Divine Character: The Evolution of Religious Architecture

Claudio Nieto: 

Since the beginnings of civilisation, the temple has been the architectural representation of society’s conception of divinity. Several of the greatest construction achievements of all times were accomplished through these buildings. Even though there are plenty of studies on this particular kind of structure, most of them do not consider time as a key element to understand the refinement sequence the temple has experienced. In consequence, this research is primarily based on Julien-David Le Roy’s Plate 1 from The Ruins of the Most Beautiful Monuments of Ancient Greece, which acknowledges the chronological development of temples as the appropriate way to grasp how these buildings evolved. At the time the plate was published, it caused a major revolution on how ‘type’ in Architecture was understood, given that it actually recognised the relevance of ‘time’ for a building’s typological analysis. As a result, studying the plate made possible to critically assess Le Roy’s discourse and determine the accuracy of his principles. Though his analysis is more likely to be based on genre than on type, it provides relevant information about the temple’s evolution which is used as the framework to address the relationship between this kind of building and its progressive architectural sophistication. An enquiry which makes possible to observe how the refinement of the temple is directly related to the way it is occupied. As it became a more public building, it acquired a higher degree of complexity, implicating that the temple’s character is expressed through structure.

Temple classification by civilisation.
Sorted following description from e Ruins of the Most Beautiful Monuments of Greece.
Influence exchange among temples.
Relationships and development sequence as framed in e Ruins of the Most Beautiful Monuments of Greece.


Evolution timeline of the temple.
The progressive development timeline clearly shows an increasing level of sophistication in structural systems and architectural configurations.

The origins of history and theory of architecture go back to the 18th century during the Enlightenment period. The ideological discourse of this era was founded on the idea that reasoning was the way in which people could understand the universe and therefore improve themselves. This idea and usage of reasoning was first explored by the ancient Greeks, who were considered as a model civilisation. In consequence, intellectuals adopted their heritage in order to establish the new rules of their new ideology. It was within this collective thinking that Neoclassicism as an artistic movement was born, being architecture one of its most representative expressions.1 The ways in which architecture was taught and practiced experienced revolutionary changes – France’s Académie Royale d’Architecture became the most influential school of architecture in Europe. Also, many expeditions to Greece took place at the time. Normally, all the information gathered within these expeditions was later organised and published in books. Among others, Richard Pocoke’s A description of the East and some other Countri , Frederic Louis Norden’s Voyage d’E pt et de Nubie, James Stuart & Nicholas Revett’s The Antiqu of Athens, and Julien-Davide Le Roy’s The Ruins of the Most Beautiful Monuments of Ancient Greece (also referred as The Ruins), embody the effort to explore, study, and share with the world the main source of the time’s ideology.

Many of the books written about this topic focused their narrative on the classic orders and how to use them properly.2 However, Le Roy offered a new vision on the subject, a vision which would cause a major revolution, he built an argument based on the relationships that all the buildings he registered had between them, giving less priority to the accuracy of the drawings. This position caused a lot of controversy, his competitors did not receive it in a positive way

and tried to affect his career in several ways. On the other hand, French scholars considered the discourse revolutionary and rewarded Le Roy with a position in l’Académie Royale d’Architecture. His work would later influence very important figures such as Jean-Nicolas Durand, Sir John Soane and Quatrèmer de Quincy.3 It was until the second edition of The Ruins (1770) that the Comparative Plate of Temples – Plate 1 – appeared. The use of this kind of drawings was not new at the time it was included in The Ruins (Figure 1-1). For instance, Jacques Tarade, in 1713, made several plates comparing St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and Notre Dame in Paris. Le Roy first used the plate when he published Histoire de la disposition et d form di érents que l chrétiens ont donné à leurs templ (also referred as Histoire). He made a historical analysis on the evolution of christian churches. His first approach to this kind of representation got expanded and perfected afterwards in the second edition of The Ruins. Plate 1 strengthened and presented in a far clearer way what Le Roy’s ‘Essay on the History of Architecture’ stated since the first edition of the book. A couple of decades later.

Perhaps the reason behind the great success and influence that Le Roy’s Plate 1 achieved is that it constitutes one of the first studies of Architecture through type. It had something that its predecessors did not, it was drawn following two ideas: first, the comparative layouts that evidenced architectural elements as well as design premises, and second, the chronological display through three progressive columns.4 Moreover, the two driving ideas combined explained the relationships between the buildings, and how Architecture evolved from a simple hut to a highly refined church. As Robin Middleton’s Introduction to the contemporary version of The Ruins expresses:

The new plate illustrating the historical evolution of sacred architecture now has three distinct lines of development: the Phoenicians, the Egyptians, and Hebrews are in one track; the Greeks and Romans in another; the Christians in a third. The aim, though unstated, was to separate the Greeks from the Egyptians and to distinguish the Christians from all the rest. However, the lines of development do follow on, one from another. Continuities are indicated.5

In summary, the ideological discourse of the Enlightenment, together with the collective effort by intellectuals of the time to understand the architectural principles of the ancient world, set the perfect scenario for comparative plates to thrive as the standard mean for analysing architecture. Le Roy’s Plate 1 constitutes a major reference of architectural history and theory during the 18th century, and, according to him, it focuses on the type of building that holds the highest level of perfection and produced the finest innovations in architecture: the temple.6 The plate is taken as the starting point for this research, revising, correcting and completing it. Afterwards, selected case studies, taken from it, will be analysed in detail in order to assess Le Roy’s discourse and study the relations between the selected buildings through a type and genre perspective.

The concept of type, as described by Quatrèmere, did not exist until de early 19th century. Therefore, Le Roy’s Plate 1 was no subject of any defined notion of this idea by the time it was produced. Perhaps the plate would have been quite different if a proper conception of type had existed. By analysing Plate 1, the first thing to be pointed out is that it constitutes a study of genre. Nonetheless, at the same time it includes several groups of buildings that can be considered as types, such as the basilica or the cross-plan church. This overlapping of concepts is what makes Plate 1 such a remarkable architectural study and, at the same time, it is what Le Roy failed to acknowledge in his discourse, being the major cause of its inconsistencies. Attempting to define temples of several eras and civilisations as a single type of building is a very difficult task, considering that its architecture changed drastically as it followed different religious logics. However, studying the plate through a genre perspective, clearly identifying all the types contained in it, allowed to identify the typological problems of each type which contributed to the overall sophistication of the temple.

Temple of Horus: Massing, Structural analysis, Programmatic analysis 

Temple of Artemis Ephesus: Massing, Structural analysis, Programmatic analysis 

Old St. Peter’s Basilica: Massing, Structural analysis, Programmatic analysis 
St. Peter’s Basilica: Massing, Structural analysis, Programmatic analysis 

The comparative analysis reflects that case studies share some common characteristics between them. Yet, these aspects do not work as a rule and therefore cannot be defined as a characteristic of type. For instance, the precinct is an element present in almost all the cases, but it must not be considered as a characteristic of type by itself. In this particular case, a gathering space adjacent to the temple would be a typological problem, an element that was sometimes addressed in an urban scale rather than with an enclosure. Therefore, analysing the urban emplacement of the temple would make possible to detect and understand more of its typological problems. By taking Le Roy’s methodology as the framework for research, the relationship of the buildings with the city was not considered for this study. However, the analysis suggests that an extensive investigation towards this matter would provide a deeper understanding of the temple and its role in society.

Comparative analysis of structural systems

Above all, despite there are several architectural types involved in the analysis, it is possible to identify a common typological problem among them: the quest for the most possible sophisticated roof. This ‘problem’ produced more advanced and complex architectural elements throughout the evolution sequence of the temple, being the driving idea behind it. Furthermore, the classification of buildings by their ritual performance made possible to identify the reasons that caused this constant typological problem. From the analysis, two outstanding concepts that thrived though the temple’s development history shall be pointed out, symbolism and sophistication. As religious rituals evolved and became more public, symbolism and sophistication increased, being the first one expressed through the parti and the second one through the structure. In other words, it can be concluded that the parti is the mean by which the temple reflects its religious and symbolic significance, while the structure is the mean for expressing its character.

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