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