Many readers of America will have visited, or at least heard about, the Pantheon in Rome. I knew little about it on my first visit there several years ago, but was overtaken by it the moment it came into view from the street. And once I stepped inside the rotunda, and saw the Catholic altar amidst a circular series of niches originally for display of various gods, the world of ancient religions seemed to linger in the space and to continually rise up from the floor and walls through the "oculus," the large circle in the dome, and be taken up into the heavens. Or were the heavens coming down into this most famous container?
Here is the wikipedia page on Pantheon (all typical cautions about Wikipedia assumed).
Here is a tidbit on the Pantheon that I penned for a recent book:
"Inside Pantheon, attention goes up and down, on a vertical axis, rather than back and forth, on a horizontal axis. Pantheon’s cylinder and dome, rising up majestically on all sides upon passing from the porch through the doors, take perception up, again and again, to the oculus, and its illumination of all interior space, shifting its shadows as the hours of the day pass. As MacDonald observes, this spatial orientation is different from what would become that of Christian basilicas and their horizontality of attention, their back-and-forth, fore and aft self-presentation through cruciform structures. (William L. Macdonald, The Pantheon, p. 34)"
"While Christians may feel some familiarity upon stepping onto the front porch because they are expecting an axis of longitude to continue forward inside Pantheon, once they step through the doors at the back of the porch and into the giant cylindrical space of the rotunda behind, that promise of what a Christian would expect to be a basilica-like axis is immediately revoked, dispossessed, 'dissipated and lost in an incommensurable void,' in MacDonald’s elegant architectural language. (Macdonald, p. 67, putting MacDonald's architectural language to theological work.)"
"Indeed, the ancient Vitruvian conviction, made famous for modernity by da Vinci’s drawing, regarding a deep consanguinity between circle and square architecture, such as the vaulted form of the Pantheon, and the naturally extended upright human body, suggest that it is no accident that humans feel both dwarfed and taken up inside Pantheon, because they feel a fundamental fit between the body’s erect frame and the shape of the container that is the rotunda. The body is invited to recognize its dimensions because of the proportionality of this tremendous container to the body. It may be part of what gives Pantheon the sense of communicating being at home in the cosmos."
Now this summer has presented me the occasion to take my preoccupation, even obsession, with the Pantheon even further, and begin to initiate a genuine research project on it. One of my basic theological questions is what the Pantheon's history and architecture teach us about the relationship between Christianity and ancient religions in the second through seventh centuries (when Pantheon became a church) and what prospects its history and architecture give for Christianity's relationship to multiple religions and cultures today.
There are some remarkable historical and architectural studies of the Pantheon, but very little theologically (of which I am aware). Those excellent historical and architectural studies include William L. MacDonald, The Pantheon: Design, Meaning and Progeny (Harvard University Press, 1976) and Kjeld de Fine Licht, The Rotunda in Rome: A Study of Hadrian's Pantheon (Gyldendal, 1968). I am currently reading Harold W. Turner's rigorous and deeply considered theological, phenomenological, and historical study of houses of worship: From Temple to Meeting House: The Phenomenology and Theology of Places of Worship (Mouton, 1979), which is not about the Pantheon directly but rather a cross-cultural study of the structures of built places that have been considered conducive to prayer, worship, liturgy. Turner builds a theory of the domus dei, the "house of God" found across cultures, as having a common theological and phenomenological structure. Ancient temples were important to establishing the genre of domus dei.
A lot of my current research is focusing on the relationship between contemporary secular music practices and spiritual practices, and so keeping one foot in Pantheon studies is also a way of remembering another (pluralistic) time for Christianity, indeed in some ways of remembering another Christianity. As have many others, I find this cross-temporal and cross-cultural habitation to give some helpful perspective for theological work.
But all this does raise the question: What kinds of church architecture speak to us today, and why? What church architectures open Christianity to the future in hope, and why?
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States