A tradition in the Catholic Church is the pilgrimage. On our recent trip to Naples and Rome, you may have noticed that we spent a lot of time in church. Our pilgrimage may have been more out of interest in art and history, than a spiritual quest. But, these are pilgrimages in some manner. I have argued previously, that going to art and history museums, historic home and battlefields, are in essence pilgrimages. Rather than connecting with the divine, we are trying to connect with our past in someway. The core element is seeking something beyond ourselves. Going into a church can be an overwhelming experience. From the entry to the apse, especially Roman churches are full of figure-ground challenging frescos, paintings, architectural features, etc. For this blog series, I will use churches we visited in Rome to illustrate the features of a Roman Church. Of course, you can go to your local place of worship and find similar elements in any number of variations.
Before entering a church, we should consider the foundation, which is usually raised with a grand expanse of stairs that lead us to the doors. To understand the image of a raise foundation, we need to go back several hundred years to Greek architecture. Imperial Romans, who passed on their traditions to the Catholic Church, loved anything Greek. They learned of the Greek building styles during the Republica era (from about 200 BC onward) as the leaders carried out various campaigns to establish governance over provinces further and further away from the city of Rome.
Prior to this time, various groups had settled different areas. But populations were sparse enough that they did not come in contact with each other too often. The Etruscans were more or less in north-central Italy (aka Tuscany), but had some settlements down to Pompeii. Samnite were in southern Italy, but also made intrusions north to Pompeii. Greek sea-faring merchants established ports, including, you guessed it, at Pompeii, and other locations along the Amalfi Coast. The Romans controlled a region, such as Pompeii, by having a military garrison take over an existing town. Over time, barracks became neighborhoods, with forums, temples, municipal buildings, theatres, and stadiums. Absorbing existing Greek temples was practical. Just make Zeus (Greek) into Jupiter (Roman), or Artemis (Greek) into Diana (Roman)… you are not far from Hercules becoming Jesus and Diana to Mary… but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Okay, before I lose my readers in historical factoids, let’s get back to how to build a church. Greek temples were built up on a rectangular foundation, with the narrow end at the front and back. A series of steps lead up to a platform on which the temple columns formed the outside structure. This raised platform-steps configuration allowed the priests to guide patrons up to the altar, contained within.
On holy days, prior to or after major events, priests would conduct sacrifices on the altar. The local residents would parade up and down these steps, briefly stopping at the top. Unlike Jewish and Christian use of temples as places to congregate, pray and teach, Greeks and Romans used their temples as a pass-by sort of affair. Meeting as a group got lots Christians in trouble with the ruling Roman authorities because the Christians refused to join the other residents in these rituals. This was a sure sign of subversion and rebellion against Roman civil authority.
But, when comparing Greek, Roman, and Christian temples/churches, we must recognize that they were used in different ways, thus needed different architecture. For the Greeks and Romans, the temple only needed to be large enough to house the statue of the god and the altar. Larger structures were the market places, public forums, and basilicas, which provided meeting places for large groups during political rallies, legal proceedings, etc. Thus, the foundation of the church was the Roman public basilica and private villa. I will illustrate in future blogs how many church were literally built Roman foundations.
The photos above are St. Peter’s Basilica, Santa Marie della Popolo, the Temple of Juno in Pompeii, the Temple of Portunus (Rome), and the Temple of Antonius and Faustina (in the Roman forum, now converted into the church, San Lorenzo in Miranda).