Cycle of Life: The Legacy of the Roman Mausoleum

Claudio Storelli

Rome’s architectural influence ripples through time. Manifested in plan, structure, and ornament, Rome’s legacy endures. Roman models were transformed to accommodate Christian liturgy. These reinvented Roman structures would evolve into a sumptuous variety of Christian buildings. The utilitarian Roman basilica would develop into divine Christian splendor and of particular interest; the Roman mausoleum and its Christian manifestations. The late Roman mausoleum was a synergy of its Greek predecessors. Christian builders would exploit Greek architectural elements to great effect. The early Christian patron looked to the beauty of enduring Roman mausoleum to immortalize themselves, their loved ones, martyrs, relics, and liturgy. The liturgical functions grew to include baptism, a right of passage of particular importance during the early Christian era. The variety of Christian structures developed from Roman mausoleum testifies to the versatility of ancient craftsmen and the purity of Roman design.

IMAGE COMING SOON Tomb monument of Julii, St. Remy, Provence, France. c.40 BCE

Tomb monument of Julii, St. Remy, Provence, France. c.40 BCEThe Roman elite adopted Greek elements to create powerful monuments. One feature that endured from these Roman monuments was their central plan. Around a central axis various forms such as octagons, circles, squares, decagons, and round tempiettos were layered to create a multitude of design possibilities. Hadrian’s tomb is an imposing ancient Roman example. A circular series of engaged columns sits on a square base, surmounted by a small temple with Hadrian riding quadriga. Hadrian’s tomb is typical of his building programs, in which he was deeply involved, in the combination of the sacred geometry of the circle and square with a central plan. Another famous centrally planed building of Hadrian style, which exploited sacred geometry, is the Pantheon. The building incorporates sacred geometry from the floor to the roof. The domed roof and central plan of the Pantheon would become a staple of Roman mausoleum design and later, Christian architecture. The dome is also linked to the Greek tumulus. The late Roman mausoleum grew to become an amalgamation of Greek architectural forms. Various architectural forms and significance were piled on top of each other. The combination of structural elements was meant to convey the culture, power and noble lineage of the dead within, as in the Tomb monument of Julii c. 40 BCE. “The monument’s actual purpose is obscured by the combination of… architectural forms.”[1] As with Hadrian’s mausoleum the images of the dead become so distant to the viewer, atop their architectural pedestal, they are almost lost. The architectural forms themselves dominate, they become iconic. The central plan articulated with columns, surmounted by a dome would become the Roman base of early Christian architecture.

IMAGE COMING SOON Santa Costanza, Rome, Italy. c.350 CE

Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan allowed Christian architecture to blossom. The architectural marvels that the Edict of Milan cultivated stand in contrast to private tituli of early Christians. The utilitarian private tituli were not unified in design but linked though liturgy. Christian architecture found new expression in the central planning of Roman models. Constantine’s building activities would have a profound impact on Christian architecture. When Constantine’s daughter died in 354BCE he had her remains placed in Santa Costanza. The debt of Santa Costanza to the Roman mausoleum is clear, with its central axis, articulate with twelve pairs of Corinthian columns surmounted by a dome. The twelve columns, symbolic for Jesus’ apostles, run around the ambulatory wall which is punctuated by apsidal projections. Before his daughters’ death, in 325CE, the protagonist Constantine ordered the Temple of Venus, which stood above Jesus’ tomb in Jerusalem, to be demolished. Then “between 348 and 380 it was enveloped by a large centralized building, known as the Anastasis Rotunda.”[2] Both Santa Costanza and the Anastasis Rotunda had a central plan covered by a hemispherical dome. The Anastasis Rotunda also had twelve columns and significantly eight piers; “eight was a symbol of regeneration– the world started on the eighth day of Creation– and it was also a symbol of resurrection, for Christ rose from the dead on the eighth day of the Passion.”[3] The octagon became the preferred shape of Christian baptisteries because it combined central planning with the significance of the number eight.

The need for a separate baptismal structure may seem odd to the modern observer, but put in context it becomes very understandable. In the early fifth century the majority of Christians were converts, baptized as adults. The dramatic immersive action of baptism symbolizes the entrance into the kingdom of God. The environment needed to reinforce the drama of the liturgy, as well as accommodate the catechumens. Given the size of the faithful, and the importance of the ceremony, the need for a separate ornate structure becomes clear. The elegant Baptistery of Ravenna remains an enduring early example. The octagonal form and mosaic ceiling are characteristic of eastern Christian design. Above the baptismal pool, a mosaic shows Jesus being baptized, surrounded by the apostles. The octagonal ambulatory wall bulges with several apsidal projections. A similar structure exists in Lomello, Santa Maria Maggiore; here “the octagonal baptistery has a sequence of semicircular and rectangular projections at ground-floor level. Although much restored, the church is a good example of the style known as ‘first Romanesque.’”[4] The ground-floor projections are an interesting development from its Ravenna predecessor. The revolutionary architecture of Ravenna is the precursor of many important Christian buildings.

IMAGE COMING SOON Baptistery of Ravenna, Ravenna, Italy. c.400 CE

Situated on the Adriatic coast, the swampy area of Ravenna produced unique and influential structures. Despite the area’s tumultuous past, many early Christian buildings survive. The geographical location allowed for close contact with eastern influences, long before the conquest of northern Italy. Theodoric the Great, king of the Ostrogoths, made Ravenna the seat of his empire in the fifth century. Once in power, Theodoric embarked on an ambitious building program, during which he erected the Palace of Theodoric, Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo, and most relevant; his Mausoleum (d. 526). The decagon base supports a massive drum, surmounted by a monolithic Istrian limestone domed roof. The polygonal base and drum are precisely cut of ashlar masonry. The first floor’s central plan is expressed in the form of a Greek cross, while the second floor, containing Theodoric’s sarcophagus, is circular. Above the sarcophagus, the impressive eleven meter across, shallow domed roof is inlaid with Greek cross, echoing the floor plan below. Transportation of the monolith, facilitated by the stone spurs, is a feat in itself; the fact that the spurs remain is an aesthetic homage to this triumph. Another impressive display of skill can be seen in the joggled voussoirs of the arches on the ground floor. The arches are articulated with precise interlocking joints in a masterful display of eastern craftsmanship. The powerful impression of solidity and strength that the structure projects betrays its subtle ornamentation. The intricate decorative pattern below the domed roof and delicate Greek cross window demonstrate the refined ability of the builders. A year after Theodoric was laid to rest within his impressive mausoleum, Bishop Ecclesio began construction of San Vitale under Emperor Justinian’s rule.

The “New-Constantine,” Justinian, paralleled his predecessors’ architectural ambition. In the sixth century, Justinian cultivated two architectural marvels: The Church of Holy Wisdom, or Hagia Sophia, and the basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna. With cooperation of a local banker, Julianus Argentarius, Justinian created an octagonal masterpiece. San Vitale’s central space “is defined by massive piers at each angle.”[5] The significance of the number eight echoes from the exterior walls to the supporting elements within. An ambulatory and gallery encircle the structure, interrupted by niches with triple arch screens. The layering of ambulatory or gallery, niches and piers creates a forest of columns. The central space is so well expressed it seems to be organically “bursting out of its confines.”[6] A dome roof caps the curvilinear, symmetrical space, adorned with intricate mosaics. The subject matter of the mosaics depicts Justinian and his court, narrative friezes, and a representation of the church itself being presented to Jesus. The sumptuous San Vitale relates to Justinian’s greatest architectural achievement, Hagia Sophia, in their common inspiration: Hadrian’s Pantheon.

IMAGE COMING SOON Mausoleum of Theodoric (roof and window detail) Ravenna, Italy. d.526CE

Inspired by the open central space and floating dome of the Pantheon, Justinian was driven to build extravagant architectural expressions. San Vitale took the central plan design to new heights, but the apex of this architectural style is Hagia Sophia. Built under Justinian’s personal supervision, the churches projecting bulges are riddled with windows and columns creating an impression of weightless luminosity. The revolutionary weight distribution of the dome via the pendentives adds to the weightless organic flow. The forty windows in between the ribs of the domed roof allow light to penetrate deep within the structure, highlighting the fluid spaces. The repetition of bulges boils around the central dome with refined elegance. The porous, compartment-like spaces are unified in their luminosity and symmetrical orientation around the central axis. The architectural purity of the structure remains uncompromised, while many of the original mosaics adorning the structure have been covered or destroyed. The splendor of Emperor Justinian’s Hagia Sophia, and San Vitale would be the inspiration for the Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne’s palace chapel in Aachen.

IMAGE COMING SOON San Vitale (cross-section), Ravenna, Italy. consecrated 547 CE

The catalyst of the Enlightenment, Charlemagne, was crowned Emperor of Rome in 800CE on Christmas day. With his expert advisors and strong ideology, Charlemagne sought to recreate the splendor of San Vitale for his Aachen Palace Chapel. The lavish materials Charlemagne used in Aachen obfuscate the simplification of San Vitale’s ambitious design; “the exedrae were removed and the triple-arched screens were restricted to the gallery.”[7] The simplification of design was neutralized with deep symbolic significance; “the palace chapel was intended to be viewed as an image of the Heavenly Jerusalem, as suggested by the inscription on the interior cornice. It cannot be a coincidence that the circumference of the inner octagon comes to 144 Carolingian feet, just as the walls of the Heavenly Jerusalem described in the book of Revelation (22:17) came to 144 cubits.”[8] Within this earthly manifestation of the Heavenly Jerusalem, Charlemagne’s throne sat on a privileged level; elevated between men and the divine. From this vantage point, surrounded by sumptuous materials, the title of Holy Roman Emperor was reinforced. Ornaments and materials, such as the Equestrian Statue of Theodoric, Corinthian columns, marble, and bronze-work, taken from Italy, soaked the viewer in an atmosphere of overwhelming richness. The Italian trophies melted seamlessly into the opulent, totally vaulted structure. Perched atop his glorious throne in Aachen, Charlemagne’s effective rule saw the development and standardization of several architectural innovations.

IMAGE COMING SOON Hagia Sophia (cross-section), Istanbul, Turkey. 6th century

The westwork, pier, and transept are architectural elements deeply indebted to the cultivated atmosphere of the Carolingian court. Within the central space of the Aachen Palace chapel, great minds toiled to better express the cultural revolution underway. New architectural forms were devised to accommodate the increasingly elaborate and dramatic Christian liturgy. Beginning with St. Riquier in the late eighth century, the westwork evolved with powerful political and religious significance. The westwork became an imposing symbol of power; it helped maintain structural balance and created an area of focus for important relics and liturgy. Under Charlemagne the transept was also standardized to accommodate the expanding audience and liturgy. Taken from early models, such as the monastic church in Fulda or San Paolo fuori le mura, the transept added symbolic significance in the ‘T’ shaped floor plan created, accommodated additional altars and made spiritual link to Rome in its reference to Old Saint Peter’s. Charlemagne’s friend and biographer, Einhard, effectively used the pier, also standardized during the Carolingian era. The rarity of monoliths for columns, and the need for enduring, stable support forced Einhard to readopt the versatile pier in his two churches, at Steinbach, and Seligenstadt. The influence of these architectural developments is profound, but they stem from a deeper architectural tradition; the domed, central planned structure.

Beyond the brilliance of Charlemagne’s Palace chapel, the beauty of central planning resonates throughout the world; in Italy the charming twelfth century San Tomaso, in Spain the church of La Vera Cruz and the Torres del Rio, and in England the St Sepulchre in Cambridge. The uniformed beauty of these structures is largely derived from their domed roofs and central plan, which is rooted in the Roman mausoleum. Various religions and cultures have adopted the purity of the central plan to express their unique ideology. From polar extremes of reincarnation and death, the holistic, circular design of the dome and central buildings is appropriate. From modest Roman models to Carolingian splendor, the universal appeal of domed central planned structures is undeniable.

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MacDonald, William. The Architecture of the Roman Empire. London: Yale University, 1965.
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Swift, Emerson. Roman Sources of Christian Art. New York: Columbia University, 1951.
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1 Paul Zanker. Conflict and Contradiction in the Imagery of the Dying Republic. (Ann Arbor: Michigan, 1988): 81.
2 Roger Stalley. Early Medieval Architecture. (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1999): 65.
3 Ibid. 61
4 Id.
5 Ibid. 67
6 Ibid. 70
7 Ibid. 71
8 Ibid. 71-72