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Basilicas, secular and sacred: 2nd c. BC - 4th c. AD

The Roman public hall, known as a basilica, is a rectangular building with side aisles behind the rows of columns which support the main walls. The focus of attention is at the end opposite the entrance, where a raised platform is sometimes set within an alcove or apse. A building of this kind is known from Pompeii in the 2nd century BC.

When Constantine establishes Christian churches as public buildings, in the 4th century AD, the basilica is the natural form for any such place of gathering; and the apse is ready made for the altar. The three great churches founded by Constantine in Rome are all basilicas.

Two of Constantine's churches in Rome, the basilicas of St Peter's and that of St Paul's, also have a new architectural feature - the transept, crossing the nave near the altar end and providing more space for pilgrims or clergy. Whether by accident or design, this addition turns the ground plan of such a church into a cross. Nave, aisles, transept and apse, with a flat or vaulted ceiling, become the basic ingredients of rectangular western churches.

From the 6th century onwards Eastern Christianity develops a different tradition - that of domed churches, as seen most spectacularly in one of the earliest and largest, Justinian's Santa Sophia.

Santa Sophia: 537

In Santa Sophia in Constantinople (completed astonishingly in only five years) the architects working for Justinian achieve with triumphant skill a new and difficult feat of technology - that of placing a vast circular dome on top of a square formed of four arches.

The link between the curves of two arches (diverging from a shared supporting pillar) and the curve round the base of the dome is made by a complex triangular shape known as a pendentive (see Squinch and pendentive). Santa Sophia (or Hagia Sophia, the two being Latin and Greek for 'Holy Wisdom'), is not the first building in which a pendentive is used. But it is by far the most impressive.

Influence of Justinian's church

Following the example of Santa Sophia, it becomes the tradition for even the smallest Greek Orthodox churches to have a dome over the central space of the interior. In what becomes the conventional design, the dome sits at the centre of a Greek cross (one with four equal arms) formed by the nave and transept.

The walls supporting the dome are buttressed at ground level by side chapels, each with a domed or partially domed roof. The result is the non-linear, gentle and almost organic-seeming exterior of a typical Byzantine church.

In the interior of such a church, when funds are available, the dome is used for a rich display of mosaics. The favourite subject is Christ in Majesty (or in his Greek name Pantocrator, 'Ruler of All'), a vast figure seeming to bless the assembled congregation - though in an undeniably stern mood, with judgement in mind. A fine example is in the 11th-century monastery church at Daphni.

The relatively shallow dome of such a church, surrounded by a cluster of smaller curving roofs, prevents the dome itself from being a striking feature when seen from outside. That other very rich tradition, of the flamboyant dome, is pioneered instead in Muslim architecture.

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