According to E. Baldwin Smith, from the late Stone Age the dome-shaped tomb was used as a reproduction of the ancestral, god-given shelter made permanent as a venerated home of the dead. The instinctive desire to do this resulted in widespread domical mortuary traditions across the ancient world, from the stupas of India to the tholos tombs of Iberia. By Hellenistic and Roman times, the domical tholos had become the customary cemetery symbol.
In the process of transforming the hut shape from its original pliable materials into more difficult stone construction, the dome had also become associated with celestial and cosmic significance, as evident from decoration such as stars and celestial chariots on the ceilings of domed tombs. This cosmological thinking was not limited to domed ceilings, being part of a symbolic association between any house, tomb, or sanctuary and the universe as a whole, but it popularized the use of the domical shape.
A distinct symbolism of the heavenly or cosmic tent stemming from the royal audience tents of Achaemenid and Indian rulers was adopted by Roman rulers in imitation of Alexander the Great, becoming the imperial baldachin. This probably began with Nero, whose "Golden House" also made the dome an essential feature of palace architecture.
The Christian use of domes acknowledged these symbolic associations. The traditional mortuary symbolism led the dome to be used in Christian central-type martyria in the Syrian area, the growing popularity of which spread the form. The spread and popularity of the cult of relics also transformed the domed central-type martyria into the domed churches of mainstream Christianity. In Italy in the 4th century, baptisteries began to be built like domed mausolea and martyria, which spread in the 5th century. This reinforced the theological emphasis on baptism as a re-experience of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The dual sepulchral and heavenly symbolism was adopted by early Christians in both the use of domes in architecture and in the ciborium, a domical canopy like the baldachin used as a ritual covering for relics or the church alter. The celestial symbolism of the dome, however, was the preeminent one by the Christian era.
Literary evidence exists that the idea of the cosmic temple had been applied to the Christian basilica by the end of the 4th century, in the form of a speech by Eusebius on a church in Tyre. However, it is only in the mid 6th century that the earliest literary evidence of a cosmological interpretation of a domed church building exists, in the form of a hymn composed for the cathedral church of Edessa. Kathleen E. McVey traces this to a blending by Jacob of Serugh of the two major but contradictory schools of biblical exegesis at the time: the building-as-microcosm tradition of the Antioch school combined with the Alexandrian view of the cosmos and firmament as composed of spheres and hemispheres, which was rejected by the Antioch school.
Otto Demus writes that Middle Byzantine churches were decorated in a systematic manner and can be seen as having three zones of decoration, with the holiest at the top. This uppermost zone contained the dome, drum and apse. The dome was reserved for an image of Christ called the "Pantokrator" (meaning "ruler of all"), usually as a bust in a roundrel, the drum usually contained images of angels or prophets, and the semi-dome of the apse usually depicted the Virgin Mary, typically holding the Christ child and flanked by angels.
According to Oleg Grabar, the domes of the Islamic world, which rejected such imagery, continued the other traditions. Muslim royalty built palatial pleasure domes in continuation of the Roman and Persian imperial models, although many have not survived, and domed mausoleums from Merv to India developed the form. In the early centuries of Islam, domes were closely associated with royalty. A dome built in front of the mihrab of a mosque, for example, was at least initially meant to emphasize the place of a prince during royal ceremonies. Over time such domes became primarily focal points for decoration or the direction of prayer. The use of domes in mausoleums can likewise reflect royal patronage or be seen as representing the honor and prestige which domes symbolized, rather than having any specific funerary meaning.
Oleg Grabar characterizes forms in Islamic architecture as having relatively low levels of symbolism. While conceding this in a general sense, Yasser Tabbaa maintains that certain forms were initially very highly symbolic and only lost such associations over time. The phenomenon of muqarnas domes, in particular, is an example. Tabbaa explains the development and spread of muqarnas domes throughout the Islamic world beginning in the early 11th century as the visual expression of a theological idea of the universe propounded by the Ash'arites (a modification of the Atomism of Aristotle with Occasionalism), which rose to prominence in Baghdad at this time. Only later was the style used in a purely decorative manner.
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