Kotor: A Closer Look At St Luke’s Church

St Luke’s Church is located in a square that bears its own name within the north-eastern urban quarter of Kotor Old Town. St Luke’s Church gives us an insight into the architecture of the period of its construction because it is the only church in Kotor not to have been damaged by earthquakes. This is remarkable given that Kotor has experienced four significant earthquakes since 1563 as well as thousands of lesser tremors.

St Luke’s Church is located in its own square immediately in front of the prominent St Nicholas Church
The location of St Luke’s Church in Kotor Old Town

St Luke’s Church was one of several churches that were built in Kotor Old Town from 1185 AD to 1371 AD during the progressive Serbian Nemanjic rule. The design of these churches merged early Christian church design with traditional Slavic architecture. A typical Serbo-Byzantine church was constructed on a rectangular foundation and featured a major dome in the centre surrounded by smaller domes. This style was not fully expressed in St Luke’s Church which instead integrated with the Romanesque.

A visit to the historical St Luke’s Church in Kotor can be made even more enjoyable if we are able through even a basic secular awareness of its architecture to identify features which would have previously been unnoticed.

The Background of Byzantine Architecture Applied to St Luke’s Church

Byzantine architecture had its historical and structural roots in the Roman Empire, emerging from Constantinople under Constantine, the new capital of the Christian Roman East. Byzantine architects adopted the elements that underscored the success of Roman architecture; the round arch with keystone, dome and vault. These elements were then incorporated into Byzantine buildings designed for congregation and ceremony. The secular Roman basilica, rectangular with apse, became the template for further design.

Some Elements of Byzantine Architecture in St Luke’s Church

St Luke’s Church (1195) is another example of a Byzantine-Romanesque church and was built during the Serbian rule
St Luke’s Church Kotor

Image Credit: lienyuan lee, CC BY – SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The central dome on the Church of St Luke was the most characteristic external feature of Byzantine churches. The dome was not exclusive to Byzantine architecture and also varied in form.

The importance of the dome to the Byzantine is that it provided both functional and symbolic uses.

First, the dome spanned a large area across the roof of the building forming an internal square floor space under it. The dome therefore increased space and light inside the church.

Second, this design internally arranged the small church into three parts; the entrance, the central space for the congregation, and the sanctuary where the altar was traditionally located.

The third application of the design was symbolic. Classical cosmology was built on the principle that the circle was the perfect shape and so all things heavenly; the planets, planetary orbits and stars were perfect circles. The earth, being imperfect, was represented by a square. Consequently, the capping of the square centre of the church by an overhead, central, circular dome represented God in the perfect heavens overseeing the earth. It formed a powerful narrative to promulgate the doctrine of the Church and wasn’t challenged until Galileo pointed his telescope heavenward and saw moons around Jupiter and the presupposed perfect surface of the moon interrupted by craters.

The western façade of St Luke’s, as shown in the image, is recessed under a larger arch, as are the windows above the western portal. This style introduced a three dimensional quality to buildings and has been attributed to Byzantine architecture. Byzantine architecture of the period also occasionally favoured decorating the exterior by laying alternate forms of masonry to produce changes of colour.

The single nave St Luke’s Church supported the dome by another Byzantine contribution to architecture, the pendative (probably from the Latin pendere, to weigh or overhang). Our image below, unfairly of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, demonstrates the principle also used in St Luke’s Church.

Pendatives support the dome in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul as they do in St Luke’s Church
The use of pendatives to support the central dome in a Byzantine mosque

The circular dome was located above a square space and each side of the square space hosted an arch to permit traffic across the floor. In the image the arches are at right angles to each other and are supported by pillars. You can see that the base of the dome could rest on the peak of each arch but this would not satisfactorily distribute the load. The solution was to fill the spaces between the adjacent arches with spherical triangles, or pendatives, thereby providing contact for the entire base of the dome. The pendatives in the Blue Mosque above have been decorated with a circular motif. The pendatives in St Luke’s Church are easily seen but, understandably, not as spectacularly as shown in the Blue Mosque.

Other characteristics of the Byzantine style are commented on when describing The Church of St Mary in Kotor. It is also possible to identify some strong elements of Romanesque architecture of St Luke’s Church.

The Background of Romanesque Architecture Applied to St Luke’s Church

The separation of Romanesque from Byzantine architecture is considered by many to be artificial in that both are siblings of their Roman parent. It would therefore be expected that both styles would share key elements. The central personality in the development of the ‘Roman-esque’ was Charlemagne who after being crowned Emperor in 800 CE of what would later become the Holy Roman Empire began building churches in the Roman style. Architects recognised during subsequent years how the the round arch and its use in arcades contributed to the success of Roman construction. So just as the Byzantine style had its identifying though not unique characteristic, the dome, Romanesque also had its identifying but not unique characteristic; the semi-circular Roman arch.

Some Elements of Romanesque Architecture of St Luke’s Church

St Luke’s Church at Kotor Old Town displays the features characteristic of both Byzantine and Romanesque architecture
St Luke’s Church at Kotor Old Town

When you stroll around St Luke’s Church you will be able to easily identify the many uses of the round arch. You will also see other markers of the Romanesque which can be applied to the other churches and cathedrals you visit. The door of this single nave church was set in a rectangular architrave. The door was usually surrounded by curved mouldings. The mouldings were usually ornamented because in Romanesque architecture the single portal was the principal focus of decoration for the western façade.

Paired windows are a feature of Romanesque architecture and seen at St Luke’s Church
The Romanesque paired window, here situated above St Luke’s western door

Another, but very important Romanesque feature to notice is the paired window which in this case is positioned above the western door. These arched windows are paired, separated by a mullion. The pair is then recessed within a larger round arch.

Another, but very important Romanesque feature to notice is the paired window which in this case is positioned above the western door. These arched windows are paired, separated by a mullion. The pair is then recessed within a larger round arch.

The sides of St Luke’s church have been fortified by extremely thick walls which are undecorated and have very few windows. The absence of decoration on the walls of the church is specific in the case of St Luke’s because when you visit other Romanesque churches you will often see a band of blind arcades, known as a Lombard band, running around the church immediately under the roof line. The thick walls of St Luke’s have been supported by flat buttresses, another important Romanesque feature, which can be seen against the walls of the church. A single door provides access from one side of the church above which is a wheel window from the Romanesque.

The rear of St Luke’s Church, like all Romanesque churches, is semi-circular and faces east. The design provided space for a morning ceremony which derived symbolism from the rising of the sun. This became the apse, itself under a semi-dome. The rear of St Luke’s Church also displays the distinctively Romanesque paired arched windows separated by a mullion.

Larger Romanesque churches usually had at least one small tower to the side at its western end or two towers symmetrical about the western portal. Smaller churches such as St Luke’s had a bell gable instead of towers.

Finally, St Luke’s Church internally is a single nave church that displays the barrel vaulting which would be expected in a Romanesque building. Barrel vaults produced a lateral force on the walls and it was for this reason, before the use of extravagant buttressing introduced in the Gothic, that the Romanesque churches had extremely thick walls supported by flat buttresses. Take your time when inside the Church of St Luke to observe the pendatives and the work being done by the arches.

There is one large Romanesque cathedral in Kotor, St Tryphon’s Cathedral. St Tryphon’s has experienced significant earthquake damage over several centuries and many visual Romanesque features have been lost. Nevertheless, all the principles outlined above can be just as easily applied.

Romanesque barrel vaulting as well as pendatives are seen inside St Luke’s Church
Barrel vaults and the corners of pendatives inside St Luke’s Church

Image Credit: Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada, CC By SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Final Thoughts on A Closer Look At St Luke’s Church at Kotor

This brief post about St Luke’s Church and simplified description of its architecture is not so much only about St Luke’s, but more about how much can be missed when we visit other countries. Kotor, like all cities and towns in Europe, is a complex of unfamiliar buildings and structures. We can find ourselves walking around these venues almost oblivious to what they have to offer, instead only looking at the shell of a building without understanding it. Just a little bit of information about their architecture can considerably enrich our visits and give us so much more to look for.