Monday, December 14, 2015

Christian Churches from Rome to the Gothic

Until the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine, Christians were often persecuted by the Romans. Constantine, who reigned from AD 306 to AD 337, was the first Roman Emperor to declare himself to be a Christian. He was instrumental in crafting the Edict of Milan which called for tolerance for the Christians. He was also responsible for calling the Council of Nicea, which resulted in the Nicene Creed.

Prior to Constantine’s conversion meeting places for Christians were problematic at best. They would sometimes meet in Jewish synagogues or in private homes. Ephesus, located in what is now western Turkey, was a prominent city of the Roman Empire, with perhaps up to 300,000 inhabitants. The Apostle Paul spent at least two years there and also  wrote letters to the Christians in Ephesus. About 20% of the city has been excavated. While there we saw two signs of Christian peoples. The first shown in the two photos below is a room in which Christians met, marked by a cross on the lintel of the entrance. The second is the remains of a small chapel in a section called the Terrace Houses where the rich people lived. Ephesus was an important city from pre-Christian times until about 600 AD when the harbor silted up. I have been unable to determine the exact dates when these rooms were used.

The Edict of milan and the conversion of Constantine opened up a wealth of possibilities of places for Christians to meet. The Romans had a building that was apparently found throughout much of the Empire, called a basilica. This was a large rectangular building that was primarily used for courts or the Emperor to hold court, audiences etc in. One end of the basilica had a rounded out section called the apse. The Emperor or the magistrate would sit in this area usually on a dais. The plan for such a basilica is shown below.

Below are two photos of a Roman basilica still in use today. This basilica was built by the Emperor Constantine himself in Trier, Germany as a court/throne room. At some point it became a Christian church; I do not know if this was during his lifetime or not. The interior photo is looking to the apse. The apse was the obvious place for the Christian altar. This building is currently used by a Protestant sect who use little in the way of decor.

With the dissolution of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, Constantinople(Istanbul) became the head of the Eastern or Byzantine portion of the remains of the Roman empire. The Byzantine portion remained intact and in the early part of the 6th century was ruled by the Emperor Justinian. In 537 AD he ordered a massive church to be constructed in Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia. This church still stands and is very impressive. It is basically a large dome, so large that the Statue of Liberty and Notre Dame de Paris will fit inside it. It was Christian until the 15th century when the Ottoman Turks conquered the area and converted it into a mosque. It is now a museum and some of the mosaics that were covered up by the Muslims have been uncovered. Below are two views of Hagia Sophia, one external and one interior. The third photo is of a mosaic from the 10th century showing the Emperor prostrating himself before Christ. This mosaic is above the Emperor's entrance to the church.

The round or octagonal church architecture did not take hold in western Europe. There were some exceptions, such as a church in Ravenna, Italy, and Charlemagne’s church in Aachen, German, built in approximately 800 AD. It is said that this church was modeled after Hagia Sophia.. An interior of this church is shown below.

There is also a tower in Metlach, Germany from the 10th century, said to be modeled after Charlemagne’s church. This tower is the oldest religious structure in Saarland, Germany and is shown below.


The first pan European architectural style since imperial Rome is called Romanesque. This style began sometime between the 6th century and the 10th century, with most scholars opting for the 10th century. It is characterized by massive, thick walls, round Roman arches, sturdy pillars, massive towers, and decorative arcades. There are some 5000+ Romanesque churches extant in France, a large number in Spain, and a smaller number in Italy, England and Germany. The floor plan of a typical Romanesque church is shown below.

This plan has two side aisles and a well defined apse on one end. This plan shows an ambulatory around the altar in the apse which may or may not be present. The transepts are shown shaded; they also may or may not be present. It is easy to see how this church design evolved from the old Roman basilica. The transepts turned the original oblong building into a Roman cross.

The first photo below shows a side view of the Romanesque cathedral at Worms, Germany. This Church was consecrated in 1110 AD. As you can see the walls appear to be thick and the main structure is not very high. The next two photos show the exterior of the apse end of the building. It has a very solid feel to it, including the towers. Notice the fanciful arcade in the third photo.

The photo below is taken in the nave of Worms Cathedral. Note that the windows and arches are the rounded Roman aches. Also note the heavy piers that are used for support; there are no columns per se. The vaulted ceiling is relatively simple and the window lighting is relatively dark. The nave is 26 meters high.

The next example of Romanesque is the cathedral at Speyer, Germany. It is supposed to be the largest Romanesque cathedral in Europe. Made from red sandstone it was consecrated in 1061. The photo below shows a side view of the cathedral.

One of the striking things about Speyer is the use of alternating red and cream colored sandstone around the main portal and to a lesser extent in the nave. the two photos below show the entry in two views, interior and exteior.

Below is the floor plan of Speyer Cathedral.

The photo below shows the vaulting of the nave. Like Worms it is relatively simple.

Below is the nave of Speyer Cathedral. Like Worms there are rather massive piers for support, round arches and small upper windows.


St. Denis is now a part of Paris, located on the north side of Paris. There was an abbey located there in the middle ages. Abbot Suger, in 1135, began remodeling the church. He was not the architect but his ideas were put into practice by two architects, whose names we do not have. In the first stages a new west front was put in place, including a rose window in a square frame. As other churches were constructed after this the rose window became a prominent feature. He next moved to the est end and rebuilt the choir. He used the pointed arch, ribbed vaults, an ambulatory with radiating chapels, clustered columns supporting ribs springing in different directions, large clerestory windows and flying buttresses to keep it all from crashing down. His church was dedicated in 1144. It produced an overall feeling of reaching upwards to heaven. The structure had a feeling of lightness and light was infused from large stained glass clerestory windows. This was the first Gothic church and the Gothic style became the next pan European architectural style.

The three photos below are from St. Denis. The first photo shows the nave looking towards the apse. The second is looking at the transept with the apse on the right. The third is of some of the flying buttresses.

The Term “Gothic” was a pejorative term applied to this style by Renaissance and Enlightment thinkers who viewed anything prior to their time as barbaric and not worthy of consideration. They applied Gothic to the style because the Goths, Visigoths and Ostrogoths were the “barbarians” that destroyed Rome. These are the same folks that followed Immanuel Kant and others in referring to the time period prior to their own as the Dark Ages.The people who built the Gothic churches thought of their style as "modern".

Some of the characteristics of Gothic church architecture include flying buttresses, pointed arches, ribbed vaults, gargoyles, a feeling of reaching upwards and the use of large amounts of glass windows, many if not all of them stained. The photos below show some of these characteristics from the Strasbourg and Metz Cathedrals.


The Cathedral Notre Dame de Chartres is located in a town about 100 miles southwest of Paris. It is the apex of Gothic church architecture. Construction was begun in 1194 following a fire which basically destroyed the church that stood on the site. It was completed about 1220-1225, roughly 30 years from beginning to end. This is practically record time for medieval construction and this short time frame did not allow for many changes to take place; thus the church has a uniformity that many other Gothic churches do not. Below are two exterior photos of Chartres. Notice the large rose window on the west facade; this is one of three. Also notice how this cathedral seems to reach up to the heavens.

The floor plan of Chartres is shown below. The wide ambulatory allowed pilgrims to enter and walk to radiating chapels coming off the ambulatory without disturbing a service that might be going on in the main nave and altar.

The figure below is a cross section of a typical Gothic Cathedral.

The first photo below shows the chevet or apse end of Chartres. Notice how this has changed dramatically since Worms. The second photo is the choir and main altar in the apse. The bottom photo is the nave taken from the crossing looking west to the west entrance and west rose window. The height of the nave is 37meters.

Below is a photo of some of the flying buttresses at Chartres.

Stained glass was used in churches as early as the 7th century AD. It reached its zenith in the Middle Ages. The best of medieval stained glass is found at Chartres. Of 176 stained glass windows 152 of them are the original 12th or 13th century creations. They are brilliant; the blue, often referred to as "Chartres Blue" has rarely been duplicated.

Many of the stained glass windows also relate Biblical stories. The window below tells the story of the Good Samaritan.

The window below is the north rose window found in the north transept of Chartres. Mary with the infant Jesus is in the center of the rose. Blanche of Castille was married to the King of France and the two of them donated this window. The arms of Castille and the fleur de lis of France are shown in the small lancets immediately beneath the Rose.

For more information see the following posts from this blog:
Ephesus 10/13/09
Ephesus II 2/9/13
Istanbul, not Constantinople, Part 2, Hagia Sophia, 10/19/09
Hagia Sophia Redux, Part I, 11/15/12
Hagia Sophia Redux, Part II, 11/19/12
Chartres Cathedral, Part I,  5/13/13
Chartres Cathedral, Part II, 5/13/13
Chartres, Part III, 7/8/15
Aachen Cathedral-Charlemagne's Church, 10/31/15
St Stephen's Cathedral, Metz, France, 10/17/15

For Romanesque churches see:


  1. Spires, onion domes, "...flying buttresses, pointed arches, ribbed vaults, gargoyles, a feeling of reaching upwards..." - What an interesting post!

    1. Thank you. It occurred to me about a week or so ago that I had actually seen this evolution with my own eyes. Having dummied up,of course I had to write about it.

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