Development of the Renaissance Centralized Church Plan

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Topic: 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...
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