Building Сircular Churches during the Renaissance Period

June 11, 2021

During the Renaissance period, just as other forms of art did, architecture focused on the creation of new forms by both exploring innovative dimensions and applying old traditions. In that period, a completely different form of art emerged; it required architects to possess proficient skills and comprehensive professional knowledge. The pedagogic practice that was popular in Renaissance managed to change the attitude of people to the architecture as a whole. Contemporary researchers considered that the perfect piece of architecture could be created only by a person that had comprehensive knowledge in both the mathematics and painting. The spade-work of the highly qualified architects helped in modifying and improving the essence of the architecture. Consequently, a new perfect structure of Renaissance, which modern people can contemplate today, was created. One of the brightest examples of new approaches of the period is using circular forms for churches. The paper provides a deep analysis of the theories that induced the formation of a new approach to building sacral places. These theories provide a better understanding of the bright examples of such churches and peculiarities of their interiors and exteriors.

Theories that Supported the Development of Circular Churches

Architects of Renaissance preferred a balanced proportionality to the verticality of the Gothic structures. They joined bare walls with the classicism of flat facades, while the Gothic architecture utilized intricately sculpted and designed walls instead . Peculiar forms could be seen in all edifices but more clearly in buildings of the religious character. Building churches required architects to study the new approach more thoroughly; as a result, circular forms became popular .

The idea of using round forms in building churches was an attractive option for architects; with the help of it, they could achieve the effect of unity. The analysis of the issue showed that architects of the Renaissance period strongly began to focus not only on the beauty but also on the economic aspect of their constructions. They were convinced that building should be both majestic and cost-efficient. Besides, they had to achieve their aesthetic goals. Therefore, the construction became not only an engineering issue but also an artistic aspect. Wittkkower explained reasons for the popularity of circular forms of churches. Before the fifteenth century, the architects had used the Latin Cross pattern in building different sacral edifices. However, later they began to study round forms more deeply . Wittkkower considers that the round form was chosen because of a popular belief that a circle was the perfect shape as it expressed merging with nature; it imitated the best features of nature. A contemporary architect, Alberti, while looking at the shapes of trees, nests of birds, and human body noticed that the majority of nature objects that surrounded people had a round shape. Consequently, he developed the rules of building a perfect church and sketched the first churches of the circular form. He emphasized that the surrounding area of the church should be only circular; thus, he suggested using several traditional figures that had been applied by the Greeks in the past . These figures included a decagon, dodecagon, hexagon, and octagon. The author insisted that all these forms could be created from a circle that made it perfect for building churches. For example, hexagon could be easily received from the circle’s radius that perfectly corresponded to every side of a polygon 4. Bisecting every side of a hexagon provided an architect with the required measurements for calculating the dodecagon’s sides. Octagonal sides could be created by applying the diagonals of a square that was inscribed into a circle . One of the parts of the square should be bisected, and perpendicular bisector had to be spread to the circumference of a circle.

Alberti considered that a perfectly round shape of a church could have more chapels than the quadrangular one . Polygonal churches could have as many chapels as its parts would handle. The arrangement of the chapels used to have a shape of a circumference of a circle that was a ground of the church. Simultaneously, this circumference had a specific radius, a distance from the center of a circle. Thus, in his theory, the author constantly emphasized the dominant circular form of nature objects.

In his book, Ten Books on Architecture, Vitruvius stated that the symmetry was a core of the contemporary design . He noted that the architect should thoroughly study all proportions in order to achieve the necessary result. He was sure that the place of worship was the location of the highest esteem. The church was created in the name of God; thus, it had to be able to demonstrate both piety and the divinity. In such a manner, the church was supposed to be more than a site of worshiping; it had to express the perfection that is a characteristic of the God . God made people in his image; thus, the form of the church could resemble circular forms of the human body. The architect insisted that the imitation of the human’s body balance should become the basis for the proportional structure of the church. Vitruvius stated, “Here the parallel was drawn especially between the harmonic interrelationship and the parts of the human body and the proportional harmony which ought to be achieved in architectural design” .

The geometry that is obvious in the body of a human being was supposed to inspire the architects and encourage them to mirror the symmetry in the central axis of a church. The diagram that is depicted in Figure 1 demonstrates the stretched out body that exactly fits the perfect shapes of the square and circle with the navel creating the center of it . The proportional correlation of all parts and the entire picture were the issues to be considered in the architecture of a church.

At some point in the history, the centralized church began to replace the significance of human aspects by religious ones. Pevsner considered that the association of a church with the human body began to lose its foundation . However, a lot of modern architects do not agree with them him and state that building churches is still focused on the human essence and its needs. For example, the crucial role was played by the location of windows in the church so that the visitors could see the sky through them . It is much better for an individual to see through a window the sky than streets, for example.

The majority of architects continued to insist on the idea that the anatomical analogy and geometrical proportions helped Renaissance architects to reach the harmonic beauty without neglecting the role of the church in the life of every individual .

Another architect that significantly contributed to the development of circular churches during the Renaissance period was Nicholas of Cusa . He mixed the religious aspects and mathematics while believing that only the math could help human beings to comprehend the knowledge of God. The author of the theory changed the idea of the statistic sphere and earth as its immovable center, which was uniform without any physical or ideal center. Nicholas of Cusa imagined God as an ideal geometric figure of a circular form. He asserted that God was a circumference and center of this circle . According to his ideas, a sphere or macrocosmic circle had an identical circle or circumference. This theory had a pseudohermetic character; it showed God as a center of the universe, who enjoyed His omnipotence . According, to the convictions of Nicholas of Cusa, the circle demonstrated the beginning of all without the end. In addition, it showed the impartiality and infinity of God. Further, Leonardo Da Vinci supported the standpoint of Nicholas of Cuas and developed his ideas . The scientific approaches supported by this great man supported the theory of the predecessor. He stated that the architecture was a mathematical system that had to concern some spiritual units.

Circular Churches that Represent Architects’ Theories

Renaissance artists and architects were pagans as Greek and Roman used to be but in a completely different way. They focused on the rational thinking and searching the God’s truth by glorifying Him . The analysis of a number of churches shows that the Renaissance style utilized some elements and forms of the Roman and Greek architectural traditions. Such figures became very popular in the Christian churches. The church Tempietto di San Pietro vividly represents a very popular cycle approach . Its architects believed that the sphere was a fundamental geometric pattern of the cosmic order. The church that is situated in Montorio completely follows the pure circular design. It was built by Donato Bramante in 1502; it is situated in the monastery of S. Pietro . Regarding the interior of Tempietto di San Pietro that is represented in Figure 2, it becomes obvious that the Renaissance style utilized various antique columns, cornices, entablatures, niches, arches, and flat pilasters, as well as tall-attached columns near the circle of the church .

The interior decoration of such churches is less rich and comprises few contained shapes. Usually, such circular churches utilized a limited palette of colors . A good example is the interior of another round church, Pazzi Chapel, which is situated in Florence and was built by Filippo Brunelleschi (Figure 3) . .

Another interesting example of a round church is the work of the Italian art historian and architect, Tommaso Temanza, who accepted the challenge and decided to build a centrally planned church.Venice that is depicted in Figure 4 was inspired by the Pantheon in Rome .

This Pantheon had a classic front side with pillars and a round main church with a cupola. It was a small and compact building with the unique geometrical design .

Other churches of the circular form can be seen in other corners of the world. Another good example is Roung Church of Nyker on the Danish Isle (Figure 5) .

In Scotland, the only survived circular church is Ophir Round Kirk. If going to the West of this place, one would be able to find the Old Rounf Church of Richmond (Figure 6) and to the East, a church of Fured that was built by Antal Fruhman.

A huge desire to reach harmony encouraged architects to develop new approaches to building sacral places. Consequently, architects of the time turned to the geometry of churches that began to change in accordance with the innovative requirement. Alberti researched the most problematic issues and even described the necessary location of the church, its elevation from the ground, and other significant aspects. Vitruvian contributed to the development of a circular church by developing the concept of the perfection of the human body and its application to the structural aspects of the architecture. Nicholas of Cusa mixed the religion and mathematics with the belief that only such an approach could help people understand the essence of God. His ideas were supported and further developed by Leonardo Da Vinci. All the people mentioned above significantly contributed to building circular churches, which would be used by the Christians for many more years. Today, there is a number of circular churches over the world that impress every person by its spherical form that is a perfect demonstration of the infinity and sacristy.

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Annotated Bibliography

Anderson, K. (2013). Renaissance architecture (Oxford history of art) (1st ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

In his book, Anderson describes the historical development of Renaissance; he focuses on the Renaissance architecture. The author emphasizes the influence of other cultures on the architecture of that period. He proves that the Renaissance artists and architects were pagans just as the Greeks and Romans used to be but in a completely different way. They focuses more on the rational thinking in their search for the God’s truth.

A crucial aspect of the book is that the author also proved that the Roman and Greek architectural features had significantly influenced the development of the circular form that further was adopted in building Christian churches. Thus, the author emphasizes a deep dependence of Renaissance and the future architectural movements.

De Hollanda, F. (1548). On antique painting. (A. S. Wohl, Trans.). Pennsylvania, PA: Penn State University Press.

De Hollanda studied the architecture of early modern Europe. He described in details some peculiar aspects of the architecture of various countries. In describing the theory of the construction of circular churches, he focused on ideas of Vitruvius. who stated that symmetry was a core of the template design.

The significance of this work is in the belief of the author that the church must be more than a site of worshiping; it has to show perfection that is associated with God. God made people in his image; thus, a church should resemble the circular forms of a human body.

Hayum, A. (1989). The Eisenheim Altar: God’s medicine and the painter’s vision, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

The article by Hayum describes all periods of the Renaissance development and how the architecture changed during a specific period. By providing a number of examples, the author explicitly studied all kinds of constructions and showed examples of interiors and exteriors of circular churches.

The research of the author helps to understand that the interior decoration of churches of the circular form is less rich and comprises few contained shapes. Usually, in such churches, a limited palette of colors dominates; this peculiarity made these buildings unique. Some other churches of the same period were more colorful and contained some luxury details.

Nash, S. (2009). Northern Renaissance art (Oxford history of art) (1st ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

An interesting fact that can be found in the book of Nash is that the architect Nicholas of Cusa mixed the religion and mathematics believing that only the math could help human beings to understand the essence of God. Nicholas of Cusa imagined God as an ideal geometric figure that had a circle form.

A significant contribution of the author includes an explicit and clear explanation of the theory that had pseudohermetic character. It described God as a center of the Universe, in which He enjoyed an omnipotent power. The author emphasized that the circle demonstrated the beginning without an end and reflected the impartiality and infinity of God.

Merrill, E. M. (2013). The Trattato as textbook: Francesco di Giorgio’s vision for the Renaissance architect. Architectural Histories, 1(1).

Merril studied not only the exteriors of various structures of the Renaissance period but also their interiors. He noticed that the style utilized antique columns, cornices, entablatures, niches, arches, and flat pilasters or tall-attached columns, as well as round-shaped churches. Interior decorations were not too bright in order to help people focus attention on the peculiarity of forms and completely dive into the holly atmosphere.

The crucial aspect is that the author showed the contrast between the interiors and exteriors. He noticed that when a church had fewer decorations inside, its exterior was richer and it comprised some additional buildings.

Ingerson, R. (2012). World architecture: A cross-cultural history (1st ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Ingerson thoroughly described all periods of the Renaissance development and named the peculiar events that affected the architecture of the time the most. Much attention was paid to the belief in the necessity of building circular churches. The author also described and supported the theory of Alberti, who noticed the prevalence of round forms in the nature objects that surrounded people.

In order to prove advantages of Alberti’s theory, the author constantly emphasized that the perfect church should contain circular forms and offered to use several figures that had been previously utilized by the Greeks. These figures included a decagon, dodecagon, hexagon, and octagon. Further, the proposed theory began to be widely used by other architects of the time.

Trachtenberg, M. (2014). To build proportions in time, or tie knots in space? A reassessment of the Renaissance turn in architectural proportions. Architectural Histories, 2 (1).

In his study of circular churches, Trachtenberg focused on the connection of church’s forms with the cosmic objects. He supported the view of scholars, who considered that the sphere was a fundamental geometric pattern of the global order.

The approach that was offered by the author partially contradicted theories of other researchers because of its focus on the cosmic but not religious or human issue. However, Trachtenberg’s explanations of the essence of the theory strongly convinced the reader in the soundness of the offered ideas.

Williams, R. (1997). Art, theory and culture in sixteenth century Italy: From techne to metatechne. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Williams described the contribution of both Vitruvius and Aberti into the development of the theory that regarded circular churches. He emphasized the necessity of works of these researchers. The author also provided a number of examples of such churches and described peculiarities of their construction.

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The work is of great importance because it explicitly describes the ground that induced the formation of the concept of circular churches and reflects on the use of these theories in specific constructions. Thus, regarding examples of the churches, the reader can identify specific figures that the researches regarded as a integrate part of the holiness.