Church Buildings in Asia. Asia Minor

Influences from Constantinople and Antioch spread throughout Asia Minor, so that the vigour of religious enthusiasm, acting upon a common culture, led to the building of churches in basilican form all along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean and often far inland. Differences of style and sophistication naturally occurred from place to place, dictated to some extent by local conventions of worship. The basilica, even when hallowed by the presence of martyr-relics, was primarily the place where people gathered for the celebration of the Eucharist, and this, by the fourth century, had developed from a rite resembling a community supper to a majestic drama: it is a 'spiritual sacrifice', a 'mystery which we celebrate behind locked doors after excluding those who are not initiates’.

Even so, different views were held about the use of the nave, and these led to certain modifications of architectural form. Some teachers held that the nave was essentially the 'four-square oratory' of the people' by contrast with the apsidal sanctuary reserved for the clergy—though naturally anyone as eloquent as St Chrysostom would wish to preach in the nave 'for the sake of being completely heard'. A church might be held to represent the Heavenly Jerusalem or to be a kind of ark of salvation: 'first let the house be oblong, turned towards the east, with the sacristies on either side towards the east, seeing it resembles a ship'.

These words were written by a fourth-century Syrian, but it was just at that time and in that part of the world that the clergy were assigning to themselves, as they celebrated the holy mysteries, a large part of the nave, enclosed within chancel screens and colourful hangings. In places where this happened the layfolk were driven to occupy the aisles and the west end of the nave, which was sometimes marked off with an inner portico (esonarthex). When galleries were provided, the aisles, instead of being lightened by large clerestory windows, remained dark except insofar as they were lit from the centre or by lamps reflecting the brilliance of marble decoration. By contrast with the fairly ample remains of early churches in Syria, those still surviving in Asia Minor tend to be fragmentary and rather more widely dispersed. At Constantinople itself the only remaining monument of the period between Constantine’s foundations and the great burst of energy which marked Justinian's reign is the church—now roofless —called St John Studios after the name of the senator Studios, who founded it in 463 ad..

This, as befits a building in the capital city, wears a classical, conservative air but was evidently decorated in that oriental richness of varied colours which distinguishes a Persian carpet. The layout is that of a standard if stubby basilica. Entered from its portico, the nave was divided from the two aisles by columns of green marble set on bases and topped by elongated capitals supporting the straight line of a moulded architrave (fig. 84). The aisles had large circular-headed windows but apparently the nave was shut in by galleries. The apse, once again, takes the form of a semicircle inside converted by thick walls into the semblance of an octagon when viewed from without. Brick prevails in the facing of the church but variety is given by bands of stone, three courses in depth.

84. Constantinople, St John Studios: capitals

The portico of St John's church provides admirable examples of the type of capital known as the 'Theodosian'. This is a variant of the 'composite' capital, in which the acanthus leaves characteristic of the Corinthian style combine with the scrolls of the Ionic. Constantinople had borrowed the Corinthian pattern and treated it, with some sophistication, in its own particular way. For the smooth-leaved acanthus was substituted a prickly acanthus, with leaves often twisted sideways as though by the wind.

This is the basic theme of the Theodosian capital, usually carved with two rows, one above the other, of eight acanthus and often a further band of acanthus decoration running between the four corner-scrolls. It was not until the end of the fifth century that another characteristic development took place and each capital was topped by an impost, a rather bulky cushion of stone, which provided the springing for the arches. This impost could be plain or it could be enriched over its whole surface with a lace-like pattern of deeply-cut acanthus leaves.

The coastlands of Asia Minor, and the great harbour city of Ephesus in particular, served as the meetingpoint for Greek and Eastern ideas as for Greek and Eastern merchandise. But the sentiment in architecture is prevailingly Greek, with an instinct for elegance rather than mass. Remains are, however, not very plentiful. At Ephesus itself, the cross-church set up over the traditional tomb of John the Apostle was largely reconstructed by Justinian, but the stages by which the sanctuary developed are clear enough (fig. 85).

85. Ephesus, St John: plan of the church as it was about 440 ad. A century later the building was much altered and enlarged

At first the entrance to the grotto containing St John's tomb was protected by a square structure resembling a mausoleum. During the fifth century the square was rebuilt with four thick pillars to support a dome, and a covered hall was added at each side, forming a cross-shaped church. An elaborate narthex was set against the west end, while a system of narrow aisles and corridors running round the building enabled the devout to pass from the main entrance to any part of the church without disturbing the central square, which was probably enclosed by metal grilles. St John's was essentially a pilgrim church, in which the revered tomb occupied the central point and the eucharistic services were relegated to the east end. This idea of a relic-shrine formed as a free-standing cross spread westwards, and a smaller, simpler version of St John's shrine at Ephesus has been found at Klise-Kjoj in Bulgaria.

Scarcely less renowned than the sanctuary of St John at Ephesus was that of the 'Seven Sleepers' nearby. The essential feature here was a cave developed and extended as an enormous mortuary shrine, with a close-knit series of chapels and a multitude of coffins dispersed over the floor or enclosed in the walls.

At the foot of the hill and near the old harbour of Ephesus, considerable portions remain of the Cathedral of St Mary, where the Council met in 431 ad to consider the speculations of Nestorius concerning the nature of Christ. This church (fig. 86), entirely different from St John's, is a basilica of conventional shape, preceded by a large courtyard with baptistery attached and by a colonnaded portico.

86. Ephesus: the fragmentary remains of the Cathedral of St Mary, scene of the Council of 431 ad

Aligned on the walls of an earlier building of basilica type, the nave, separated by a row of columns from each of the slender aisles, runs to a length of 85 metres, and ends with a semicircular apse, flanked by two sacristies and enclosed in a massive rectangular wall. The church seems to have been unencumbered by galleries or by any substantial chancel advancing into the nave, while small portions of mosaic and marble panelling attest a rich decoration. Pillars and columns combined near the middle of the nave point to the existence of a dome; another dome is known to have crowned the octagonal baptistery.

A dome might be formed as the continuation of a circular drum but was more frequently found raised on a square base. In such cases it maintained its circular form with the assistance of squinches or pendentives (fig. 87, 88). Squinches, usually claimed as a Persian discovery, are small arches fitting into the four corners of the square and thus converting it into the circle or shallow octagon on which the dome can rest. Pendentives, on the other hand, are triangles that prolong the surface of the dome by sliding down in decreasing width to the points, between the supporting arches, where the corners of the square are met. The vaults and domes of Asia Minor, by contrast with those of Roman type, are often high pitched and boldly constructed in rubble, brick or tile.

87 and 88. Squinch and pendentive: two methods of fixing a circle or dome to a square. The squinch is a small arch set across the corners of a rectangle; the pendentive is an inverted triangle with curving sides

The pattern of the cathedral at Ephesus is repeated not only at Miletus and on such Aegean islands as Cos but also further away, in Isauria and the other countries bordering the south coast of Asia Minor, where, however, rubble and brick yield to powerful courses of stone. But there is no rigid adherence to one precise design and the architects give play to their imaginations within the general form which custom and convenience dictated. A rectangular transept, for instance, striking across the church immediately in front of the apse, could be so elaborated as to make up two broad arms of a cross, with the nave corresponding to the shaft of the cross and the apse representing the head.


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