The Basilica of La Madeleine, Vezelay

Spatial and Symbolic Narratives in the Medieval Western Christian Church

Thomas Barrie
College of Architecture and Design
Lawrence Technical Univesity
Southfield, MI

( ) Sacred architecture can be understood, in part, as a cultural artifact that traditionally has symbolized religius beliefs and fasilitated the enactment of shared rituals. Though this is a generally accepted concept, it is an area of analysis that has not benefited from focused and comprehensive research in architectural history and theory. Moreover, the religious dimension of architecture has been either minimized by historians or misrepresented by narrow ideologies. The research background of this paper intended to rectify these limitations. Its methodology included a survey of common mythological themes from the world's religious traditions and extensive fieldwork at major sacred sites aroudn the world to establish correspondences between religious beliefs and rituals and the architecture build to serve them. In particular, common myths of spritual quests and their relationship to the form, organization, spatial sequence and symbolic narratives in sacred architecture were examined in detail.

( ) This papers argues that the entry, path sequence, and sanctuary of sacred architecture often symbolized the spritual path and its goal, and its ambulation by the religious acolyte recapitulated the spriritual quest. A general discussion of the hero redeemer figure and the recurring theme of the spiritual quest, and its pan-cultural and trans-historic renditions in sacred architecture, introduces the subject. The paper's focus on shared mythic and architectural themes intends to broaden the boundaries of architectural research and includes a discussion of self-organizing systsm.

( ) The spatial sequence and symbolic narrative of Basilica of La Madeleine in Vezelay (Fr.), serves as the paper's case study, and is examined in depth. The Medieval Western Christian Church compromised a complex matrix of cultural and relitious forces; Roman, "Pagan", Christian and regional elements influenced its organization, imagery and ritual use. For example, as the Roman Catholic Church eventually replaced the political structure of the Roman Empire, its authority was expressed, in part, through the replication and transformation of Roman architectural elements, motifs and symbols of power. The ecclesiastical and political power of the Basilica was symbolized by the imagery, iconography, organization, and spatial and temporal sequence of the architecture. The Christian pilgrim recapitualted the spiritual journey to (or often around), a place of authority and sacrality; a mimesis of Christ's journey to apotheosis.

( ) This paper utilizes in-depth field work and a range of scholarly texts to structure its argument: E. Baldwin Smith's "City-Gate Concept"; Herbert Whone's comendium of Christian symbolism; Otto von Simpson's research on the Sholastic tradition; Mircea Eliad'es concepts of sacred space, time and ritual; Christian Norberg-Schulz's analysis of spatial hierarchy; Joseph Campbell's writings on "universal mythic themes" and in particular the "myth of the hero's journey"; Carl Jung's writings on symbolism; Rudolf Arnheim's thesis on the dynamics of architectural form and experience; and Kevin Lynch's and J.G. Davie's definitions of path and place; inform the argument.

About the Author
Thomas Barrie is Associate Professor of architecture at Lawrence Technological University, Southfield, Michigan where he teaches undergraduate and graduate design studios and courses in history-theory and design theory. He is a scholar of sacred architecture whose research has brought him to sacred sites aroudn the world, and has published numerous articles and lectured extensively on his subject area. Thomas is the author of Spritiual Path, Sacred Place: Myth, Ritual and Meaning in Architecture published by Shambhala Publications (1996). Professor Barrie also maintains a critical architectural practice which includes a wide range of projects. HE holds a master of philosophy degree in architectural history and theory rom the University of Manchester, England, and a master of architectural design from Vrirgina Tech.

Thomas Barrie: Associate Professor
College of Architecture and Design
Lawrence Technical Univesity
21000 West Ten Mile Road
Southfield, MI 48075-1058
Ph: 248-204-2840
Fax: 248-204-2900

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