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Panagia Chalkeon, an 11th-century cross-in-square church in Thessaloniki. View from the north east. Panagia Chalkeon 2.jpg
Panagia Chalkeon, an 11th-century cross-in-square church in Thessaloniki. View from the north east.

A cross-in-square or crossed-dome plan was the dominant architectural form of middle- and late-period Byzantine churches. It featured a square centre with an internal structure shaped like a cross, topped by a dome.

Floor plan drawing to scale, showing a view from above, of the relationships between rooms, spaces and other physical features at one level of a structure

In architecture and building engineering, a floor plan is a drawing to scale, showing a view from above, of the relationships between rooms, spaces, traffic patterns, and other physical features at one level of a structure.

Byzantine Empire Roman Empire during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages

The Byzantine Empire, also referred to as the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantium, was the continuation of the Roman Empire in its eastern provinces during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, when its capital city was Constantinople. It survived the fragmentation and fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD and continued to exist for an additional thousand years until it fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. During most of its existence, the empire was the most powerful economic, cultural and military force in Europe. "Byzantine Empire" is a term created after the end of the realm; its citizens continued to refer to their empire simply as the Roman Empire, or Romania (Ῥωμανία), and to themselves as "Romans".

Church architecture branch of architecture focused on church buildings

Church architecture refers to the architecture of buildings of Christian churches. It has evolved over the two thousand years of the Christian religion, partly by innovation and partly by imitating other architectural styles as well as responding to changing beliefs, practices and local traditions. From the birth of Christianity to the present, the most significant objects of transformation for Christian architecture and design were the great churches of Byzantium, the Romanesque abbey churches, Gothic cathedrals and Renaissance basilicas with its emphasis on harmony. These large, often ornate and architecturally prestigious buildings were dominant features of the towns and countryside in which they stood. However, far more numerous were the parish churches in Christendom, the focus of Christian devotion in every town and village. While a few are counted as sublime works of architecture to equal the great cathedrals and churches, the majority developed along simpler lines, showing great regional diversity and often demonstrating local vernacular technology and decoration.


The first cross-in-square churches were probably built in the late 8th century, and the form has remained in use throughout the Orthodox world until the present day. In the West, Donato Bramante's first design (1506) for St. Peter's Basilica was a centrally planned cross-in-square under a dome and four subsidiary domes.

Eastern Orthodox Church Christian Church

The Eastern Orthodox Church, officially the Orthodox Catholic Church, is the second-largest Christian church, with approximately 260 million baptised members. It operates as a communion of autocephalous churches, each governed by its bishops in local synods. Roughly half of Eastern Orthodox Christians live in Russia. The church has no central doctrinal or governmental authority analogous to the Bishop of Rome, but the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople is recognised by all as primus inter pares of the bishops. As one of the oldest surviving religious institutions in the world, the Eastern Orthodox Church has played a prominent role in the history and culture of Eastern and Southeastern Europe, the Caucasus, and the Near East.

Donato Bramante architect, sculptor, graphic artist, fresco painter, painter

Donato Bramante, born as Donato di Pascuccio d'Antonio and also known as Bramante Lazzari, was an Italian architect. He introduced Renaissance architecture to Milan and the High Renaissance style to Rome, where his plan for St. Peter's Basilica formed the basis of design executed by Michelangelo. His Tempietto marked the beginning of the High Renaissance in Rome (1502) when Pope Julius II appointed him to build a sanctuary over the spot where Peter was allegedly crucified.

St. Peters Basilica Italian Renaissance church in Vatican City

The Papal Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican, or simply St. Peter's Basilica, is an Italian Renaissance church in Vatican City, the papal enclave within the city of Rome.

In German, such a church is a Kreuzkuppelkirche, or ‘cross-dome church’. In French, it is an église à croix inscrite, ‘church with an inscribed cross’.

Inscribed figure

In geometry, an inscribed planar shape or solid is one that is enclosed by and "fits snugly" inside another geometric shape or solid. To say that "figure F is inscribed in figure G" means precisely the same thing as "figure G is circumscribed about figure F". A circle or ellipse inscribed in a convex polygon is tangent to every side or face of the outer figure. A polygon inscribed in a circle, ellipse, or polygon has each vertex on the outer figure; if the outer figure is a polygon or polyhedron, there must be a vertex of the inscribed polygon or polyhedron on each side of the outer figure. An inscribed figure is not necessarily unique in orientation; this can easily be seen, for example, when the given outer figure is a circle, in which case a rotation of an inscribed figure gives another inscribed figure that is congruent to the original one.


Architectural form

Plan of a typical cross-in-square church; based on the 10th-century Myrelaion in Constantinople. Cross-in-square.jpg
Plan of a typical cross-in-square church; based on the 10th-century Myrelaion in Constantinople.

A cross-in-square church is centered around a quadratic naos (the ‘square’) which is divided by four columns or piers into nine bays (divisions of space). The inner five divisions form the shape of a quincunx (the ‘cross’). [1] The central bay is usually larger than the other eight, and is crowned by a dome which rests on the columns. The four rectangular bays that directly adjoin this central bay are usually covered by barrel vaults; these are the arms of the "cross" which is inscribed within the "square" of the naos. The four remaining bays in the corner are usually groin-vaulted. The spatial hierarchy of the three types of bay, from the largest central bay to the smallest corner bays, is mirrored in the elevation of the building; the domed central bay is taller than the cross arms, which are in turn taller than the corner bays. [2]

Cella inner chamber of a temple in classical architecture, or a shop facing the street in domestic Roman architecture

A cella or naos is the inner chamber of a temple in classical architecture, or a shop facing the street in domestic Roman architecture, such as a domus. Its enclosure within walls has given rise to extended meanings, of a hermit's or monk's cell, and since the 17th century, of a biological cell in plants or animals.

Bay (architecture) space defined by the vertical piers, in a building

In architecture, a bay is the space between architectural elements, or a recess or compartment. Bay comes from Old French baee, meaning an opening or hole.

Quincunx Pattern of five points, four in a square or rectangle and a fifth at its center

A quincunx is a geometric pattern consisting of five points arranged in a cross, with four of them forming a square or rectangle and a fifth at its center. It forms the arrangement of five units in the pattern corresponding to the five-spot on six-sided dice, playing cards, and dominoes. It is represented in Unicode as U+2059FIVE DOT PUNCTUATION or U+2684DIE FACE-5.

To the west of the naos stands the narthex, or entrance hall, usually formed by the addition of three bays to the westernmost bays of the naos. To the east stands the bema, or sanctuary, often separated from the naos by templon or, in later churches, by an iconostasis. The sanctuary is usually formed by three additional bays adjoining the easternmost bays of the naos, each of which terminates in an apse crowned by a conch (half-dome). The central apse is larger than those to the north and south. The term bema is sometimes reserved for the central area, while the northern section is known as the prothesis and the southern as the diakonikon . [3]


The narthex is an architectural element typical of early Christian and Byzantine basilicas and churches consisting of the entrance or lobby area, located at the west end of the nave, opposite the church's main altar. Traditionally the narthex was a part of the church building, but was not considered part of the church proper.


A templon is a feature of Byzantine churches consisting of a barrier separating the nave from the sacraments at the altar.

Iconostasis a wall of icons and religious paintings, separating the nave from the sanctuary in a church

In Eastern Christianity an iconostasis is a wall of icons and religious paintings, separating the nave from the sanctuary in a church. Iconostasis also refers to a portable icon stand that can be placed anywhere within a church. The iconostasis evolved from the Byzantine templon, a process complete by the fifteenth century.

Although evidence for Byzantine domestic architecture is scant, it appears that the core unit of the cross-in-square church (nine bays divided by four columns) was also employed for the construction of halls within residential structures. [4]

Liturgical use

The architectural articulation of the distinct spaces of a cross-in-square church corresponds to their distinct functions in the celebration of the liturgy. The narthex serves as an entrance hall, but also for special liturgical functions, such as baptism, and as an honored site of burial (often, as in the case of the Martorana in Palermo, for the founders of the church). The naos is the space where the congregation stands during the service. The sanctuary is reserved for the priests. The altar stands in the central bay, or bema, which is sometimes provided with a synthronon, or bench, where the clergy may sit. The prothesis is used for the preparation of the eucharist, and the diakonikon houses liturgical vestments and texts used in the celebration of the Liturgy. [5]

Common variations

Plan of the Chora Church in Constantinople HSX Millingen 1912 fig 105.jpg
Plan of the Chora Church in Constantinople

The architectural form and liturgical function described above correspond to the "classic" type of the cross-in-square church, which is exhibited by a number of significant monuments (for example, by the Myrelaion in Constantinople). However, this classic type represents only one of a number of possible variations on the cross-in-square form.

Particularly in later Byzantine architecture, the core of the cross-in-square plan could be augmented through the addition of peripheral structures. An example is provided by the Chora Church in Constantinople. The original 11th-century cross-in-square was expanded in the 14th century through the addition of a second narthex to the west (exonarthex, or outer narthex) and by a side chapel (parekklesion) to the south, used for burials. [6] The ultimate plans of many other Byzantine churches resulted from a similar diachronic succession of additions about a central, cross-in-square, core; for example, Kalenderhane Camii in Constantinople, [7] Çanlı Kilise in Cappadocia, [8] and the Martorana in Palermo. [9] One particularly common subsidiary structure, witnessed, for example, at Kalenderhane, the Chora Church, and the Martorana, was a bell-tower.

Compact cross-in-square plan, based on the Cattolica in Stilo. The naos is the central liturgical area and bema the sanctuary. Compact cross-in-square.jpg
Compact cross-in-square plan, based on the Cattolica in Stilo. The naos is the central liturgical area and bema the sanctuary.

On the other hand, a radically abbreviated, "compact" form of the cross-in-square existed, built without narthex and with the three apses adjoining directly onto the easternmost bays of the naos. This plan was particularly common in the provinces, for example in southern Italy, [10] in Sicily, [11] and in Cappadocia. [12] In this type of church, the templon barrier was often erected along the axis of the two eastern columns, thus enclosing the three easternmost bays within the sanctuary.

A particularly important variation on the cross-in-square is the so-called "Athonite" or "monastic" plan, in which the rectangular bays at the north and south of the naos also opened onto semi-circular apses, giving the church the appearance of a triconch. This plan, often held to be typical of monastic churches, seems to have developed on Mount Athos in the eleventh century; the lateral apses provided a space for the performance of antiphonal liturgical music by two monastic choirs. [13] An important example of this type outside of Athos is the 14th-century church known as "Profitis Elias" in Thessaloniki. [14]


Christ Pantocrator, in the dome of the Daphni Monastery. Meister von Daphni 002.jpg
Christ Pantocrator, in the dome of the Daphni Monastery.

The interior decoration of the cross-in-square church, usually executed in mosaic but also sometimes in fresco, evolved in close relationship to its architecture, and a "classical" system of decoration may be discerned, represented in particular by the great monastic churches of the eleventh century (for example, Daphni Monastery outside of Athens and Hosios Loukas in Boeotia). This system was defined in a classic study published in the 1940s by Otto Demus, which is summarized in the following account. [15]

The mosaic decoration of a cross-in-square church may be divided into three zones defined by the architectural articulation of the interior: an upper zone, which embraces the cupolas, high vaults, and the conch of the apse; a middle zone, including the squinches, pendentives, and upper parts of the vaults; and the lowest zone, composed of the lower or secondary vaults and the lower parts of the walls. The tripartite division has cosmographic significance: the uppermost zone corresponds to heaven, the middle zone to paradise or the Holy Land, and the lower zone to the terrestrial world. [16]

The Baptism of Christ, at Daphni. The figures on either side of the Jordan face each other across the empty space enclosed by the squinch, which becomes the space of the scene. Meister von Daphni 003.jpg
The Baptism of Christ, at Daphni. The figures on either side of the Jordan face each other across the empty space enclosed by the squinch, which becomes the space of the scene.

In the uppermost zone, only the holiest figures of Christianity are represented (e.g. Christ, the Virgin, and angels) or scenes that are directly related to heaven. For example, the mosaics of the central dome almost invariably represent one of three scenes: the Ascension, Pentecost, or Christ Pantocrator. [17] The middle zone is dominated by narrative scenes representing the great Christological feasts (birth, presentation at the Temple, etc.). [18] The lowermost zone is occupied by the "choir of saints", mostly full-length standing figures, who in Demus's words "share the space" of the congregation. [19]

In the classic system, the mosaics were composed so as to be viewed from the west of the church; that is to say, they were oriented towards the lay beholder. [20] In accordance with this line of vision, the curved spaces of the vaults were employed to create an illusion of space when viewed from the intended angle. The decoration of the cross-in-square church was therefore integrally related to its architecture: "The Byzantine church itself is the 'picture-space' of the icons. It is the ideal iconostasis; it is itself, as a whole, an icon giving reality to the conception of the divine world order." [21]

Origins and development

Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki, an example of the "cross-domed" type often cited as a precursor to the cross-in-square. This picture was taken in 1890, when the church was still being used as a mosque under the Ottoman Empire. Holy Wisdom Thessaloniki as Moslem Temple.jpg
Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki, an example of the "cross-domed" type often cited as a precursor to the cross-in-square. This picture was taken in 1890, when the church was still being used as a mosque under the Ottoman Empire.
Fatih Camii in Tirilye Fatih Cami.JPG
Fatih Camii in Tirilye

The cross-in-square church may be said to constitute a unique artistic development of the middle Byzantine period. Early Byzantine churches were predominantly basilical or centrally planned (e.g. cruciform tetraconch churches, octagons). The question of the origins of the cross-in-square form has therefore engaged art historians since the latter half of the 19th century, although no single account has ever received the unanimous assent of the scholarly community.

The most influential strands in the earlier research attempt to derive the cross-in-square church either from the early Christian basilica (a viewpoint advocated originally by Oskar Wulff, and followed by numerous scholars, including Alexander van Millingen and Charles Diehl) [22] or from the cruciform churches of late antiquity (a theory first advanced by Josef Strzygowski, and later followed in various fashions by Gabriel Millet and André Grabar, among others). [23] According to the basilical theory, the crucial intermediary buildings were the so-called "cross-domed" churches of the seventh and eighth centuries (e.g. Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki and the Church of the Koimesis in Nicaea), [24] while according to the latter theory the corners of cruciform churches were simply "filled in" (as for example at Hosios David in Thessaloniki).

As the discipline of art history has moved away from an evolutionary approach, the question of the "parentage" of the cross-in-square church has receded somewhat, and attention has turned to the dating of the first fully developed examples of the type. Significant in this regard are the church today known as Fatih Camii in Trilye, Bithynia (dated to the early ninth century) and the so-called "Church H" in Side (probably before 800). It has been suggested that the type was developed in a monastic context in Bithynia during the late eighth and early ninth centuries; [25] for example, the church built at the Sakkudion Monastery in the 780s by Theodore the Studite and his uncle Platon, although known only from literary accounts, appears to have been a cross-in-square. [26]

Church of St. Paraskevi, Chernihiv, Ukraine. Built c. 1200; restored in the 20th century. AX Chernihiv Pyatnytska Church.jpg
Church of St. Paraskevi, Chernihiv, Ukraine. Built c.1200; restored in the 20th century.

The influence of the Nea Ekklesia (New Church) in the Great Palace of Constantinople, built around 880, has often been described as crucial to the dominance of the cross-in-square plan in the medieval period; [27] however, the building has not survived, its actual form is much disputed, and it is by no means certain that it was a genuine cross-in-square. [28] Whatever the reasons, the cross-in-square had come to dominate church-building by the later ninth century, [29] perhaps in part because its relatively small scale suited the intrinsically "private" nature of Byzantine piety. [30] The achievements of later Byzantine architecture have been described as "the elaboration of a type of church that was, in its own way, perfect." [31] The near-universal acceptance of the cross-in-square plan in the Byzantine world does not, however, imply the stagnation of artistic creativity, as the numerous variations on the type (described above) demonstrate. These variations seem to represent, not so much a linear evolution of forms, as a series of sensitive responses to various local factors. [32]

Already during the Middle Ages, the cross-in-square plan had spread far beyond the political borders of the Byzantine Empire. The type was adopted and developed in Kievan Rus', and in the various independent kingdoms of the northern Balkans (for example, in the Serbian Empire [33] ).

The cross-in-square church also outlived the political collapse of the Byzantine Empire, continuing to serve as a model for church construction both in Russia and in the Ottoman ("post-Byzantine") Balkans and Asia Minor. In the Balkans the plan remained common until c.1700, especially the "Athonite" variation, a sign of the importance of monastic patronage in this period. [34] The maintenance of this architectural tradition, and its resistance to Turkish and Western influences, has been seen as a means of preserving a unique identity for the Orthodox Church. [35] Beginning in the eighteenth century, a greater variety of architectural forms were employed for church-building in the Ottoman Empire, including revivals of early Christian types (such as the basilica). [36] Although the neo-Byzantine architecture of the 19th and 20th centuries tended to draw on an eclectic set of historical references, the cross-in-square plan did play a role in the formation of "national styles" in the new, post-Ottoman states (for example, in the late 19th-century churches of Serbia [37] ).

See also

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  1. Grossman, Peter (1991). Atiya, Aziz S. (ed.). Cross-in-Square. The Coptic Encyclopedia . New York: Macmillan.
  2. Ousterhout, Master builders, 16.
  3. Ousterhout, Master builders, 13–14.
  4. Mathews and Mathews, "Islamic-style mansions."
  5. Ousterhout, Master builders, 12–14.
  6. Ousterhout, Kariye Camii.
  7. Striker, Kalenderhane.
  8. Ousterhout, Byzantine settlement.
  9. Ćurčić, "Architecture".
  10. For example, the Cattolica in Stilo, S. Marco in Rossano, and S. Pietro in Otranto. See Wharton, Art of empire, 139-45.
  11. The original form of the Martorana in Palermo, S. Nicolò Regale in Mazara del Vallo, and S. Trinità di Delia in Castelvetrano. See Ćurčić, "Architecture", 29–30.
  12. For example the original form of Çanlı Kilise, as well as many rock-cut churches. See Ousterhout, Byzantine settlement.
  13. Mylonas, "Plan initial."
  14. Papazotos, "Church."
  15. Demus, Mosaic decoration.
  16. Demus, Mosaic decoration, 16.
  17. Demus, Mosaic decoration, 16–17.
  18. Demus, Mosaic decoration, 22.
  19. Demus, Mosaic decoration, 26–27.
  20. Demus, Mosaic decoration, 18 and 24.
  21. Demus, Mosaic decoration, 13.
  22. Lange, "Theorien", 94–98.
  23. Lange, "Theorien", 98–99.
  24. Ousterhout, Master builders, 32.
  25. Ousterhout, Master builders, 17–20; Mango, Byzantine architecture, 178-80.
  26. Pratsch, Theodoros, 72.
  27. Dark, Ken (November 1999). "The Byzantine Church and Monastery of St Mary Peribleptos in Istanbul". The Burlington Magazine. 141 (1160): 662–63. JSTOR   888553.
  28. Ousterhout, "Reconstructing", 118–24.
  29. Ousterhout, Master builders, 15.
  30. Ousterhout, "Apologia", 23.
  31. Mango, Byzantine architecture, 249.
  32. Ousterhout, "Apologia", 23–32.
  33. See, for example, Ćurčić, "Thessalonike", 74–83.
  34. Bouras, "Church architecture", esp. 108-9 and 114.
  35. Bouras, "Church architecture", 109 and 119.
  36. On the revival of the basilica, Mantopoulou-Panagiotopoulou, "Aghios Menas", 242 and n. 30.
  37. Pantelić, "Nationalism", 22