The Orientation of Churches and Temples
by Bridget Fleming
Ldm Rome Sketchbook, Fall 2014
In Ancient Rome, according to many scholarly sources, temples were built and perfectly aligned with sunrise on solstices and equinoxes. This intentionality in the building process was central to the Roman idea of creating sacred space and harnessing the divine power of the gods. The building process would begin by erecting a mast on level ground and mapping the shadow it cast as the sun moved across the sky. The measurements were based on when the sun was at its zenith (casting a shadow pointing exactly north) and on the northernmost and southernmost points of it's rising and setting. The subsequent rectangle created from these measurements would give rise to the four walls of a temple, with columns intentionally built to allow the sunlight to enter on specific days.
Before Emperor Constantine legalized the Christian religion in 313 A.D., any religious aspect of Rome’s cityscape consisted of these pagan temple structures. Constantine’s building plans continued in the tradition of building with intentionality, the only exception being the change from a temple plan to that of a basilica. The layout of the basilica held significance because in Ancient times it was the place of law and judgment. The apse of the basilica was where the magistrate would sit with an insignia of imperial power behind him. In Constantine’s own basilica (located in the Roman Forum) it is noteworthy to point out that in the apse was a monumental sculpture of himself twelve meters in height. Additionally, Constantine had the entrance to the basilica changed from the short side to the long end to better symbolize the path of the faithful towards the Christian god. The basilica overall became a new kind of stage with an emphasis on processions and the Eucharistic liturgy.
Despite the building structures and symbolic references changing form and name, the transition from temple to basilica was overall smooth and effective. It did not leave the Roman people at a loss for meaning and sacredness in their place of worship.