This is an absurd question, of course. God is everywhere you would think and to seek a particular spot is pointless. However, outside a church is less holy than inside a church. People in the past certainly thought so, preferring, if their position and wealth would allow, to be buried within the walls, with suitable gravestones and monuments naturally. And within a church, the rear of the church is just that, it is where you enter and your eyes are directly forwards. But to what? The east where the light is (at least in the morning), the higher place (literally, that is up steps), and the richness and complexity of display or images is greater (including the enclosing coloured windows). Obviously, the presence of God must be greater down that end. True, there will often be numerous chapels ringing the perimeter, some possibly more elaborate and overwhelming than the main sanctuary of the church, as benefactors have been driven to excess. But in the main chamber, the nave, this is usually not so clear.
The Latin cross, the traditional church form, incorporates this simple linear format – a one directional focus down the dominant form on the most holy point in the church – the static form of the high altar and the more active space in front of this where the most crucial or essential events take place – mass. God must be most present in this small space somewhere, in the symbol of the cross or the image of his son or his son’s mother, or in the bread and wine on a particular day.
However, the problem for Renaissance church-builders was bigger. If you were building a house for mere mortals, including the princes of the church, you could use everyday rectilinear forms, being careful of course to consider all the proportions involved, making sure you got these right, so things would be in harmony and the clients guaranteed contentment. If you were going to build a church, a house for God, you could only use the most perfect form – the circle – not only in plan but in three-dimensions as a dome, or in vaulting and apses. Of all the abstract forms, the purest is the circle: a single line equidistant for a single point. What greater simplicity and therefore perfection could there be?
Any Renaissance church plan is focused on a dome. And the central point of this would have to be the most significant of all; clearly not the same as other locations in the space; to be reserved for something special. This is the focus and naturally where things would be most intense, where God would need to be, not at some arbitrary point somewhere in the top arm of the Latin cross, but in the literal centre of things. But this perfection and this logic is the millstone for the Renaissance architects and time and time again they were forced to compromise. Their proposed church forms based on a Greek cross, with a dome at the crossing, inevitably had one of the equal-sized arms pulled by the dominant church authorities, returning it to a Latin one. It happened in London to Wren, as much as his predecessors in Italy. It may have been tradition. It may have been practicalities. Or it may have been one disguised as the other.
Now we come to Andrea Palladio, the famous 16th century Veneto architect, and his two churches that are easily visible across the water from the foreshore of the main square in Venice. The closer one (to the square) is larger, earlier and more orthodox one: San Giorgio Maggiore (see first 3 images and first plan). As majestic, certain and clear as any of the examples he may have seen down in the more sophisticated south. The need to accommodate a large crowd for that special day of the year helped keep the high altar in the arm beyond the crossing, and requirements of space for a combined choir for the event, led to the peculiar arrangement of a screened colonnaded end to the sanctuary and large space beyond (not all orthodoxy). Palladio at least managed to have his dome somewhat centrally located on the main axis, though not so much visually.
Redentore, further up Giudecca, is later, smaller and arguably more interesting (see second plan and images below). Built to commemorate Venice’s survival of a plague, the design options were perhaps more open and Palladio could edge closer to the ideal. Palladio managed to arrange things so the domed space dominates. The nave wall is pushed back from the columns supporting the dome, giving the space below the dome a strong sense of separateness. The doubling of the columns at each corner of the dome space creates something approaching a drum wall below the dome, with nave, side apses and sanctuary apse (with again a screening colonnade behind) as distinct openings. True the high altar remains in an apse, but the space in front, that is under the dome, becomes the active central space for the church – where mass is celebrated – a more enclosing even-cave-like effect. So ultimately this is an effective combining of the imperatives of the circular form with the more functional requirements of the building, or owners.
So, asking where God is located is not such an idyll question: it has taxed the minds of architects!
Giving the centre of a circle a special significance is possible in such a specialised church such as Redentore, but in both smaller ones and larger cathedral spaces, the challenges are greater. In a very small church such Palladio’s Tempietto at Maser in the hills of the Veneto, there is only one space, and the altar must naturally be to one side of this. If the church is excessively large, and its spaces essentially monumental, such as St Peter’s in Rome, the options are much more open about where things can be located in the almost endless space. In this case, the ideal is achieved: the main altar, under Bernini’s Baldachin, at centre of Dome, with still room for a large congregation space beyond down main axis.
An aside: Perhaps we can judge the effectiveness and discipline of the church builders and custodians (an ancient church is a thing continuously fiddled with over many centuries, including now) by the strength of the focus of the high altar: how all elements contribute to that focus and the maintenance of some kind of hierarchy even if very complex and hard to define. Financially strapped church authorities have the most difficult time, forced to accommodate exorbitantly large tombs that overwhelm the nave or excessively brilliant chapels that do the same.