The Rotunda Churches (Dennis Aubrey)


Most Romanesque churches have a basilican style layout that we have previously explored. Based on the ancient Roman public building, often a law court, the basilica had a simple layout.

Plan view of Roman basilica with side aisles and raised apse

Plan view of Roman basilica with side aisles and raised apse

The Christian church was authorized to worship openly by the Emperor Constantine in 313AD in the Edict of Milan. At this time, the Church chose to use the basilica as the model for its house of worship. As the church evolved through the next millennium, it came to take the form of what we came to understand as the Romanesque church – a basilica with a nave, side aisles, transepts, an apse, often surrounded by an ambulatory with radiating chapels.

But there were other sources of inspiration for the Christian churches. Perhaps the most important was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The original was built by Constantine on the site of Golgotha and encompassed the tomb of Christ. It consisted of a polygonal rotunda with an attached basilica. Constantine’s church was destroyed in 1009 by the Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah. The church was rebuilt after a huge financing effort by the Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos and Patriarch Nicephorus of Constantinople in 1048. Because of the expense, Constantine IX Monomachos did not reconstruct the entire church, but only the rotunda, a polygonal structure radiating around a central altar. This new church was one of the most important pilgrimage sites of medieval Christianity and was very influential in church architecture.

Elevation, Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Image in the public domain - Georg Dehio/Gustav von Bezold: Kirchliche Baukunst des Abendlandes. Stuttgart: Verlag der Cotta'schen Buchhandlung 1887-1901)

Elevation, Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Image in the public domain – Georg Dehio/Gustav von Bezold: Kirchliche Baukunst des Abendlandes. Stuttgart: Verlag der Cotta’schen Buchhandlung 1887-1901)

The returning Crusaders built several versions of this rotunda churches. In France, perhaps the most famous version of the round or polygonal sanctuary was the tri-level apse of the Cathédrale Saint Benigne in Dijon. Today only the crypt remains of the original structure after the destructions of the French Revolution.

St-Bénigen Dijon, Krypta der Rotunde, Handskizze, Image by Jochen Jahnke ( licensed under the Creative Commons)

St-Bénigen Dijon, Krypta der Rotunde, Handskizze, Image by Jochen Jahnke ( licensed under the Creative Commons)

There are remaining four sites in France that use this circular or polygonal structure – Rieux-Minervois, Quimperlé, Neuvy-Saint-Sepulchre, and Ottmarsheim.

The Église Sainte Marie in Rieux Minervois is marvelous for many reasons, but the fact that the rotunda church may have been designed by the great Master of Cabestany is the most important. His sculptural works adorn the church – we have actually done a post on a single one of his capitals at this church.

Église Sainte Marie, Rieux Minervois (Aude)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Église Sainte Marie, Rieux Minervois (Aude) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We have also done an earlier post on the Église Sainte-Croix in Quimperlé. This exterior shot shows the main entrance, directly into the center sanctuary.

Église Sainte Croix, Quimperlé (Finistère)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Église Sainte Croix, Quimperlé (Finistère) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The actual church is built on the form of a Greek cross with the rotunda in the center. The rotunda measures 26 meters and is the largest in France.

Église Sainte Croix, Quimperlé (Finistère) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Église Sainte Croix, Quimperlé (Finistère) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In almost the center of France is the small Église Saint Etienne in Neuvy-Saint-Sépulchre a bit south of Chateauroux. Saint Etienne was one of the earliest churches classified for the Patrimony in France and was restored by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in 1840. The rotunda was built in the 12th century and the attached nave somewhere around the 13th century. In this shot we can see the gallery supporting the central dome.

Église Saint Etienne, Neuvy-Saint-Sépulchre (Indre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Église Saint Etienne, Neuvy-Saint-Sépulchre (Indre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Our favorite church in Alsace is the Abbaye Sainte Marie, Saint Pierre et Saint Paul at Ottmarsheim. This church is modeled after Charlemagne’s Palatine Chapel in Aachen, which was derived from the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna.

Abbaye de Bénédictines Sainte-Marie, Saint-Pierre, Saint-Paul à Ottmarsheim (Haut-Rhin)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Abbaye de Bénédictines Sainte-Marie, Saint-Pierre, Saint-Paul à Ottmarsheim (Haut-Rhin) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The two-level construction is beautifully arranged with a gallery supporting the octagonal dome.

Abbaye de Bénédictines Sainte-Marie, Saint-Pierre, Saint-Paul à Ottmarsheim (Haut-Rhin)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Abbaye de Bénédictines Sainte-Marie, Saint-Pierre, Saint-Paul à Ottmarsheim (Haut-Rhin) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The rotunda is one of the great architectural forms and is known throughout the world in the Pantheon in Rome, the Temple Church and Albert Hall in London, and the United States Capitol. But in Christian architecture, the rotunda and the basilica developed together in Rome. The architecture of Eastern Christianity, however, developed the form to its highest achievement with Justinian’s Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.

10 responses to “The Rotunda Churches (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Pingback: » The Rotunda <b>Churches</b> (Dennis Aubrey) | Via Lucis Photography

  2. Wow! I learned a lot from this – I had no idea that the word basilica came from Roman times. Looking at your last photo, I would have sworn it was a PJ pic! Lo and behold, Dennis looked up and saw heaven.

  3. What wonderful photos! Thank you. I came across the church at Rieux Minervois when I started investigating heptagonal sacred structures. (I have found three.) Can you tell me where I can find a floor plan or better yet, a monograph of this building? I am interested to know if was a Templar church, and if a temple of Minerva preceded it. Any information or other photos would be greatly appreciated! Thank you again, Sarah Reichart

    • Sarah, I only know of the one heptagonal medieval church, although there are plenty of octagonal and rotunda ones. What others have you found other than Rieux?

      As far as the church in Rieux is concerned, it was not a Templar church and there is no record of a temple to Minerva, although there have been some claims based on non-historical sources. The derivation of “Minervois” comes from the Latin name for the area, Pago Minerbensis, which translated into occitan as “Menerbés”. There is, of course, the famous town of Menerbés in the Provence, dear to lovers of Peter Malle books and Marcel Pagnol films.

      As far as photos are concerned, if you have specific requests, please feel free to contact me by email and make a request. We would be glad to help if we can.

      • Oh, I see how this works. (I left a note on the Via Lucis site.)

        My three heptagonal structures are: Rieux Minervois, a Counterreformation Basilica at Scherpenheuvel,Belgium, and a Reformation mausoleum at Stadthagen, Lower Saxony. The last two date from the early 1600s. The sevens of the first come from its the Book of Revelation and also the seven Pillars of Wisdom . The Mausoleum design relates to the number seven as valued by the Rosecrucians and Freemasons.

        I asked about the Templars because a grand mason friend told me that the Templars built churches of seven sides when they came back from the Crusades, but that none have survived. He is no longer available. I don’t know how to check this out. My guess at Minerva, to whom the number seven is sacred, was from my reading “Pago Minerbensis” as “Minerva’s town”, “v” and “b” being equivalent, and the nearby town of Minerve itself seems to have been the place of the first Cathar burnings of the Albigensian Crusade.

        There is a YouTube presentation of Stadthagen (featuring an organist) which shows the Mausoleum vault at about 7 minutes in. Gorgeous! Blue sky with 14 musical angels (2 per panel). It’s worth a whole study by itself. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hW-kyUj6Y40

        I still want to know about the arrangement of pillars at Rieux. There seem to be two kinds — seven of each? Dividing the space into 14?

        Thank you for answering so promptly. Sarah

      • Sarah, the pillars are single piers with pilasters for the springing of the arches, so there are only seven. There are seven arches in the space. Here is a link to an article that we did on the church at Rieux-Minervois that shows the space clearly.

        Thanks for the information on the other heptagonal churches – our specialty is Romanesque and Gothic, so I wasn’t aware of the two churches in Scherpenheuvel and Stadthagen. As far as the Templars building other heptagonal churches, I have no information on that. I know that they often built rotunda churches based on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

        Finally, the Pago Minerbensis may indeed refer to “Minerva” but (I must be careful here because this is not my specialty) I believe Pago refers to a district or a province, not a town. So my reading was that the province or area in which present-day Rieux is located was, in Roman times, may have been dedicated to Minerva. But there is no evidence that I have seen (and actually have read that such suggestions have been refuted) that there was a temple to Minerva at the same location as the church.

        I was not aware that Minerve was the first place where Cathars were burned, but this must refer to formal execution by burning, as opposed to the thousands who died in the fires of Beziers (although few of those were Cathars).

        Finally, thanks so much for the link. Beautiful.

      • Thank you for more beautiful photos. And a fascinating story. And the explanation of the Rieux Minervois pillars. But I still can’t resolve what seem to be 2 free-standing pillars in photo 1 of your “Assumption Capital”…Do you have another photo that clarifies what you mean?

        I believe you are correct about Minerve being an area — I see from google maps that there are a handful of towns around called “——” Minervois. Here is a site where you can see from the title how the “b”/”v” change occurs. further on there is an explanation of the relationship of Minerve to the fires at Beziers.

        It also mentions the Temple of Minerva story. Can you tell me where this is rebutted?

        http://www.catharcastles.info/minerve.php?key=minerve

        I was relieved to know that there are only four surviving early Rotunda churches deriving from Jerusalem. My later two examples show the Influence of Renaissance Italian architecture. It’s a pleasure dealing with someone so responsive and knowledgeable. I shall refer Via Lucis to my brother, who teaches architecture at the University of Md., and some others I know in Philadelphia. Thank you. Sarah

      • Sarah, the Assumption capital is not part of the central part of the hexagonal church, but on the exterior wall near one of the radiating chapels (I remember three of them, but don’t have access to the photos at this time to be sure). I do believe that there are fourteen arches on these exterior walls – which you might have been referring to in your original question, which I misunderstood. The hexagonal part of the church is, of course, the choir, and you can see the structure clearly in the shot of the ceiling.

        As far as temples to Minerva, they were all over France, and as I am sure you know, the Christian church often appropriated sacred sites from local religions, just as they appropriated some of the ceremonies. The church of Saint Andoche in Saulieu is well-documented as having been constructed on the site of a temple to Minerva, but I don’t think that of Rieux-Minervois was. There has been much discussion of this going back to the 19th century. It is actually suspected now that the Master of Cabestany himself designed the heptagonal church at Rieux.

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