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Dr Catherine-Rose Hailstone
Durham University
Early Career Fellowship

Emotional architectures: atmospheres of power in late antique churches

Catherine-Rose Hailstone investigates how and why basilicas and churches were designed, built and decorated to create atmospheres that elicited powerful emotions in the period 400–600 bce

Collage showing architectural features, interior design and ceremonial regalia at the Basilica of Saint-Martin in Tours, France.
A collection of images illustrating the architecture, interior design and ceremonial regalia used in the Basilica of Saint-Martin in Tours, France. (Images authors own).

Visiting a church in late antiquity involved a sensory experience which elicited emotion. The emotion was transmitted through the church’s internal atmosphere, created by its structure, design, interior arrangement, decoration, and use of light, sound and smell. All buildings with emotional responses encoded into their structures and atmospheres could be understood as emotional architectures. The atmospheres, or intangible internal and external environments, that these buildings elicit become emotionally powerful when they evoke emotional responses that are potent enough to move those who experience them to think or act in a specific way. 

In the late Roman world, the rise of Christianity and the disintegration of imperial political structures in the western part of the Roman Empire gave rise to rival, sometimes conflicting, theological ideas and increased competition for social and political power. At the same time, a new Christian ideology called asceticism – a monastic way of life that regarded emotional control as the key to salvation and social power – started to gather momentum. Within this context, the controllers and commissioners of basilicas and churches in the late antique world started to use these buildings’ architecture and interior design to generate emotionally-powerful atmospheres. But how and why did they do this? 

My project examines how and why those who built and controlled the churches of Gaul and Italy in the period from 400 to 600 bce sought to create emotionally powerful atmospheres in the context of the complex contemporary socio-cultural, religious and political challenges that they faced. Using an array of textual and material evidence in combination with 3D modelling technologies and the recent research published in emotion, architectural, spatial and socio-cultural history, I will reveal the multiple ways that late- and post-Roman contemporaries created emotionally powerful atmospheres. In the process, I will uncover how broader changes in contemporary attitudes towards worshipping God, the saints and the role of religion in holding together the fabric of society affected the architectural and spatial design of basilicas and churches and the atmospheres that these created. My ambition is to make the invisible atmospheres of ancient buildings accessible for historical exploration. By changing how we conduct research into the history of emotions, churches and the late-Roman world more broadly, I show that emotions’ social and political power can be accessed through those intangible atmospheres.

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