The symbolic meaning of the dome has developed over millennia. Although the precise origins are unknown, a mortuary tradition of domes existed across the ancient world, as well as a symbolic association with the sky. Both of these traditions may have a common root in the use of the domed hut, a shape which was translated into tombs and associated with the heavens.
The mortuary tradition has been expressed in domed mausoleums, martyriums, and baptisteries. The celestial symbolism was adopted by rulers in the Middle East to emphasize their divine legitimacy and was inherited by later civilizations down to the present day as a general symbol of governmental authority.
According to E. Baldwin Smith, from the late Stone Age the dome-shaped tomb was used as a reproduction of the ancestral, god-given shelter made permanent as a venerated home of the dead. The instinctive desire to do this resulted in widespread domical mortuary traditions across the ancient world, from the stupas of India to the tholos tombs of Iberia. The Scythians built such domed tombs, as did some Germanic tribes in a paraboloid shape. By Hellenistic and Roman times, the domical tholos had become the customary cemetery symbol.
Smith writes that in the process of transforming the hut shape from its original pliable materials into more difficult stone construction, the dome had also become associated with celestial and cosmic significance, as evident from decoration such as stars and celestial chariots on the ceilings of domed tombs. This cosmological thinking was not limited to domed ceilings, being part of a symbolic association between any house, tomb, or sanctuary and the universe as a whole, but it popularized the use of the domical shape. Michele Melaragno writes that the nomadic tribes of central Asia are the origin of a symbolic tradition of round domed-tents being associated with the sky and heavens that eventually spread to the Middle East and the Mediterranean.
Herbert Howe writes that throughout the Middle East domes were symbolic of “the tent of the ruler, and especially of the god who dwells in the tent of the heavens.” Passages in the Old Testament and intertestamental literature document this, such as Psalms 123:1,[note 1] Isaiah 40:22,[note 2] I Kings 8:30,[note 3] Isaiah 66:1,[note 4] Psalms 19:4,[note 5] and Job 22:14.[note 6]
Domes and tent-canopies were associated with the heavens in Ancient Persia and the Hellenistic-Roman world. A dome over a square base reflected the geometric symbolism of those shapes. The circle represented perfection, eternity, and the heavens. The square represented the earth. An octagon was intermediate between the two. Persian kings used domed tents in their official audiences to symbolize their divinity, and this practice was adopted by Alexander the Great.
The distinct symbolism of the heavenly or cosmic tent stemming from the royal audience tents of Achaemenid and Indian rulers was adopted by Roman rulers in imitation of Alexander, becoming the imperial baldachin. This probably began with Nero, whose “Golden House” also made the dome an essential feature of palace architecture. The allegory of Alexander the Great’s domical tent in Roman imperial architecture coincided with the “divinification” of Roman emperors and served as a symbol of this. The semi-domed apse became a symbol of Imperial authority under Domitian and depictions of emperors into the Byzantine period used overhead domes or semidomes to identify them. Karl Swoboda writes that even by the time of Diocletian, the dome probably symbolized sovereignty over the whole world.
Early and Medieval Christianity
Martyriums and baptisteries
The Christian use of domes acknowledged earlier symbolic associations. The traditional mortuary symbolism led the dome to be used in Christian central-type martyriums in the Syrian area, the growing popularity of which spread the form. The spread and popularity of the cult of relics also transformed the domed central-type martyriums into the domed churches of mainstream Christianity. In Italy in the 4th century, baptisteries began to be built like domed mausoleums and martyriums, which spread in the 5th century. This reinforced the theological emphasis on baptism as a re-experience of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The dual sepulchral and heavenly symbolism was adopted by early Christians in both the use of domes in architecture and in the ciborium, a domical canopy like the baldachin used as a ritual covering for relics or the church altar. The celestial symbolism of the dome, however, was the preeminent one by the Christian era. The octagon, which is transitional between the circle and the square, came to represent Jesus’ Resurrection in early Christianity and was used in the ground plans of martyriums and baptisteries for that reason. The domes themselves were sometimes octagonal, rather than circular.
Literary evidence exists that the idea of the cosmic temple had been applied to the Christian basilica by the end of the 4th century, in the form of a speech by Eusebius on a church in Tyre. However, it is only in the mid 6th century that the earliest literary evidence of a cosmological interpretation of a domed church building exists, in a hymn composed for the cathedral church of Edessa. Kathleen E. McVey traces this to a blending by Jacob of Serugh of the two major but contradictory schools of biblical exegesis at the time: the building-as-microcosm tradition of the Antioch school combined with the Alexandrian view of the cosmos and firmament as composed of spheres and hemispheres, which was rejected by the Antioch school. Gold was used as the color of Heaven, and Charles Stewart notes that the emphasis on light from windows beneath the domes of Justinian’s imperial commissions corresponds to the Neo-Platonist idea of light as a symbol of wisdom.
Beginning in the late eighth century, portraits of Christ began to replace gold crosses at the centers of church domes, which Charles Stewart suggests may have been an over-correction in favor of images after the periods of Iconoclasm in the eighth and ninth centuries. One of the first was on the nave dome of Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki, and this eventually developed into the bust image known as the Pantokrator. Michele Melaragno writes that the concept of “Christ the King” was the Christian counterpoint to the Roman tradition of emperor deification and so absorbed the dome symbolism associated with it. Otto Demus writes that Middle Byzantine churches were decorated in a systematic manner and can be seen as having three zones of decoration, with the holiest at the top. This uppermost zone contained the dome, drum and apse. The dome was reserved for the Pantokrator (meaning “ruler of all”), the drum usually contained images of angels or prophets, and the apse semi-dome usually depicted the Virgin Mary, typically holding the Christ child and flanked by angels.
According to Oleg Grabar, the domes of the Islamic world, which rejected such imagery, continued the other traditions. Muslim royalty built palatial pleasure domes in continuation of the Roman and Persian imperial models, although many have not survived, and domed mausoleums from Merv to India developed the form. In the early centuries of Islam, domes were closely associated with royalty. A dome built in front of the mihrab of a mosque, for example, was at least initially meant to emphasize the place of a prince during royal ceremonies. Over time such domes became primarily focal points for decoration or the direction of prayer. The use of domes in mausoleums can likewise reflect royal patronage or be seen as representing the honor and prestige that domes symbolized, rather than having any specific funerary meaning.
Variety of form
Doğan Kuban writes that even seemingly minor variations in shape, structure, and functional use had theoretical implications, and were the “result of complex and culturally significant developments in the Islamic world, where the dome and minaret became symbols of Islam.” The wide variety of dome forms in medieval Islam reflected dynastic, religious, and social differences as much as practical building considerations.
Theresa Grupico writes that the use of the octagon in the Dome of the Rock, imperial funerary architecture, or mosque architecture may be a borrowing from earlier Byzantine or Persian use or reflect the idea of Paradise having “eight gardens with eight doors”. The use of Koranic text to decorate the pendentives of domes in the Islamic world replaces the human depictions of Christian iconography, such as the Four Evangelists, but similarly represents the way to the Word of God.
Oleg Grabar characterizes forms in Islamic architecture as having relatively low levels of symbolism. While conceding this in a general sense, Yasser Tabbaa maintains that certain forms were initially very highly symbolic and only lost such associations over time. The phenomenon of muqarnas domes, in particular, is an example. Tabbaa explains the development and spread of muqarnas domes throughout the Islamic world beginning in the early 11th century as the visual expression of a theological idea of the universe propounded by the Ash’arites (a modification of the Atomism of Aristotle with Occasionalism), which rose to prominence in Baghdad at this time. Only later was the style used in a purely decorative manner.
Ottoman mosques, such as the Mosque of Suleyman the Great in Istanbul, have been interpreted as “challenging” the Hagia Sophia or “inviting similarities” of message beyond the merely visual.
According to James Mitchell, in the Renaissance the dome began to be a symbol throughout Europe of the unity of religion. Nathaniel Curtis wrote that the large domes of the Renaissance implied “ideas of power, dominance or centralization – as the capitol of a nation or of a state.” He noted that Guadet said of St. Peter’s, “it is less the roof of the greatest of all churches than the covering and sign of this centre to which converges the entire unity of Catholicism.”
The appearance of the oval in architecture has been extensively discussed by architectural historians. Although not an idea originating in the Renaissance, by the beginning of the 1500s the idea of the oval was “in the air”, according to Santiago Huerta. During the discussions of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which began the Counter-Reformation of the Catholic Church in response to the Protestant Reformation, the circle and square were declared too pagan for Christian churches. According to Hanno-Walter Kruft, the effects of those reforms actually adopted by the Council were varied, but the one known written example of the Council’s resolutions being applied to architecture, Cardinal Charles Borromeo’s Instructiones fabricae et supellectilis ecclesiasticae of 1577, “condemns the circular form as heathenish.” The publication was addressed only to Borromeo’s own diocese of Milan, but gained currency throughout Europe. In addition to the oval form’s inherent appeal, its use may have been influenced by the European Age of Exploration, as well as by the theory of the elliptical orbits of planets.
Kendall Wallis writes that the decision to build the national capitol building of the United States with a large dome “took a form laden with symbolic sacred meaning and ascribed a radically secular meaning to it.” The decorative use of coffers is meant to evoke a connection with the classical origins of democracy and republicanism. “It represented the legislative power of the republic”, sanctified. The ideas of religious association and sky symbolism also persisted in their resonance with the providential overtones of America’s sense of its vocation in the world and, more pronounced in the state capitols, in the stars and sky scenes depicted on the domes. Those state capitol domes built after the American Civil War that resembled the second national capitol dome referred symbolically to the Federal government and so to the idea of “the Union”.
Both Hitler and Stalin planned, but never completed, enormous domed assembly halls as part of their efforts to establish global capital cities. Hitler’s Volkshalle, or “People’s Hall”, was meant to have a dome 250 meters wide and hold 200,000 people. The Palace of the Soviets in Moscow was meant to be the tallest building in the world, rising above a domed congress hall 100 meters wide for 21,000 world socialist delegates. The foundations were begun for the Palace of the Soviets on the site of the demolished Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, but technical problems postponed the project and it was abandoned after Stalin’s death in the 1950s. R. J. Overy writes that these were meant to be monuments to dictatorship and Utopian civilization that would last for ages.
According to Giovanni Rizzoni, although the dome traditionally represented absolute power, the modern glass dome of the German Reichstag building expresses both the sovereignty of the people, who as tourists are literally above the legislature while touring the dome, and the accessibility of parliamentary democracy, due to the transparency of the glass dome and the window it provides into the legislative chamber below.
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