The First Baptist Church of Oakland, California

In understanding the traditions that led to the design of the First Baptist Church of Oakland, it is useful to first outline the lives of three very significant rulers in the history of the World.

Constantine (274-337 CE) was emperor of the Western Roman Empire from the year 306,consolidating his rule in 312. The next year he adopted Christianity as the state religion. After a battle with the Eastern emperor, he reunited the Empire in 324. He called the first world-wide Christian council in Nicaea in 325. The imperial capital was moved to Byzantium, which was renamed Constantinople in 330, because of the pagan traditions in Rome. I am assuming that there were no significant Christian church buildings prior to Constantine's rule.

Justinian (483-565), who came into power in 518 as an advisor to his uncle, Justin, the emperor of the Byzantium (Eastern Roman) Empire, later became the last of the great Roman emperors, reuniting most of the original Empire. He was a devout Christian, and, under his rule, magnificent churches were built. These included the church of Haghia Sophia (537) and the octagonal Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus (536), both in Constantinople and the octagonal Church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy (548). It should be noted that the Byzantium Empire survived until the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453--over 1000 years. The style of church built under Justinian, though new, was not improved upon for a thousand years.

Charlemagne (742-814), King of the Franks, conquered most of Europe, reestablishing the Western Empire which had been defunct since 476. This new empire, which was to become the Holy Roman Empire, lasted until overthrown by Napoleon in 1806. It too lasted 1000 years, although most commentators would declare that it was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an empire! Being emperor, he decided he needed a church appropriate to his position, continuing the tradition of Justinian. A keen scholar, he founded the Cathedral in Aachen, personally designing much of it, based on the magnificent churches of Justinian and also the octagonal Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (692). This octagonal church is based on a cube that is exactly 84 Carolingian feet in width, breadth, and height and was the model for many later German churches (the Minster, Essen, 1040; Ottmarsheim, Alsace, 1035; St. Maria im Kapitol, Cologne). Most emperors of the Holy Roman Empire were crowned in the Aachen Cathedral.

The sanctuary of the First Baptist Church of Oakland is also an octagon with dimensions of 84 X 84 X 84 statute feet.

Church of SS. Sergios and Bacchus (Constantinople)

This elegant church, the first church built by Justinian, slightly before the Haghia Sophia, is called in Turkish the equivalent of the "Small Haghia Sophia".(1) The church is named for the martyred patron saints of the Christian centurions in the Roman army. It is an irregular octagon within an irregular square, covered with a dome, sharing many design features with the Haghia Sophia.(2) The central octagon is 52 feet across. It served as a Christian church for 1000 years before being converted to a mosque under the Ottoman Turks.

Church of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy

In 402, the imperial capital of the Western Roman Empire was moved to Ravenna, on the Northern Adriatic Coast, whose port had been the Roman naval base in the Adriatic since Augustus Caesar. Lost to the Goths in 476, it was recaptured by Justinian in 540. The church of San Vitale, completed in 547, built around two concentric octagons, is one of the finest Byzantine churches in the world.

The Dome of the Rock

This celebrated example of Muslim art was completed in 692, built by the seventh caliph, Abd al_Malik bin Marwan.(3) It is on the site where tradition has Muhammad ascending to Heaven and also where Abraham was preparing to sacrifice Isaac. The materials were mostly from a Byzantine church that had been built a hundred years earlier from materials of the destroyed Herod's Temple.(4) The octagonal building was designed by a Byzantine Christian in a manner typical of Byzantine Christian churches of that era. Each of the eight sides represents one of the eight beatitudes.

Octagonal Church at Philippi

A church similar to San Vitale has been excavated by Prof. Pelekanides(5) of (the University of?) Kavala. This differs by being inscribed in a square (as is the First Baptist Church of Oakland). It was built over an older octagonal church, which, in turn, was built over a fourth century church dedicated to St. Paul.

Domed Octagonal Baptistry in Rome

This baptistry, adjacent to the basilica of Saint John in the Lateran, was built around 430. This octagonal form was used as a design for baptistries for many centuries during a time when total immersion was practiced; the best known is the Florence Baptistry of 1059. The design probably comes from the Greek and Roman round temples.(6)

References

1. Istanbul (tour guide), Alfred Knopf, NY (1993)

2. Norwitch and Clifton-Taylor, Early Christian, Byzantine and Carolingian, in Great Architecture of the World, J. Norwich, ed., A Da Capo paperback (1975)

3. Http://www.webcom.com/~zume/GallerySight/SN.Dome/One.html

4. http://freezone.com/WWW/reference_files/ka/rfidomer.html

5. Http://www.duth.gr/Kavala/philippi.html

6. Groliers Electronic Encyclopedia [CD-ROM] (1996)

Note: the top three illustrations come from the book by Walter Maas, Der Aachener Dom, Greven Verlag Köln (1984)

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