Editorial: Conversi ad Dominum

by Duncan G. Stroik, appearing in Volume 41

“For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man.” — Matthew 24:27

Just as in real estate, one of the most important principles for church design is location. Where to place a church on its site, which roads it should face, how it should relate to other buildings, and which direction it should face.

From tradition, we are told that churches should face east, and there is more than one reason for this. East was the direction that Christians would turn to pray, because Paradise was believed to be in the east, Jerusalem was in the east, and Christ would come from the east at his second coming. The idea that believers should face Christ, and the direction of both his Resurrection and his second coming, led Christians to locate churches pointing east, with the altar at that end.

This orienting (“easting”) of churches became the term “orientation” that we use for the directionality of all buildings. Ad orientem (“to the east”) has come to mean both priest and congregation facing the same direction at Mass. The symbolism of orienting our churches is best experienced in a morning Mass, when believers see the rising sun coming through windows in the apse.

Other Directions

Given the wisdom of this tradition, why is it that many of our churches, including the greatest in Christendom, have faced in one of the other cardinal directions? The earliest Christian churches in the Holy Land did not face east. They faced Jerusalem, the city of the Messiah and his crucifixion and Resurrection.

This continues to be the tradition in Judaism, where synagogues face the Temple in Jerusalem. Islam began by praying toward Jerusalem, from which Muslims believe Mohammad visited heaven, but later changed the direction to face the Kaaba in Mecca.

When Saint Helena and her son Constantine built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, they placed the apse and the anastasis, the chapel with the empty tomb, in the west. This happened to be the same orientation as the Temple of Solomon, destroyed in AD 70, which had its front door facing east. One can even interpret the Christian altar as the fulfilment of the ark of the covenant in the west part of the Temple.

Likewise, four of the most ancient and most important basilicas of Rome, Saint John Lateran (AD 324), Saint Peter’s (AD 330), Saint Sebastian’s (AD 330), and Saint Mary Major (AD 432), have their altars in the west. Built by Constantine and the popes, in modern parlance they are backwards.

Saint Peter’s Basilica is the most famous “backwards” church in Christendom. The front door rather than the apse faces the rising sun in the east. There are multiple benefits to this orientation. Saint Peter’s was built on the slope of Vatican Hill, over the tomb of the apostle, which gives it prominence in the cityscape. This height coupled with its orientation allows its front door and main façade to be seen from the city, a situation that has been greatly highlighted by Bernini’s oval piazza and Maderno’s façade.

The location of the church in the west makes it particularly welcoming to visitors and pilgrims, the majority of whom approach from the east, across the Tiber bridges such as the Ponte Sant’Angelo and the center of the city. Interestingly, another great church built over the tomb of a saint, San Francesco in Assisi, seems to have consciously imitated the orientation of Saint Peter’s, including its construction on a hill to the west of the city.

Likewise, many of the great churches of Florence do not face east. They are arranged almost in a circle around the Duomo, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in the center of the city. Santa Maria Novella, San Lorenzo, San Marco, and Santissima Annunziata all face piazzas and main streets with their façades generally facing the Duomo. The Franciscan church of Santa Croce does as well, but since it is east of the Duomo, it is an eastward facing building.

The more one studies the history of architecture in cities like Jerusalem, Rome, Florence, and Assisi, one is struck by the variety in orientation of churches. The eastern direction is only one way of orienting a church. In all examples of sacred architecture, what is constant is the orientation toward God which is made manifest in the design of the interior nave, the apse, the altar, and the artwork.

Oriented to God

In designing a new church, the traditional desire to orient the church toward the east should always be considered first. However, as we see from tradition in Rome and other places, it is not an absolute value to be held over all others. This goal should be balanced with other considerations.

What are these other considerations? The church should be placed on the site in the most prominent location, where it can be seen the best, like a light on a hill. Topography may recommend a preferred location and direction. Like other buildings, the location of the main entrance of a church is crucial to its identity. It should face and not turn away from a main thoroughfare or piazza.

If the church is being built next to other ecclesiastical structures (hall, rectory, school, convent, or seminary), its location and relationship to these other structures is crucial. A parish church will benefit from proximity between the main entrance and the school or hall. A seminary wants to have a central chapel for its identity and for welcoming visitors to the liturgy. A monastic church will want to have a cloister to the side of the church with direct access into the choir or sacristy for the monks and nuns.

Most importantly, all of these considerations should be accommodated while making the approach to the building the most welcoming for the visitor. In this way, the direction of the church building will draw people to the house of the Lord and show them the true orientation of our faith, which is toward God.