Analyze the development of the centralized church plan in Renaissance architecture (15th and 16th centuries). In your examples, include an analysis of meaning and symbolism.
During the Renaissance period, new centralized church plans developed as a result of a more scientific approach to nature. The idea of precise proportions and measurement emerged through Vitruvius’ theory regarding human anatomy. Vitruvius described how human body, with extended arms and legs, fits perfectly into the most basic geometrical shapes: circle and square. This concept triggered the minds of artists during the Renaissance to take on a new approach for church plans (Honour and Fleming 444-445).
However, it is not until the fifteenth century that the centralized plan was regarded as a divine expression when Alberti discussed scientific method of maintaining God’s image through mathematical approach in De Re Aedificatoria, a treatise containing the first full program of the ideal Renaissance church (Tavernor 30).
From Alberti’s perspective, a centralized plan should reveal God’s symbol while keeping pure forms of absolute mathematics in the structure, therefore the Greek-Cross figure is favored (Heydenreich 36).
His theory influenced many others to realize the importance of the Greek-Cross planning method, and this is reflected in works such as S. Sebastiano, Maria Della Carceri and St. Peter’s. Thus, the Greek-Cross centralized church plan was developed, that became the divine figure for Renaissance architecture.
The development of Greek-Cross plan is derived from Alberti’s theoretical demands based on Vitruvius’ basic principles of accuracy and proportions. In the early sixteenth century, Vitruvius began answering questions regarding how a buildings proportion is constructed through human anatomy (Wittkower 22). Such question is further raised through Vitruvian figures drawn within a square and circle became a symbol of the mathematical relationship between man and god through geometry (Wittkower 25). Alberti, who suggested that to obtain architectural perfection, one must follow the basic laws of symmetry and proportions, expanded on these early ideas. In his treatise, he had defined the laws of symmetry and proportion through the physical characteristics of the human body (Tavernor 40).
There, he combined a square and circle to generate the image of the geometrical shapes in relation to human anatomy, identical to Leonard Da Vinci’s drawing of a man with outstretched limbs located within a circle and square (figure 1). Alberti’s intention was to clarify the ideal architectural beauty for others during the time, through accuracy and precision (Tavernor 40). The Greek Cross central plan is developed through three transformations from the square, square plus one-half, square plus one third, and the square doubled (Murray 58).
If these square ratios are applied to architectural plans, more complex figures can be produced; subsequently the centralized Greek Cross plan was developed and was a visible expression of the Divine Proportion. (Smith) Alberti’s obsession over geometrical perfection involved applying his theory within the interior structure as well. For example, the height of the wall up to the vaulting in round churches should be one-half, two thirds of three quarters of the diameter of the plan. These proportions of one to two, two to three, and three to four conform to Alberti’s law of harmony, written in his treatise (Murray 58 58).
It was Alberti who expressed the theory of beauty in his writing, which became so influential for the High Renaissance. He defined beauty, “harmony and concord of all the parts, so that nothing could be added or subtracted except for the worse” (Smith). From Alberti’s explanation, the symbolism of the Greek Cross is regarded as a beautiful and natural figure, representing every aspect of God due to the precise measurements on all sides of the shape. Therefore, Alberti argued “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). He believed to thoroughly appreciate Renaissance architecture, one should understand architecture is not based on theories of function but rather view it as mathematical theory of proportion (Smith).
Another significance from the Greek Cross central plan is signifying the development of Renaissance architecture. For Alberti and architects of the Renaissance, the emphasis on classicism is ideal, which challenges a different approach from the previous. Pursuing mathematical order and simplicity of pure whites have replaced the Roman gothic style churches (Heydenreich 27). Also, the prominence of classical features is more suited for Alberti’s theory of proportion so that all sizes and shapes are defined. A clear example of Renaissance classicism is S. Sebastiano, where Alberti used Greek-Cross plan that shows almost all of his own theoretical requirements as well as several classical elements in the architectural design (figure 4) (Murray 59).
Alberti’s argument for incorporating classicism, a high flight of steps and pilasters at the temple front is best supported by architect Palladio’s correspondence with Alberti’s ideas: “buildings in which the supreme Being is invokved and adored should stand in the most noble part of the city, raised above the rest of the city…they ought to be built so that nothing more beautiful could be imagined and those who enter should be transported into a kind of ecstacy in admiring their grace and beauty. Buildings dedicated to the omnipotent God should be strong and everlasting…” (Wittkower 31) This idea of rising above is coherent to Leonardo Da Vinci’s principle, which he adhered to in all his designs (Wittkower 26). S. Sebastiano exemplifies the meticulous image of Renaissance beauty, and developing architectural style beyond the Roman gothic style (Smith).
Another example of a building resembling absolute proportion is St. Maria Della Carceri, designed by architect Giuliano Da Sangallo. After Alberti’s treatise on architecture was published in 1485, the centrally planned church became popular. Many architects during the Renaissance conformed to his law of harmony. Within the same year, the church of St. Maria Delle Carceri was the first Greek-Cross structure built. The entire interior and exterior description of Giuliano da Sangallo’s church complies with Alberti’s theoretical demands, demonstrating the impact Alberti made through his publication (Wittkower 31).
The plan for St. Maria Delle Carceri is based on the two elementary figures of square and circle, where the depth of the arms is half their length and the four end walls of the cross are as long as they are high, therefore forming a perfect square (figure 2). The structure contains desirable symbolic feature by integrating a dome in the center. It appeals more to Christianity to represents closure towards heaven or God’s presence. The grand church is viewed as “…a majestic simplicity, the undisturbed impact of its geometry, the purity of its whiteness are designed to evoke in the congregation a consciousness of the presence of God – of a God who has ordered the universe according to immutable mathematical laws, who has created a uniform and beautifully proportioned world, the consonance and harmony of which is mirrored in His temple below.” (Wittkower 31)
Donato Bramante was another architect who responded to historian’s theory concerning centralized plan. His designs are similar to Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawings on centralized plan, where he sketched numerous centrally planned forms and illustrates complex geometrical forms from the first simple shape (figure 5). Da Vinci’s intentions were interpreting Vitruvius’ explanation more accurately through visual art (figure 1) (Wittkower 25). The importance of these drawings reflects Da Vinci’s conscious theoretical speculations for which a new technique of representation is produced (Wittkower 25). Although Da Vinci did not build anything, through his illustrations, Bramente was profoundly influenced that affected the sixteenth century approach. It is likely that those drawings allowed Bramante to comprehended the versatile of geometrical shapes, influencing architecture (figure 4) (Honour and Fleming 444-445).
There is even evidence to believe that Bramante’s early design for St. Peter’s was much influenced by Leonardo’s drawings of centrally planned structures. (Honour and Fleming 444-445) When Bramante was appointed to redesign the Saint Peter’s at the beginning of the sixteenth century, he envisioned the new it as a grander version of his previous architectural design: a central, Greek cross plan building.
The design must continue the ancient Roman tradition of domed temples, therefore St. Peter’s is crowned by an enormous dome. Bramante, like others before him, combined the symbol of the Greek cross with the symbolic values of centralized geometry. (Wittkower 34). Bramante submitted his Greek cross design on a large scale, which reflects Alberti’s humanist-Christian idea in pure form. In Renaissance thinking, Bramante’s St. Peter’s central plan and dome also symbolized the perfection of God (Honour and Fleming 444-445). Certainly, so overwhelming was Bramante’s design that none of his successors could divert his influence (Honour and Fleming 444-445).
The impact of the Greek cross was enormous for the development of Renaissance centralized plan. The geometrical figure is a result of Alberti’s in depth mathematical approach of viewing nature (Tavonor 42). Many Renaissance architects utilized the Greek Cross plan due to Alberti and other historians theory regarding obtaining architectural beauty. For them, comparing building structures to human anatomy proportion was essential in defining what is ideal. More importantly, the Greek cross symbolizes divinity. Vitruvius also discussed the relationship between the human body and geometry, which is crucial for the creation of the Greek cross (Wittkower 25). Such explanation expanded by Alberti influenced the formation in several significant churches, such as the Maria Della Carceri, St. Peter’s design and S. Sebastiano. Architects who designed these churches corresponded with Alberti’s argument, therefore demonstrating the wide acceptance of the Greek Cross.
Heydenreich, L. Architecture in Italy, 1400-1500. rev. ed., New Haven, 1996.
Honour and Fleming, The Visual Arts: a History, 4th ed, 1995, 444-445.
Murray, P. The Architecture of the Italian Renaissance. London, 1963.
Smith, Bernard. “University of Melbourne.” University of Melbourne. Print. http://shaps.unimelb.edu.au/public-resources/database-resources/bernardsmith/lectures/BSmith-HighRenaissance.pdf.
Tavernor, R. On Alberti and the Art of Building. New Haven, 1998.
Wittkower, R. Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism. 3rd ed., London, 1962.
Figure 1: Da Vinci’s human anatomy drawing http://www.centopietrevenice.typepad.com/ca_centopietre_bed_and_br/2009/11/leonardothe-vitruvian-man-between-art-and-science-accademia-galleries.html
Figure 2: S. Maria Della Carceri centralized plan by Giuliano Da Sanglio
Figure 3: S. Sebastiano front view
Figure 4: S. Sebastiano centralized plan
Figure 5: Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawing on centralized plan
Figure 6: Bramante’s St. Peter’s design
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Development of the Renaissance Centralized Church Plan. (2017, May 16). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/development-of-the-renaissance-centralized-church-plan-essay