Church Buildings in Asia. Palestine

In Palestine itself the ancient churches surviving, other than those at the sacred sites, are rather less abundant and less striking than in Syria, but show a similar evolution. Large blocks of stone laid in regular courses made up the walls, and the country churches, as represented at Kherbet Kufin near Bethlehem, remain for the most part simple basilica halls having an eastern apse concealed within massive walls and flanked by the two chambers necessary for general administrative purposes. But more sophisticated structures grew up alongside, particularly when the interest of the imperial court had been aroused. The church of the Theotokos, on Mount Gerizim, closely resembles in outline the pattern found at Ezra and is some thirty years older (fig. 82).

82. Mount Gerizim, Church of the Theotokos, 484 ad: ground-plan.

Erected in 484 ad by the emperor Zeno out of gratitude for his success in quelling a revolt of the Samaritans, it bears the stamp of elegance in its carefully worked walls and in capitals which, Corinthian in general pattern, have the fuzzy complexity, which sometimes develops in this style, softened by Ionic scrolls. An octagonal nave forms an ambulatory around the central arrangement of angle piers separated by matching pairs of columns which probably supported a wooden dome. The unusual and striking feature here is that the octagon is a double one.

The area between the two walls is used to enclose a formal portico on the west and two rather less imposing entrances to north and south, with four small chapels, shaped like tiny basilicas, occupying the rest of the space. The east end is occupied by a shallow apse with a well-defined rectangle in front of it, and the conventional sacristies, approached only through an external door, at each side. Here too, it appears, eucharistic worship found its place at the centre of things while the reverential awe due to particular saints was fostered in the side chapels.

The sanctuary on Mount Gerizim was clearly a place of much splendour contrasting in every way with the simple churches appropriate to remote villages, but the most remarkable collection of churches in Palestine seems to have been concentrated at Gerasa (Jerash), very near the Arabian border, 'a great city, strongly protected by mighty walls', set in a countryside 'well supplied with fortresses and castles and producing the richest variety of merchandise'. After a period of great prosperity, Gerasa was ravaged by both Arab tribesmen and earthquakes, and during the eighth century fell into decay. Its treasures aroused no interest until the excavations of the last fifty years.

The city had possessed many shrines before the Christian epoch—the great temple of Artemis still dominates the ruins—but from about 350 ad Gerasa rapidly developed into a Christian metropolis hallowed by the presence of a fountain which, so men said, gushed with wine instead of water during the Epiphany festival when Christ's miracle at Cana was celebrated. The remains of at least a dozen churches have come to light, all but two being of basilican type, divided by columns or piers into a nave and two aisles. Much of the nave is occupied, as in the case of many Syrian churches, by a screened area where the liturgy was celebrated. At Gerasa this chancel takes the form of a rectangle of varying proportions immediately in front of the apse and continued into the body of the nave by a raised passage to the reader's pulpit.

Gerasa was one of the cities of the Decapolis, a league of communities welded together by Greek colonists, and, as its numerous inscriptions testify, largely Greek-speaking. The architectural style of its churches therefore combines a certain Aegean lightness with the chunky Syrian method of building in courses of vast ashlar blocks. That, at any rate, is the case with the oldest of the churches, the Cathedral set up at the beginning of the fifth century.

Here the stairway of thirty-six steps and the colonnaded entrance were taken over from a disused pagan shrine, as were perhaps the Corinthian capitals of the nave and the masonry, finely cut and joined, of the whole building. The apse is shallow, surrounded by a heavy wall and enclosed within a squared east end which provides space also for the small rectangular 'prothesis' and 'diaconicon'. These last are unusual in that they have an entrance leading directly westwards into the aisles. The cathedral extended to a length of 43 metres, the west end being furnished with three portals which faced towards the courtyard surrounding the miraculous fountain.

The dominant building here, however, is another church abutting on the opposite side of the court and raised above it by a triple flight of steps. This church, as an inscription makes plain, was erected in honour of the soldier-martyr Theodore in the year 496 by Aeneas, 'a bishop infinitely wise and steeped in piety'. It resembles the cathedral in both design and proportions, although the masonry is more roughly worked, the nave is narrower in relation to the aisles and the columns, more widely spaced, are topped by arches instead of the straight line of an architrave.

Considerable amounts of gilded glass and marble indicate that here, as in other churches of Gerasa, a lavish decoration was employed of glass mosaic in the apse, stone mosaic on the floors and polished slabs of marble on the walls. The rectangular chancel, smaller than many, is attached to the walls of the apse, between which holes have been driven into the pavement to receive the shafts fixing the altar and its canopy. No trace of seating has been discovered in the apse, but the reader's pulpit projects, in characteristic fashion, westwards down the nave.

Roughly a hundred metres from St Theodore's church the outlines of a later and rather more complicated structure bear witness alike to the piety and to the inventiveness of the Gerasenes. This building consists of three churches, lying parallel and joined together within the rectangle of a thick external wall. This wall is unbroken except on the west side where a slim, colonnaded portico runs the whole length, in front of the entrance doorways. The churches of SS. Cosmas and Damian and of St George, at the sides, resemble each other very closely, being basilicas of the customary pattern and having, between nave and aisles, sturdy pillars designed to carry arches of wide span.

The church of St John the Baptist, however, constructed on the plan of a martyr-shrine, is entirely different. Its basic design is a circle, with rounded apse projecting at the east end. Four horseshoe-like recesses interrupt the line of the circle, which, on the inside, forms an ambulatory flowing round a square nave with its four corner-pillars set to uphold a dome. The combination of square with circle is emphasized in that the whole of the rotunda, together with its horseshoe appendages, is enclosed within a massive square of masonry. The straightforward mathematical balance of this composite church must have contrasted with great richness within, to judge from the quantity of mosaic which still survives. Cupids, the Seasons, animals and birds play their colourful part, enclosed by flowing borders of acanthus or ribbon pattern, while especial interest centres on the sketchy representation of cities, Alexandria with its lighthouse in particular.

The Church of the Prophets, Apostles and Martyrs at Gerasa, erected in 463 ad, differs from all the others but again demonstrates the principle of enclosing a carefully articulated pattern within a square (fig. 83). As in the case of St John the Baptist's church, the whole of the west front, with its five entrances, is preceded by a long narrow porch. The interior of the building is marked out by columns to form the shape of a cross; the eastern limb represents the chancel with reader's pulpit attached.

83. Gerasa, Church of the Prophets, Apostles and Martyrs, 465 ad: ground-plan

The four rectangular spaces left between the arms of the cross and the side walls are each taken up with an L-shaped aisle set against an enclosed chamber serving either as a separate sanctuary or to meet administrative needs, while a shallow semicircular apse, equipped with clergy seats, projects from the east end. This rich and complex design is typical of the artistic power displayed at Gerasa in the fifth and sixth centuries.


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