Whenever I travel, one of the things I inevitably do is visit the biggest church in the place. And judging by the queues outside Notre Dame in Paris, and St Peter’s in Rome, I’m not alone.
But a few months ago when I was standing inside Hagia Sofia in Istanbul bending my neck right back so I could stare in awe at the domed ceiling high above me, a thought struck me: why doesn’t it fall down? It’s a huge space, with a large dome soaring over it. Sure there are some columns, but they’re off to the sides. I got a little nervous. It started me thinking about big domes I’ve stood under. I began to really appreciate and admire the people who built them. And be grateful for their engineering skills. This is definitely not a lesson in architecture—I do not pretend to understand it. But it’s my homage to some big, beautiful domes which I recommend you visit some day. In order of age:
The Pantheon, Rome, Italy
Photo source: Stanrandom’s at flicker (cc)
The Pantheon is a great building hiding in a square between the Tiber River and the main drag of Via del Corso (it’s covered on Viator’s Classical Rome Guided Tour). Built around 125 AD, it is the best-preserved Roman building in the world, has been in continuous use as a site of worship (first of Roman gods and since the 7th century as a Catholic church), and has a huge dome with no pillars!
Going inside The Pantheon is incredible. It has only a single door in its circular shape, and a hole (lantern) at the top of the dome to let in light. The dome is as tall as it is wide, 43.3m (142ft) and is supported on the circular walls. It’s made of concrete with light volcanic rock included to lessen the weight. So it doesn’t fall on our heads. Impressively, until the 19th century this was the widest dome in the world. I always find it a really intense experience being inside The Pantheon. To think that architects that long ago could work out a way to make this sort of building stand up. And do it so well that we can wander in there now with our digital cameras and mobile phones and iPods, all of which break after a year or two.
I confess I always take off my shoes to feel the cool marble under my feet. This could be my favorite building in the world. So simple, so remarkable. Of course The Pantheon became a model for many of the following amazing domes.
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey
Photo source: Vanity Press at flicker (cc)
The unusual thing about this building (visited on a few of Viator’s Istanbul Architectural Tours) is that it started life around 530AD as a Christian church and was then transformed into a mosque in the 1450s, when the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople (as it was known until it officially became Istanbul in 1930). Bells and altars were removed and minarets were added giving the building the appearance it has today. Now it is a museum. But its greatest fame is its huge dome, on which many other mosques are based.
Forty windows below the dome flood the building with light and make the dome seem light as air. But it’s not. The original dome almost crushed the whole building because the supporting walls had too much mortar, not enough brick. They were even cost cutting in those days! The dome has been rebuilt several times and rests on pillars. It has lost its perfect circular shape but anyone going inside will forgive it.
Hagia Sophia is so beautifully decorated, and is indeed so light filled as to be a sight of wonder. You can walk around an upper gallery and gaze closely at the paintings of saints—sometimes in golden mosaics with their benefactors. Don’t go near the edge if you get vertigo. There is also a pillar with a hole to insert your thumb. If it comes out damp you will be cured of any ills. Mine came out dry and I had that head cold for about a month.
Duomo, Florence, Italy
Photo source: ccblaisdell at flicker (cc)
Most of Florence’s Basilica was finished by the beginning of the 15th century but there was still the small problem of the 42m gap where the dome was supposed to go. A competition was held and Brunelleschi won. (The all-powerful Medicis supported him—it really helps to keep good company.)
Brunelleschi used over 4 million bricks to build his high dome that weights 37,000 tons! Others declared Brunelleschi’s engineering of the dome impossible so he threw a hissy fit, pretended to be ill and went to Rome. When they admitted they couldn’t build the Duomo without him, he came back, took full control, and put his bricks together in the way they still exist nearly 600 years later.
The red brick dome of the Renaissance Duomo proudly dominates the Florence skyline. Brunelleschi was lucky that Florence never became a skyscraper city. From the hilltop across the Arno River, it is possible to look over Florence and see it as it must have been hundreds of years ago—a small, wealthy town nestled in green countryside with a magnificent central church.
St Peter’s, Vatican City, Rome
Photo source: pikchergirl at flicker (cc)
Not long after Brunelleschi, Michelangelo designed a bigger and better dome for St Peter’s in Rome. Although I have to say, the sheer scale of St Peter’s detracts from the dome for me. Whereas the Pantheon is all dome, and the Duomo is such a dominating part of Florence, St Peter’s looks like a huge church with a dome popped on top. Is it wrong to see it like that?
There are technical aspects such as Michelangelo having made his dome ovoid to give it a greater sense of thrusting upwards towards the huge lantern bringing in light at the top. And it really does feel huge when you stand under it. It’s 136.5m (448ft) high, the highest dome in the world, so you feel rather awed. But it’s not as wide as either the Pantheon or the Duomo. Alarmingly, this dome began to crack in the mid 18th century so chains were put in to hold the inner dome to the outer shell dome. Hopefully, these will continue to hold. (The Florence Duomo is also held in place by chains.)
If you can make it up all those steps, the view across Vatican City and Rome from the dome is impressive. As is all the decoration inside St Peter’s and inside the dome itself. Leave plenty of time for your visit.
St Paul’s, London, England
Photo source:gilder_2001 at flicker (cc)
Sir Christopher Wren got his chance at this building after London burnt to the ground due to a careless baker in 1666. His first few designs (spires) were rejected but the powers that be liked the idea of a big dome—surprise!
If you look at photographs of London as it was then, you can see how St Paul’s used to dominate the landscape, as a good cathedral should. These days you get an excellent view of it across the river since the Millennium Bridge was built and the area opened up for a view across the Thames. But apart from that, St Paul’s is a bit lost in a maze of winding old streets and tall buildings. Shame.
The dome here (65m high inside) is built similarly to the Duomo and St Peter’s with several shells, this time three. (See for yourself on a Private Guided Tour of St Paul’s.) The middle one is the structural one. The others are there to be pretty. And they do this well. This design gives St Paul’s a special aspect: The Whispering Gallery. 30m (99ft) above the floor, reached by hundreds of steps (again the vertiginous should beware), there is a gallery running around the inside of the dome where you can lean against the wall and whisper and be heard by anyone anywhere along the wall. It only works if you whisper. Hmm, what was Wren planning here? Or is it a side fluke of the design? You decide.
By Philippa Burne