Christian Transformation The Evolution of Research Paper

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In contrast, the exterior was almost undecorated" (25). Another significant church that was built contemporaneously with the Hagia Sophia was the cruciform Church of the Holy Apostles (536-546), which featured five domes (Nickel).

Figure 3. Cross-domed church. Most important type of ground-plan of the Middle Byzantine period. In addition to the central dome, more elaborate examples have domes over the corner chapels -- quincunx. From the tenth century onwards, the cross-domed church becomes widespread throughout Bulgaria. In Russia it develops into the dominant church type of the Middle Ages, the cruciform domed church. (Church of Theofokos, Monastery of Hosios Lukas, Greece, tenth century)

Source: Nickel 25

Constantine clearly set the architectural bar very high, and Christian architects would be hard pressed to match the Hagia Sophia in terms of size, organization and decorations, but the structure was clearly a model for future efforts. In this regard, Nickel reports that, "Compared with these massive buildings, the churches of the Middle Byzantine period are modest in size. A new type of building evolved that was to become all but mandatory throughout the High and late Middle Ages -- the cross-domed church" (25). For instance, this building style was used for the palace church of Basil I (876-886); while the church no longer exists, its description remains available to modern scholars. According to Nickel, the palace church of Basil I was "a barrel-vaulted Greek cross, almost square in plan, crowned by a central dome and four domes over the corner spaces. It was famous for its brilliant white appearance, doubtless produced by marble cladding" (25).

In contrast to the Early Byzantine period and the unadorned exterior of the Hagia Sophia, for example, the focus turned to elaborate exterior ornamentation using decorative brickwork as well as stone reliefs (Nickel). Although this five-domed archetypal New Church design ("Nea") retained the narthex in its plans, as time passed, the narthex was frequently left out in preference for a subdivision of the interior space using pillars as well as a centrally placed dome (Nickel). At this point, the transformation to the cruciform shape had been essentially completed. In this regard, Nickel notes that, "By the Middle Byzantine period, the simple cross-domed church with four supporting piers had developed into a richer form of cross-domed church supported by an octagon of piers. Now that the central dome was carried by eight pillars, the dimensions of the core of the church could be extended to exceed those of the side rooms" (25).

Over the next several hundred years, the octagon-domed church was further refined but there were clearly architectural preferences being developed that would remain influential (Nickel). Just as modern practitioners identify what works best for certain applications and then proceed to use this approach to its maximum advantage, so too did these early Christian architects. As Nickel points out, "The fundamental development which can be seen in Byzantine architecture compared with Early Christian and Classical architecture lies in the consistent preference for domed buildings and a neglect of the exterior in favor of an interior, made to seem light and spacious by the decoration of paintings and mosaics" (Nickel 25). Having developed an architectural form that satisfied that spiritual needs of the faithful, these architectural forms remained popular for several centuries (Nickel). According to this authority, "Buildings of this form suited the needs of Orthodox teaching so well that the basic elements of church architecture in eastern Europe continued to be a model for over a thousand years" (Nickel 26). A conventional cruciform church is illustrated in Figure 4 and its constituent elements that form the cross shape are defined in Table 1 below.

Table 1

Definitions of Constituent Elements of the Cruciform Church




As the term is commonly used in church architecture, "apse" denotes the often domed, semicircular or polygonal termination where the altar is located.


Referring to the "barque of Peter" and "Noah's Ark," the word "nave" is derived from the Latin word for ship, navis, and has come to mean the area where the parishioners sit or stand (pews are a very late addition to the nave area, and, even today, parishioners stand during the liturgy in many Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches). In Gothic architecture, the nave had an aisle (or two) on both sides.


The transverse arm of a cruciform church is called the transept. Because the liturgy is supposed to be celebrated ad orientem (facing East), the left side of the transept is called the North transept and the right side of the transept is called the South transept. This is so even if the actual orientation of the Church is other than with the Altar at the East side.

Source: Giliberto 3

Figure 4. Elements of the Cruciform Church


With regards to the religious symbolism expressed in the cruciform church, each element has a specific meaning. According to Giliberto, "The roof symbolizes charity, which covers a multitude of sins; the floor symbolizes the foundation of faith and the humility of the poor; the columns represent the Apostles, Bishops, and Doctors; the vaulting represents the preachers who bear up the dead weight of man's infirmity heavenwards; and the beams represent the champions of ecclesiastical right who defend it with the sword" (3). The symbolism extended to the other architectural elements of the cruciform church form as well. For example, Giliberto adds that, "The nave symbolizes Noah's Ark and the Barque of St. Peter, outside of which no one is saved. The direction of the East represents the Heavenly Jerusalem, and the direction whence the Messiah will return in glory; West represents death and evil" (3).

The crossing space that is illustrated in Figure 4 above is the central space in a cruciform church formed by the intersection of the nave, chancel, and north-south transepts (Tyack). The foregoing described constituent elements of the cruciform church were not simply tacked on to arbitrarily create a cross-shape, but were rather enormously important to the Christians of the day. According to Kieckhefer, for example, "For those who did take such symbolism seriously, it represented in any event merely a further level of meaning in a church that was richly meaningful at all levels: the buildings were meant as feasts for the eyes and the worship in them as feasts for all the senses as well as for the mind and the soul" (141).

For these early Christians, the church structure itself contained a number of important symbols as well. In this regard, Kieckhefer adds that, "A church was meant to declare the three doctrines of redemption, Trinity, and resurrection: redemption through the symbolism of the cross, found in the cruciform plan of a church and also in the crosses terminating spires and gables and imprinted on the altar; the Trinity in the triangular arches and in the subdivision of a church into sanctuary, choir, and nave; and resurrection of the dead in the height of a church and in its vertical lines, evocative of rising upward from the earth" (141). Likewise, this rich symbolism remains evident in many modern Eastern (Greek) Orthodox Christian church structures as well, based in large part on the same considerations that led early Christian architects to incorporate these design elements in the first place (Joubert).


The research showed that the modern Eastern (Greek) Orthodox Christian church evolved over the course of the millennia based on innovations in building methods as well as in response to the religious needs of the faithful. From their early beginnings as fairly simple structures or converted reclaimed pagan temples, early Christian churches were efforts to provide for these religious needs while also reflecting the architects' perceptions of a heavenly kingdom on earth in architectural form. The research also showed that the ultimate transformation from these early church structures to the conventional cruciform shape was the result of a resemblance to a cross, which inspired Christian architects to incorporate the requisite design elements to complete the shape in full. Having established this form and the corresponding symbolism that was associated with the constituent design elements involved, the cruciform church remained a popular building style for centuries, and a number of modern churches around the world still conform to this shape for many of the same reasons.

Works Cited

Curran, John R. Pagan City and Christian Capital: Rome in the Fourth Century. New York:

Oxford University Press, 2000.

Giliberto, Tracy. (2010). Fish Eaters. [Online]. Available: building.html.

Hodges, Richard. (1996, May). "Aphrodite's Temple at Knidos." History Today 46(5): 61-63.

"Introduction: The Historical Background." (2006). Journal of the Southwest 48(4): 331-332.

Joubert, Paul. (1998, October). "Sacred Box." The Architectural Review 205(1220): 52-53.

Kieckhefer, Richard. Theology in Stone: Church Architecture from Byzantium to Berkeley. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

MacDonald, William L. Early Christian & Byzantine Architecture. New York: George Braziller,


Nickel, Heinrich L. Medieval Architecture in Eastern Europe. New York: Holmes & Meier,


Roth, Leland M. Understanding Architecture: Its Elements, History, and Meaning. Boulder, CO:…[continue]

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