Church Buildings in Asia. Syria and Armenia. Continuation

Marcianus and his contemporaries experimented with a variety of capitals. There is a plain Doric form with a cube of stone set on top to give greater height to the arch; another is a capital scalloped on its under surface; a third is a type of Ionic capital with the corner spirals tamed and flattened; more particularly, still another shows a variant of the Corinthian style, with the two rows of acanthus leaves tightly drawn together under a cap of spreading foliage. Features such as these, noticeable at Dar Qita and other villages nearby, mark a stage in artistic development when the church is no longer intended to look like an ordinary' house or covered market but is separated from other buildings and given its own distinctive form.

A rather different type of construction, within the same neighbourhood, is displayed by the church of Qalb Louzeh, which, still in a good state of preservation, seems to have been built about 490 ad (fig. 77). Here the nave is a vast room framed not by rows of columns but by broad, squat pillars strong enough to sustain wide, low-slung arches; a double row of stone corbels, projecting from the wall above, supported the timbers of the roof. The south aisle, if not both aisles, was covered with stone slabs to form a gallery, with clerestory windows affording a view into the nave.

77. Qalb Louzeh: view from the south-east

The building at Qalb Louzeh has none of the comfortable domestic air of the earlier Syrian churches. It is set not among a cluster of houses but, dignified and impressive, within its own ample precinct. Sturdy towers enclose a west front with entrance of ambitious pattern: a large square-headed doorway with well- marked jambs and lintel stands beneath a band of decoration drawn up in the centre to form a bold semicircular opening. The east end is of even more elaborate design; here the triumphal arch, corresponding to the chancel-arch of some Norman churches, springs in four carved mouldings from the Corinthian capitals of massive channelled piers, while the apse, no longer concealed within flanking sacristies, juts out in an ample curve lit by three matching windows.

When viewed from outside these round-headed windows are seen to be framed by Corinthian columns placed against the wall with, above, two courses of enormous stones leading upward to a chunky cornice and double band of carved decoration. The south front of the building adheres to the convention that this side should display the fullest external ornament, and a row of windows overtops three formal entrances placed at irregular intervals along the wall. The moulded string-course around all the windows takes the form which was to become characteristic of Syrian architecture, avoiding sharp rectangles and sliding from the vertical to the horizontal with the help of gentle curves.

The Syrian type of basilica reaches its final stage of majestic authority in the cathedral of Rosafa, set in the midst of the desert eighteen miles south of the river Euphrates. This remote place acquired great renown, and the alternative name Sergiopolis, from the tomb of Sergius, a soldier-saint who had been executed during Diocletian's persecution. Rosafa thus became a goal of pilgrimage and gradually equipped to receive a large number of visitors. The cathedral, replacing an earlier structure, was built early in the sixth century to an elegant and sophisticated design. This consists primarily of a rectangle, 59 metres by 27 metres, subdivided into nave and aisles by means of cross-shaped pillars carrying arches with a span of some 10 metres.

The pillars are massive enough but doubt apparently arose regarding the stability of the church, with the result that huge chunks of masonry were applied as buttresses to the walls outside and, within, columns were inserted as supports for the great arches of the nave. This latter arrangement had the effect of separating nave from aisles more resolutely than had been at first intended, though smaller arches, less than half the size of the original span, rose from the capitals of the columns and allowed easy movement between the various parts of the building. Entry from the street, at the west end with its flanking towers, was by way of three large doors, one into each aisle and a central one into the nave enclosure, which served as a porch.

The south side of the cathedral remained featureless and plain while the north was pierced by three ornamented doorways and a number of windows arranged in pairs, the reason for this breach of normal Syrian practice being that a vast courtyard, surrounded by ancillary' buildings, lay to the north. The sanctuary consisted of a broad simple apse, set within the rectangle of the church and having a triplet of modest windows looking out eastwards. The two side chambers, connected not with the sanctuary but, by means of arches upheld by pilasters and columns, with the aisles, boasted an upper storey with stubby columns acting as supports to an ornamental dome. Here again the centre of the nave was obstructed by the reader's platform, a large rectangle with semicircle at the west end and ministering to usefulness rather than to the beauty which the gracefully proportioned church even in its ruins still suggests. Another basilica nearby (Basilica B) reproduces the general style and many detailed features of the cathedral.

The type of Syrian church that is described, in distinction from the basilica, as 'centralized' may take various forms. Perhaps the oldest is the martyr-shrine of St Babylas, twelfth bishop of Antioch, that was uncovered by excavation in 1934 at Kaoussie, a suburb of Antioch. The building forms a precisely regular cross: four rectangular naves, each 25 metres long and marking one of the points of the compass, meet in a central square formed by massive pillars supporting wide arches, above which apparently rose a roof in the shape of a pyramid. This remarkable monument, to which a number of subsidiary buildings, such as a baptistery, were later annexed, dates from about 380 ad 'in the time of Bishop Flavian', and contains well- preserved geometric mosaics set in place, as inscriptions show, a few years later.

There is no sign of a special sanctuary in the eastern arm of the cross or anywhere else, and even the tomb of Babylas was placed not in the middle of the square but in a sarcophagus over against the north-western corner. The central feature, oddly enough, was nothing more than a raised bema of compressed horseshoe form, as found in the nave of the basilicas. From here, presumably, hymns were sung and addresses given in the saint's honour. This would imply that a form originally evolved to help meet the needs of the Eucharist was later adapted to serve a rather different purpose.

The same cross form, though without the mathematical regularity shown at Kaoussie, distinguishes the vast sanctuary built at Qalat Siman in honour of St Simeon Stvlites (fig. 78). Simeon's body was transferred to Antioch, but the column on which the saint dwelt for more than thirty years remained as a venerated place of pilgrimage and the focal point of the church. Pious pressures exerted on the emperors Leo I and Zeno seem to have been the reason for a ready supply of men and money from official sources, as was indeed required not only for the whole elaborate structure but also for levelling and preparing the rocky and difficult site. Yet, however powerful imperial patronage may have been, the style of native Syrian structures is retained.

78. Qalat Siman: the sanctuary- viewed from the north-east

The walls are composed of large stone blocks ranged without mortar in horizontal courses while pillars, arches and doorways follow the precedent set by local forms of decoration as applied to both secular and religious buildings (fig. 79). But there is a touch of Byzantine magnificence about the sharply-cut acanthus capitals and the rhythmical course of moulding which runs over the top of arches and unusually ample windows. The design of the church is marked by great originality, since the plain cross shape, emphasizing the august holiness of the saint's pillar, is modified in several ways.

79. Qalat Siman, basilica

The square sanctuary in which the four equal arms meet at Kaoussie is widened at Qalat Siman with four comer recesses which go to make up an octagon, along the lines of the Church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives. Then each arm, instead of being a plain rectangle, is subdivided to form a Syrian basilica with nave and two aisles. Thus the structure as a whole seemed, at least to one traveller who recorded his impressions, to ‘resemble a cross adorned with colonnades on all four sides and having an open courtyard in the midst'. This implies that the central octagon was not roofed over but left Simeon's column exposed to the sky. Finally the eastern arm, rather than being squared off like the others, ends in a sanctuary with three apses. In this way the huge building combined the uses of a basilica with those of a martvr-shrine: a church of conventional pattern in which the liturgy may be celebrated forms part of a sanctuary centred on the sacred relic. In testimony to St Simeon's prestige, the church is allied with a great monastery and other buildings, which include a baptistery, hostels and triumphal entrance gateways. Below, at the foot of the hill, lay Deir Siman, with three monasteries, several hostels for the reception of pilgrims and, no doubt, an atmosphere compounded of devotion and curiosity such as may today be sensed at Lourdes or Carcassonne.


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