In April, 2022, the international conference titled Synagogue-Church-Mosque: Connections, Interactions, and Transformation Strategies took place in Rome. The aim was to increase knowledge of the three primary religions through comparative analyses of their sacred buildings, tracing the evolution of the architecture, and investigating similarities and divergencies in a way that had not been studied before.

By studying the art and architecture of the Synagogue, Church, and Mosque, we can learn about the cultural influences of these three Abrahamic religions, including what they shared with their contemporaries, and how they differed from them.

Although separated by centuries, the first synagogues, churches, and mosques, go back to the same roots, explains Professor Frommel. After the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion from Jerusalem, the Jews designated a “building for assembly” known as the beit ha-knesset in Hebrew, and thus the term “synagogue,” meaning “assembly” came to be known as the Jewish house of worship.

Synagogue-church-mosque: connections, interactions, and transformation strategies is the first comprehensive study co-curated by Sabine Frommel. It was a successful conference (organized in collaboration with École des Hautes Études Paris Sciences & Lettres Research University) that was streamed live on the Facebook page of the Jewish Museum of Rome on April 4, 2022.

While volunteering at the Jewish Museum of Rome, I had the opportunity to meet with Professor Sabine Frommel to discuss three interesting sessions about the synagogue, church, and mosque that she moderated.

What are the specific symbols which may be used to characterize a synagogue, symbols giving instant recognition to a Jewish house of worship?

Initially Jewish communities gathered in meeting rooms for worship, prayer, and teaching. After the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem (70 DC) they founded new institutions, “Houses of Assembly,” where the community participates actively in reading the torah and reciting the prayers. At the eastern wall, in the direction to Jerusalem, are held the Torah scrolls, the Hebrew Bible written on parchment. The menorah, the lamp with seven lights, symbolizes the creation in seven days with the center light representing the Sabbath. Figural representations in the form of sculpture or painting were not admitted and decoration consisted in ornamental and literature. Originally the inner and exterior spaces fit more generally within the local style of the surroundings, and not according to a specific architectural system as in the sense of an architectural identity. After the emancipation of the Jews from the end of the 18th century, the architectural language changed entirely as the synagogue began to engage with the vast repertoire of historicist architecture. Impressive monuments in the framework of urban reconstruction now emerged.

What are the specific symbols used to characterize a church or cathedral, symbols giving instant recognition to a Christian house of worship?

The massive medieval cathedrals which we admire today are the result of a long development. The first Christian builders drew on Greek and Roman pagan heritage with the main model being the huge public basilica provided with naves and hosting the tribunal; the famous theorist Leon Battista Alberti wrote in his treatise De Re Aedificatoria (finished in 1452) that people were accustomed to gather in such buildings whose typology derived from the Greek temple and that the place of the tribunal could be easily be transformed in an altar. The other model is the centralized plan. The first churches built in the 4th century by Constantine and his mother reveal specific features, mainly in the example of the Basilica of Saint Peter, erected on the burial place of the martyr. The mass was celebrated at the altar, with the bread and wine transformed to represent the sacrificed body of the Christ. The Latin cross turned out to be the more functional plan for the large churches, the Greek cross was used for baptisteries, sanctuaries, and mausoleums. Thanks to St. Gregory the Great’s reforms in the years of 600, the liturgical functions became more precise, and made a significant impact on the appearance of the monument. A choir, chapels, sacristies, tombs, a baptistry and the treasury, the cult of the relics and the saints, including the crypts and other altars, made the church a complex architectural organism. Due to the significant growth in the number of believers, the amount of side naves was increased. In the Middle Ages a strong competition occurred, especially in the cathedrals run by bishops who, always striving to build higher in order to dominate the cities had created new technical and esthetical challenges, while the lavish figural decoration evoked the heavenly Jerusalem, marvelous colored glass windows mysterious light. As a Gesamtkunstwerk the church orchestrates the interactions of the arts of architecture, sculpture, and painting, and like a book in stone, the faithful can acquire a better understanding of the Holy scripture, and the message of salvation. The crucified Christ, the scenes of his life and those of his disciples, as well as depictions of the saints and the cult of the virgin are the favored subjects of innumerable artworks. The radical reformers of the 16th century returned to the austere and sombre assembly halls of early Christianity, considered a more suitable framework to cite the Bible and to promote fraternal cohesion and simplicity.

What are the specific symbols used to characterize a mosque, symbols immediately recognizable as characterizing Islam?

The Muslims, the major rivals of Justinian’s heirs, continued to build according to models of imperial architecture and benefited from the experiences made before in the field of synagogue and church construction. Prominent models were Hagia Sofia in Constantinople, and the Dome on the Rock built in 691 by Byzantine architects in Jerusalem. The latter one reflects heterogenous sources for it is erected at the site of the Jewish temple, the place where Abraham was meant to sacrifice Isaac, and also where Mohamed ascended to heaven; it is inspired by monuments of late Antiquity like Santa Costanza at Rome. Dominating the skyline of the town, mosques can be identified from far away by the minarets, symbols of supremacy and the oneness of God; they often contain open courtyards with fountains, providing water for ablution. In the large central room topped by a cupola, the symbol of God, Muslims sit on the floor and pray in rows behind the Imam, the leader of the congregational prayer. The mihrab, a niche in the wall indicates the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca, qibla, and from a raised podium with the minbar, or pulpit, the Imam delivers the sermon. Tombs, memorial sculpture, and paintings of religious figures are forbidden, and the walls and pillars are decorated by verses from the Quran in Arabic calligraphy, or intricate geometric designs. After the conquest of the Istanbul hierarchy, centralization, intensive illumination, and a more coherent treatment of the exterior arose, reflecting the unity of the secular power and the monotheistic religion of the Ottoman Empire. Therefore, the mosques of Sinan and his followers in Istanbul came much closer to the ideal of the unified central space than the reconstruction of Saint Peter in Rome would have done under Julius II.

Are mosques with courtyard layouts accessible, efficient, and flexible in terms of function owing to their distinct syntactical and morphological spatial structures? How does this particular layout differ from those of a synagogue and church?

Open courtyards are provided with fountains and offer water to the supplicants to clean and prepare their bodies and spirits for prayer. From an architectural perspective, such spaces became more elongated, and monumental, thanks to the surrounding flanking arcades. Accordingly to an hierarchical concept they form a highly visual impact, a scenic transition from daily life, as shown by the immediate surroundings, towards the sacral room, and the prayer of God. For instance, visiting today at the Bayezid mosque in Istanbul, you can appreciate this powerful parcours (itinerary) by crossing the open courtyard, and approaching the entrance of the mosque, which leads,by an interplay of subtle gradation to the hall below the cupola flooded my mysterious light where a marvelous display of light emerges from the fluted hall below the cupola. Also, the Constantinian basilica of Saint Peter had a colonnaded atrium, similarly called paradise, which was dominated by a bronze fountain topped by a pinecone and placed inside a baldachin with eight columns. As in the mosque, it represented an intermedial space on the route to the sacral building, but in contrast to it the main axis culminated at the apse, the place reserved for the emperor. The synagogue, however didn’t provide such extension to the public space, but remained, until the emancipation, an integrated, and discrete structure.

What is evident in a church is its absence and abandonment of the ritual characteristics one finds inside a synagogue? For instance, the repetition of piers and arches suggest the infinite. The vaulting soaring towards the heavens exalts the spirit, and the dim votive lights from candles create an aura of mystery. Do these practical requirements conflict with corresponding characteristics of a synagogue and mosque? Why?

The image of naves topped by ribbed vaults, flanked by arcades, and supported by piers, the irresistible impact of the scenes depicted in glass-windows, the slow movement of the believers towards the altar at the apex – such an image is not characterisitic of the first churches but corresponds to a later phase of the evolution of the typology. Like synagogues and mosques, the first churches were conceived as meeting rooms and only gradually were the different liturgical functions and related spaces added and specified. Under Constantine, Christian architecture became imperial, and the longitudinal axis culminated at the apse, the place of the secular power, a peculiarity at the time, later associated only with the figure of Christ. From this point of view the mosque represents a more democratic architectural typology: the central hall, crowned by a cupola is related to the faithful, and not to the altar and choir in terms of the longitudinal axis. While the multiplication of funerary chapels mirrors the individualistic mentality of western societies, the “empty” room of the mosque gives unlimited space to the activity of prayers. The adaptable character of sacral rooms however proved effective as indicated by the high number of conversions, for instance the Hagia Sofia became a mosque after the conquest of Istanbul, the Roman Pantheon was subsequently dedicated to the Virgin in the 7th century, the Dome of the Rock functioned as a church during the crusades, and mosques in Andalusia were transformed in cathedrals. Such conversions mainly concern the decoration and ornament, enriched by narrative and symbolic themes, as in the case of the church, yet were not allowed in the synagogues and mosques. These interventions, generally low-cost, have often been implemented without respect to the expelled religion, thereby causing distress. The comparative method that we have used for the international conference in Rome in April 2002 provides new knowledge, also thanks to research in migration, political relationships, and commercial routes, favoring exchange and transfer. As indicated by the example of Bramante and Sinan at the beginning of the 16th century, the two aspired to making buildings based on similar formal ideals, and during the same period, Leonardo and Michelangelo drew projects at the behest of the Sultan.

You presented your essay "Synagogue, Church, Mosque in Italian paintings of the 14th and 15th centuries" in Istanbul in 2017 at the Conference : Synagogue-Church-Mosque: Connections and Conversions. What were the primary similarities and differences you found relative to these paintings?

The representation of sacred architecture in paintings of the Italian Renaissance reflects an “imaginary” that was only partially adopted in projects or monuments. Painters aimed to place the biblical episodes of the beginning of Christian Age in the historical context of late antiquity, but they often depicted the buildings as ruins in order to show that the tradition had been defeated by the Christians. They were conscious of the different religious typologies, but only superficially aware of the specificities. Anyhow they used such representations to visualize new forms of sacred buildings, inspired mainly by the temple of Solomon, often confounded with the dome of the Rock. In doing so, artists relied on written sources like the Bible and architectural treatises, information transmitted by pilgrims or ambassadors, and recent local models like the dome of the cathedral of Florence. Since the beginning of the pontificate of Julius II, who considered himself both a new Solomon and successor of the Roman emperors, the project of the reconstruction of Saint Peters of 1505 established a new prototype that changed the visual conceptualization and fictive renderings.

You presented your essay "The Early Modern Unified Space Ideal: Function and Aesthetics"at a conference in New York. With advanced technology and conservation practices, what are the new characteristic styles relating to a modern synagogue, church and mosque? This has been the topic for lively discussion during the past years, can you elaborate?

Today the typologies of synagogue, church and mosque are the subject of an intense debate pertaining to the new architectural language and the role played by buildings to revalorize and highlight urban centers or quarters. Often, they are inserted in culminated ensembles including museums, libraries, schools or shops, places where people socialize and gather. The synagogue Ohel-Jakob of Munich shows how symbolic values and functional exigencies can be associated in an entirely new way: the ground floor made of travertine evokes the wailing wall in Jerusalem, the glass cube with the roof in the form of a tent (Ohel) alludes to Moses’ 40-year-journey through the desert. The Mosque of Rome translates traditional features of Islamic architecture in advanced technologies. From a forest of slim columns, which generate branch-like arches, rises the central dome surrounded by sixteen smaller ones, the minaret can be seen in the Roman skyline from afar. Some years earlier, also in the Eternal City, the Dio Padre Misericordioso church was built in a spectacularly innovative design, with three freestanding white walls, reminiscent of ship sails, referring to both the Trinity, and the sailing of the Roman Catholic faith in its third Millennium. Similarly highly curved white walls were also used for the central mosque of Cologne, conceived in Ottoman idioms, effectively showing that the patrons and architect understood the importance of emphasizing traditional themes of religious and cultural identity, combining international style and local taste. The permeability of exterior and interior space, along with the new light effects, intensive or subtle, and the contemporary design techniques, are utilized to create new conditions for pray and communication. The expansion of the ensembles towards the urban area reminds us of the public forum and the favoring of a deeper appreciation of the rites and rituals of another religion, thereby breaking down the barriers and working towards greater acceptance.

Sabine Frommel demonstrates how important these types of conferences are to deepen the understanding of the typological development through methods focused on relationship and interaction. They are also significant for architects in the future who design religious buildings, appreciating and drawing inspiration of how to build while respecting the liturgy and mystique of the different faiths.