurred on the eighth day after he entered Jerusalem. Baptisteries of the early Christian churches were octagonal" (Introduction: The historical background 331).

By the fourth century CE, more formal architectural elements began to characterize Christian churches. For example, basilicas were an attempt on the part of early Christian architects to reflect the Kingdom on Heaven on earth (MacDonald). By the late fourth century CE, Emperor Constantine commissioned some of the first basilicas and their resemblance to the Christian cross became more pronounced (Veyne). According to MacDonald, "These enveloping, seamless vaulted forms were peculiarly suited to Christian memorials, baptisteries, and shrines. They traced revolving imitations of the cosmos with expanses of modeled surfaces so fluidly interconnected as to conjure away their material reality" (16). As a reflection of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, basilicas also provided early Christians with the interior spaces that were needed to commemorate and celebrate Christ. In this regard, MacDonald adds, "[These architectural forms] stated direct lines of force and connection from centered, hallowed ceremonial spots below to made heavens above" (16). A representative basilican floor plan is illustrated in Figure 1 below.

Figure __. Basilica. Most common ground-plan in Early Christian architecture. The basilica with transept, and the domed basilica are variations. In the High Middle Ages, the basilica was superseded by other types of ground-plan. (Church of Acheiropoietos, Salonica, Greece about 470)

Source: Nickel 25

The resemblance of the basilican form to a cross became more evident at this time. According to Curran, "The interior of the basilica was divided longitudinally into four aisles and a nave. Though in ground plan these early churches appear to be cross-shaped, but they had no transepts like that later developed at Saint Peter's basilica" (96). Saint Peter's basilica (see floor plan in Figure 3 below) as well as other early Christian churches were based on the basilican form; however Roth notes that further changes were required in the architectural form in order to accommodate the special requirements of Christian worship during this period in history. In this regard, Roth reports that, "In particular, at the end of the nave was added an entrance vestibule, or narthex, and beyond that a large atrium ringed with colonnades, where the unbaptized withdrew during the Mass of the Faithful. At Saint Peter's, entrance to the atrium was through an imposing propylon or gate. Including the narthex and atrium, the total length of Saint Peter's was 669 feet (203.9 meters) from transept to propylon" (245).

Figure 3. Floor plan of St. Peter's basilica

Source: http://www.stuardtclarkesrome.com/spetplan.gif

As noted above, the earlier architectural forms, though, failed to provide sufficient ceremonial spaces for the increasing numbers of Christian congregants who were involved and they also did not provide for the processional axes that were regarded as important elements in worship; as a result, but they were influential in the future developments of Christian architecture (MacDonald). As MacDonald points out, "Their symbolic significance and their memorial associations were so important that ways were sought to combine them with congregational and processional buildings, and in early Christian architecture a number of attempts were made to marry the horizontal shed with the verticalized pavilion" (16).

Over time, as building methods improved and new approaches to load-bearing were developed, architects of early Christian churches were able to introduce more spacious interiors that provided more space for congregants as well as more accurately reflecting, from their perspective, the important heavenly attributes that should be included. According to MacDonald, "In some cases the walls all but disappeared, and the vertical elements formed pierced, almost skeletal frames carrying vaults above. These structures were of square, circular, or polygonal plan, with a vault or tent-shaped roof of timber resting on piers or columns disposed about a central vertical axis" (16). Because these building methods and architectural forms proved so effective in these goals, they were also highly influential on future Christian architecture. In this regard, MacDonald concludes that, "In contrast to the horizontal basilican form, they made a presence about a specific spot, and while in the process of development and experiment, passed into the world of Christian architecture" (16).

In what would ultimately become the traditional cruciform plan, this transformation involved modifying existing models to more accurately reflect the shape of a cross. According to MacDonald, "Apses and sanctuaries were lengthened in order to pull horizontal axes under and past the vertical axes of vaulted, centralized buildings, pavilion units were inserted into basilicas (see Figure 2 below), and cross forms of various kinds were tried; ultimately, the problem was solved in Hagia Sophia" (16).

Figure 2. Alahan Kilise in Cilicia, late fifth or early sixth century. Plan.

Source: MacDonald 62

Consequently, by the sixth century CE, what would become the basis for the primary architectural forms of medieval Byzantine churches had been established for the most part (Nickel). According to Nickel, "In the Middle Ages, the principal church of Constantinople, Hagia Sophia (532-537), was the largest church in the Christian world and was regarded as a symbol of both secular and religious power" (25). The two architects of the Hagia Sophia, Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus, incorporated both centrally planned and basilican elements in the Hagia Sophia (see Figure 2 below) (Nickel).

Figure 2. Floor plan of the Hagia Sophia

Source: http://www.orthodoxtech.com/images/a.1._Hagia_Sophia-Ohrid-floor_plan.bmp

According to Nickel, the technical achievement by the architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus remain the source of wonder and admiration to the present day. For instance, Nickel notes that, "The piers inside the church are so skillfully embedded in the walls at the corners, that the mighty central dome, with its diameter of 32 metres, appears to be floating freely in space above the nave of the church" (25). Other architectural features were incorporated into the design of Hagia Sophia to help create this sense of etherealness. For instance, Nickel notes that, "This illusion is further reinforced by the presence of a ring of windows at the base of the dome. While the aisles flanking the nave were divided by arcades, half-domes surmounted the spaces to the west and east" (25).

In addition, far more attention was made to the interior of the Hagia Sophia compared to its exterior, even though the structure's exterior is aesthetically pleasing. For instance, Nickel notes that, "All the walls were decorated with marble inlay, mosaics and carved ornaments, further strengthening the unreal, illusionist impression… [END OF PREVIEW]

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