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The Effects of Christianity on Architecture

In: Religion Topics

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Throughout history religion has continually played an important part in the on goings of humanity. Religious differences have created new societies and even sparked domestic and international conflicts. Beyond these areas of influence, religion has affected art in the form of the colloquial idea of art as well as literature, sculpture and architecture. Two structures where religion plays heavy influence, in differing time periods are the Arch of Constantine in Rome, Italy, and the Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral in Paris, France. The two exhibit the different views of Christianity in their respective time periods. While, the Arch of Constantine was constructed during the rise of Christianity and the Notre Dame de Paris was originally constructed during a time when the norm was to build extravagant pieces as a tribute to God. The political, cultural, religious and economic climates all had a hand in creating the similarities and differences between the two structures. This analysis will show that regardless of temporal period religion plays a significant role in architecture during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.
The construction of churches and religious-themed buildings was common in the newly emerging city-states and the already well-established areas. The arch was commissioned by the Roman Senate in the fourth century A.D., in the Italian city of Rome situated between the Coliseum and the Palatine Hill. The beginnings of Christianity, or the Flowering of Christianity as Sayre describes it, saw the construction of the Arch of Constantine in Rome. The triple arch is dedicated to the Roman Emperor Constantine, who is notable for being the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity (Sayre, 255). Though the triple arch is dedicated to Constantine, many aspects of the triple arch are pieces taken from Roman sculpture work and pieces of artwork (Sayre, 256).
The Gothic Period was a style marked by the construction of magnificent churches and Cathedrals which were used as competition pieces between countries and even cities. The ornate buildings are a way to give patronage to God and represent the relationship with God and the heavens. The movement was heavily rooted in France and the Cathedral Notre Dame de Paris is a glowing example of the Gothic architecture. Constructed in the twelfth century A.D. the Notre Dame de Paris brought about radical changes and advancements in Gothic architecture. As the spires escalated up, the builders found that the structure could not support the new pointed arch style and effectively sparked the invention of the flying buttress (Sayre, 406). In addition to the French influence, several aspects of the Cathedral and Gothic architecture are taken directly from the Roman design innovation and standard. The Francophone design of Gothic churches fueled the spread of the Gothic style from the Northern Renaissance to the lower Italian Renaissance.
The strongest commonality, and most evident, between the pieces is the incorporation of the roman arch. Roman architects understood that the triangle is the strongest shape, using this information they developed the sturdy arch and the aqueduct with a triangular representation. In the Arch of Constantine the three arches are accompanied by borrowed Roman decorations and adornments. Though this is a commonality, the archways at Notre Dame de Paris are a modernization of the Roman archway. The ribbed arches allowed the architects to structurally increase the number of arches and eliminate the thick and chunky size of the Roman arch, producing daintier and more refined individual arches (Sayre, 410).
A sharp contrast between the two structures is shown in their names. The Arch of Constantine was built in honor of Constantine and his name is attached to the design (Jones, 51). This implies ownership and raise Constantine, in addition to the religious values represented in the structure. Conversely, Notre Dame de Paris in French means Our Lady of Paris. The name of the Cathedral emphasizes more the importance of the structure and the relationship to God over the commissioner of the Cathedral or the architect. The difference stems from the development of Christianity. The Arch of Constantine was constructed in the fourth century A.D. and was marked by Constantine being the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. The architect, the Senate and Constantine at this point are all still heavily immersed in traditions of Roman pagan rituals. Christian architecture has not yet developed and movement is still in its infancy. Comparatively, the Cathedral was constructed in the twelfth century and went through restoration due to vandalism and destruction attributed to the violence during the Enlightenment or the French Revolution. Additionally, tied in with the difference of placement on the timeline of the rise of Christianity, the difference of the ruling class played a part in the contrast of the two structures. The Roman emperor Constantine ruled independently of the church until his conversion to Christianity. Only after his alignment with Christianity did Constantine accept the Papal regime.
Similarly, both structures are parts of a paradigm of the type of structure. The Arch of Constantine is considered a triumphal arch, a construct of the Romans and created as a symbol of victory. The most well-known triumphal arch is the Arc de Triomphe de l’Etoile in Paris France. The Cathedral is a part of the series of Gothic churches given the title Our Lady. The referenced Notre Dame de Paris is the most well-known; however, there are several others, among them are Notre Dame de Tournai and Reims with all three undergoing construction in the twelfth century A.D. Both the arch and the Cathedral use Romanesque designs, the arch especially because it is considered a Roman work of architecture and heavily borrowed, in the literal sense of the word, from other Roman pieces. It is thought that the Arch was not originally constructed for Constantine. The original triumphal arch and columns were created for Domitian or Hadrian and the Senate granted the space to Constantine after his numerous victories under his newly created Byzantine empire (Frankl, 256).
Moving toward the physical differences of the structures, the Arch of Constantine depicts several pagan gods. This can be attributed to the concept where in order to convert the Roman pagan worshipers to Christianity; Christians developed parallels and cross-over relationships between the pagan gods and rituals and the Christian tradition. Commonly seen are inclusions of Bacchus – or Dionysus in Greek mythology – and the Bacchus cult. Bacchus the God of wine and a cross-over to Christianity is the use of wine as the blood of Christ. In the case of the Arch of Constantine, the sun god, Sol, is present in the imagery as Constantine identified with him even leading up to his conversion to Christianity (Jones, 69). Often used in tandem with Sol was the Christ-Helios cult which was used much like the Bacchus cult in the softening of conversion from pagan worship to Christianity. This would be especially important during this time, because of Constantine’s personal identification with the Pagan god Sol.
Both structures use their adornments to tell a story: one the sculpture with stories of war and the other through glass paintings with stories from the Christian bible. Furthermore, both use their given religious symbols to further the allegory of either sustained conqueror or religious supremacy. The scenes used on the Arch of Constantine tell the history of Constantine’s victory over Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (Jones, 51). While these scenes are secular and historical, the concept is the same for the stained glass in Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral. However, it is important to note that the glass in windows of Notre Dame have been replaced since their initial installation. Though it is unsure exactly the cause of the damage and need for replacement, it is thought to be attributed to either the Enlightenment or the French Revolution’s Night of Terror (Frankl, 299). A thorough restoration of the Cathedral was commissioned and the church was returned to its original Gothic state.
Ultimately, these two structures, the Arch of Constantine and Notre Dame de Paris, are exceedingly similar to one another even though they were created nearly nine centuries apart. Despite using different religious symbols, one pagan and one Christian they both, are in due course, Christian structures. Using scenes to convey a story or history are common aspects of the structures. Architecturally, the structures hold similar in the design of the arches, but within the similarity lies a difference. The architect of Notre Dame expanded upon the Roman innovation to create a more aesthetically appealing arch while retaining the structurally sound nature of the arch. A strong difference lies in the names of the structures, the arch retains a self-service name and the Cathedral’s name implores a more humble shared community name.
This comparative analysis shows that religion plays a significant role in architecture, regardless of time period or region. Even though the arch was constructed during the Flowering of Christianity, the resonances of Christian themes are throughout. Albeit, the themes are softened by the incorporation of Pagan beliefs and rituals to create an easier transition into the Christian faith from the Roman Pagan ideals. The structures were commissioned nearly nine centuries apart and still show significant similarities in terms of religion association. While arguably religion does not play as big of a role in architecture today, it has its role in other aspects of human culture as seen in the recent developments in the Syrian Civil Conflict. Works Cited
Frankl, P. (1957). Unnoticed Fragments of Old Stained Glass in Notre Dame de Paris. The Art Bulletin, 299-300.
Jones, M. W. (2000). Gensis and Mimesis: The Design of the Arch of Constantine in Rome. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historian, 51-71.
Sayre, H. M. (2012). The Humanities: Culture, Continuity & Change. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.…...

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