The Grandeur that is Dome…

IMAG4474As we moved toward Imperial Rome, our effort to connect our history study to architecture looked upward beyond columns to domes.  The classic Augustus Caesar’s World by Genevieve Foster describes the construction of the original Pantheon in Rome by Caesar’s friend Marcus Agrippa.  He used traditional temple architecture, but when the structure tragically burned in 80 AD, only the crumbling remains of the columns and the pediment were left standing.  The Architect Emperor Hadrian redesigned and rebuilt the Pantheon in 125 AD, keeping the traditional temple entrance with columns and pediment, but making architectural history by adding an enormous dome with an occulus in the center for light.

The perfectly shaped hemisphere suggests the heavens, and the light breaking through implies the divine light and guidance of the myriad gods and goddesses as Hadrian conducted affairs of state within.  Viewed from the front, Rome’s Pantheon looks similar to the Athens’ Parthenon.  The similarities in name can add to the confusion.  Fortunately, The Annotated Arch, by Carol Strickland anticipates this confusion, providing a side by side comparison.  A Chronology of Western Architecture by Doreen Yarwood showed the movement from arch to vault to dome in Imperial construction.  Building Big by David Macaulay has a section on Domes beginning with the Pantheon and ending with the Houston Astrodome, with St. Peter’s (in Rome) in between.  His helpful sketches show how the dome distributes the forces of gravity, while his text explains that the Pantheon was made entirely of concrete, several different formulations of concrete, at different places on the dome.

If you’ve been following along with the series of how we Connected Architecture to History, and then went on a Scavenger Hunt for Architectural elements, then you’ll know that our next step is a field trip!

The MacArthur Memorial features Doric columns, a pediment and a tall, slender dome.
The MacArthur Memorial features Doric columns, a pediment and a tall, slender dome.

Our search for a local dome was fulfilled with a visit to the MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk, which is housed in what used to be Norfolk’s City Hall and Courthouse.  Built in 1850 by Thomas U. Walter, designer of the U.S. Capitol, (The U.S. Capitol is also covered in Macaulay’s section on Domes in Building Big!) the MacArthur Memorial entrance features a portico of Doric columns topped by a pediment. The tall dome with Ionic columns is very similar, but much smaller than that of the U.S. Capitol, which in turn was inspired by the European basilica domes of St. Peter, and the Cathedral of St. Paul.  While Mr. Garner enjoyed the 20th Century history to be found within the museum, GraceNotes and I took pictures and explored the building.

We also discussed the much larger dome at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. which we visited this past fall.   The NGA, designed by John Russell Pope (who designed the Jefferson Memorial) and funded by Andrew Mellon, was completed in 1941 and at the time was the largest marble structure in the world.  It also features a large dome.

We talked about the effect that a dome has upon a person;  in one way making a person feel very small, in another way providing a sense of freedom and openness; like cloudless blue sky, or the inky  heavens, on a star-strewn evening.  In the Complete Hebrew Bible translation of the Genesis Creation account, the word that is often translated “expanse” is translated “dome.”

God said, “Let there be a dome in the middle of the water; let it divide the water from the water.” God made the dome and divided the water under the dome from the water above the dome; that is how it was, and God called the dome Sky. So there was evening, and there was morning, a second day.

We found it rather interesting to trace the sorts of buildings that merited the grandeur of a dome.  Hadrian chose to honor the Roman pantheon, and by implication himself.  The next domes were built to glorify our Creator God in Christian worship spaces such as the Hagia Sophia, and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  Now domes are used in government buildings, art museums and sports arenas.

After pondering this thought for a few minutes, the daughter said, “I guess a lot of people worship the government, art and sports these days.”  After pondering this statement for a few minutes, I had to agree.

The fountain under the dome at the National Gallery of Art.

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