Ad Orientem

Marcus Meler
[student, Rome Sketchbook course, Spring 2013]
Panels telling the story of the founding of Santa Maria Maggiore

​The Latin phrase ad orientem is the basis for the word “orientation,” which in today’s world means the act of getting one’s bearings or a position. Orientalem is Latin for East and the root word oriens is Latin for east as well as rising or dawn. This phrase however, has a great meaning in the Catholic Church as its original definition refers to the building of a church or temple in a line facing East.
Until recent times, the orientation of Christian churches used to always face the East. Cathedrals are often oriented on an east-west axis, so that the people during mass will look towards the rising sun, symbolizing the Risen Christ. Additionally, they can point towards the sun for a dramatic effect by certain lighting. Churches were sometimes aligned to sunrises and sunsets on the Christian feasts of the church's titulary saints. A few orientations fall relatively close to equinoctial sunrise and sunset, which can refer to March 25th (Annunciation of Mary) and September 24th (birth of John the Baptist). Most cathedrals are even built in the form of a cross to symbolize Jesus’ crucifixion. The main portion of a cathedral, making the longer arm of the cross, is known as the nave, which is Latin for “ship”. It is within the nave that the worshippers come together, like a ship that will bring them to salvation.

The Elefantino of Piazza Minerva

To further understand ad orientem, a word must be said about the orientation of Roman temples. Nearly all the Roman temples are oriented so that the sunlight can enter them, facing east. Light from the rising sun can pass through the door to create dramatic lighting by bathing the cult statue in color. If necessary the columns of the porch are spaced unevenly so that the main door is never blocked by the columns.
Other orientations were made for different effects in Ancient Rome. The Horologium Augusti was a massive sundial located in the Field of Mars and in the upper left corner was Augustus' Altar of Peace (Ara Pacis). The positioning of Ara Pacis and Augustus’ Masoleum were made so that on the date of the emperor's birth, the shadow of the obelisk lined up with the Ara Pacis. From this shadow, in a perfect right angle crossed through the center of the Mausoleum of Augustus, which was located at the lower edge.

Orientation of various churches

Due to the great emphasis on the sun in early Christianity, according to Tertullian the Christians of his time were believed to worship the sun. This came from the Christian practice of turning to the east when praying. It was also believed that the Holy Spirit dwelled always in "high and open places, facing the light,” additionally the Apostolic Constitutions of the third to fifth century states that churches should be built with their "heads" facing the East (Hasset). Worshiping towards the sun is older than Christianity, but this tradition was believed to be adopted because to the east also contained the original location of the Garden of Eden and according to St. Thomas Aquinas, “Our Lord lived His early life in the east, and from the east He shall come to judge mankind,” (Hasset).

San Giovanni in Laterano
Due to these traditions, the altar was placed in the eastern edge of the church until the Roman Basilicas of the Lateran such as St. Peter’s and St. Giovanni. These basilicas reversed eastern layout by placing the apse in the western edge. Some believe that the change came out of the fourth century when the priest at Mass faced the people; he would look out towards the East when performing his duties at the altar. Originally, the priest and worshippers would face the same direction to the East, whereas in the present, the priest faces the lay to pray together on the same level. Many Roman churches, however, are not oriented at all since they were originally pagan Roman law courts and were converted into churches.
Pope Benedict XVI said five years before he was elected, “one thing has remained clear for the whole of Christendom: praying towards the east is a tradition that goes back to the beginning.” As he wrote in The Spirit of the Liturgy: The common turning toward the east was not a “celebration toward the wall;” it did not mean that the priest “had his back to the people.” . . . For just as the congregation in the synagogue looked together toward Jerusalem, so in the Christian liturgy the congregation looked together “toward the Lord.” . . . They did not close themselves into a circle; they did not gaze at one another; but as the pilgrim People of God they set off for the Oriens, for the Christ who comes to meet us, (Miner).

Hassett, Maurice. 'Orientation of Churches'. The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 12 May 2013 website
Miner, Brad. 'Facing East.' The Catholic Thing 5 Mar. 2009. Web. 15 May 2013. website