| |

SIDIC Periodical VI - 1973/1
Jewish and Christian Liturgy (Pages 41 - 42)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

Jewish and Christian architecture
Sofia Cavalletti


In a study of the relations between Jewish and Christian art, reference to the place of worship itself can hardly be omitted. After the destruction of the Temple the synagogue became the representative expression of Jewish spirituality. In fact, if a plan of an ancient Christian basilica is compared with that of a synagogue in its basilical form, it is difficult at first glance to distinguish one from the other. *

Scholars have proposed various theories to explain the origin of the Christian basilica, the most wide-spread being that of Leon Battista Alberti (died 1 4 7 2) which traces it back to the pagan basilica. This theory is unacceptable today, as significant advances in research have been made since it was propounded. Kohl and Watzinger (1 9 1 6) were the first archeologists to undertake a systematic study of the ancient synagogue, thus arousing renewed interest in the subject, and reminding scholars that the entire question of the origin of the Christian basilica is still an open one. None of the proposed theories is entirely convincing, as the atrium and the transept which are constant elements in the Christian basilica are missing from the pagan.

There are striking points of similarity between the Christian basilica and the basilicalstyle synagogue. Both have an atrium, generally colonnaded, in which the side adjoining the narthex is a distinguishing feature. In the center is the cantharus which was sometimes surmounted by a tabernacle (even in the synagogue, as we learn from an inscription found in the synagogue of Naarah, near Jericho). This was similar to what could be seen in the ancient Constantinian basilica of St. Peter's where the famous cantharus in the form of a pine-cone was surmounted by a tabernacle supported by eight porphyry columns. The main hall of the synagogue was divided into three naves. A feature resembling our transept contained transversal mosaics such as are to be found in ancient synagogues; their designs indicate that this space was, in a special way, sacred. There are representations of the Temple, the Ark with its perpetual lamp, and such objects of Jewish cult as the seven-branched candlestick, the ram's horn or shofar (which called together the tribes of Israel during the Exodus when they were on the march), palm branches and citron (the lulav and the ethrog) which are used during the autumn festivals, etc.

Nevertheless, there is one point on which the basilical structures of church and synagogue would seem to differ: the apse. This is a feature of earlier Christian architecture which appears later in the synagogue. However, there is a small apse in the synagogue of Dura-Europos - which, according to an inscribed tile found in this edifice, cannot be later than 244-45 A.D. However, in all the ancient synagogues that have so far been discovered, the height of the remaining walls is, with rare exceptions, very low. In the synagogue of Eshtemoa in central Judea, for example, an absidiola was found about two meters above the soil. This leads to the conjecture that at least one niche was a constant element in the synagogue and that time has destroyed its traces.

An element found in both church and synagogue, and mentioned in the Gospel, is the « chair of Moses ». There are many examples of this, among them, the synagogue of Chorazin in upper Galilee. It was reserved for some eminent member of the community, perhaps the chief of the synagogue or the lector. This naturally leads to a comparison with the bishop's chair found at the back of the apse in our own ancient basilicas. From this chair the bishop exercised his episcopal function as supervisor of the community and teacher of his people.

Finally, there are those who see a connection between the lector's platform, bimah, found insome synagogues, and the ambos, generally two in number, from which the scriptures were proclaimed in Christian basilicas.

The points of similarity between the architecture of the synagogue and that of the church are striking, but in our opinion, they are but the reflection of a still more profound resemblance which transcends architecture and which is inherent in the spirit that informs the worship of both. Those who consider the Christian basilica to be a development of the pagan, underline the fact that in the pagan basilica justice was administered, and they conclude that this fact adds dignity to the Christian. This dignity should not be undervalued, but we fail to see any direct connection between the administration of justice and the worship of God. Moreover, it must not be forgotten that the pagan basilica was a place of commerce and of financial transaction, activities which have no connection with Christian or any other worship.

In our opinion, the profound difference of spirit between the Christian and the pagan basilica, and the architectural differences already noted, cast doubt upon the theory that the former developed from the latter.

* The dependence of the Christian basilica on the synagogue is upheld by: Blau, « Early Christian Archeology from the Jewish Point of View », Hebrew Union College Annual, 1926, pp. 157 ff.; Grabar, « Recherches sur les sources juives de l'art paleochretien », Cahier archêologique, 1960, pp. 54 ff.; cf. also Dictionnaire d'archêologie chretienne, vol. XV, 2, 1825.


Home | Who we are | What we do | Resources | Join us | News | Contact us | Site map

Copyright Sisters of Our Lady of Sion - General House, Rome - 2011