APSE (Gr. ἁψίς, a fastening, especially the felloe of a wheel; Lat. absis), in architecture, a semicircular recess covered with a hemispherical vault. The term is applied also to the termination to the choir, transept or aisle of any church which is either semicircular or polygonal in plan, whether vaulted or covered with a timber roof; a church is said to be “apsidal” when it terminates in an apse.
The earliest example of an apse is found in the temple of Mars Ultor at Rome (2 B.C.), and it formed afterwards the favourite feature terminating the rear of any temple, and one which gave importance to the statue of the deity to whom the temple was dedicated. Its use by the Romans was not confined to the temples, as it is found in the palaces on the Palatine Hill, the great Thermae (Baths) and other monuments. In the civil basilicas the apse was screened off by columns, and constituted the court of justice. In the Ulpian (Trajan’s) Basilica the apses at each end were of such great dimensions as to come better under the definition of hemicycles (q.v.). In these apses the floor was raised, and had an altar placed in the centre of its chord, where sacrifices were made prior to the sittings. The only other two Roman basilicas in which the semicircular apse can still be traced are that commenced by Maxentius and completed by Constantine at Rome and the basilica at Trier (Trèves).
In the earliest Christian basilica, St Peter’s at Rome, built 330 A.D., the apse, 57 ft. in diameter, raised above the confessio or crypt, was placed at the west end of the church. This orientation was originally followed in the churches of St Paul and St Lawrence (S. Lorenzo fuori le Mura), both outside the walls of Rome, and is found in most of the churches at Rome. On the other hand, in the Byzantine church, the apse was built at the east end of the church.
During the reign of Justin the Second (A.D. 565-574), owing to a change in the liturgy, two more apses were added, one on each side of the central apse. These in the Greek Church were provided not to hold altars but for ceremonial purposes. One of the earliest examples is found in the church of St Nicholas at Myra of the 6th century, and the basilica erected in the great court of the temple at Baalbek shows the triple apse. The earliest example in Rome is found in the church of Sta Maria in Cosmedin (772-795), built probably by Greek craftsmen, who had been exiled by the Iconoclasts. Other triapsal choirs are found in the cathedral of Parenzo (542 A.D.), in St Mark’s, Venice, in Sta Fosca and the Duomo at Torcello, and in numerous examples throughout Italy and Germany. In central Syria there is one example only, at Kalat Seman, where the side apses were a later addition.
There is one important distinction to be drawn between the Byzantine and the Latin apses; they are both semicircular internally, but externally the former are nearly always polygonal. It follows, therefore, that in those churches in Italy where the apse is polygonal externally, it is a sign of direct Byzantine influence. This is found in St Mark’s, Venice; Sta Fosca, Torcello; Murano; nearly all the churches at Ravenna; and in the Crusaders’ churches throughout Syria.
In the Coptic church in Egypt we find other characteristics; in the churches of the Red and White Monasteries, attributed to St Helena, an unusual depth is given to the apse, in the walls of which niches are sunk; in the church of St John at Antinoë there are no fewer than seven. Similar niches are found in the apses of St Mark’s, Venice, built in A.D. 828, it is said in imitation of St Mark’s in Alexandria, to receive the relics of St Mark brought over from there.
In a large number of the apses in the Coptic churches the seats round the apse with the bishop’s throne in the centre are still preserved; of these the best examples are at Abu Sargah, Al ‛Adra and Abu-s-Sifain. Unfortunately there are no remains of the fittings in the tribunes of the ancient Roman basilicas, but those in St Peter’s at Rome, which were probably copied from them, are recorded in drawings, there being two or three rows of stone seats with the papal throne in the centre. It is possible also that some may still exist in the other early Christian basilicas at Rome, but there have been so many changes that it is not possible to trace them. In the cathedral of Parenzo in Istria (A.D. 532-535), the hemicycle of marble seats for the clergy with the episcopal chair in the centre still exists. A similar arrangement is found in the apse of the church of the 6th century attached to the church of St Helena in the island of Paros, where there are eight steep grades of semicircular stone seats with the bishop’s chair in the centre. The aspect of the interior of this apse has in consequence very much the appearance of a Roman theatre. A third example, better known, exists at Torcello, with six concentric seats rising one above the other, and in the centre the episcopal chair with a flight of thirteen steps down in front of it.
In the basilica at Bethlehem, the east end of which was reconstructed probably in the 5th century, apses of similar dimensions to the eastern apse were built at the north and south end of the transept. The same disposition is found in the Coptic churches of the Red and White Monasteries just referred to, in the church of St Elias at Salonica (c. 1012), the cathedral of Echmiadzin in Armenia, at Vatopedi, Mt. Athos, and some other Byzantine churches. An early example in France exists in the church of Germigny-des-Prés on the Loire (806; rebuilt 1868), where the three apses are horseshoe on plan, and the same is found in the church at Oberzell in the island of Reichenau, Lake of Constance, except that the eastern apse there is square. Small examples also are found at Querqueville and at St Wandrille near Caudebec, both in Normandy, but the finest development takes place in the church of St Maria im Capitol at Cologne, where the aisles are carried round both the northern and southern apses. The same feature exists in the cathedral of Tournai in Belgium and the churches at Cambrai, Soissons and Valenciennes (the last destroyed at the Revolution) in France, and also in the cathedrals of Como and of Pisa in Italy. Without aisles, there are examples in the churches of the Apostles and of St Martin at Cologne; St Quirinus at Neuss; at Roermond; St Cross, Breslau; the cathedral of Bonn; and, at a later date, in the Marienkirche at Trier; S. Elizabeth at Marburg; the church of Sta Maria-del-Fiore at Florence; and the cathedral of Parma.
In consequence of a change made in the orientation of apses in the 6th or 7th century, others were subsequently added at the west end of existing churches, and this is considered to have been the case at Canterbury; but in the German churches sometimes apses were built from the first at both ends, such as are shown on the manuscript plan of St Gall, of the 9th century. Western apses exist at Gernrode; Drübeck; Huyseburg; the Obermünster of Regensburg; St Godehard in Hildesheim; the cathedrals of Worms and Trier; the Abbey church of Laach; the Minster at Bonn; and in St Pietro-in-Grado near Pisa.
The triapsal churches, to which we have referred, are those in which the side apses form the termination of the side aisles; but where there are transepts, the aisles are sometimes not continued beyond them, and the expansion of the transept to north and south gives more ample space for apses; of these there are many examples, as in the Abbey church of Laach in Germany; at Romsey; Christchurch, Hants; Gloucester, Ely, Norwich and Canterbury cathedrals, in England; and at St Georges de Boscherville in France; sometimes there being space for two apses on each side.
In the beginning of the 13th century in France, the apses became radiating chapels outside the choir aisle, henceforth known as the chevet. These radiating chapels would seem to have been suggested in Norwich and Canterbury cathedrals, but the feature is essentially a French one and in England is found only in Westminster Abbey, into which it was introduced by Henry III., to whom the chevets of Amiens, Beauvais and Reims were probably well known.(R. P. S.)
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