Central Plan Church Design
The Santa Constanza Church in Rome, Italy is one of the earliest built churches in the world. It was originally constructed as a mausoleum for Constantine’s daughter, Constanza, and was consecrated only later in the year 1256. It has a traditional circular form of Roman mausoleums, and a vestibule porch that leads to a circular barrel-vaulted ambulatory surrounding a central domed space. It is one of the earliest most excellent examples of a centrally-planned church design (Matthews).
Another one is the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey. Although its features have some Basilica style influence, this grand church of Christendom is dominantly a centrally-planned church. It has a great dome that rises 210 feet from the floor and has a diameter of 110 feet. Its ambulatories lead to other areas of the church which are also roofed by smaller domes, proving further its central plan church design nature (“Hagia Sophia”).
Central-plan church design is considered as one of the most revolutionary designs in the architecture history. Rather than a rectangular design with apses by one end, it has a circular floor area surrounded by passages towards the different parts of the church. Having no straight walls to support a triangular roof, central-plan churches are domed. Given these features, it kept architects who came after its advent amazed (Mularz 10).
One of its amazing feats is its deviance from the original rectangular-basilica style churches of its time. It did not derive the design of its floor area from the Parthenon, one of the famous examples of Greek architecture. Instead it only adopted the domed roofing style of the said building. It may be considered an ingenious architectural idea as it became a symbol of the Dome of Heaven for the church-goers. In addition, it is also a brave attempt during a period where steel is not yet utilized as a construction material (Mularz 10).
However, the ingenuity of the design does not stop there as it also came with a number of advantages that previous church designs do not have. A very important one is the natural ability of domes to evenly disperse its weight. This makes it very structurally sound as compared to other types of roofing (Mularz 6).
Another advantage is that it proved that the Christian ideology may be incorporated in the art of building physical structures. The domes were very appealing, and it gave an impression of coming under God’s arms during church day; as such, gave hope to many people. It encouraged the people to attend the services, leaving with the feeling of being united to God (Mularz 10-11).
A third advantage of centrally-planned churches is that the cave-like design of the domes leaves a sense of security. Similarly, its egg-like feature gives a warm feeling of being home or in the womb. The Basilica style churches that came before centrally-planned ones only have half domes on the apses, under which the altar stands. As such, it does not provide the feeling of security and warmth that an entire dome can give to the bigger population (Mularz 6).
While it seems as the most advantageous design because of its artfulness and ingenuity, the central-plan church design also has its drawbacks. Even when circles give the illusion of one’s own private space, its floor area cannot accommodate as much church-goers as a basilica-style church may. The circular floor area is artful, yet too small to fit the number of crowd that rectangular floor areas can (Mularz 10).
Central plan churches may then be considered as an architectural marvel that incorporated beauty and ingenuity into one. Going with this is a number of advantages like the feeling of security and warmth, and structural soundness. However, it also has its disadvantages. The rectangular basilica style churches are still best in fitting a huge crowd of worshippers although it cannot give the sense of being close to God that central plan churches posses through the Dome of Heaven. As such, the disadvantage that it holds is well compensated and therefore practically forgone for its beauty.
“Hagia Sophia”. 2005. Epiphany Byzantine Catholic Church. 12 February 2009 <http://www.byzantines.net/epiphany/hagiasophia.htm>.
Matthews, Kevin. “Santa Constanza”. 2008. The ArchitectureWeek Great Buildings Collection. 12 February 2009 < http://www.byzantines.net/epiphany/hagiasophia.htm>.
Mularz, Stephen. 2008. “The Evolution and Necessity of the Basilica and Central-Plan Church”. 12 February 2009 <http://18.104.22.168/search?q=cache:d5AiuGqTJvMJ:www.mularzart.com/writings/THE%2520BASILICA%2520AND%2520CENTRAL-PLAN%2520CHURCH.pdf+central+plan+church+design&hl=tl&ct=clnk&cd=3&gl= ph>.