Curatorial Essay

Church of Dura-Europos Hagia Sophia The Basilica of Saint-Sernin Cathedral of Amiens

The Medieval Period, spanning from 476 to the 14th century, was a time of growth in architecture and in several ideas that had been “lost” (the Carolingian Renaissance helped to improve literacy and kept thousands of manuscripts and documents from being lost). One thing that also flourished was the religion of Christianity. From modest, private places of worship at its birth, it evolved into massive basilicas and cathedrals as the religion grew and attracted wealthy patrons. These four objects represent the evolution in the way that Christians celebrated their religion through architecture during the Middle Ages.

When Christianity was a relatively young and new religion, Christians considered practicality and functionality to be far more important than the aesthetic appeal of their churches. Because of this, the Christians either worshipped, converting parts of their homes into places of worship for the community, such as the former owner of the Church of Dura-Europos, also known as the Christian Community House did, or they built the most simple, sturdy buildings they could by adopting architectural characteristics from the Romans in the forms of buildings with central plans and basilicas. In fact, the Christians took much influence from the Romans and the Hebrews alike, borrowing and adapting what was needed in order to make their own space. Because of this, the Church of Dura-Europos has several similarities to the Synagogue of Dura-Europos. The Church of Dura-Europos is an example of Early Christian architecture, when Christianity was still in the process of finding its own architectural and artistic identities.

 As Christianity became more popular and spread, the buildings became more and more grand, thanks to the increasing amount of wealthy patrons now funding the building of churches, monasteries, and the like. They also had gained their own unique flair, blending much of the culture that they were a part of into their architecture. The Hagia Sophia, also known as “the church of holy wisdom” in the Byzantine Empire’s capital, Constantinople, is a prime example. The church, made from brick, mortar, and marble and characterized by its famous main dome which is considered to be one of the wonders of the ancient world, was commissioned by Emperor Justinian after the Nika riots destroyed the church that had previously stood there. The church is centrally planned, a trait not uncommon regarding the Byzantines, in thanks to the way in which they regarded relics; centrally planned churches were more appropriate for martyria, while those in the West only considered basilicae to be able to be martyria. The church is enormous and is meant to awe a spectator, as well as to remind them of the power and piety that its patron, Emperor Justinian, possessed.

The Basilica of Saint-Sernin, built of brick and limestone in Toulouse, France, began construction in 1070 and is famous for being the largest known remaining Romanesque building in existence. The Saint-Sernin was a pilgrimage location, built on top of the original church which held Saint Sernin. It was built in mind of giving pilgrims the chance to be able to move about and circulate through the church. It is also a fitting example of Romanesque architecture with barrel vaults, sturdy columns and thick walls and arcades replacing the individual columns, adding an elegant repetition leading to the choir. The columns of Saint-Sernin had stories depicted in their capitals, leading them to become known as historiated capitals, as well as scenes of Christ and his followers in lunettes over the portals, known as tympanums. The Romanesque style used the Roman style for inspiration, but had its own clearly distinct style. The presence of more registers indicates that during the Romanesque period, architects began to build up the height of their churches.

The Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Amiens is a gothic cathedral built from stone in 1220-1236 CE. The church was the reliquary of what is believed to be Saint John the Baptist’s skull, which caused it to become a pilgrimage destination and helped to speed its construction along at surprising speed. Characteristic of Gothic architecture, the cathedral stands at 476 feet high, the largest of the medieval Gothic cathedrals. Its floor plan is cruciform and the facade is covered in ornamental carvings depicting Christ and many other important figures of the Bible, including Mary and her sister, Catherine. These sculptures flank the entrances of the cathedral, each telling their own story. The sculptures and reliefs on the tympanums engage with the viewer and lead them inside of the church. The architecture of Amiens Cathedral was not just interested in looking imposing or beautiful, it was also meant to engage with the viewer and encourage them to become Christian and worship Christ as well. 

Although the purpose for the building of these churches is more or less the same, to have a place in which to worship and perform holy sacraments, the aesthetic of the church as a result of the cultures in which they are built have changed greatly. The Church of Dura-Europos and the cathedral of Amiens is a fitting contrast. The Early Christian church is simple in design and practical, having been converted into a place of worship from a home, while Amiens Cathedral is grand and imposing and, characteristic to its Gothic nature, reaches towards the heavens. The facade of the cathedral is decorated with ornamental carvings made to show the majesty and power of Christ, and to invite people to enter the church. The exterior of the Church of Dura-Europos, in contrast, although not much in regards to architecture truly remains appears fairly plain and devoid of decoration. The only church, in fact, that wasn’t made with ornamentation in mind is the Church of Dura-Europos. As Christianity became a more powerful and popular religion, wealthy patrons were able to commission churches built to impress and amaze others with their feats of architecture and ornamentation. 

One of the largest differences between all of these churches is the sheer scale of which they were built. All were built in order to serve as a place of worship, to be able to participate in the worship of Christ and holy sacraments. However, while the Church of Dura-Europos was clearly built with only practicality in mind, the Hagia Sophia was clearly meant to awe its spectators with its scale and grandeur. The Hagia Sophia, a church from Byzantine Europe, was very different than most churches in its time, and still is. The dome, in part, is to thank for this, as the dome is considered an architectural wonder. The church’s floor plan is an interesting hybrid of a central plan and a basilica, differing from that of Dura-Europos, but not an uncommon trait in Byzantine churches. Similarly, both the Romanesque Basilica of Saint-Sernin and Amiens Cathedral were built on enormous scales, height and a sense of awe being the ultimate objectives. 

The Hagia Sophia incorporates the usage of light in its architecture with 40 windows lining the dome in order to bring an air of lightness and mysticism to the church. This is not an unfamiliar trait, as Gothic architects also considered light to be an important tool and used it to their advantage as well, letting light in through stained glass, intended to give off a mystical, divine, and awe-inspiring light, as well as making the church seem lighter and more airy. Both of these churches relied on the qualities of light to make their churches distinct and give them the desired qualities. 

Though only separated by decades, there are many aspects in which the Basilica of Saint-Sernin and the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Amiens differ. One represents the Romanesque period, characterized by the influence of the Romans, thick sturdy walls, and barrel vaults, whilst the other represents the Gothic, a style famous for its ribbed vaults, pointed arches, stained glass windows, and the heights to which the cathedrals would reach. The Gothic cathedrals also tended to have more exterior ornamentation than a Romanesque church. The Saint-Sernin looks fairly plain compared to Amiens Cathedral, which is covered in reliefs and sculptures in order to draw the congregation in.

Amiens Cathedral is actively attempting to engage the viewer, both on the interior and exterior with its carvings and sculptures of Biblical figures overcoming evil and trials. Saint-Sernin has less ornamentation on its facade, although it does have an alternating brick pattern that serves as ornamentation; there are also reliefs on the tympanums over the entrances of the church, attempting to engage the viewer. Neither the Hagia Sophia nor the Church of Dura-Europos have the same kind of interaction with their visitors; what is left of the Early Christian church indicates that there was very little ornamentation save for certain frescoes in the church itself. Although there is clearly more decoration on this building than the Early Christian church, when compared to the Saint-Sernin and Amiens Cathedral, there is still not nearly as much of an attempt to engage, to have a conversation of sorts with the viewer. The Byzantines, after all, were known for their frescoes, which were painted over or destroyed when it was converted into a mosque after the sacking of Constantinople in 1453. 

Throughout the Medieval Period, Christianity evolved into a powerful and very present religion, a factor of everyday life for countless Europeans. As time passed and Christianity evolved, so did the way in which Christians wished to worship. Many Christian artists went from simply depicting Christ as flatly and with as little movement as possible to showing him with more dynamic movement and more naturalistic features. They found that the closer they could get to realism, the easier it would be for their viewer to engage with their work. The same goes for the architects of Europe: instead of just building a simple church, they wanted to create something that would venerate Christ and would also be able to interact with people, make them want to interact with it. The buildings became more complex and grew in height and majesty as builders incorporated different styles and techniques in order to show their reverence for God.


Curatorial Essay