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Architecture as Religious Expression

In class, we considered two examples of how architecture expresses a religious traditions experience.  The first is Gothic architecture of the Christian church in Europe during the middle ages. The second is the temple at Kandariya in northern India built around 1100 AD.  
Gothic Architecture: "Luminous Wholeness"  
As Christianity spread throughout Western Europe, architecture was adapted to the needs of the Church. Generally, Christian Churches were constructed on the East-West axis with entrance facing west.  This East–West orientation made the entrance into Church a movement from dark to light. Moreover,  Churches were often constructed on sites that were already “sacred.”  For example the cathedral at  Chartres was build on the site where a pagan goddess was worshipped. Interestingly, in Chartres became associated with Mary, the Mother of Jesus. In fact there are over 175 symbols or images of Mary in the Cathedral at Chartres.

Between 800 and 1100 AD the Church utilized Romanesque architecture.  Its characteristics included the "barrel vault ceiling," a cross-shaped floor plan, relatively low walls and dim lighting.  These churches were often designed to accommodate large numbers of pilgrims who had come to view the relics (remains of a saint, or items associated with Jesus, Mary, the Apostles or a saint) housed in the church.  An ambulatory was a walk way around the high altar that allowed pilgrims to get close to the relics.

Beginning around 1100 AD the Church sought to express certain ideals through a new form or architecture that became known as Gothic. The ideals of Gothic architecture included:

      A belief that the church structure must be a visible “text”

      Mathematical Harmony: A belief that sacred reality was reflected in the truths of math, proportion and nature

      Luminosity: Strong emphasis on light as symbol of the light of revelation

What allowed the Church to realize these ideals was an innovation known as the "flying buttress." The flying buttress was an external support that was placed in strategic locations to counter the outward pressure on the wall. Flying buttresses allowed much higher walls to be built. In addition, to the flying buttress, Gothic architecture is characterized by high walls, large stain glass windows, and soaring, tree-like columns.


Kandariya: The inward journey to mystery  
About the time that the first Gothic cathedrals were appearing in Europe, a great temple was being constructed in Kandariya in northern India. This temple is dedicated to the worship of Shiva who, according to Hinduism, dwells in a cave under a mountain in the Himalayas. The temple re-presents the dwelling place of Shiva.  It appears to be a series of mountains leading to a highest peak. Moreover, the outside of the temple is covered with elaborate carvings depicting the activities of gods and mortals.

Before entering the temple, worshippers circumambulate it to view all the external activities that are represented in the temple's carvings. One then enters the temple from the east and proceeds toward the west.  Symbolically, this can be thought of as a journey from the light (east) toward darkness (west). In this case, darkness does not carry a negative connotation; rather it symbolizes the journey into the interior mystery of life. The central room of the temple is called the "womb room"  and  is clearly meant to recreate the cave where Shiva dwells. It houses the symbol of Shiva and is directly below the highest spire of the temple. It thus is a recreation of the dwelling place of Shiva and symbolically portrays Shiva as the source that underlies all creation.