The Eschatological Dimension of Church Architecture

The Biblical Roots of Church Orientation

Although on this side of the Atlantic there has been considerable laxity in orienting churches, in Europe great care was taken in seeing that churches were oriented. By the sixth century, the sanctuary within the church was regularly placed at the east end, the direction which throughout history has symbolized the eschaton: the second coming of Christ in kingly glory. The ancient custom of orienting churches alludes not only to Matthew 24.27, “As the lightening cometh out from the east … so also will the coming of the Son of Man be,” but more importantly to the direction the Jewish high priest faced in the Jerusalem Temple when offering sacrifice on Yom Kippur, the “day of atonement,” the most important and essential feast of the Jewish year.

Because the New Testament Epistle to the Hebrews identifies Jesus with the Temple high priest, the Church always envisioned the risen and glorified Jesus as facing east when offering the Eucharistic sacrifice to the Father through the actions of the earthly priest. Thus the direction towards which the earthly priest, the alter Christus, faced while offering the Mass indicated for Christians the symbolic direction of the heavenly New Jerusalem which is the abode of the eternal Father.

But, as is well known, the sanctuary has not always and everywhere been located in the east end of the Christian church. Quite on the contrary, when Christians in fourth-century Rome could first freely begin to build churches, they customarily located the sanctuary towards the west end of the building in imitation of the sanctuary of the Jerusalem Temple. Although in the days of the Jerusalem Temple the high priest indeed faced east when sacrificing on Yom Kippur, the sanctuary within which he stood was located at the west end of the Temple. The Christian replication of the layout and the orientation of the Jerusalem Temple helped to dramatize the eschatological meaning attached to the sacrificial death of Jesus the High Priest in the Epistle to the Hebrews.

The custom of orienting the earliest places of Christian worship came not directly from Scripture, however, but from contemporary Jewish synagogue custom. Archaeological and other evidence tells us that in the early Christian era there existed within Palestine two traditions of orienting synagogues.1 According to one tradition, the synagogue was to be positioned in such a way that its sanctuary faced the Jerusalem Temple. Thus, depending on where it was situated in relation to the Temple, the synagogue might face any point of the compass. But according to an alternate tradition, the synagogue was to be positioned in such a way that its sanctuary faced west, and west only, in emulation of the Temple sanctuary. Whereas modern Jews follow the first of these two Palestinian traditions, the fourth-century Christian basilica builders followed the second tradition.

Msgr. Klaus Gamber has pointed out that although in these early west-facing Roman basilicas the people stood in the side naves and faced the centrally located altar for the first portion of the service, nevertheless at the approach of the consecration they all turned to face east towards the open church doors, the same direction the priest faced throughout the Eucharistic liturgy.2 Because the sanctuary with its veiled altar occupied the portion of the church west of the main entrance the people could face east, the direction of the imminent eschaton of Christ, only by turning.

As we have noted, churches came in time to be built with their sanctuaries no longer towards their west end but instead towards their east end so that now the people no longer needed to turn but could face east throughout the Mass.3 (A similar switch in orientation took place in the Jewish synagogue about the same time and still may be seen in today’s synagogue.)4 Quite obviously, the importance of the people’s facing east in the Christian church was that this posture signified they were “the priesthood of the faithful,” who in this way showed that they joined in the sacrifice offered by the ministerial priest in his and their collective name.

In these east-facing churches it became common to place an “east window” high on the sanctuary wall to admit the light of the rising sun. The gaze of the “priesthood of the faithful” was thus directed beyond the immediate assembly and beyond the veiled altar of the church sanctuary. Christ indeed returned at the words of the consecration, but this invisible return at the consecration was above all a foreshadowing and sign of his imminent visible return at the eschaton, hence the congregation’s expectant gazing towards the rising sun which shone through the east window. At the moment of the consecration one did not look at the Eucharistic host. One would not see Christ there. The actual moment of the consecration was in fact concealed from the eyes of the faithful by altar curtains.

Two things in particular stand out in the developments we have discussed: that the custom of orientation is biblical and that it expresses the eschaton. The Oriens, being the direction of the dawn which is the sign of the expected return of Christ, symbolically expresses the creedal words recited by Christians down through the ages: “He will come again in glory … and of His kingdom there will be no end.” In our own day, the Novus Ordo liturgy introduced after Vatican Council II has in fact re-emphasized these creedal words and underscored their relation to the Eucharistic consecration by restoring the Eucharistic acclamation: Mortem tuam annuntiamus, Domine, et tuam resurrectionem confitemus, donec venias, today loosely translated into English as “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”5

Although the builders of the fourth-century Christian basilica had indeed borrowed a contemporary type of secular Roman architecture, they deliberately reworked this architecture in order to express a specifically Judaic temple tradition. One has only to look at the type of changes they introduced into the architecture. For one thing, the builders of the fourth-century Christian basilica eliminated the multiple apses, one at either end, which one would have seen in such pagan basilicas as the Basilica Ulpia in Rome. The Christian builders instead kept only a single apse at the far end of their basilica. Towards this west end of the basilica they housed a sanctuary in the manner of a Semitic Middle Eastern temple,6 sometimes taking up much of the west half of the basilica. The Christian builders furthermore re-located the main door of the Roman basilica from its former position on the long side of the immense rectangular building to the short end of the building thereby creating a long, pillar- lined interior vista which served to emphasize and dramatize the sanctuary apse at the opposite end from the door of entry.

Furthermore, a low openwork stone parapet or “chancel” marked off the sanctuary with its veiled altar where the priest entered to celebrate the liturgy, just as a low stone parapet had marked off the sanctuary of the priests in the Jerusalem Temple.7 (It was not until the time of the Counter Reformation that this parapet or chancel acquired the name “communion rail.”) In this Christian replication of the Temple, however, the sanctuary now stood not merely for the earthly sanctuary at Jerusalem, but above all for the prototypal heavenly sanctuary extolled in the Epistle to the Hebrews as having been the model given to Moses for the Jerusalem sanctuary. This heavenly sanctuary was the eternal realm of the risen and glorified high priest Jesus who sits at the right hand of the throne of God the Father.8

The low, lattice-like sanctuary chancel of the Christian church thus stood for the barrier of death through which each Christian must pass before entering the actual heavenly sanctuary. Only the priest, insofar as he alone enacted the role of the Christus, was allowed to pass beyond this sanctuary chancel which stood for death and into the sanctuary itself which stood for life beyond death. And only he could bring the Bread of Life from the “heavenly realm” of the sanctuary to the people, who waited on the “earthly” side of the chancel for this mystical foretaste of the Messianic banquet of the life to come.

Therefore, to dwell on the Roman meanings of the fourth-century basilica to the neglect of these Judaic, Middle Eastern, and New Testament meanings is to mislead. To mention that the Christian priest “now sat in the basilica where the Roman emperor had previously sat” and other tangential similarities to the pagan basilica but fail to mention the deliberate continuities with Judaic temple tradition is to distort history.

The changes fourth-century Christians wrought in Roman basilica architecture marked the beginning of a new era. The Christians re-ordered the basilica architecture to express a Judaic vision of time as linear and processive. That is to say, time was now to be viewed as a process in which change could take place. The changes which took place could be good, bad, or indifferent. Moreover, time would eventually come to an end, a concept unknown to the Romans. (This processive view of time should not be confused with the progressive view of time which dominated nineteenth- century thought and according to which it was the nature of human society to inevitably improve with the passage of time.)

Discarded was the pagan Roman cyclical sense of time as going nowhere except around and around as reflected in their architecture. For in the pagan Roman basilica, one would have approached through the main entrance on the broader side of the immense rectangular building, stared at least momentarily at the Emperor’s column to be viewed through the doorway opposite the entrance, and then, while conducting one’s business, perhaps perambulated the great pillar-surrounded room, passing by first the apse at one end and then the other apse at the opposite end until one arrived back where one had set out but with no more sense of procession than if one had ridden a merry-go-round.

In the new Christian basilica, however, as soon as one entered from the open-air atrium at the near end of the rectangular building and passed through a shallow narthex, one would have visually experienced the apse at the far opposite end as a climactic conclusion to the long narrow vista of receding pillars, a vista which invited the foot of the viewer to step in a definite direction and which pulled his eye toward a single focal point. By creating an expectancy this climactic arrangement powerfully expressed the unique biblical concept of time as linear, processive, and moving toward a conclusion. The Christian basilica announced, “Yes, there was a beginning which you have left behind, there is a now in which you presently exist, and afterwards when time itself ends there will be something quite different.”

The priest, or anyone else, who stood towards the sanctuary end of the basilica and looked east, must have experienced a similar expectancy in reverse with the open eastern doors becoming the climactic focal point. Thus the interior of the fourth-century basilica conceivably could be read from west to east as well as from east to west depending upon the liturgical context. It is likely, however, that in the liturgical act of looking east the priest and people were merely anticipating the east to west progress of Christ the King and Bridegroom towards the sanctuary area.

The new Christian basilica architecture of fourth-century Rome shows the Christian Church, very much in the Judaic mold, rejecting the eschatonless and cyclical view of time of pagan Rome. With a modicum of judicious changes the Christian basilica builders subtly de-paganized the basilica and succeeded in Judaizing it. What remained was an architectural interior superficially Roman but essentially Judaic.

This enculturation of the Judaic concept of linear time into the architectural language of imperial Rome signals one of the great turning points of Western history, namely, the Judaizing of Western culture and the triumph of the Judaic worldview over the Roman Empire, which had destroyed the Jerusalem Temple but which could not destroy the manner of thinking which lay behind the Temple. This Judaic thinking, which survived the Temple and which, through Christianity, has put its imprint on Western civilization, contrasts sharply with the cyclical pantheisms of the fourth-century pagan world. This thinking also contrasts sharply with the more recent pseudo-scientific pantheisms of Emanuel Swedenborg, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Carl Jung, and Teilhard de Chardin. Such latter day pantheisms are freighted with the myth of progress which locates within the natural world the summit of human expectations. Such pantheisms are incompatible with the biblical concept of the eschaton at the end of time, a concept which plays so prominent a part in the liturgy and the architecture of the Church.

One thing above all stands out in the directional symbolism of the new architecture first introduced in Rome by the Christian basilica builders and subsequently adopted throughout Europe: its biblical roots. This architecture by its very structure creates a sense of expectancy which is biblical. Thus today, even when the actual direction of a classically-designed church is other than east, one still may speak of the direction of the sanctuary within the church as “liturgical east” and one still feels the sense of expectancy which is incorporated into the architecture.

In classic church architecture, whether it be Romanesque, Gothic, or Baroque, the four directions of the interior are of unequal value. One direction, the direction of the apse, reinforced by its symmetrical location on the axis of the building, stands out and draws the eye from a distance provided by the elongated nave. In classic church architecture, orientation continues to express the eschaton.

In this regard, the directional symbolism of classical Christian architecture is distinct from the practice contrived by certain modern liturgists who have promoted a semi-circular seating arrangement in which the various members of the congregation face various points of the compass during the Eucharistic liturgy. This practice of orienting the church interior by means of an axial reredos and altar while at the same time disorienting the members of the congregation by facing them in various directions puts the seating arrangement at cross purposes with the altar-and-reredos arrangement. Such a seating arrangement suggests that no point of the compass has any more symbolic value than any other.

By disorienting the congregation and thereby devaluing the scripture-based symbolism of the Oriens, such semi-circular seating arrangements radically de-biblicize Christian worship. Such de-biblicized forms of worship fail to express adequately the eschatological dimension of the liturgy. And in failing to express this eschatological dimension, these forms emasculate the teachings of Vatican Council II which, especially as expressed in the Novus Ordo Mass, clearly intended to re-emphasize the eschatological dimension of the liturgy and to restore this dimension to the prominence it had in the earlier Church.9

Helen Dietz, PhD, who lives in the Chicago area, is currently completing a book on fifteenth-century Flemish liturgical painting.

1. Franz Landsberger, A History of Jewish Art, 1946. Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Re-issued by Kennikat Press, 1973. Port Washington, New York, 141. See also Zeev Weiss, “The Sepphoris Synagogue Mosaic,” Biblical Archaeology Review. September/October 2000, Vol. 26, No. 5, 51; 70, f. 5.

2. The Reform of the Roman Liturgy: Its Problems and Background by Klaus Gamber. 1989. Translated from the original German by Klaus D. Grimm. Co-published by Una Voce Press, San Juan Capistrano and The Foundation for Catholic Reform,. Harrison , New York. English translation © 1993, 79 ff.

3 .Landsberger, 169.

4 .Landsberger, 142.

5. Cf. Vagaggini, Theological Dimensions of the Liturgy, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 1976, 170; 171, n.8.

6.“The striking thing is that the ground plan [of the ancient Sumerian Te m p l e ] … antici - pates the layout of the Early Christian sanctuary: narthex, nave, transept and a central apse flanked by two rooms, a diaconicon and a prothesis.” André Parrot, Sumer: The Dawn of Art. Translated by Stuart Gilbert and James Emmons. Golden Press, Inc. New York. 1961, 61.

7. Joan R. Branham, “Sacred Space Under Erasure in Ancient Synagogues and Early Churches,” The Art Bulletin, LXXIV, 3, 1992, 376-383.

8. “We have such a high priest, who has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of Majesty in the heavens, a minister of the Holies, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord has erected and not man. For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; therefore it is necessary that this one also should have something to offer. If then he were on earth, he would not even be a priest, since there are already others to offer gifts according to the Law. The worship they offer is a mere copy and shadow of things heavenly, even as Moses was warned when he was completing the tabernacle: ‘See,’ God said, ‘that thou make all things according to the pattern that was shown thee on the mount.’ ” Hebrews 8.1-5.

9. “As often as they eat the Supper of the Lord they proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes;” “At the Last Supper … our Savior instituted the eucharistic sacrifice … in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross throughout the ages until he should come again.” Vatican Council II, Constitution on the Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium,) ed. Flannery, 1975, 6, 47. 

Helen Dietz, PhD, who lives in the Chicago area, is currently completing a book on fifteenth-century Flemish liturgical painting.