Tuesday, July 02, 2019

Do Cathedrals Face East?

The image above shows the building outlines of nine of England's largest cathedrals. One of these cathedrals is different from the rest.

The building outline of Liverpool Cathedral is not very detailed in Mapbox Studio (which I used to create these building outlines). However the outline does reveal the north-south orientation of Liverpool Cathedral. This is obviously very different from the orientation of the other cathedrals shown here.

Since the 8th Century churches have tended to be built facing towards the east. The main focus of a church, the alter, is placed at the east end of the church, often in an apse. The main entrance to the church is often placed at the west end. The word 'orientation' actually originally came from the practice of constructing buildings to face the east. Building a church which has the entrance at the east and the apse at the western end is called 'occidentation'. All of the cathedrals shown above (apart from Liverpool) have been built (roughly) facing east, with the apse on most of them also to the east of the building.

When early Christians prayed they would face towards the east. Hence the tradition of building churches with the alter towards the east. One theory for why Christians pray towards the east is that the beginnings of the organized church was in Europe and worshipers were praying towards the direction of Jerusalem. Another theory for why churches face east is because they have been aligned to where the sun rises on each church's saint day.

In Churches Face East Don't They? Ian Hinton measured the orientation of 1,747 churches in England and Wales. He discovered that the mean orientation of all these churches was 86 degrees, so just four degrees off true east. Eight of the cathedrals in the image above are only a few degrees out from facing east. Liverpool Cathedral is a lot more than four degrees off facing east.

So why doesn't Liverpool Cathedral face east? One clue might be the cathedral's age. Liverpool Cathedral is by far the youngest cathedral shown, having been built in the 20th century. According to Wikipedia, the "importance attached to orientation of churches declined after the 15th century." I wanted to see how true this is so I decided to look at the footprints of six of the first large cathedrals built after the start of 1500.

In this image 15 cathedrals are shown in chronological order. The cathedrals in the top row were all constructed before the end of the 13th Century. The construction of the cathedrals on the second row were all started after 1573. I think it is clear that the cathedrals in the second row, on average deviate more from true east than the cathedrals in the top row.

St. John's Cathedral in Canada (second to last cathedral shown) is actually an occidentation cathedral, with the apse at the western end of the cathedral. St. John's was built from 1839-55. Wikipedia says that the cathedral "is not oriented on an east-west axis, ... but rather, it was constructed on an orientation with its facade facing the line of the rising sun on the Winter Solstice, and the setting sun at the Summer Solstice". As we have already seen the youngest cathedral on the map, Liverpool Cathedral, has a north-south orientation.


martin burroughs said...

Of course Liverpool has two cathedrals. The other one, being basically round, would be even more problematic!

Keir Clarke said...

@martin The Catholic cathedral's footprint is also mostly orientated south-north. Perhaps it is because they are both modern. Wikipedia says "Today in the West, orientation is little observed in building churches".

It could be interesting to explore the degree of deviation from true east by the date of construction of churches.