Basilica, Cathedral, and Church

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[This entry focuses specifically on Christian houses of worship.]

Over the centuries Christians have employed different terms to denominate their religious buildings, and basilica, cathedral, and church are but three of many. The word church, deriving ultimately from the Greek kuriakos ("of the Lord") designates a building belonging to God and, in a sense, God's dwelling. A church where the bishop's throne (cathedra) is located is called a cathedral, while basilica refers to a class of Roman public buildings predating Christianity, particularly those with royal association. In usage the three terms overlap. During the early centuries of the Christian era, a cathedra was placed in a basilica, and it was not until the eighth century that the word cathedral itself became current. From the Middle Ages on, the word church has been applied to parish churches, but it is also proper to speak of the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine (New York City) or of the Holy and Undivided Trinity Church (Bristol, England). The terms themselves provide no clue to the forms that the edifices may take; rather, they are the result of a host of factors, including the need to provide for certain functions as well as stylistic and aesthetic influences, the availability of materials, patronage, and climatic conditions.

Origins: The House-Church

The first Christians were Jews who quite naturally continued to attend synagogue and, when possible, the Temple in Jerusalem; in addition, they had their own distinctive celebration which took the form of a meal. Jesus had enjoyed table fellowship with his followers during his ministry, at the last supper, and, so it was reported, after his resurrection. The Lord's Supper, soon to be called the Eucharist, or thanksgiving, was interpreted as a remembrance and renewal of the communion experienced at these gatherings. The only architectural provision required for such a service was a dining room, so Christians in the apostolic age met in private houses: at Ephesus in the home of Aquila and Prisca, at Laodicea in the home of Nymphas, and at Colossae in the home of Philemon. The property concerned would vary from single-family buildings up to four stories high, common in the East, to apartments arranged horizontally as in the tenements of Rome.

In the third century the church took the step of acquiring, either by purchase or by gift, houses of its own, and at Dura-Europos on the Euphrates there is an actual example of a house modified for use by a Christian congregation. Built shortly after the year 200, it underwent alteration in 231, when the room across the courtyard opposite the street was enlarged by knocking down a wall, and a dais was inserted, probably for the bishop's chair. West of the atrium there was a chamber, possibly for the use of catechumens, and by the entrance was another chamber for initiation. The alterations did not affect the character of the house as an example of local domestic architecture or the character of the Eucharist as a domestic event within the family of Christians. It is not surprising therefore, that several writers of the period, such as Minucius Felix and Arnobius, asserted, "We have no temples and no altars." The situation was to change dramatically in the early fourth century.

The Nature of the Basilica

The conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine I in the year 313 conferred on Christianity a new role: as the state religion, it was now charged with ensuring the well-being of the empire; its worship, replacing the pagan sacrificial system, was to obtain the divine favor; the preeminence of the ruler was to be recognized and safeguarded; the identity of the populace as citizens of Rome was to be fostered. Christianity, as it were, went public, and the unpretentiousness of the private dining room was out of keeping. Consequently, when Constantine wrote to Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem in 326 or 327 concerning his project of adorning the site of the Holy Sepulcher, he instructed him to build a basilica. This term referred to a type of Roman structure that combined religious overtones with the criteria of an official building; it was a large meeting hall, often containing an effigy of the emperor. The Christian basilica belonged to the same genus: it was a monumental public edifice where devotion to God as emperor of heaven was substituted for the imperial cult.

Initially there was no uniform plan for basilicas, but by the end of the fourth century there were sufficient common features to constitute a recognizable form. Apart from Mesopotamia, where the basilican hall was transverse, one entered through a narrow side into a rectangle, the nave, flanked usually by one aisle on either side. At the opposite end there was a triumphal arch leading to a semicircular apse; at the center back of the apse was the bishop's throne, with seats for the presbyters to the right and left and the altar in front of them framed by a triumphal arch. This interior had all the characteristics of a path. Continuity and directionality were ensured by floor patterns, by the advancing row of columns, and by the succession of windows. The altar at the end of the central axis provided the terminal and goal of what Christians (themselves a pilgrim people) often called the royal highway. Architecturally, then, the Christian basilica was a structure whose walls molded and defined space as a continuum that found its climax in the altar as the center of the eucharistic action. The altar was seen as a symbol of Christ, the mediator between God and man, the meeting place of heaven and earth, so it testified to the historical specificity in time and space of the New Testament revelation.

As centers of the state religion, Christian basilicas replaced the pagan temples and thus acquired the character of holy places that had not been associated with the earlier house-churches. This character was reinforced when, since there was nothing in the New Testament about church buildings, recourse was had to the Old Testament and to the account of the Jerusalem Temple in particular for guidance. Saint Peter's in Rome, for example, would appear to have deliberately followed Solomon's model, not only with part corresponding to part but with the orientation (the apse or Holy of Holies at the west end) and even the proportions identical.

Differences of detail between one basilica and another did not affect the building's essential nature as a sacred area and a path. The apse might protrude, as in the western half of the Mediterranean, or be enclosed to create side chambers, as in the Middle East. The outer walls might be carried up to the level of those of the nave, thus making a clerestory impossible and necessitating windows that opened into the aisles and the apse, as in Asia Minor. A forecourt or atrium was frequent, but it was not indispensable. An external porch might be favored, as in Italy, or incorporated into the structure to create a narthex, where the catechumens had their place, as in Greece. The roof might be steep-pitched, made of wood or stone, even domed. A side chamber for initiation might be provided, as was often the case in North Africa and Palestine, or there could be a detached baptistery adjacent to it, as in France or Austria. No matter what the variations, the basilica met the needs of Christian congregations so well that it was not modified in any important particular for a thousand years and was still the recognizable prototype of the more elaborately planned churches of the later Middle Ages.

Churches of the Middle Ages in the West

Two factors above all had striking effects on architecture in the Middle Ages: a growing distinction between priests and laity and the definition of the essential role of the priests to be that of offering the sacrifice of the Mass. During the patristic period up to about 1000 ce, the place of the clergy had been demarcated by low balustrades or chancelli, but by the Middle Ages these had developed into chancel screens that virtually shut the priest off from the congregation. Indeed, by that time many churches consisted of two rooms, as the sanctuary became a chamber separate from the nave. The altar ceased to be freestanding, and the celebrant stood with his back to the body of the church. If there were more than one priest, additional altars and side chapels were introduced: there was no longer one altar, as had been the case in the basilica. For larger churches and cathedrals, there were additional factors at work.


By the Middle Ages, parish churches ceased to have a bishop's throne, and even cathedrals no longer gave it prominenceas the high altar was no longer freestanding, the cathedra was pushed to one side. A large number of cathedrals were under the direction of monks, for whom a fenced-off choir was fitted into the building for the saying of the divine office. A self-contained unit constituting an independent place was thus inserted into a system of paths. Since many of the religious were ordained, the need for extra altars for each priest to celebrate the daily Mass was more pronounced than in the parish church, and an abundance of small chapels was created. This multiplication of altars was also encouraged by the practice of celebrating votive masses (masses offered with special intentions), culminating in the chantry chapels, which were separate structures endowed for masses on behalf of the dead. Some chapels opened off transepts, others radiated from the ambulatory encircling the east end. This later arrangement, known as the chevet, was also the outcome of two other influences: pilgrimages and the cults of the saints. Attention had to be given to the location and means of housing the sacred relics and to the circulation space necessary for the crowds who came to honor them. Some relics were enshrined within the altars, some in crypts; the ambulatory facilitated movement, as did galleries, and consequently many pilgrimage centers, such as Santiago de Compostela, present a much more complex plan than that of the basilica. In elevation, too, there were differences, largely the outcome of stylistic change.

Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance

Although adapted for Christian use, the early Christian basilica is best categorized as an example of Roman architecture, apart from the virtual neglect of the potentialities of the original Roman vault: the walls and ceiling had a space-shaping function producing a carefully proportioned interior that was an uninterrupted continuum of flowing space. After the year l000, something essentially new in church design emerged when the vault came into its own. The vault had three effects: it determined the shape and form of the supports, which had to be much larger than the columns of the basilica because the burden was greater; it united ceiling and walls; and it created a series of bays, that is, individual spatial units. This last feature of the Romanesque style attenuated the west-to-east drive. The whole remained a path or system of paths, but it now constituted a place in itself; a focus for gathering with a character of its own. It declared that instead of advancing to meet Godthe message of the basilicathe faithful live in God and are embraced by God.

The nature of the Gothic style, which succeeded Romanesque particularly in England, France, and Germany from the mid-twelfth to the early fifteenth century, was similarly determined by the vault, but now the round Roman arch was replaced by a pointed one, derived possibly from mosque architecture, familiar through the Crusades and the reconquest of Spain from the Muslims, and adopted for aesthetic reasons rather than, as nineteenth-century art historians believed, for its structural convenience. The pointed arch and the corresponding crisscrossing ribs turned the vault into a composition of triangles and diamonds; diagonality became prominent. The effect was to turn the supports into two juxtaposed V's, one jutting out into the nave and the other into the aisle, so replacing the flatness of Romanesque with projection. Verticality became the predominating factor, but this heavenward movement was balanced by a horizontal progression in that the bays were no longer independent but interlocked, and the nave became a way from expectancy to fulfillment. Every Gothic church or cathedral corresponded in a sense with one of the greatest literary creations of the age, namely the Commedia of Dante, who recounted how he was led ever onward and upward to the beatific vision.

A further stylistic change took place at the beginning of the fifteenth century with a rebirth of classical culture. This development derived from a careful study of the writings and ruins of ancient Rome, coupled with an imaginative recreation of that past era as a "golden age" in which consolation and refreshment could be sought. The entire Roman architectural vocabulary was pressed into service to articulate the walls and later the three-dimensional shapes of the buildings. There was an overriding concern for proportion and harmony. The intention was to make churches to human scale because human beings are in the image of God, to create an architecture in which they could move naturally. Hence the change from the dominating verticality of the Gothic style to horizontality. There was no longer the propulsion of the early Christian drive to the east or the slow progression of Romanesque bays. In a Renaissance church one is at ease because one is the measure of it all. There is peace and serenity since the whole is a single self-contained hall; there is minimal movement, and the church is best perceived as a place, concentrated in form, reality comprehensible in shape, limited in size, a focus for assembly and quite evidently to be experienced as an interior volume, in contrast to a surrounding exterior. These characteristics of place apply even more precisely to the churches of Eastern Orthodoxy.

The Churches of Eastern Orthodoxy

For the first flowering of the Byzantine style, from which all later Orthodox buildings derive, it is necessary to return to the sixth century, when there was a decisive break with the basilican tradition. Just as later the combination of the Roman groin vault with the basilica was to produce the Romanesque church, under the emperor Justinian (527565) it was the alternative form of Roman vault, the dome, that became favored in the East. Ideologically the dome was perceived as a symbol of heaven and so was regarded as suitable for tombs, baptisteries, and martyria. When the cult of the saints came to the parish churches, the dome came with it, and preference was given to a centralized plan constructed according to the baldachin principle. A baldachin, or ciborium, is a dome carried on four columns. No load-bearing walls are needed between these four columns, and so the spaces can be perforated, replaced by columnar screens, or simply eliminated, reducing the enveloping system to a mere skin stretched on a skeleton. Churches of this type are planned from the top downward, that is, the lower parts exist simply for the dome and would be meaningless without it. The general effect is that of a hanging architecture: the vault has no apparent weight of its own; the columns are conceived not as supports but as pendulous roots; the space radiates downward. Heaven, represented by the dome, condescends to earth, which corresponds to the flat pavement: incarnation is given architectural expression. But this is incarnation understood not in the sense of the divine veiled in human flesh but in the sense of the material transfigured, because in and through it the divine is made visible. The mosaics, which ideally should clothe every surface within a Byzantine church, as in Saint Mark's in Venice, affirm this transfiguration: while remaining themselves, the natural substances become spirit-bearing; the material reality is integrated with the divine life that pours down from above, and glory is made visible.

While the dome was the characteristic feature of such churches, there was some variety in substructure, but the most popular became a quincunx. This is divided into nine bays, with a central large square dominated by the principal dome. This domed square is abutted by four rectangular bays that are usually barrel-vaulted, and at each of the four corners there is a small square, usually domed. To provide for the liturgy, an apse appears at the east end, generally flanked by side chambers, while at the west end there is a porch or narthex; galleries too are common. External decoration was much increased, and domes of different sizes and height were juxtaposed, as seen at the Church of Saint Sophia in Novgorod. Beginning in Russia toward the end of the fourteenth century, a solid screenthe iconostasiscovered with pictures of the saints and scenes from the Bible, shuts off the sanctuary, thus entirely blunting any suggestion of a horizontal axis or of a path. These churches then became holy places with all the features they require: union with the divine in wrapt contemplation tends to replace the movement associated with pilgrimage. Gradually this uniform architectural vocabulary began to break down in certain areas such as Bulgaria and Russia. Plans then became more diversified when, for example, a centralized sanctuary was fused with a basilica-type nave.

The Counter-Reformation and Baroque

It was in 1054 that the eastern and western halves of Christendom split in the Great Schism, but even more fragmentation was to come in the sixteenth century with the Protestant Reformation, which had profound effects on churches and cathedrals. First to be noted is the Roman Catholic Church reaction to the Protestantsthe Counter-Reformationwhich found artistic expression in the Baroque style.

With the Counter-Reformation in full spate in the latter half of the sixteenth century, church buildings began to convey ecclesiastical self-assurance and authority. Power and exuberance were embodied in physical structures. Facades acquired a new propaganda function, both proclaiming the confidence of the church in an awe-inspiring manner and seeking to persuade and entice those who regarded them to come inside. The interior was equally designed to impress: the use of the oval plan, combining the centralized effect of a circle with an eastward thrust, produced dynamic tension that allowed no repose. There was a planned movement through space; in the drive to the high altars, the aisles, which might have distracted from the importance of the nave, were reduced to a series of side chapels, and the transepts, likewise, to mere bulges.

On the main altar there was now a tabernacle, or receptacle, for the reserved sacrament. To celebrate this localized presence of the divine, the church borrowed from both the court and the theater. This was the period of the emergence of nation-states, each with its own monarch enjoying magnificent apartments and ceremonial. Since God is the king of kings, his residences were to display even more splendorall the visual arts being fused to achieve thiswhile the liturgy became the etiquette of the heavenly ruler. At the same time the Mass became the religious equivalent of the principal artistic creation of the age, namely the opera. The main devotional act was now the exposition of the reserved sacrament: the displaying, at the end of a magnificent scenographic approach, of the consecrated Host to the assembly.

Within this divine theater, every worshiper was assigned an active role. One was made aware that the earthly interior was in communication with heaven above since the vast illusionistic ceiling paintings denied enclosure and gave access to the throne of God. This was the style that spread throughout the Roman Catholic Church, becoming even more decorative than in Italy when it passed to Spain and its colonies in the New World, where miners and slave owners sought to honor God and thank him for the treasures they believed he had bestowed on them.

The Churches of Protestantism

One of the organs of the Counter-Reformation had been the Council of Trent (15451563), which reaffirmed many medieval theological ideas, among them the view that the essence of Christian priesthood is to offer the sacrifice of the Mass. Protestants reacted strongly against this position, emphasizing the fellowship aspect of the Eucharist and the importance of preaching while lowering the barrier between clergy and laity. These three factors were to have important results in the building of churches, but in the early decades after the Reformation few new structures were erected; rather, the main architectural activity consisted in adapting those buildings taken over, for example, by the Calvinists and Anglicans. The former destroyed rood screens, brought the pulpit into the midst of the congregation, and similarly advanced the baptismal font. The latter used the nave for the ministry of the word, using the second of the two medieval rooms, the sanctuary, for the ministry of the sacrament.

As time passed and additional churches were planned, Protestants in general tended to favor some kind of centralization to express the idea of the gathered congregation. Lutherans brought table, pulpit, and font together to produce the Prinzipalstück, or triple liturgical focus, at the east end. Anglicans approved of the auditory church devised by Christopher Wren (16321723): elongated chancels and prominent side aisles were suppressed to produce a single volume of such a size that all present could both hear and see what was taking place. Other denominations adopted plans that were both modest and domestic in character; many an early Quaker meetinghouse, for example, is externally indistinguishable from a private dwelling: in a sense the wheel had come full turn. Stylistically the buildings followed the current fashion, although preference began to be given to the restrained classicism that had been popularized by Wren and which in England represented the influence of the Renaissance as mediated through the Italian architect Andrea Palladio (15081580). Baroque, with its implicit triumphalism, did not appeal to the heirs of the Reformation, but most if not all were eventually to succumb to architectural revivalism.

The Gothic Revival in England

Once the task of the architect was conceived to be the reproduction of the styles of a former age, then there appeared to be no reason why any one epoch should be given preference. In Germany, for example, the Rundbogenstil (Romanesque style) was favored. In England there is the Church of Saint Mary at Wilton, Wiltshire (18401846), complete with freestanding Italianate campanile. It is, however, the Gothic style that most commended itself in the end. The adherents of this late eighteenth-century style rested their case on a number of vigorously argued but largely untenable beliefs. First, they held that national churches should promote whatever is the main national style, and this they identified in Great Britain as Gothicin ignorance of the fact that it had originated in France. Second, they maintained that every religion produces its own architectural style that best expresses its character; Greek temples, for example, were deemed to embody paganism and therefore to be unsuited for Christianity. Wedded to this consideration was a third conviction that architecture mirrors the spirit of the age in which it is produced and that consequently, the Gothic of the thirteenth century, which was held to be the "age of faith" is to be recognized above all others as the Christian style.

The Gothic revival appealed to many because of a contemporary emphasis on spirituality, on sacramentality, on ritual rather than preaching, and on the visual and decorative elements that went with that emphasis. From 1839 to 1845, the Cambridge Camden Society, with the Ecclesiologist as its organ, campaigned all over England for the restoration of existing churches that did not conform to its ecclesiastical canons, and for the designing of new churches with extended chancels, screens, and a clear division of sanctuary from nave. Three-decker pulpits were reduced to a single level; box pews were replaced by benches all facing the altar; the empty space in the architectural choir was filled with a robed singing choir.

Beginning with Anglicanism but soon influencing Roman Catholicism, this movement quickly spread to affect all denominations. Methodism and Congregationalism in particular followed suit, though probably more for social than theological reasons: they wanted their buildings to look like "churches." Inside, however, their arrangement remained more "protestant" in that it featured a central pulpit on a rostrum and galleries, thus laying stress on the word rather than the sacrament and giving the building something of the appearance of an auditorium.

Gothic revivalism was to spread throughout the worldfrom the United States to Australia, from New Zealand to Iran. Failing to distinguish the gospel from its embodiment in Western cultural forms, Christians rejected indigenous architecture as primitive and even essentially pagan. Hence there appeared in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia a complete Gothic cathedral, and a similar alien immigrant enshrines the tomb of the apostle Thomas in Madras, India.

Church Buildings in the Twentieth Century

Revivalism continued into the twentieth century, although it was being hotly contested by many architects. Indeed, it was not until the 1920s that the ideals of the modern movement in architecture began to be related to those of the liturgical movement within Roman Catholicism. The technical achievements of the modern movement were first utilized in the reinforced concrete church of Le Raincy near Paris (1923). The principles of the liturgical movement found expression in the hall of the Catholic Youth Movement headquarters at Schloss Rothenfels-am-Main in Germany (1828). This was a large rectangular space devoid of decoration and furnished with a hundred black cubical stools. For a liturgical celebration a provisional altar was set up, the faithful on three sides of it, and the president completed the circle by facing them across the table. This arrangement embodied the principles that the Mass should be the central Christian act of devotion, that it should be intelligible, with a unity of word and sacrament, and that it should be corporate. The space for the altar and that for the congregation were united in a single volume. When this was translated into parish church termsfor example, in the Church of Corpus Christi in Aachen, Germany (19281930), which was to have a potent influence on design throughout the decade before World War IIit resulted in a narrow rectangle with the altar somewhat isolated. Because the fundamental concept was that the building should be planned from the altar outward, this article of furniture was required to be a large, static object that constituted the visual and monumental focus of the entire space. The persistence of this view into the 1960s is evidenced by the chapel of Saint John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota (1963).

The main characteristic of the period prior to Vatican II, in all denominations, was the progressive abandonment of the rectangular plan in favor of a design based on the square, as seen in the Church of Saint James the Fisherman, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, or Saint Paul's Church, Bow Common, London (1960). At the same time, experimentation was at its height, leading to a great variety of shapes and often, under the influence of Le Corbusier's pilgrimage chapel at Ronchamp, northeastern France (19501955), to asymmetry. There was, in fact, a temptation for architects to seek to display their individual genius in buildings that were monumental in conception.

The tenets of the liturgical movement, already operative within and outside the Roman communionthey were visibly embodied in the North Christian Church, Columbia City, Indiana (1964)were fully endorsed by Vatican II, which began its sessions in October 1962. A complete break with the monumental image was now promoted; church buildings were expected to be at the "service" of the congregation. The altar was no longer regarded as the unique pole. To integrate word and sacrament, emphasis was now also placed on the pulpit or lectern and the teaching chair. A growing ecumenical consensus and an acceptance of common principles so influenced church buildings that many could not now be identified in denominational terms. It is possible to visit churches in Switzerland or the United States and be unaware of which belong to the reformed tradition and which to the Roman Catholic. Nevertheless, differences may be detected; Unitarians, for example, generally lay less stress on sacraments than do Episcopalians. As a result, Unitarian churches are likely to limit or even to give no prominence at all to the altar, instead emphasizing the pulpit; this was the case with Frank Lloyd Wright's influential design for the Unity Temple (now Unitarian Universalist Church) in Oak Park, Illinois, as long ago as 19041906.

Since 1970 the architectural scene has not remained static. There has been a recognition that a variety of buildings are needed for use as pastoral centers or to accommodate small groups, medium-sized congregations, and large assemblies. Indeed, what some would regard as bizarre designs have been realized; such was the drive-in church planned by Richard Neutra in 1959 for the Garden Grove community of Orange City in southern California, which was superseded by Philip Johnson's crystal cathedral opened in September 1980. The importance of mobility and flexibility has been acknowledged, with a consequent effect on furnishings and seating. The responsibility of the Christian community, not only to its own members but to the larger community within which it is set, has also led to the development of the idea of the multipurpose church, that is, one that accommodates not only worship but also other services for those in the neighborhood who are in need.

Reuse and reordering have also become important issues. The decline in attendance at worship in some areas and the movement of population in others (especially from the inner city) have made many churches virtually redundant. Some churches of little architectural or townscape interest have been demolished, while others have been adapted as libraries, museums, cultural centers, even dwelling places. Where a viable liturgical life is being maintained, there is often the need to redesign the interior of a building that was originally planned to accommodate hieratic forms of worship now regarded as belonging to the past. Beliefs, worship practices, and architecture continue to march in inextricable partnership, sometimes, but by no means always, producing less-than-major monuments, sometimes creating works of considerable beauty, in all cases and in all periods representing varying and valid traditions within the Christian denominations.

See Also

Architecture; Monastery; Pilgrimage, articles on Eastern Christian Pilgrimage, Roman Catholic Pilgrimage in Europe, and Roman Catholic Pilgrimage in the New World; Relics; Religion; Shrines; Tombs; Worship and Devotional Life, article on Christian Worship.


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