Ancient Architecture and the East
by Elisabeth Huffman
[student, Rome Sketchbook course, autumn 2011]
Early Christian churches were oriented east (ad orientem in Latin) towards the sun, which has a few Biblical meanings. First, the east represents paradise, where humans were created. In Genesis 2:8, it says: “Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed.” It also represents where God resides. It says in Ezekiel 43 verses 2 and 4, “I saw the glory of the God of Israel coming from the east…The glory of the Lord entered the temple through the gate facing east” (New International Version). It is clear that this conception of the power of God coming from the east was very important even in Early Christian times. Tertullian, an early christian writer, wrote: “Of our dove, however, how simple is the very home!—always in high and open places, and facing the light! As the symbol of the Holy Spirit, it loves the (radiant) East, that figure of Christ” (Tertullian). Here, the dove represents the Holy Spirit, which comes from the east, which is why worshippers faced in that direction.
The word “orientation” itself comes from the Latin word for both “east” and “rising”, oriens. In terms of the church buildings themselves, this belief means that the apse was pointing east so that the congregation could face towards the east while worshipping. This tradition originated in ancient times, and the Apostolic Constitution, a collection of writings about the discipline and doctrine of the early Christian church, said that a church should be oblong and directed east (Haywood). However, non-Christians accused believers of worshipping the sun. At some point, architects began turning the basilicas so that the apse was to the west. This meant that the priest, instead of the people, faced the direction of the sun. In Rome, St. Paul’s Outside the Walls and Santa Maria in Aracoeli are both oriented with the altar to the east as the early basilicas were. In St. Peter’s Basilica, Santa Maria Maggiore, and St. John in Lateran, however, the priests would be the ones to face east towards the sun.
The Pantheon, however, shows a different method of orientation. Its entrance, and therefore the altar, is facing north. The Pantheon was rebuilt over top of Agrippa’s original temple. It is called the Pantheon because the vaulted roof resembles the sky and heavens, an imitation of the universe as the ancient builders saw it. Its dome is part of a perfect sphere, and is surrounded by six niches and the main apse for the seven heavenly bodies at the time: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the sun, and the moon. Even though this church is not pointed towards the rising sun, it is positioned so that the sun shines through the oculus and right at the top of the front door annually on the spring equinox, June 21.