The Renaissance Centralized Church: A Mathematical and Divine Expression

The Renaissance period was a time of profound intellectual and artistic transformation, marked by a departure from medieval traditions and a revival of classical ideals. During this era, new architectural concepts emerged, driven by a more scientific understanding of nature and the human body. One of the pivotal developments in Renaissance architecture was the evolution of centralized church plans, guided by principles of precise proportions and mathematical harmony.

The Influence of Vitruvius

The foundation for the Renaissance fascination with precise proportions and measurement can be traced back to the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius.

In his writings, Vitruvius articulated how the human body, with its outstretched arms and legs, perfectly fits into basic geometrical shapes, specifically the circle and the square. This insight triggered a new way of thinking among Renaissance artists, inspiring them to apply mathematical concepts to architectural design (Honour and Fleming 444-445).

However, it was not until the fifteenth century that the concept of the centralized church plan took on a divine significance.

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This transformation occurred when Leon Battista Alberti expounded upon a scientific method for maintaining God's image through mathematical precision in his treatise, "De Re Aedificatoria." This treatise marked the emergence of the first comprehensive program for the ideal Renaissance church (Tavernor 30).

The Divine Symbolism of the Greek Cross

From Alberti's perspective, a centralized church plan should not only exhibit divine symbolism but also adhere to the principles of pure mathematics in its structure. Consequently, the Greek-Cross figure became the favored choice (Heydenreich 36). Alberti's theory profoundly influenced other architects to recognize the importance of the Greek-Cross planning method, a preference that is evident in architectural works such as S.

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Sebastiano, Maria Della Carceri, and St. Peter's Basilica. As a result, the Greek Cross centralized church plan emerged as a divine figure in Renaissance architecture.

Alberti's theoretical demands for architectural perfection were rooted in Vitruvian principles of accuracy and proportion. In the early sixteenth century, Vitruvius began addressing questions about how a building's proportion could be constructed in relation to human anatomy (Wittkower 22). These questions became more explicit through Vitruvian figures inscribed within both a square and a circle, symbolizing the mathematical relationship between humanity and the divine through geometry (Wittkower 25). Alberti expanded on these early ideas, emphasizing that architectural perfection could only be attained by adhering to the fundamental laws of symmetry and proportion, which he derived from the physical characteristics of the human body (Tavernor 40).

Alberti's illustrations combined the square and the circle to create an image that embodied the geometric shapes in relation to human anatomy, a concept reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci's famous drawing of a man with outstretched limbs inscribed within a circle and square (Figure 1). Alberti's intention was to elucidate the ideal architectural beauty through precision and accuracy (Tavernor 40). The Greek Cross central plan, representing a fusion of the square and the circle, was developed through a series of transformations: from the square to the square plus one-half, square plus one-third, and finally, the doubled square (Murray 58).

When these square ratios were applied to architectural plans, they yielded more intricate figures. Consequently, the centralized Greek Cross plan emerged as a visible expression of the Divine Proportion (Smith). Alberti's fixation on geometrical perfection extended to the interior structure as well. For instance, he outlined specific proportions for the height of the walls up to the vaulting in round churches, emphasizing ratios of one to two, two to three, and three to four, all of which conformed to Alberti's law of harmony as delineated in his treatise (Murray 58).

Alberti's conception of beauty was central to his writings and had a profound impact on the High Renaissance. He defined beauty as the "harmony and concord of all the parts, so that nothing could be added or subtracted except for the worse" (Smith). According to Alberti, the Greek Cross symbolized beauty and natural perfection, representing every aspect of God through its precise measurements on all sides of the shape. Consequently, Alberti argued that "beauty will result from the beautiful form and from the correspondence of the whole to the parts, of the parts amongst themselves, and of these again to the whole; so that the structures may appear an entire and complete body" (Wittkower 31).

Alberti emphasized that to truly appreciate Renaissance architecture, one needed to recognize that it was not merely a functional pursuit but rather a mathematical theory of proportion (Smith).

Renaissance Classicism and the Greek Cross

The adoption of the Greek Cross central plan also signified a shift towards Renaissance classicism, which challenged the prevailing architectural styles of the past. Renaissance architects sought mathematical order and simplicity, favoring pure white forms over the Roman Gothic style of churches (Heydenreich 27).

Alberti's emphasis on classical features and the pursuit of classical ideals aligned with his theory of proportion, wherein all sizes and shapes were meticulously defined. An exemplary manifestation of Renaissance classicism can be found in S. Sebastiano, where Alberti employed the Greek Cross plan, incorporating numerous classical elements into the architectural design (Figure 4) (Murray 59).

Alberti's argument for integrating classicism into church design found support in the writings of the architect Palladio. Palladio believed that buildings dedicated to the omnipotent God should stand in the most noble part of the city, elevated above the rest. These buildings should be so magnificent and beautiful that those who entered would be enraptured by their grace and beauty (Wittkower 31). Palladio's ideas resonated with Leonardo da Vinci's principles, which emphasized rising above in all architectural designs (Wittkower 26).

S. Sebastiano exemplifies the meticulous embodiment of Renaissance beauty and a departure from Roman Gothic architectural styles (Smith).

Architectural Examples of the Greek Cross Plan

The impact of the Greek Cross was profound in the development of Renaissance centralized church plans. This geometrical figure was born out of Alberti's in-depth mathematical approach to understanding nature (Tavernor 42). Many Renaissance architects embraced the Greek Cross plan, influenced by Alberti's insistence on achieving architectural beauty through mathematical precision. The concept of comparing architectural structures to human anatomical proportions played a pivotal role in defining architectural ideals. Furthermore, the Greek Cross symbolized divinity, echoing Vitruvius's insights into the relationship between the human body and geometry (Wittkower 25).

Architectural designs that adhered to Alberti's principles of proportion became exemplars of the widespread acceptance of the Greek Cross. For instance, St. Maria Della Carceri, designed by Giuliano Da Sangallo in the early sixteenth century, was the first Greek-Cross structure built (Figure 2). The entire interior and exterior of the church adhered to Alberti's theoretical demands, underscoring the impact of his treatise on Renaissance architecture (Wittkower 31).

The plan for St. Maria Della Carceri was based on the fundamental geometric figures of the square and the circle, with the depth of the arms equal to half their length and the four end walls forming a perfect square. The addition of a dome in the center of the structure added to its symbolism, signifying closure towards heaven or God's presence. The church aimed to evoke a sense of the presence of God through its majestic simplicity, undisturbed impact of geometry, and the purity of its whiteness. All these elements were intended to mirror God's creation of a harmonious and proportionate world (Wittkower 31).

Donato Bramante, another influential architect of the Renaissance, also responded to the theories surrounding the centralized plan. His designs, akin to Leonardo da Vinci's drawings, explored various forms of centrally planned structures. Although da Vinci did not construct buildings, his illustrations profoundly influenced Bramante and contributed to a shift in architectural approaches in the sixteenth century (Figure 5) (Honour and Fleming 444-445).

There is evidence to suggest that Bramante's early design for St. Peter's Basilica was greatly influenced by Leonardo's drawings of centrally planned structures (Honour and Fleming 444-445). When Bramante was tasked with redesigning St. Peter's Basilica at the beginning of the sixteenth century, he envisioned it as a larger version of his previous architectural designs—a central, Greek Cross plan building.

Bramante's design retained the ancient Roman tradition of domed temples, featuring an enormous dome atop St. Peter's. By combining the symbol of the Greek Cross with the symbolic values of centralized geometry, Bramante's design symbolized the perfection of God, aligning with Renaissance thinking. St. Peter's Basilica, with its central plan and dome, epitomized the pursuit of God's perfection (Honour and Fleming 444-445).

Bramante's design was so influential that none of his successors could escape its impact (Honour and Fleming 444-445).


The Renaissance centralized church plans, particularly the Greek Cross central plan, represent a unique intersection of mathematics, divinity, and architectural beauty. This architectural innovation was shaped by the insights of Vitruvius, expanded upon by Alberti, and influenced by the meticulous studies of human anatomy and geometry.

Alberti's insistence on precision and proportion as the key to architectural perfection left an indelible mark on Renaissance architecture. His belief that buildings should adhere to mathematical theories of proportion rather than mere functional considerations reshaped the architectural landscape of the era. The Greek Cross plan, with its fusion of the square and the circle, became a visual embodiment of divine proportion, reflecting the Renaissance aspiration for harmony and concord in all aspects of life.

Architects like Giuliano Da Sangallo and Donato Bramante embraced the Greek Cross plan, further solidifying its significance in Renaissance architecture. The ideals of classicism, purity of form, and a return to classical elements became the hallmark of this era's architectural creations.

The Greek Cross plan, rooted in mathematical precision and imbued with divinity, remains a testament to the Renaissance's pursuit of beauty, harmony, and the divine in architectural design. It stands as a lasting symbol of an era that sought to elevate the human spirit through the perfect union of science, mathematics, and art.

Updated: Jan 17, 2024
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The Renaissance Centralized Church: A Mathematical and Divine Expression. (2017, May 16). Retrieved from

The Renaissance Centralized Church: A Mathematical and Divine Expression essay
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