A triumphal arch is a freestanding structure in Roman architecture and the arch at the entrance to the apse in church architecture.
From the second century A.D., the Romans built arches to commemorate some extraordinary political event or the outstanding achievements of some exalted personage. Such arches frequently stood astride a road and had either one or three passages through them. They were adorned with pilasters or engaged columns and with inscriptions or reliefs relating to the events that led to their erection. Arches in the provinces had the secondary aim of demonstrating Roman supremacy, to which their usually prominent position on main roads out of the city or at crossroads made a material contribution.
Examples in Egypt are the arch at al-Qasr in al-Bahriyyah Oasis (Fakhry, 1974, Vol. 2, pp. 89ff.) and the one at Philae, very probably erected under Diocletian (Lyons, 1896, p. 33 and pl. 25; Monneret de Villard, 1941, pp. 5ff.). Another arch was still standing in Antinoopolis down to the nineteenth century, while two more in Alexandria are known from designs on coins.
In Christian church building, the arch of the apse opening to the naos was described as a triumphal arch from the early ninth century (Duchesne, 1886-1892, Vol. 2, pp. 54-79). The Arabic qawsarah is first found in late sources (History of the Patriarchs). The church’s use of the secular term from Roman architecture suggested not only a certain structural similarity but also the status of the church as the church triumphant. It was usual to have a picture of the cross, the crux triumphalis, suspended from the arch. In the early transept basilicas in Rome, the arch separating the naos and the transept is called the triumphal arch.
Consequently, in the triconch churches in Egypt at Suhaj and Dandarah, for example, the arch opening to the naos resting on two columns in front of the apse must be considered a triumphal arch as well, so these churches are actually furnished with two triumphal arches. It is better to speak of front and rear, or first and second, triumphal arches. From the sixth century on, the same feature occurs in several Egyptian churches with a simple apse.
From an architectural point of view, the triumphal arch forms the structural conclusion of the naos and, to some extent, the facade of the sanctuary. It is accordingly the most richly developed and ornamented structural element in the church. In early churches in Italy it was frequently provided with rich mosaic ornament (Deichmann, 1948; 1958). Generally, however, the predominant structural formulation consists of engaged pilasters or half-columns. In larger buildings the jambs of the arch are not infrequently developed as pilasters, as at Suhaj and al-Ashmunayn.
The main display side of these pilasters, however, is turned not toward the naos but to the opposite jamb. Only the voussoirs (wedge-shaped stones of the arch), which in Egypt are usually provided with a formal cornice, are fully turned toward the naos. In other cases, the arch was adorned with complete columns. These stand either below the arch itself or immediately in front of the jambs or are inserted into a vacant corner of the abutments as in the North Basilica at Abu Mina.
During the late Middle Ages the importance of the triumphal arch declined. The introduction in Orthodox churches of the templon, closed off by curtains, and of the iconostasis rendered important elements of the arch invisible. In its place, mosaics or paintings in the soaring half-dome of the apse emerged as a new feature to catch the eye. In Egyptian churches, where the view into the sanctuary was completely blocked by the introduction of the partition wall of the khurus, the great door in the middle had of necessity to become the structural conclusion of the naos. Still, there are a few examples even in the buildings of the Fatimid period, in which this opening is framed with engaged pilasters and half-columns. It does not appear to have had any special designation. In texts in which it is mentioned, it is simply called bab (“door”).
- Deichmann, F. W. Frühchristliche Kirchen in Rom. Basel, 1948.
- . Frühchristliche Bauten und Mosaiken von Ravenna. Wiesbaden, 1958.
- Dozy, R. Supplément au dictionnaires arabes, 2 vols. Leiden, 1881; repr. Beirut, 1981.
- Duchesne, L. M. O. Le Liber pontificalis, 3 vols. Paris, 1886-1892. Fakhry, A. The Oases of Egypt, Vol. 2, Bahriyah and Farafra Oases. Cairo, 1974.
- Lyons, H. G. A Report on the Island and Temples of Philae. London, 1896.
- Monneret de Villard, U. La Nubia romana. Rome, 1941. Orlandos, A. K. Basilik», Vol. 1, pp. 206ff. Athens, 1952.