An apse is an extension of a rectangular hall, usually semicircular and roofed by a semicircular dome. Because of its strong visual effect, it draws every eye to itself and therefore was used in Roman temples to display the image of the god and in Roman basilicas for the emperor’s throne. For similar reasons, it was used at the sanctuary end of early Christian churches for the altar. In episcopal churches it also accommodated the synthronon (the bishop’s throne and seats of priests on either side, see below) against the back wall. Later, after the seventh century, when the clergy moved forward nearer the nave, the altar was sometimes moved to the back of the apse.
Generally, the apse is only slightly narrower than the nave. Churches in Egypt, more than in other Roman provinces, made great efforts to decorate the apse richly. The arch at the entrance received particular attention (see “triumphal arch” below). In several churches of the fifth and sixth centuries, columns were introduced as abutments to the arch and adorned with the finest capitals. From the ninth century, the arch was often decorated with an archivolt (ornamental molding).
In a large number of churches the curved wall of the apse was provided with a ring of engaged columns, sometimes in two tiers, as in the churches of DAYR ANBA SHINUDAH and DAYR ANBA BISHOI at Suhaj. Often the apses also contained a ring of niches. At Dayr Anba Shinudah rectangular and semicircular niches alternate in the horizontal and vertical planes. In the church of DAYR ABU FANAH at Mallawi, shallow niches alternate with deep ones. In the church in front of the pylon of the Luxor temple, at least one niche, flanked by columns, reaches from the apex of the apse to the floor.
As a rule, the greatest care was applied to the formation of the semidomed area above the apse. In several churches at Abu Mina, numerous discoveries of small mosaic tiles point to the existence at one time of an apse mosaic. In the Upper Egyptian churches the half-dome was usually adorned with paintings.
- Monneret de Villard, U. “La basilica cristiana in Egitto.” Atti del IV congresso internazionale di archeologia cristiana, Vol. 1, pp. 308-315. Rome, 1940.
- Orlandos, A. K. Basilik», pp. 206-224. Athens, 1952.