Sunday, June 23, 2019

Cathedrals, Pre-Gothic

Medieval Cathedrals (300-1100)

A cathedral is a monumental building containing the throne (cathedra) of a bishop.  As a rule it commanded a staff of priests combining local functions, such as baptisms and confessions, with the circuit activities required by the diocese.  

We commonly think of cathedrals in terms of. such imposing edifices as those at Chartres, Canterbury, and Cologne from the later middle ages. 

Actually the origins of the cathedral as a building type and religious institution go back to the fourth century C.E.  In 313 Constantine’s Edict of Milan established the legitimacy of Christianity in the Roman Empire. This step was followed by substantial gifts of money, especially generous in the city of Rome.

As rule these buildings, especially in the Western Empire, were an adaptation of the venerable basilican type.  Normally, the layout culminated at the eastern end, where it was marked by an apse.  Here was situated the altar, the focal point of the holy liturgy.  The walls often served as vehicles for instructional frescoes or mosaics.  There was a low monumental western entrance, sometimes preceded by a courtyard known as an atrium.

Officially, Rome’s cathedral has always been the basilica of St. John Lateran (dedicated in 329).  Unfortunately the thorough rebuilding in the Baroque period has supplanted the original early Christian building..

In some respects the Lateran church was overshadowed by Old St, Peter’s erected in the Vatican district over the presumed site of the tomb of the apostle  Stretching over some forty years, construction began between 318 and 322   It had five aisles, with an exceptional feature, the transept, being inserted between the main body of the church and the apse. Unusually, the church culminates in the Western end.  Before the eastern entrance it possessed a spacious courtyard, or atrium.  During the Renaissance Old St. Peter’s was demolished, being replaced by the present grand structure erected by Bramante, Michelangelo, and Bernini.

The fate of Old St. Peter’s was typical, as most of. the early landmark Roman churches have gone or been substantially restored;  hence the value of S. Maria Maggiore where the fifth century structure and its decoration have largely survived.  At all events, these were developments were not limited to Rome, for the campaigns to build such cathedrals took place throughout the Western Roman Empire, including North Africa.

In terms of plans, the Eastern empire was originally diglossic: showing a contest between the rectangular arrangement and centralized schemes (the latter commonly surmounted with one or more domes).  In Thessaloniki, the Church of Saint Demetrius, or Hagios Demetrios, is the main sanctuary dedicated to Saint Demetrius, the patron saint of the city (in Central Macedonia, Greece). The building achieved its present form - a rectangle with five aisles - in 629-34. It stands in contrast with the archetypical central-plan Golden Octagon of Antioch (fourth century; destroyed).  

Arguably, the surpassing achievement of the first millennium of cathedral building was the church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.  It was commissioned by the emperor Justinian and completed in 537 C.E.  In its plan the building is an ingenious combination of the longitudinal and central-plan types.  The whole is dominated by the great dome, 107 feet in diameter.  After the Ottoman conquest in1453 the accoutrements were destroyed, and the mosaics showing Christian subjects were plastered over. 

Subsequently the central plan surmounted by a dome won out in the Orthodox world, though the buildings themselves tend to be much smaller.

Turning back to the West, the spread of Christianity beyond the bounds of the Roman Empire entailed the creation of new cathedrals in Ireland, Scandinavia, and Central Germany.  The buildings, which tended to be modest, have generally yielded to later constructions.

Flourishing in the later eighth and nineteenth centuries, the Carolingian Empire produced important changes.  It is said that 27 new cathedrals arose in this era. Charlemagne’s principal capital was in Aachen in Germany, and it was there that he built his imposing Palatine Chapel (792-805).  The building’s octagonal plan evokes that of  the church of San Vitale in Ravenna.

Most Carolingian cathedrals were in the rectangular basilican form inherited from Early Christian prototypes.  However additional features appeared.  Transepts, rare in earlier times, became standard features.  The increasing popularity of relics stimulated the creation of underground spaces, known as crypts, where the precious objects could be secured. Finally, rectangular courtyards, known as cloisters, sometimes appeared as adjuncts to the main cathedral structure.  Except in Italy, separate baptisteries were no longer required, as this function had migrated into the interior of the cathedral.

In some instances the main body of the church was preceded by a massive construction known as the westwork.  Such elements were the precursors of the later medieval facades surmounted by twin towers.  None of these buildings has survived in its original form, but some major examples are known from excavations and literary sources.

As the Carolingians declined their authority, at least in Germany and neighboring regions yielded to that of the Saxon emperors and there successors of the Salian house.  This overall era, embracing the second half of the tenth century and much of the eleventh, is known as the Ottonian period.  Major Ottonian churches show an interplay of inherited elements, sometimes producing new solutions.  A major area of concern was the western entrance, where oftentimes the massive westwork prevailed.  In other instances, as a Hildesheim, there was a western apse complementing the obligatory eastern one.  For their part crypts tended to be raised so as to be visible from the nave.

In terms of cathedral construction the Romanesque period, starting from the early eleventh century, tended to be conservative, with many older buildings still in use.  Still the era did innovate by adding the ambulatory, a covered passage around the apse permitting access to the chapels.  It is thought that the first example was the now demolished church of St. Martin at Tours (ca. 1050).

The great development in Christian art of this era lay in monastic complexes, which flourished especially in southern France, Spain, and Italy. These layouts included impressive churches characterized by a range of creative solutions with regard to vaulting.  The most influential of these complexes was the Abbey of Cluny, founded in 909 but developed in the ensuing period. Cluny is mostly destroyed, but it can be reconstructed, based on excavations and old drawings.

As architectural achievements these cathedrals were rivaled by the monasteries, which also excelled as sites for intellectual pursuits, a task that passed to the cathedrals in the later middle ages.

See Also: Hagia Sophia;  Medieval Cathedral Architecture  (1100-1500).

Further Reading:

Richard Krautheimer and Slobodan Curcic, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture, 2nd ed., New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Roger Stalley, Early Medieval Architecture, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.


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