Victoria Hammond begins her chapter in David Stephenson’s revolutionary book about the dome with this quote: the dome offers ‘a kaleidoscope of shifting visions of heaven ranging from the grand cosmology of imperial Rome, through richly embroidered Byzantine worlds and the mystical geometry of Islam, to the sublime serenity of the Renaissance and the gravity-defying transfigurations of the Baroque, culminating in the ethereal lightness of the rococo and beyond.’ This encompasses the immense propagation of the domical form across eras and cultures, and shows its profound use in helping us to trace this architectural history. The first section of this essay shall discuss how the domed edifice has developed from ancient sacred forms, then moving forward to discuss the specific effects that this history has had on the dome structure. The last section will focus on the importance of dome decoration in tracing history. In choosing three examples — the Cathedral of the Assumption (Fig 1) in the Kremlin, consecrated in 1479, the Alhambra’s Sala de las dos Hermanas (Fig 2), built in the Islamic style in 1258, and the dome of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge (Fig 3), finished in 1965 — I hope to give a comprehensive conclusion to the idea that domes take their form from a wide range of times and places, and tracing this complex history gives a thorough understanding of the meanings that can be attributed to them.
‘Just as the dome form itself represents the transcendent sphere, so its history transcends race and religion.’ The dome has a complex and varied history, to which it owes its ‘transcendent sphere’ form, and the place to begin is with the primitive shelter concept. At the most primitive level, the most prevalent type of constructed shelter was circular in plan and covered with a curved roof. Circles of saplings or leaves would have been bound together and bent inwards at the top to form a roof. This was the easiest method of construction, as there was no need to bind a separate roof to the structure. From this, the associations of the dome and curved drum with ‘a tribal and ancestral shelter’, therefore home, came about. In fact, the Arctic Inuits continue to build their snow homes, igloos, using a domical structure. The etymology of the word, coming from ‘domus’, meaning ‘house’, illustrates this quality further, also extending the dome’s purpose to ‘house’ other things. The Middle Ages and Renaissance saw the word translate into Domus Dei , the Italians into duomo, the Germans and Danish into Dom, and as late as 1656 in England, dome meant ‘Town-House, Guildhall, State-House or Meeting-House.’
A large, but rather primitive, example of a dome is seen at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge. It is a modern example of secular domical architecture, comprised of sixteen precast ferro concrete units stretching fifty feet high, with an undulating band of squinches and arches integrating it onto the Greek cross-shaped base. Taylor and Booth beg the question of whether the hall’s shape is the result of a functional study ‘or is it merely subservient to the dome?’ Ultimately, the dome is the overarching architectural element in the building, which functions as a canteen. In his studies, Baldwin Smith illustrates the ‘melon dome’ in great detail, and its possible to match this description with the segments of concrete running vertically up Murray Edwards’ dome. This corrugation, he explains, is due to the dome’s original construction in wood, and disseminated due to its translation into stone in the lotus domes and rosettes of India and Egypt respectively. Ben Seidler, in his thesis on gender politics in the design of this college, cites P. D. James’ novel An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, in which James describes the college’s ‘shining domed hall [as] like a peeled orange’. Taylor and Booth further describe the make up of the dome with ‘concrete petals’. This description relates the dome to nature, regenerating the sense of organicism that the college buildings promote, and harking back to the primitive beginnings of the dome structure out of strips of saplings or leaves.
Domes were also placed on shelters, or tombs, for the dead, often called martyria. Architecture from the first Muslim dynasty, the Umayyads, shows some early Christian examples of these martyria — Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre and Dome of the Rock. But they trace back even further than that, to the late Stone Age, when the dome-shaped tomb was seen as the reproduction of the ancestral, god-given shelter, which disseminated worldwide to later embed itself in Indian stupas and Iberian tholos tombs. Syria and Palestine also had a ‘native domical tradition which readily combined with the Roman and Hellenistic traditions of a mortuary dome’. Additionally, Egyptian and Babylonian tombs were often in royal tents or under baldachins — exotic canopies supported by posts or pillars and often placed over altars.
The last outstanding quality of domes is their inherent circular form. The consistent focus on pendentives and squinches in order to translate an angular form into a continuous shape clearly shows the importance of the hemisphere. The circle has ‘no beginning and no end’, like the divine, and in directing one’s attention upwards to a dome, Davis poeticises that ‘we have, in a sense, stepped out of the flow of secular time and into eternity.’ In the seventeenth century, the Christian church finally adjusted to Copernicus’ sun-centred, therefore circle-centred, universe. Victoria Hammond illustrates that ‘Humankind has always yearned for immortality and a sacred, transcendent sphere — a divine order, a God in heaven, an afterlife. The history of the dome is the history of how that yearning has been expressed through spatial geometry, design and decoration.’ The dome is effectively a manifestation for the heavens. Its symmetrically further enhances the unity and totality that it gives to a building and its meaning. The circular form is not just religiously important — in Zen Buddhism, the circle represents enlightenment and completeness.
We see the baldachin manifesting itself in the form of the dome in the Cathedral of the Assumption at the Kremlin, Moscow, where four monumental pillars support a richly painted canopy. In this case, rather than honouring the dead, the dome takes on the role of promoting royalty, the empire and often religion. The Persians associated imperial baldachins ‘with a divine and universal ruler’, therefore the form of the baldachin was appealing to Roman and Byzantine emperors as a display of power. Alexander the Great is said to have slept under a canopied tent painted with heavenly constellations, which may have inspired the Russian Orthodox Church with the Kremlin commission, as the Church had an adoration for ‘traditional forms, somber richness and the architecture of patriarchal authority.’
The interior of Alexander the Great’s baldachin was adorned with ‘heavenly constellations’ mirroring children today sleeping under a ceiling of glow-in-the-dark stars. The reference is not entirely ridiculous to illustrate that decoration is inspirational and atmospheric, but the glow in the dark stars may not allude a great detail to history, where the decoration of historical buildings, in our case specifically those with domes, most definitely can. The interiors of domes are often depicted in blue, white or gold (heavenly colours), studded with gold stars. This aligns with the ancient apprehension of the sky as a vault of heaven, and the dome as a manifestation of the sky. Gold is significant in itself as it gives an air of the divine, in the connotations with wealth, status and religious hierarchy that it holds, and visually, in the shimmering reflection of light off its surfaces. The interior of the dome in Nero’s Golden House, which made the dome an essential feature of palace architecture, would once have been decorated with mosaics of an ‘almost magically insubstantial effect’. These would have had a similar glistening effect as the gold, just more kaleidoscopic in nature.
As Keith F. Davis says, Stephenson, in his photographs, ‘revels in the infinite variety of domes: like snowflakes, [they] are at once generic and unique.’ When discussing the decoration on domes, this quotation rings true. When early Christian fathers were decorating domes of Churches, Christian iconography was in its infancy. Therefore, they drew upon the wealth of existing imagery from imperial Rome and earlier pagan sources, and their decoration materialised as divine, royal and cosmological. Even once iconography had developed in some religions, other religions were reluctant to pursue this route, for fear of idolatry. Aniconism is particularly prevalent in Islam, and we can see the result of this influence in the Sala de las dos Hermanas in the Alhambra. Built between 1333 and 1354, this room in the palace initially for the Nasrid dynasty contains one of its two equally dazzling domes. A magnitude of muqarnas decorate the ceiling with the stalactitish decoration that gives off the impression of moving and melting. Over 5,000 of these cover the dome, but it is the squinches that provide the structural support. The series of arches at each of the four corners are ornamental, articulating the space between the walls and the dome. Davis goes on to state that ‘as we are psychologically drawn up into thesis spaces, we also recognise the symbolic language of their precise and logical construction.’ The Pythagorean, aniconistic decoration of the dome in the Sala de las dos Hermanas gives off as symbolic a meaning as a dome outwardly depicting religion.
Religious themes were also important for the depiction of domes. The Cathedral of the Assumption is well known for its abundance of frescoes, and the dome ones cannot be missed. In the central medallion, Christ’s face bears down upon the crossing, with small figures running down the side of the cupola, contrasting his magnanimous scale. This theme of Christ as Pantocrator was a popular one, although often less space is dedicated to Christ, and instead to his disciples. It is a theme that was apparent throughout the Byzantine period, for example in the cupola in the Baptistery in Padua, which conveys the Christian message in an incredibly blatant way.
In Islam and Christianity, light was a pivotal symbol. Domes, as representations of the sky, the cosmos, the heavens and commemorations of the dead, were the ideal location for light to be exploited. Light was seen as a ‘manifestation of God’s presence’ in both the Qur’an and the Bible, therefore in buildings of a religious nature, domes were ideal for harvesting an array of light sources, including the oculus and windows on the lining of the cupola. In the Sala de las dos Hermanas, this string of windows provides rays of light that reflect off the uneven surfaces, and a true sense of the sublime is created. In the cupola of the dome in the Cathedral of the Assumption, a similar effect is created. In the Murray Edwards’ Dome, light is brought into the canteen from an oculus at the top. Marguerite Yourcenar, in her invented autobiography on Emperor Hadrian, imagines him dedicating the Pantheon, saying that ‘the disc of daylight [from the oculus] would rest suspended there like a shield of gold’. In the same few lines, Hadrian states that ‘prayers would rise like smoke toward that void where we place the gods’, reminding us of the smoke that would rise from the prehistoric Zoroastrian domed fire temples when they were in use. Honour and Fleming assert that domes provided ‘unusually bright and even’ light for a Roman interior, which Chamberlin, Powell and Bon of Murray Edwards’ Dome adapted for their contemporary interior. Not only was light symbolic, but it was also simply practical.
The dome enables us to trace architectural history from the late Stone Age, all the way through to fifty years ago. It is a form that has taken on a wide range of meanings in Christianity, Islam, cults and cultures and we are incredibly lucky to have many of the artefacts to trace this rich past. We have begun to question what the present and future holds for the domed structure, which, as Hammond puts, is architecture’s ‘most awe-inspiring form’. Is it true that the dome is now ‘usurped by the skyscraper’? Distinct artistic or historical eras have made us understand that course alterations are incredibly important to development, and very common too. However, Hammond’s comment holds some weight in mentioning the popularity of the skyscraper, which, in most developing cultures, has become more appealing. Functionality has begun to rear its utilitarian head, whilst historicism, and the focus on architectural meaning, take a back seat.
First year Art Historian at Cambridge University and intern at Private Art Education.