Via Francigena

The light in sacral buildings in the X-XII centuries from Romandie to Tuscany

Picture of Redazione AEVF
Redazione AEVF

Summery of the doctoral thesis of Eva Spinazzè in History of Arts at Ca’Foscari University of Venice – IUAV – University of Verona, in co-supervision with the University of Zurich

The light in sacral buildings in the X-XII centuries from Romandie to Tuscany. Evidence of how the orientation of buildings was influenced by the study of the sky

My research was about the study of the orientation of sacral buildings between the X and XII centuries, erected along the old Via Francigena, in the Swiss and Italian path, from Romainmôtier to the South of Tuscany with the intention of demonstrating that the disposition of medieval churches didn’t happen casually. Via Francigena was an important road for cultural exchange between northern countries and Italy, where people of different cultures and languages flocked and goods transited. I developed my itinerary by following the route described by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Sigeric, when he returned home from Rome at the end of the X century.

I examined sixty-three sacral buildings with Romanesque trace which are still partially intact. These buildings are of different types: monastic and parish churches, oratories, cathedrals, and present a temporal homogeneity, as they were all built or rebuilt in the same periods of time. This makes it possible to read and compare a uniformity of ideas of the builders.

My research was an interdisciplinary study which involved the history, topography, architecture, archaeology, astronomy and liturgy. Above all, it was necessary to know the origin and evolution of each building analyzed to obtain its orientation. Results were crossed, checked with surveyings united with GPS. This project is an extension and a deepening /closer examination of my last study “Luce ed orientazione nelle abbazie benedettine altomedioevali e medioevali nel Veneto”, in which I was able to show that the Benedictines in the Middle Ages built their monastic churches with definite rules: the buildings were aligned to an exact point on the horizon where the sun or another star rose or set on a certain date, which was significant. Later, I was curious and wanted to know if other religious orders followed this custom. Therefore I studied all medieval churches in Venice and I was able to establish that about half of eighty sacral buildings were aligned above all with the sunrise or sunset of the Sun on the patron saint’s day of each church.

This research was extended to other geographic areas and all types of sacral buildings were examined to see if this tradition was common in other areas and applied to every kind of construction. The study was deepened with the analysis of the light which passed trough the different openings such as windows with one light and two lights as well as rose windows on particular days and hours of the year, light which projects on certain days on significant points of great liturgical importance inside the church, such as the altar, columns and sometimes highlighting the length of the church.

Through the evidence found in numerous of manuscripts and medieval sources about astronomical and liturgical subjects, together with surveyings, I tried to bring to light this old tradition of the orientation of sacral buildings, by giving each one an interpretation connected with its own history.

Eva Spinazzé :