Closer to Heaven; Sacral architecture

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 13 minutes 

In Jerusalem, there’s an ancient house of worship called the Cenacle. Its name is Latin and means “dining room". Appropriately, it's where Jesus held The Last Supper with his twelve disciples.

[caption id="attachment_2928" align="alignright" width="922"] Wooden plaque in the Cenacle depicting The Last Supper[/caption]

The Cenacle is located on the upper floor of David’s Tomb on Mount Zion. It’s considered to be the church most associated with the First Christian Pentecost and, in general, the actions of Jesus as depicted in the Bible. Its

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 13 minutes 

In Jerusalem, there’s an ancient house of worship called the Cenacle. Its name is Latin and means “dining room”. Appropriately, it’s where Jesus held The Last Supper with his twelve disciples.

Wooden plaque in the Cenacle depicting The Last Supper

The Cenacle is located on the upper floor of David’s Tomb on Mount Zion. It’s considered to be the church most associated with the First Christian Pentecost and, in general, the actions of Jesus as depicted in the Bible. Its original design and construction are a mystery.

Some say the Cenacle was destroyed during the destruction of Jerusalem, later rebuilt during the rule of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great around A.D. 330 then again by the Crusaders C. 1187 after a military expedition to the Holy Land.

The earliest known written reference to The Last Supper is in Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians (11:23–26), which dates to the middle of the first century, between A.D. 54–55. He visited Greek Corinth to preach the Word and attempt to convert pagans to Christianity.

It’s possible that Paul’s journey to Corinth influenced the Cenacle’s architectural style. Its design features high columns topped by ornate acanthus leaves and flower-wreathed capitals typifying Corinthianesque architecture dating back to the Late Classical Period (430-323 B.C.).

Some elements of the Cenacle look toward the future work of Florentine architect Simone del Pollaiuolo (commonly known as Il Cronaca: “The Chronicle One” (1457-1508). Pollaiuolo’s nickname came from the manner in which he meticulously researched and chronicled Roman architectural styles of the time. Those styles were very much oriented to the three main ‘Classical orders’ of architecture: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian.

The third of the three orders, Corinthian, is most represented by the Cenacle. Geometrically perfect arches, columns, and capitals (the topmost members of a column or a pilaster) dominate, achieving proportion, symmetry, and balance.

Proportion is the defining feature of the Corinthian order and Roman author, architect, and engineer Vitruvius (80 B.C.-15 B.C.) was a stickler for it.

His ten-book work De architectura insisted that utilitas, firmitas, and venustas (utility, strength, and beauty) represented the primary aesthetic principles of excellent architecture. The Cenacle is well endowed with them. Artistic studies of the Cenacle’s dining room can be seen in the works of Renaissance-time Vitruvian advocate Leonardo da Vinci. His 1498 The Last Supper is blazoned on the back wall of the Santa Maria delle Grazie monastery in Milan, Italy as a fresco painting.

In 1514, Raffaello Sanzio (Raphael) used da Vinci’s rendition to create drawings for a tapestry known as Last Supper in Amboise in the Castle of Clos Lucé and designed another Last Supper for the Raphael Loggia in the Vatican, commissioned by Pope Leo X. (A loggia is a covered and collonaded gallery, porch, corridor, or hallway.)

The Last Supper paintings explored the emotional and psychological reaction of the Apostles to the betrayal announced by Jesus, and these arts were called cenacolos – in tribute to the origin of their inspiration: the Cenacle.

Interior of St Peter’s Basilica, Rome

The Cenacle’s classical architecture was just one early representative of Roman and Greek influence. As architecture transitioned from era to era, Vitruvian-style church design never wavered. Churches and cathedrals such as Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome (the largest church in the world) continued to feature perfectly proportioned Romanesque domes, columns, and semi-circular arches; however, alongside these grew the ever-taller steeples, pointed arches and spires first developed during the 12th-century Gothic period. Advances in engineering allowed the attainment of even greater ceiling heights, too, but not everyone liked the Gothic style.

The term Gothic was one of born of contention during the late Renaissance. The main critics were those classicizing Italian writers and artists who attributed the invention (and what to them was the nonclassical ugliness) of medieval architecture to the barbarian Gothic tribes that had destroyed the Roman Empire and its Classical culture in the fifth century C.E.

Gothic style was condescendingly noted by writer, artist, and designer Giorgio Vasari in his 1550 biographical book The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects.

Vasari favoured the Renaissance style and mocked the Gothic as “barbaric”. Like many others keen to reinvigorate Renaissance practices, Vasari saw Gothic as undoing a century’s worth of Vitruvian sophistication and refinement, leading to the Golden Age of learning and enlightenment.

Vasari was such an aficionado of the Renaissance style that he was the first person to write the word rinascita (rebirth) in regard to the revival of interest in classical learning and culture. Rinascita would later be translated into French as Renaissance and adopted by society at large.

A renowned and respected architect himself, Vasari was responsible for designing the octagonal dome on the Basilica of Our Lady of Humility in Pistoia, an important example of High Renaissance architecture. In 1567, Vasari renovated the Santa Maria Novella – the first great basilica in Florence – and also contributed an art piece of his own to be displayed: the Madonna of the Rosary.

Ironically, the basilica houses a mixture of both Renaissance and Gothic frescos and artworks. But even though Gothic style was in direct opposition to Classical and seen as the destruction of progress, its early development continued to be supported by many. Parishioners loved the stained glass windows, light-filled spaces, high buttresses, and ceilings that soared higher and higher, lifting their gaze and presence ever closer to God and heaven.

The Basilica of Saint-Denis in Paris is a former medieval church redesigned by Abbot Suger in 1144. Suger was one of the earliest patrons of Gothic architecture and the mastermind behind the notion that architecture could serve as theology to a mass of illiterate believers. The Gothic cathedral became a huge edifice of stories, signs, and symbols filled with church teachings and lessons for any who passed by or entered these churches.

For Suger, and other like-minded medieval theologians, the symbolism of light expressed divinity and could elevate human consciousness from an earthly realm to a heavenly one. Suger, and those who came after him, attempted to flood their cathedrals and abbeys with light, building taller and more elegant structures. Saint-Denis is considered to be the first structure to incorporate all the elements of Gothic, and Suger is widely credited for popularising its style.

That style spoke volumes to those wanting to strengthen their association with God’s power. In addition, cities were competitive, and architects strived to achieve the most spectacular cathedrals in the land. Flying (external) buttresses and (diagonally-framed) ribbed vaulting allowed the walls to be thinner and taller. Lightness and gracefulness were key.

As opposed to the rounded arches found in churches of the Romanesque and Renaissance, Gothic structures featured pointed arches, and these would become the defining characteristic of the style. Pointed arches allowed heavier ceilings, but once again, their purpose was also symbolically significant in that they pointed to heaven. The Gothic-typical tri-portal west facades consisted of two towers, a central rose window, and three entranceways adorned by elaborate sculptures telling a biblical story. The rose (stained glass) windows – such expected embellishments to most churches today – were a distinctly Gothic feature. The ethereal purple light flowing in was seen as literally being of the divine realm, guiding the viewers’ experience to a higher, more mystical, and spiritual plane. Rose windows themselves served as representations of infinity, unity, perfection, and the central role of Christ and the Virgin Mary in the life of the church.

The two prevalent architectural styles – Renaissance and Gothic – also differed due to climate. In Mediterranean Europe, where sunny skies and hot summers mandated the construction of buildings with small window spaces and thick walls, the Romanesque style dominated church architecture. In cooler, cloudier climates such as the northern and western regions of the continent, designers developed a Gothic style that maximized interior light and created uninterrupted interior heights.

Those heights remained unmatched by any other Church design until the late 19th century. By then, external central cathedral towers commonly exceeded 137 metres, and interior space often covered as much as 50 metres.

Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, Spain

Once completed, the central spire of the Antoni Gaudí-designed Spanish Basílica de la Sagrada Família (Basilica of the Holy Family) will be 172.5 metres high, making it the tallest church building in the world. It’s been a long time coming; Sagrada Família commenced construction in 1882 but faced a series of debilitating world events and financial delays that have hindered progress. Organisers now hope that Sagrada Família will be fully constructed by 2026, the centennial of Gaudí’s death. The church was described by ‘the father of skyscrapers’, American architect Louis Sullivan (b. 1856 d. 1924) as the “greatest piece of creative architecture in the last twenty-five years. It is spirit symbolised in stone!” The church made the cover of Time magazine in 2019 who called it: “sensual, spiritual, whimsical, exuberant”.

But perhaps the most famous Gothic cathedral is Notre-Dame de Paris (Our Lady of Paris). Notre-Dame is regarded as one of the earliest and finest examples of Gothic architecture and took 200 years – 1163-1345 – to be built. Its soaring steeples, flying buttresses, enormous rose-coloured windows, gargoyles, archangels, and sculptures of religious allegory attract and wow twelve million tourists every year. In 2019, however, the cathedral was damaged by fire while undergoing renovations. Fortunately, the artworks held within had been removed, and the church will be rebuilt to its former glory by 2024.

Gothic cathedrals were marvels of construction; awe-inspiring representations of technology and religion. Originally timeline precursors to 16th century Renaissance style churches, the Gothic church revival movement – known as Victorian or Neo-Gothic – later created its own renaissance from the 18th through to the 20th centuries. This revival succeeded in maintaining and enhancing the lofty status Gothic church architecture first gained – even rising above Classical naysayers like Verasi. It is now one of the most readily recognised and revered sacral architectural styles in history. So much so, that the Western world replicates the style today with Neo-Gothic buildings and churches such as the Washington National Cathedral (1907-1990): a modern example of Gothic in its finest hour.

Interior of Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

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