The Double-Apsed Church (Dennis Aubrey)

This post is inspired by a question from one of our readers on Jong-Soung Kimm’s post on Saint Michael’s Church in Hildeshim. Dom Gregory Pilcher, OSB said, “Beautiful in all respects! Can you explain the purpose of having two chancels? What were they used for? I can see the purpose of the east chancel, but why have one on the west?” He closes out with “Inquiring Benedictine minds want to know.”

I had no idea of the answer and decided to do some research. I hope that experts with more knowledge than I will weigh in with some more answers, but I have found a couple of references in my library.

The early Byzantine churches featured the apse in the east, but there was evidence of other Christian traditions elsewhere. In Arthur Kingsley Porter’s “Medieval Architecture: its origins and development”, he refers to the African and Roman origins of the twin apses.

“The type of plan with two apses – one at the east and the other at the west end, – is characteristic of the churches of Africa and is found in at least one instance in Egypt, and once at Rome.”

During the time of Constantine, the domed apse became a standard part of the church plan and was placed at the west end of the basilica. Records show that the original Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome was configured like this. In the 6th and 7th centuries the Roman branch of the church changed the orientation of the apse to the east, as the Byzantine churches had done earlier.

Exterior, Abbey Church of Maria-Laach, Andernach (Rhineland-Palatinate) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm
Exterior, Abbey Church of Maria-Laach, Andernach (Rhineland-Palatinate) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

There seemed to be a renaissance of these twin-apsed churches in the Carolingian empire. I have found documentation that they existed in Treves, Mayence, Verdun, Nevers, Besançon, Fulda, Naumburg, and the Abbey of Laach.

The famous plan of the church at Saint Gall represented a church with twin apses.

Plan of the Abbey of Saint Gall, Wikipedia Commons
Plan of the Abbey of Saint Gall, Wikipedia Commons

Saint Augustine’s church in Canterbury had a double apse and there is evidence that even Saint Denis might have originally had a “counter-apse” in the west.

In the “History of English Church Architecture” George Gilbert Scott attributes the double-apse phenomenon to the growing monastic orders. Beginning with the premise that most of the early churches had a western apse, he says that as the monks became more numerous, they “… required an altar of their own, and also more lofty screens for their enclosure than was consistent with the basilican plan. The difficulty was met, as I conceive, by leaving the original altar at the west end to serve still as the people’s altar, and by adding at the east end a new apse to accommodate the altar of the religious.”

Saint Augustine's Abbey, Photo by Casey and Sonja, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic
Saint Augustine’s Abbey, Photo by Casey and Sonja, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

This does not seem convincing to me, and a better examination can be found in Charles B. McClendon’s masterly “The Origins of Medieval Architecture”.

“The abbey church at Fulda, of course, differs from its model in the use of two opposing apses, but this too seems to have been motivated by a desire to emulate Rome. Indeed, the placement of an altar, and concomitantly its apse, at the west end of the church was described by an eye-witness, the monk and scholar Candidus, as “following Roman custom” (more Romano). The first known example of a double-apse scheme in Carolingian architecture is Saint-Maurice d’Agaune, in present-day Switzerland, where a western apse was added around 787 to a traditionally oriented small basilica, built ten or so years earlier … At Saint-Maurice, the western apse housed an annular crypt which can only have been inspired by Old Saint Peter’s.”

But McClendon goes on to add a more convincing liturgical explanation for the double-apse scheme.

“In the 780’s, the Ordo Romanus, a description of the stational masses for the basilicas of Rome, began to be used as a model for the reform of the Frankish liturgy. As Carol Heitz has pointed out, one section of this Roman Mass book in particular has profound architectural implications when it states that the pope, after kissing the gospel-book and the altar, “approaches his throne (in the apse) and stands facing east.” These instructions conformed perfectly to the arrangement at the Roman basilicas of the Lateran and Saint Peter’s where the apse and papal throne were at the west end of the church, but they could not be followed literally in a church with an eastern apse, as was the norm elsewhere in Europe. Thus Heitz suggests that the western apses were built at Saint-Maurice, Cologne, and Fulda to comply with Roman practice.”

The “Heitz” referred to is Carol Heitz, author of Recherches sur les rapports entre architecture et liturgie à l’époque carolingienne, Paris, 1963, which appears to be the authority on the subject.

In the book, Heitz also observes that there was a preference for storing relics of the Holy Cross in the westworks of Carolingian churches, and this is often where the Good Fiday and Easter liturgies were recited. This is based on orientation of the Church of the Resurrection at Golgotha where the rock is in the west of the church.

Cross-section of The Church of the Holy Sepulchre showing Golgotha in the west
Cross-section of The Church of the Holy Sepulchre showing Golgotha in the west

The fact that these Carolingian western apses were added to existing churches, not placed in the churches when they were originally built, reinforces the idea that they were built in support of the liturgical reforms.

Gregory Pilcher is a Benedictine and his question has led to a fascinating examination on the effect of the liturgical reformations in Europe on the developing Carolingian and Romanesque architecture. I look forward to finding out more about this subject.

7 thoughts on “The Double-Apsed Church (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Dennis, I recall reading somewhere, years ago, about an “excess” of ordinands in Christian communities (not only monastic communities) and their presence in the eastern apse during the 6th through 8th centuries leading to changes in church architecture, but my recollection is that the change was not the addition of a second apse but the emergence of the transept as a solution to the problem of crowding in the apse. I had noticed the existence of the double apse in the plan for St. Gall and wondered why, but never pursued it. In any event, an interesting post, and thanks to my friend and fellow Subiaco alumnus, Father Gregory, for raising the question and stimulating your research.

    1. Jay, there is evidence that this “excess of ordinands” was responsible for the transepts and for the enlarged choirs. I have read in Sartell Prentice’s wonderful “The Heritage of the Cathedral” that this occurred even earlier – in Rome after the Edict of Milan. At this time, Christian clergy as well as pagan priests were exempted from the ruinous taxation of Rome. This led to a massive increase in numbers and hence, the transepts.

  2. Denis, well done on the western apsed churches. Considering the timeframe of the Carolingian double-apsed churches it is very likely that the close relations between the Carolingian dynasty and the Papacy gave the impulse to the (re)introducition of western apses in churches of the period. Carolingian architecture looked back to ancient Rome for its exemplars (e.g. the Palatine Chapel in Aachen) but the precise knowledge of architectural periods and styles was unknown. at this period. However I subsribe to the liturgical use as being the key to the western apse: Good Friday is traditionally an aliturgical day (that is the Eucharist or Mass is NEVER celebrated on this day). The focus of the Good Friday liturgy is not the altar but the Passion narrative from St John’s Gospel followed by the Veneration of the Cross. A ‘Mass of the Pre-Sanctified,’ consisting of Holy Communion with the bread consecrated on Holy Thursday, was added later.

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    1. Thank you, Rachel. It is a pleasure to have you as a member of the Via Lucis community. If you “follow” the blog or “like” us on Facebook, you’ll get a notification of each new post.

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