Magazine article UNESCO Courier

A Realm of Light

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

A Realm of Light

Article excerpt

A realm of light

Through its history, through all it stands for and through the Christian miracle renewed there each day, the cathedral church is the sublime expression of the Catholic faith. Although it has undergone many changes down the centuries it remains faithful to its original purpose of assembling around a bishop the community of believers who share his faith. At a very early stage it became known as the ekklesia, from the Greek word used to designate that assembly. It is there that the bishop celebrates Mass, during which the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ, the Son of God, who came into the world to atone for man's original sin through His martyrdom on the cross and to form a new covenant with him. The church expresses this holy covenant in its architecture and in the service which is celebrated there.

We know little of early Christian places of worship because they were kept secret to avoid persecution, a situation that was only changed when the new religion was recognized by the Roman state. On 28 October 312, the Roman emperor Constantine the Great accepted the Christian faith before he went into battle against his rival Maxentius. First tolerated then actively promoted, Christianity soon became the official religion of the Roman empire.

This decisive event in the history of the Church was the acknowledgement of a situation which could no longer be concealed. The new faith was powerful and was expanding very rapidly, especially in the towns and cities, among all classes of society. Provision now had to be made for the celebration of a religion which no longer had to keep itself hidden. A new architectural design was drawn up at the imperial court and, promoted by the emperor's entourage and especially by his mother, St. Helena, was adopted throughout the Roman empire.

The design had to take the requirements of the liturgy into account. As in all initiatory religions, the Christians--those who had received the baptismal sacrament just as Christ had been baptized in the River Jordan by St. John the Baptist--had to be separated from the catechumens, whose initiation into the mysteries of the religion required an extremely long preparation ending, as it did for Christ Himself, at the age of thirty. Provision thus had to be made for two adjoining yet separate buildings.

The imperial architects drew up plans for two types of building, the baptistery and the basilica. The former was designed on a centralized plan with a basin sunk into the floor where the catechumen would be immersed to receive baptism. It would be surmounted by a dome resting on a lofty drum which was pierced with window openings and supported by arcades giving onto an ambulatory. This very simple, graceful building would be bathed in light and lavishly decorated.

Abundant light and magnificent decoration were also typical of the basilica, but on a much grander scale in order to accommodate the congregation assembled around the Lord's Table upon which the bishop celebrates Mass. Inspired by the secular basilicas of the ancient world, and adapted to its new purpose, the building was to consist of a central nave with three or five divisions for the congregation. The arms of the transept were to be built at right angles to the nave, forming a cross. The apse would house the bishop's throne (cathedra), which in time gave its name to the whole building. The general layout, as flexible as that of the baptistery, could be adapted to the needs and customs of different communities. This explains why it was so successful throughout the Roman empire.

The light of God

Artistic efforts were concentrated on the interior of the building. The exterior typically consisted of plain unembellished masses. The powerful dynamic effect achieved in the interior was based upon a single principle: the columns supporting the great arcades and architraves, the ceiling and the floor decoration should all combine to draw the eyes of the congregation to the altar. …

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