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Religion Library: Christianity

Sacred Space

Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka

the altar in a Christian church Source: the Christians continued the Jewish practice of reading and explaining scripture, they soon arranged a raised platform, a pulpit, so that people could better hear the speaker. On another platform stood the bishop's seat, and in front of that, a wooden dining table to hold the bread and wine for the Eucharist. This table came to be called an altar, from the Latin altare, a reminder of the Jewish altar on which sacrifices were offered. The altar became the symbol of Christ, the sacred space in the church that was the center of attention and action.

floor plan of a basilica, with the semicircular apse at the end Source: Public DomainSometimes two arms were added to the basic rectangle of the basilica, one on each side of the end where the apse was located. This allowed more people to be able to view the altar and gave the building the shape of the Latin cross, which has three short upper parts and a long lower part. Because of its Roman origins, this style of church architecture came to be known as Romanesque, and predominated in the West until the 12th century.

Pantheon in Rome Source: the Roman Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church built basilicas, but also developed a square-shaped church covered by a large dome, in the style of the Pantheon in Rome. Eventually four domed arms were added to allow more people inside and to provide better support for the roof. The four arms gave the building the shape of the Greek cross, in which all parts are the same length.

Flying buttresses on the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris Source: these early churches, window openings were small to keep the walls strong enough to support the roof. The interiors were often dark and candles were used for lighting. Sometime in the 12th century in the West, there developed a new style of architecture that employed innovative external stone supports, called flying buttresses, Inside Saint Denis Source: large windows of colored glass to be installed in the walls. The oldest known church in this Gothic style, the cathedral of Saint Denis near Paris, demonstrates an interior lit with daylight.


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