Asian vs. Western Religious Architecture

by Erin
Written January 12, 2007

Spirituality has long been one of the most major driving factors that inspire people to create architecture on a grand scale. From Southeast Asia to Western Europe, elaborate spaces have been constructed as places of worship for various religions, such as the Buddhist chaitya hall in Karle, India, and the Christian cathedral, Saint-Sernin, in Toulouse, France. While the specifics of each religion are certainly very different, the architects behind these two sacred places undoubtedly had similar ideas in mind for their structures and their future worshipers.

The chaitya hall in India from approximately 100 AD is an enormous rock-cut enclosure, measuring 125 feet in length and 45 feet in height. At the entrance of the hall, sculptural elements known as mithunas flank the outside. These are figures of amorous couples which became traditional in Indian art and symbolize creative life force. Inside the chaitya hall, there is a large central aisle bordered with thick columns topped with large, heavy, ornate capitals depicting men and women riding on top of elephants. Atop these massive capitals are thick coil-like structures in an arch shape which form the ceiling. This architectural design resembles a barrel vault, and it creates an effect which guides the eye down the aisle to the all-important stupa, the main focus of this holy cave. The stupa, a house for the Buddha’s relics and a vital aspect in all Buddhist sanctuaries, is mound-shaped and is meant to be viewed from various angles. Thus, the architect of this sacred space planned for an ambulatory, which allows for worshipers to walk around the edges of the hall’s interior to observe and appreciate the stupa from all sides. Clearly, the designer of this great hall kept in mind the sole purpose of the worship center and planned the hall to adapt to its function.

Saint-Sernin, a French cathedral from the Romanesque era and major stop on the pilgrimage route, is exceptionally large in comparison to other churches from its time and location. The building is in the shape of a Latin cross, and its exterior boasts a typical Romanesque style – it is largely unadorned and lacks sculptural decoration on the outside. However, the interior is a whole different story. The large nave is topped with a semicircular barrel vaulted ceiling and flanked by an arcade of round arches and cluster piers which lead up to the transverse arches in the vaulting. The nave, buttressed by groin vaulted side aisles, leads up to the prominent apse where the altar lies and the attention of the mass is focused. The interior is exceptionally harmonious and logical and gives its visitors a feeling of wonder for their Lord. Like the Buddhist chaitya hall, its massive size overwhelms worshipers with awe, and its straight, uninterrupted central aisle space calls attention to the most important part of the space. The Saint-Sernin cathedral obviously served its purpose of attracting and accommodating pilgrims of the era as both a functional and beautiful example of Romanesque religious architecture.

The chaitya hall in India and the Saint-Sernin cathedral in France are both prime examples of massive religious architecture. Both perform their functions as places of worship, and their designs emphasize all of the important aspects within each space. While the two are for different faiths, different time periods, and different parts of the world, the plans are similar in their use of a main central aisle, side aisles, and a rounded portion at one end where the attention is focused. Both of these examples epitomize religious architecture at its best, balancing form and function in a beautifully elegant manner.

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