Jesus once said, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). Though this saying has become one of His most well known, do we really consume every word God prepares on His table before us?
Our heavenly Father speaks to us through literary language, such as in the Scriptures, yet He also communicates with us through nonverbal language. He speaks through performance arts, visual arts, and—believe it or not—even architecture. Through the fine art of architecture, we may hear new “words” coming from the “mouth” of God.
In the early Christian time period Christian places of worship in Europe embodied the architecture of Rome. Third-century Christians had found their small homes unsuitable to host the rapidly growing congregations, so they began building churches based on the basilica architectural space composition common in Rome. The layout of the resulting building type, called Christian basilica, had not changed from the space arrangement of the Roman Basilica Ulpia, built a century earlier as a law court. The activities taking place there, however, had shifted from those of practicing law to those of worship.
Although the structure of these new religious buildings remained the same as in the rest of Rome, the original Roman meaning and purpose had been replaced. This fact can be observed by looking at the audience hall church in Trier, Germany, built in A.D. 308.
In order to differentiate themselves from the surrounding Roman culture, German Christians disposed of building components with explicit pagan meaning. As a result, the exterior of the audience hall is free from all pagan ornaments, such as capitals and entablature with heroic war scenes.
In the pagan tradition, the ordinary class of citizens could approach a temple, but only the priests could enter it. To make sure the border between the sacred and the secular was well marked, the Romans built a transitory space called a portico. A portico is a covered walkway supported by regularly spaced columns and attached to a building as an entrance. It was a space for religious security forces to prevent intruders from entering the temple and disturbing the residing deity without an invitation. Since the plan of salvation is for all classes—the ordinary as well as the priestly—the need for porticos was eliminated in early Christian churches. It was a message that all were invited and welcomed in the presence of God.
With the eradication of overtly pagan architectural elements came the departure from classical ornaments of thick layering, which were connected with the celebration of Roman deities and heroes. Instead, German Christians dressed the smooth interior walls with mosaics, frescos, and paintings of Christian imagery. Though meant to be aesthetically pleasing, the Bible stories depicted in these images brought the message of the gospel to people who could not read Latin. Through this nonverbal language of visual arts, a new host of people could meditate on the “words” of God.
The Trier Basilica was constructed using locally produced bricks instead of concrete, the signature material for Roman edifices. The builders of the Trier Basilica chose to cover the indoor brick with plaster. This encrustation of the interior walls served as the underlay for frescos and painting of biblical scenes. Though the shift from concrete to brick seems insignificant, having biblical images in an architectural space directed the worshippers to focus on spiritual matters. It gave the Christian church a unique feel and distinguished it from other gathering places, such as a gym or a dance hall.
While pagan elements embedded in the basilica design were removed, German Christians kept architectural parts with multiple possible meanings. Instead of eliminating the structure—just as they had removed the portico—they eliminated the original pagan interpretation and replaced it with one that facilitated the understanding of God’s love for humanity. One such example is the arch at the front of the church.It would be easy to compare a Roman’s ride through a triumphal arch to the modern-day reception of an Olympic medal winner. The triumphal arch was a symbol of victory built to commemorate victors. It often bore inscriptions from and dedications to victorious generals, significant public servants, and historically meaningful events.
The triumphal arch in the church in Trier represents a victory, but not just any hero’s victory, as it does in Rome. The Trier audience hall arch represents the greatest victory of all time: Christ’s triumph over death by resurrection! The ever-present arch at the front of the church is a constant reminder of this key concept of the Christian faith.
The altar played a special role in the early Christian church. In the service of Communion the Christian liturgical procession, consisting of a priest and a delegation of believers, approached the altar located at the front of the church. This ritual was sacred, but it was not the only reason for the altar’s significance. The altar’s placement was arguably just as important as the Communion itself.
In the audience hall the altar is positioned under the arch, which links two important parts of the church: the apse, a vertical half-cylindrical form topped with a half-dome vault, and the nave, the central part of the church building where the congregation gathered. This means that the altar is halfway in the nave and halfway in the apse. Why did the architects choose this unusual arrangement?
With its clerestory windows, the apse was the best-lit space in the entire church, and therefore considered the most significant space in the basilica—a space expressing the constant presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. The carefully chosen word “constant” is demonstrated in the most constant light coming from north.
When I think of the apse as a composition of a half-cylinder and a half-hemisphere, a few more questions arise in my mind.
Where is the other half? What does it represent? Does the other half have some spiritual meaning as well? The answer is simple: The first half of the church structure, the apse, represents divinity in this world. The second half represents the congregation in the nave. Symbolically, the gathering of believers is the second part of the body of Christ in this world, thus in the church and in this world, humanity is completed by divinity.
Following the sacrifice and resurrection of our Savior, the halfway open apse facing the believers reflects the divine invitation to humanity, an invitation to a communion on holy ground represented by the altar positioned halfway in each of the spaces.
Centuries before architects laid out the plans for the first basilica, God, the Great Architect, gave Moses specific instructions for His sanctuary. He wanted a golden table with golden pitchers and bowls (Ex. 25:23-30), a hollow altar with four bronze rings (Ex. 27:1-8), and finely woven curtains of purple and blue (Ex. 26:1). God didn’t want these items because they were lavish or decorative—He wanted them because each had a special meaning. The table, filled with showbread, was a reminder of the living Word, the Bread of Life; the altar represented the final destruction of sin; and the curtains symbolized God’s royalty (purple) and His divinity (blue).
God mapped out every minute detail of the sanctuary, down to the measurements and placement of the utensils, because He knew that the layout involved more than architectural decisions—that it pointed to important elements involving the plan of salvation. God constructed the sanctuary not only because He wanted to dwell among His people in spirit (Ex. 25:8), but also because He also wanted to dwell in their hearts and minds.
The layout of the Christian basilica, the choice of the interior imagery, the triumphal arch of Christ, and the placement of the altar are all meaningful “words” coming out of the mouth of our heavenly Father. These words were “spoken” every time a member of the early Christian church entered the basilica. Again and again the architecture “recited” God’s love to members and visitors, inviting them to allow God to dwell in their hearts and minds. By learning the language of architecture, we too can unlock the messages hidden away in our places of worship—whether constructed in the third century or the twenty-first.