Why do temples have domes

Look into infinity

The renowned American-Australian photographer David Stephenson captured the view into the dome in his photographs. Photographed frontally from below, always at the same angle.

The viewer sees rays tapering towards a center, as in the Capella di Pazzi in Santa Croce in Florence. Concentric circles flooded with light, as in Padua Cathedral. Or colorful visions of the sky like in the baroque Wieskirche in Bavaria. Kaleidoscopes made of patterns, shapes and colors, masterful constructions whose symmetry and perfection are fascinating.

The building, which has been a model and inspiration for later domed structures for a long time and again and again, was built in antiquity. It has been perfectly preserved to this day.

"This proves to us that the dome structure, above all that of the Romans, worked extremely well in terms of statics and construction."

The Pantheon in Rome. Norbert Nussbaum, professor of art history at the University of Cologne, like Meinrad von Engelberg, art historian in Koblenz, admires the architectural masterpiece of the builders from the early second century AD.

"A Roman temple, the only Roman temple that has come through history completely undamaged because it was converted into a church at an early stage. This room actually consists of just one large dome. It has the shape of a sphere: in the upper part it is designed as a dome, in the lower part you have to think that it is in a cylinder. This room is just as high as it is wide, namely 43 meters. And it has an opening in the top of the dome, through this opening you can See the sky, it's raining in. So that's the dome as heaven par excellence. "

Norbert Nussbaum: "It has a previous building from Augustan times, about 100 years earlier, that was a temple that was constructed in a circular building without a roof, under the open sky. Probably they wanted to pick up on this previous building, but now bring it under a roof. And that is actually the structural reason for the beginning of the dome construction in Roman sacred architecture. "

However, the basics of dome construction are much older. The English word for dome "dome" contains the Latin word "domus" - "house", which indicates the archetypal character of the dome. The yurts of the Tatar peoples, the igloos of the Eskimos, early Cretan-Mycenaean and Etruscan domed tombs show how fundamental and widespread this type of building is. For good reasons, says Norbert Nussbaum.

"There is no better way to exploit space than on a circular floor plan with a hemispherical overmolding of this floor plan. So it is an economical design. Second, from a structural point of view, the dome, if it is stably constructed, can take very, very large loads. The brick dome is a perfect masterpiece of the understanding of forces that take place in nature, which one transfers from the experience of the natural environment to the building. The brick dome is actually a stone work that is based on random constructions of nature and natural caves and spanning constructions If you think of cave entrances or large stalactite caves, for example, then you have domed structures in the middle of the mountains. Ultimately, they are the model for both the brick dome and the solidly cast dome. "

The Romans already knew a type of natural cement made from light, volcanic tuff and pumice stone. The natural cement perfected the construction technology, for example the dome of the Pantheon could be poured. It is not exactly proven that the building was built as a temple for all of Rome's gods. The name "Pantheon" is not from the construction period, but only passed down later.

"It may well be that the imperial family also sought a place of worship here and had it built for themselves."

But with the religious connotation, the rotunda became famous. For Norbert Nussbaum it is hardly surprising that the design of the dome is given these meanings.

"A dome construction lends itself to a meaningful interpretation because it imitates one of the basic constructions of nature. Each soap bubble is cut halfway through a hemisphere, the bulge of the womb is hemispherical, people have their first spatial experiences in domed rooms. And theirs Experience with the sky has been designed in such a way since archaic antiquity that the celestial spheres encircle and encompass the earth in a dome-like external formation. "

The dome was not originally part of the core of Christian architecture. In order to be able to accommodate many believers, the building of the church was more based on the basilica, the basic form of the Roman market hall. But there was always an important sacral dome building next to it: the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Meinrad von Engelberg:

"And that means here, so to speak, the center of the Christian world, regardless of the religious denomination, whether Orthodox or Catholic, this place was domed. And so one can assume that these two models, the Roman pantheon as an ancient temple and the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem were the two models from which all other later Christian associations with domed structures derive. "

The two traditions come together in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, former Byzantium and today's Istanbul. Due to the city's geographical location on the Bosporus, there were a multitude of influences from Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt, which were also reflected in Byzantine art. Its heyday began in the 6th century.

The huge basilica Hagia Sophia was built between 532 and 537 AD as a Byzantine central church - for the Eastern Roman emperor, whose palace chapel it was and who was also crowned there.

"It was created with a very specific intention: namely with the intention to create the Christian building par excellence. When Emperor Justinian walked into it on the day of its opening, he is said to have said: Solomon, I have surpassed you! That is the allusion to the temple of the Old Testament, that is, the idea: We have now surpassed it, and how? By building a dome that is even higher than that of the Roman pantheon, which is so complex that you cannot really see it how the construction works, so that the first describer of this church, Prokop, a contemporary author, said that one has the impression that the dome of this church is suspended from the sky on a gold chain. "

So-called pendentives - ball-supporting triangular structures that stand on four huge pillars and bear the weight - made it possible to place the dome on a square base.

Hagia Sophia pioneered the development of Byzantine architecture over the next 1000 years. In the Eastern Church, what a church is must have a dome. There is hardly an Orthodox church in Greece, Russia or Serbia that does not have a dome.

The Hagia Sophia is also the model for the use of the dome in a central branch of Islamic architecture. The conquest of Constantinople in 1453 by the Turkic peoples made it the first main mosque of the empire and thus the archetype of all subsequently built Turkish mosques.

"This is also where the architects of Islamic culture train themselves and that is why there is still a very large successor to the so-called supporting dome principle."

Today the dome and minaret have become architectural insignia of the mosque in the Western understanding.

"If you come to Duisburg-Marxloh today and look at the mosque there, you will see a successor to the Hagia Sophia in principle. The domed mosques, which were built there by the builder Sinan in the 16th century, are the same as the Turkish mosque become absolute. "

In the 19th century, Jews in the formerly Napoleonic areas were allowed to build synagogues that were also recognizable as sacred buildings. And they too used domes for their buildings.

"Because that is the shape par excellence, now you just have to find domes that don't look like the Christian ones in order to avoid the risk of confusion. And so the idea arises that so-called oriental shapes, that is: somehow Arabic in the broadest sense, maybe also a a bit Spanish-Arabic, reminiscent of that time, of the Middle Ages, when Judaism also had a flourishing time, so that so-called oriental forms were Jewish designs. "

A prominent example is the golden dome of the former synagogue in Berlin's Oranienburgerstrasse.

The dome is the universal architectural symbol for the sky, writes the Australian art historian Victoria Hammond. This is particularly evident in the design of domes, says Norbert Nussbaum

"There are, for example, star-studded domes, which now clearly point to the sky. There are dome paintings from the Middle Ages that depict God as the ruler of the world and make it clear that this sky appears again from the god ruling, and is also presented cosmologically, spherically curved . "

A vault - that has long been the defining concept of heaven. That changes in the baroque era. Meinrad von Engelberg:

"This is also the time when people like Galileo and Newton change our view of the world. And then it is no longer the sky with the stars that is depicted, but the sky in the other, the metaphysical meaning. It is the heaven of the saints, in which God is enthroned, resides, from which he will return. A very nice example of this is the Wieskirche in Bavaria. "

The amalgamation of geometry and sacredness - the combination of circle and square was already extensively reflected in the Renaissance. Art historian Norbert Nussbaum:

"The theorists of architectural history think very specifically about finding the ideal shape. The circle integrated into the square - or the circle integrated into the square - is the ideal combination of shapes for a religious building of the Renaissance, because here two ideal bodies, one without a beginning and without end that can symbolize divine creation or God himself. "

In the Gothic period, the dome is considered an outdated design. It was not until the Renaissance, the rebirth of antiquity, that it received new attention in western architecture. Meinrad von Engelberg.

"And you rediscover the Pantheon, even though it was always there, but suddenly you find it interesting again and say: Yes, you should actually build something like that again."

Prominent examples of this rediscovery are the dome of Florence by Brunneleschi, completed at the end of the 15th century. And, the most important dome of the Renaissance, the Dome of St. Peter in Rome. It was built by Michelangelo.

"With another very interesting background: At this time, people are trying to redefine the architecture of the papacy. The papacy had had bad times before, it had been in exile in Avignon. It was under political pressure. And now the popes wanted to show that they can participate politically again. And for this it was, so to speak, to surpass the buildings of Roman antiquity that were known. "

And the dome of St. Peter's Basilica surpassed that of the Pantheon - not in diameter, but in height. The competition continued. Whoever wanted to demonstrate greatness and power referred to St. Peter. Also George Bähr, the architect of the Dresden Frauenkirche. Meinrad von Engelberg.

"There are contemporary sources that call it 'A St. Peter of the true evangelical religion'. So just as the Pope in Rome identifies himself with the dome of his St. Peter's Church, the Protestant Christians of Dresden with their dome show that they can counter things of equal value That they are at least as evangelical, as closely connected to the gospel as the Pope in Rome. That means, you notice that the dome sign has a certain availability, you can also say: an arbitrariness. "

As an architectural element, the dome is not a must for sacred architecture:

"You can worship wonderfully in churches without domes, and you will not have missed anything. And the same goes for the synagogues, the same goes for the mosques."

Nevertheless, Von Engelberg is certain - the centuries-old and still ongoing link between sacred architecture and this special, artistic architectural design is no coincidence.

"One point is definitely the external demonstration of power. The other is also the effect that every visitor knows when they enter a domed room: namely the desire to look up and the desire to go into the middle. That is : Domes have a magnetic function. And that's how it is intended. "