Ancient Roman basilicas, apses, and early Christian architecture

An apse at the Canopus, Hadrian’s Villa. Not my photo. Mine’s still on my camera.

Today I visited Hadrian’s ‘Villa’ near Tivoli — an easily bussable distance from Rome. As I walked around, one of the many thoughts that struck me was the similarities between Roman architecture and early Christian architecture — the architecture of the West to the end of Romanesque (which simply became Renaissance in Italy, consciously looking for classical models) and the East for a lot longer.

It is my contention that these architectural styles are not borrowed from ancient ‘pagan’ cult but from domestic, public, and commercial architecture first and foremost. Ancient Christians were very wary of their polytheist neighbours, their spaces, and their cultic practices well beyond Constantine (contrary to what some people will try to tell you).

Sant'Agnese Fuori le Mura, Apse
Sant’Agnese Fuori le Mura, Apse

To return to Hadrian’s Villa, then. Many rooms and buildings at Hadrian’s Villa  come fully equipped with apses — semi-cylindrical ends of rooms with semi-domes at their tops. The apse is a common feature of most churches within a certain period. It persists into the Gothic and beyond. Sant’Agnese, a seventh-century basilica in Rome, has a nice apse.

And that word — basilica. This is a Roman word, and not one related to religio. In contemporary church-building lingo, it refers to a Roman Catholilc church that has been all blessed up by the Pope. In ancient Rome, it referred to a large, covered building used for conducted business, originally based on a building seen by M Porcius Cato the Elder whilst abroad called a basilike — a royal building.

The basilica was a lawcourt and place of commerce and enterprise, not a temple. Also, it had an apse where the magistrates would sit to listen to people’s entreaties. This, in fact, is not unlike the original function of a Christian apse, where the bishop would sit in the middle flanked by his presbyters — today, you are likely only to see a painting of concelebrating bishops.

Besides having an apse, the floor plan of a basilica, such as the fourth-century Basilica of Maxentius, Rome, demonstrates the indebtedness of the Christian basilica to its secular forebear.

In the fourth century, Christians begin building churches in the form of basilicas, apses and all. The earliest, Basilica Constantiana, is now San Giovanni in Laterano — technically Rome’s cathedral. I’ve not visited it, but it was built in the fourth century under Constantine; much of that early architecture, I understand, is obscured by its mediaeval redecorating. The other major Roman basilica of the period is Old St Peter’s, remains of which are visible beneath — you guessed it — St Peter’s.* These Roman basilicas set the stage for centuries of basilica building to come.

Why do Christians adopt this form? Why do they take on this and many other features of ancient Roman architecture — columns and round arches and domes and niches for statues and on and on? Is it that wicked heresy of ‘Constantinianism’ destroying the pure churches that once met in houses?

Well, given the frescoes at Dura Europos and the Catacombs, as well as the sheer size of some of these ‘house’ churches, I do not think that they went reluctantly to basilicas.

The basilica was adopted because it is eminently practical. It is suited to Christian liturgical functions — basically as we know them since at least the late first century. The apse, besides any practical function, helps set out that side of the building as a focus. Adding a mosaic only helps — as with all the other embellishments, such as fancy capitals.

Just as Augustine put his secular rhetorical training into Christian service, so the architects of the age put their secular architectural training into Christian service.

*Maybe Constantinian, maybe Constantian. I have no dog in that fight.

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La Sainte Chapelle: heaven on earth

The story goes that in 988, the ambassadors of Prince Vladimir of Kiev to Constantinople told their Prince that when witnessing worship in Hagia Sophia, they knew not whether they were on heaven or on earth. If they had waited until the mid-thirteenth century and visited Paris instead, I think perhaps the Kievan Rus could have become Roman Catholic rather than Eastern Orthodox.

I say this as one who has participated in a modern re-creation of mediaeval liturgy (reflections on that here), and I imagine that when such a liturgy was celebrated in La Sainte Chapelle in Paris, the lines between nature and supernature, earth and heaven, would blur amidst the dazzling walls made of glass, the gold, the incense, and the Gregorian Chant. The setting, of course, essential.

La Sainte Chapelle is located within the precincts of the old royal Palais de la Cité, situated on Ile-de-la-Cite, the large island in the middle of the Seine whereon you find Notre-Dame de Paris, herself a most remarkable woman almost 100 years older than Ste-Chapelle. Today, this palace has been modified and expanded around Ste-Chapelle as the Palais de Justice. But you can still visit the Radiant Gothic (rayonnant) holy chapel, no longer used for liturgical celebrations.

Ste-Chapelle was built by King St Louis IX (r. 1226-1270) between 1241 and 1248. Conceptually, it is inspired by the fantastic Romanesque palatine chapel of Charlemagne at Aachen (792-805). However, stylistically, it is a Gothic reliquary chapel, built in two storeys; the upper chapel was dedicated to the Holy Cross, the lower to the Virgin. Within the various subdivisions of Gothic architecture, Ste-Chapelle is a fine example of a Radiant Gothic church, whose rose windows have the style of rays spreading out from the centre (hence rayonnant).

Rose window of La Sainte Chapelle
Rose window of La Sainte Chapelle

Apparently, some people find the 19th-century attempts to classify Gothic architecture by its window tracings a bit misguided; one can certainly see stirrings of flamboyant in the window above.

The walls are almost entirely windows. Or, at least, they look it.

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There is more stone than it appears, including exterior buttresses. There is also a large quantity of metalwork holding the fabric of Ste-Chapelle together, much of it invisible because it is worked into the images of the windows themselves. Gothic architecture, as I have discussed before, seeks to maximise light in part because of the (Pseudo-)Dionyisian ideal of God as the Uncreated Light. In Ste-Chapelle, the amount of blue, red, and purple used to execute the various biblical and historical scenes portrayed in the windows gives an overarching sense of majesty and glory.

And why not? As I said above, Ste-Chapelle was built as a reliquary chapel. For which relics, you may ask? The Crown of Thorns and a fragment of the True Cross, acquired by St Louis as both an act of piety and of polity. You can see the top of the reliquary itself in the above photo, bathed in light from the apsidal windows.

Ste-Chapelle is one of the most remarkable architectural spaces I’ve eve visited. Because the north side is, I believe, flanked by a building (currently the windows are undergoing restoration), it is not as bright as I’d hoped. But it is still beautiful and noteworthy, a large, magnificent interior space drawing the eye upward and the soul outward to the Triune God.

Here are some more photos.

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King St Louis IX in apse of Lower Chapel
Me enjoying the Upper Chapel
Me enjoying the Upper Chapel

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St Cuthbert and Me

St Cuthbert on his deathbed, from a 12th century northern English copy of Bede’s prose Life of Cuthbert (London, British Library, MS Yates Thompson 26, f. 73r).

On Tuesday evening, for the first time in several months, I turned up at St. Andrew’s Orthodox Church for Vespers. It being the first week of Orthodox Lent, the service was that of St Andrew of Crete, and things were lit only by oil lamps and candles. I lit my candle and proceeded over to the icons on display — the usual trio of Christ, the Theotokos, and St Andrew the Apostle, but also the Saint of the Day, in a modern icon — St Cuthbert (634-687).

If you know your feasts, you will immediately say, ‘St Cuthbert’s Day was Wednesday!’ Following old customs, the cycle of the day begins with Vespers.

And so, in with various prayers of humility and for mercy, coupled with prostrations that involved touching foreheads to the floor, came that Early Mediaeval Northumbrian saint, Cuthbert.

If you want details for the life of good St Cuthbert, he was Saint of the Week around his feast day in 2010. I recommend also that you get a copy of the Penguin Classic The Age of Bede (or the original edition Lives of the Saints), which includes Bede’s prose Life of St Cuthbert (which is online here).

Since I first read Bede’s Life of this saint, I’ve had a soft spot for Cuthbert. I bought Lives of the Saints for St Brendan the Voyager, but fell for Cuthbert. I mean, The Voyage of Brendan (in both editions of Penguin’s volume) is a fun read and a masterpiece of Early Mediaeval imagination. But Cuthbert is a man who draws me the way St Francis of Assisi (my page on him here) or Blessed Ramon Llull (saint of the week here) draw me.

He was a mystic and a missionary. He was a monk and a preacher. He was a hermit and a bishop. He lived both the active and contemplative lives. My belief is that each fuels the other.

I have happily followed Cuthbert around Britain. Although I’ve yet to visit Melrose Abbey in the Scottish Borders, where he was admitted as a monk, I have been to two Romanesque foundations associated with this mystic missionary.

The first was Lindisfarne. I should give you the piece I wrote about Lindisfarne at some point. Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, is where St Cuthbert was Abbot-Bishop, seeking to reform the monastic habits of the brothers there, which included both simple reform as well as bringing them in line with Continental forms of monasticism.

Here you can see the beautiful red sandstone edifice erected years after Cuthbert’s monastery was long gone by monks who honoured the memory of this monk-missionary in particular as well as his brethren who lived on Holy Island from the days of St Aidan (saint of the week here) in the first half of the 600s until 875 when ongoing Viking raids caused the monks to flee from Holy Island to the mainland of Northumberland. Lindisfarne is the site of the famous, earth-shattering Viking raid of 793 that is often thought of as the start of the Viking Age. The Romanesque Priory was built c. 1093 by Durham Benedictines.

Here are some of my photos of Lindisfarne:

The Rainbow Arch at Lindisfarne
The Rainbow Arch at Lindisfarne

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Lindisfarne is the point of origin of the Lindisfarne Gospels, a masterpiece of mediaeval book production, full of magnificent illuminations, and produced by Cuthbert’s successor, Eadfrith, in honour of St Cuthbert:

(Not my image.)

In 875, the monks took the relics of St Cuthbert with them. Cuthbert was a big deal and his shrine an important pilgrimage site. First, they stopped off at Chester-le-Street (pronounced Chesly Street) for nine years. I’ve been there, too; changed buses on the way from Durham to Beamish.

They settled in Durham, though. And the big, beautiful Romanesque cathedral that stands there now is built in honour of God and St Cuthbert. Within, you can see the saint’s tomb with a simple, black slab over it. With his body is the head of King St Oswald (d. 642). There is also something of a canopy and kneelers to pray. This is nothing compared to the late mediaeval marble opulence covered with gems that was removed during the Reformation.

St Cuthbert is at the East end of the cathedral, behind the holy table. At the West end, make sure you find the tomb of his hagiographer, the Venerable St Bede (saint of the week here). Here are some pics of Durham Cathedral that I took:

Magnificent North portal
Magnificent North portal
The cloisters
The cloisters

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This past June, on the way back from Oxford where I was doing research, I stopped overnight in London. In London, I visited the British Library — and what was on display there but the Cuthbert Gospel? This is the copy of the Gospel of John that was buried with St Cuthbert, presumably his own copy! So I was pleased to see that, as well as an illuminated manuscript of Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert. Even in the South of England, I follow Cuthbert.

The Cuthbert Gospel (not my photos):

I have one other connection with St Cuthbert I can think of. There is a rumour that Cuthbert’s Northumbrian missionary enterprise extended as far as the Firth of Forth (the northern extent of the Northumbrian Kingdom of Bernicia), and that he established a house of worship on the shores of the Nor’ Loch, beneath the Briton (not Pictish!) fortress of Eidyn — the belief is that today’s Church of Scotland Parish Kirk of St Cuthbert that borders where the Nor’ Loch would have been, beneath the mediaeval/early modern fortress of Edinburgh Castle is on the same site as Cuthbert’s house of worship.

St Cuthbert’s, Edinburgh:

St Cuthbert's as viewed from Edinburgh Castle
St Cuthbert’s as viewed from Edinburgh Castle

Cuthbert seems to follow me. Or, rather, I seem to follow Cuthbert. I really should get down to Melrose soon …

The Duomo of Milan and the poor

Milan’s cathedral, or Duomo, is a grand sight. It is a shining white, marble beacon of Gothic beauty in a foggy, greyish-hued city. Within, it is filled with beautiful works of art, carvings in stone and wood, stained glass, paintings on canvas hung alongside the nave. A nail from the True Cross is in the Duomo’s cross high above.

The place fills one with wonder. The Gothic nature of much of the space persistently draws the eyes upward, and the grace of so much of the Roman-style Renaissance architecture keeps the observer in good cheer.

The worship is beautiful in the Latin-Italian modernish Ambrosian rite, with incense, robes, choir, acolytes, deacons, priests, bishops. The devotion of the faithful lighting candles and kneeling in prayer at side altars make one wish more Protestants were so obviously pious — and that more Catholics were as well!

This building — which is surely the largest place I have ever been barring the Skydome or Air Canada Centre, with its expansive floor below and high vaults above — was begun in 1387. Santa Maria Maggiore, the old Romanesque cathedral, was demolished, though the original facade was initially incorporated in the new structure, and a new, glorious building was begun. The final touches on this building, primarily on its Neo-Gothic (Gothic Revival?) facade were added in the 19th century.

A lot of beauty. If you’re the sort of person who is drawn to the worship of God through the arts and through architecture, this is one of your places.

But a lot of money, right?

People often complain about places like this. They say that the Church wasted so much of its money building huge cathedrals when it could have been feeding the poor. If you go to the Basilica Sant’Ambrogio here, you do wonder a little at how St. Ambrose, famous for melting the Milanese church’s silver to redeem Christian slaves, would feel about the number of gold and silver vessels when there are hungry mouths abroad in the streets of Mediolanum to this day.

In response, people usually point out that the Church has fed many poor, built many hospitals, trained many jobless people, and so forth, marching through history. How many hospitals are named St. Joseph’s? Or what about the nuns a friend of mine volunteers with, giving food and friendship to the homeless of Edinburgh?

I would like to point out something else.

The Duomo in Milan did help the poor. And I don’t mean by providing them with the spiritual benefit of so lovely a building. I mean by providing them with what poor people need most: good, solid work.

Work for: the quarrymen who got the marble out of the earth; the people who dug the canals and worked on the canals and maintained them; the people who shipped the marble; the masons who shaped the marble and put it into place; the architects who designed the structure; the artists who made statues, paintings, stained glass; silversmiths who made chalices and patens and processional crosses; ditto goldsmiths; beekeepers who made beeswax for the candles; the people involved in linen production; and all the other varieties of tradespeople involved in the building of a mediaeval/Renaissance/Baroque/19th-century cathedral.

The Duomo provided them with work. Those men and women who work at maintaining and restoring the Duomo through the Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo di Milano also get work from the Duomo. The Duomo draws visitors to Milan, thus making hundreds of businesses, small and large, succeed, producing many jobs, skilled and unskilled. And when these businesses and jobs succeed, so do others.

So, yes, the Duomo cost a lot of money. But without it, there would have been more poor folk for the past 600 years than otherwise.

Empty Churches

When we first moved to the beautiful city of Edinburgh, one of the first churches we encountered was St. John’s “Tollbooth” Highland Kirk. Except, actually, we didn’t. Instead, we met the Hub, a cafe, art space, event venue, and headquarters for the Edinburgh Festival.

The Hub's doors

Since then, we have seen many “empty” churches. Some are actually empty, such as the Tron Kirk:

The Tron Kirk: Empty

or that church on Lauriston Place:

The Paint-peeling Door of an Empty Church

Others have found second lives as nightclubs such as Sin:

Note: Not my photo of Sin Nightclub

or as theatres, such as the Bedlam Theatre:

Note: Not my photo of the Bedlam Theatre

or as street-health clinics:

Church reborn as hospice

or as the brass-rubbing centre:

Me at the Brass Rubbing Centre, formerly Trinity College Chapel

or as beautiful venues, such as the Mansfield Traquair Centre:

The Mansfield Traquair Centre, Chancel

St. John’s Highland Kirk is probably the highest spire in the city, in part due to its location on the same hill as the Castle — it’s the spire to the left of Edinburgh Castle if a friend ever sends you a postcard. Yet it and the Tron Church are not churches anymore, and they are two out of the three notable spires in this view:

The Royal Mile

The explanation for the abandonment of two of the Royal Mile’s churches is the fact that the Old Town of Edinburgh, which boasted 52 400 people in the late 1800’s has but 4000 residents today. Most of its space is shops, restaurants/bars, and offices with the odd tourist attraction thrown in for good measure.

Thus, St. Giles’ (the “crown spire” visible between St. John’s and the Tron Kirk) together with Carubber’s Church, Old St. Paul’s Scottish Episcopal, and Canongate Kirk along the Royal Mile are able to serve the Old Town, along with St. Columba’s Free Church and St. Columba’s by the Castle Scottish Episcopal on Johnson Terrace, St. Augustine’s United on George IV Bridge, and Greyfriars Kirk. There is also St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church down on Cowgate.

That’s a lot of churches for the Old Town.

Yet if you tally the worshippers on any given Sunday in the churches of Edinburgh’s Old Town, I doubt you will get anything near 4000 congregants assembled.

The dome of West Register House, Charlotte Square

Charlotte Square, home of a beautiful old parish kirk that is now West Register Office, along with the rest of the New Town, has suffered a similar fate as the Old Town. People just don’t live there anymore. The churches have very few congregants, although Charlotte Baptist Chapel is able to pack ’em in like sardines.

Another cause of un-kirking in this city is the death or amalgamation of some denominations. This was the case for Mansfield Place Catholic Apostolic Church, now the Mansfield Traquair Centre. The Catholic Apostolics thought the Second Coming was due in the 1920’s, so they made no plans for succession for their Apostles. By the 1950’s, Mansfield Place Church was closed.

When the bulk of the Free Church of Scotland reunited with the Church of Scotland, the Free Church’s “High Kirk” become the library at New College, which means that students of New College get to study amidst some lovely stained glass!

However, when we recall my statement that even with so many churches in the Old Town, the 4000 inhabitants still don’t fill them, we return to the main cause of un-kirking, and it is that people are no longer warming or filling pews.

Mansfield Traquair Centre Wall Painting

At a certain level, this makes Phoebe Traquair’s angel cry.

People’s butts keeping pews warm as they did ever since they put the first pews in European churches in the centuries following the Reformation is not really what Christianity is about. Getting lots of people into your church doesn’t mean a thing in some ways.

Yet those butts warming those pews are human butts. They are the butts of people who are beloved of God so much that He chose to become one of them. They are the butts of people who are beloved of God so much that He chose to die for them. They are the butts of people who need to hear and know the message of the greatness of the glory of God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

At least if they are at kirk each Sunday, they stand a chance of hearing this message and being transformed by it.

The un-kirking of Edinburgh and Europe is a phenomenon that, I understand, has been going on since at some point in the 1960’s. People just stopped going to church. Fewer and fewer people go to church every year. Even in the USA, which is imagined by many to be a “Christian” nation, the average Sunday attendance in 2005 was 80 persons — the megachurches are not offsetting the exodus.

My friend Rick, pastor of an international, multicultural, “evangelical” church in Cyprus, says that the European church has entered a phase of exile. Our mission and ministry have different needs than ministry in places where the church is exploding in size, as in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia.

Our churches are dwindling, and people need the Gospel.

Maybe we don’t need David Wilkersons per se in Europe. But we do need people who are willing to invest in these cities and the people who populate them. People willing to walk past the empty spires and remember the One Whose Cross is raised high above.

People who are willing to love their unkirked friends to the bitter end.

People who are willing to live across from drunks and junkies and love them ceaselessly and endlessly.

People who are willing to truly befriend atheists and agnostics and take them seriously as people, not projects, not simply arguments with bodies.

We need Columbas and Ninians. (Too many reservations to want another Knox, really.)

What Good Has ‘Religion’ Ever Done?

In an age where Westboro Baptist stages its “God Hates the World” and “God Hates Fags” demonstrations, where terrorists crash airplanes into buildings (or blow them up), where Pastor Terry Jones threatens to burn the Qu’ran, where people sometimes destroy property and human life in their anti-abortion stance, where Christians who have converted from Islam are systematically tortured or executed in some countries, where former President G W Bush used biblical rhetoric to underlie engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, where Hindus in India attack Christian minority groups, where Christians and Muslims in Nigeria often turn to violence against one another — in such a world, many people have a hard time seeing what good “religion” and, frequently, Christianity in particular, has to offer.

Historically, it is easy to see the good that religion has done (thus giving the lie to Hitchens’ subtitle, “How Religion Poisons Everything”).  We need look no further than the hospitals of the city of Toronto, one, St. Michael’s, founded by Roman Catholics and another, Mount Sinai, by Jews.  Historically, religious people have been on the front lines of providing healthcare.  Livingstone brought both the Bible and medicine to Africa.  The first hospitals of the Byzantine and mediaeval worlds were church organisations.

Historically, the arts show us to what heights religion can take man, even if today’s “Christian Art”, be it music, novels, or trashy Jesus paintings, makes me shudder.  We have the glories of Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, of Bach’s St. John Passion, of Handel’s Messiah, of Haydn’s Creation (my post on that last one here).

I have posted previously about Christian fiction — there is great narrative art from the pens of Christians, from the Anglo-Saxons to Dante to Spenser, Milton, and Bunyan to Chesterton, Waugh, Lewis, Tolkien, Buechner.  The Christian faith has produced some consummate storytellers.

Any cathedral with its stained glass intact can tell you that in no way is religion an entirely bad force.  Behold the Sistine Chapel!  Gape at the illuminated Winchester Bible!  Stand in awe before Michelangelo’s Pieta!  (Sorry I used Buonarroti twice.)  Any history of art that covers the Middle Ages and Renaissance will give a good hearty drink of what good religion can produce.

Winchester Cathedral

If you watch the video Palestrina’s link takes you to, you will see some of the architecture of the Church.  Christianity has produced some amazing architecture over the centuries.  So have Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam.  When a person is striving for the highest good, when striving for something greater than one’s own petty self, beauty can be achieved.

But what good does religion do today?  A lot of people think that it has outlived its usefulness, that it has become nothing more than a source of strife and division, that our society has evolved beyond needing religion.

Well, in purely “practical” terms (ie. beyond what I see as the spiritual benefits), religion has built at least one hospital in Angola and a nursing school with it and another nursing school in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  These are recent foundations.  Religion has brought many a person off the street, out of addiction, and into the workforce through organisations like the Salvation Army, Shelter House, Bethany Christian Trust.

In Toronto, I spent a good number of Saturdays at Toronto Alliance Church, the “Upper Room”.  This church is in the upper level of a storefront on Queen St. near Bathurst.  If you know Toronto, you have visions of that area with the intersecting streetcar lines, the street-health clinic, the street people, the community housing, the nifty shops, the closed down shops, the Starbucks on one corner, a mission to street people on another, Pizza Pizza the third, and a bar (now closed) on the fourth.

Every Saturday night at Toronto Alliance is “Community Night.”  There is a meal — soup & sandwich or something more filling, always warm — a clothing room full of donations people have brought, a nurse who can look after people’s feet (this is a real problem for a lot of people who live on the street), and a food bank.

Part-way through the night, the eclectic group of people who has gathered for food and friendship has a church service gathered around the tables.  There are always some of those old “revival” hymns, like “Just As I Am,” and frequently a lot of the people present know and love these hymns.  Then there is a message from someone on the church’s ministry staff; when I went, usually Bill or Doug.  The message was simple and always focussed on Jesus and the hope he brings and the change he can make.

These church services are sometimes raucous affairs.  I’ve never seen banter during an Anglican sermon, but there would be banter here.  People would often still mill about, but not many.  Some people looked uninterested, but others took a keen interest in the hymns, prayers, and sermon.

Bill, the pastor of Toronto Alliance, knows a lot of the people who come out to Community Night.  He’ll chat with them, see how they’re doing, show real concern for them and their welfare.  We often think that helping out that vague, amorphous group “the unfortunate” is a matter simply of food, shelter, clothing.  It is also very much a matter of love, as I witnessed in Cyprus, of love for the lonely, friendship for the friendless, and light for the lost.

Saturday nights at Toronto Alliance Church provide for the whole person.  That alone tells me that religion is of much good in this world, in spite of Westboro Baptist and Islamist terrorism.