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Early Christian Architecture

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

DURING the first three centuries of the Christian era the new religion, though despised and discredited, had been slowly gaining ground, in the face of enormous difficulties. Rome, as we have seen, was given over to the worst kind of licence and debauchery. The old pagan religion was entirely played out; the majority of the people thought nothing about religion, pagan or other-wise; while of those who took the trouble to think at all, few had any faith in the old creeds. The monumental undertakings of the emperors, whether sacred or secular, were not prompted by piety or by the spirit of reverence; and among the people the more thoughtful and intellectual viewed the prevailing licentiousness and prodigality with apprehension,

On that hard pagan world disgust And secret loathing fell, and men's minds were gradually being prepared for the great upheaval.

On the other hand, it must be remembered that the Christian doctrines were not such as would be cordially welcomed by the vast majority among the pleasure-loving Romans, and the new worship had, in consequence, to be carried on in secret; hence the earliest forms of art which it developed were sepulchral, consisting of the memorials and symbols of the faith found in the Catacombs.

The religion had little direct influence upon architecture until it was officially recognized by the Emperor Constantine in the year 328; but no sooner had it taken its position as a State religion than the strength of the movement became apparent, and there sprang up on all sides a demand for places of Christian worship. The old temples were not suitable for the accommodation of large congregations, and there was, perhaps, some hesitation about making use of buildings which had been specially designed for pagan worship. In their dilemma the early Christian builders turned to the great halls of commerce, the basilicas, and found what they were wanting. The interior arrangements of the basilica suited the requirements of the new worship, and as builders with inventive genius were scarce in Rome at the time, it thus came about that the first Christian churches were built in direct imitation of these great houses of assembly. As we shall see in succeeding chapters, this model, once adopted, was never departed from. There was no lack of materials, for the city was filled with buildings upon which all kinds of extravagance had been lavished, and which were now beginning to fall into disrepute and neglect. Columns and rich capitals, marble linings, architraves and ornaments were appropriated wholesale, and applied to new purposes, and while pagan Rome suffered, Christian basilicas sprang up in all directions with astonishing rapidity.

At the present day there is no Christian building in Rome dating from the time of Constantine. The church of S. John Lateran was built in his reign, but all trace of its early work has disappeared under the changes of later centuries. Perhaps the most beautiful of all the Christian basilicas of the time was that of S. Paul Outside the Walls, built by Theodosius in 386. Unfortunately, a great portion was destroyed by fire in 1821, but it was rebuilt with much of its former splendor—" the noblest interior in Europe, and nobly and faithfully restored," it is called by Ruskin, who seldom sang the praises of the restorer. The sketch plan of this basilica shows how closely the Christian building follows the lines of its pagan prototype.

In front of the church was an arcaded porch, or narthex, which in the earlier buildings was usually built in the form of a square, so as to form an open courtyard. This courtyard, or atrium, occupied a considerable area, and gradually tended to disappear as space in the city became more valuable. Examples may still be seen in the churches of S. Clemente in Rome and S. Ambrogio in Milan.

The semi-circular apse, in the basilica of the early Christians, occupied the central portion of the wall opposite the entrance, and accommodated the bishop and the chief officers. The clergy officiated in the raised space before the apse, in front of which was the altar. As the ritual became more elaborate, in order to increase the accommodation, rudimentary transepts were sometimes formed—as in the basilica of S. Paul—by slightly widening the building at this part. The choir .and others who were assisting at the service required a considerable space, and for their use a portion of the nave, in front of the altar, was enclosed by a low marble screen or a railing; pulpits, or " ambos," were arranged on each side of this reserve. In the remaining portion of the nave, or in the aisles, sat the faithful who had been baptized, for no others were admitted within the church.

Probationers and other worshippers were allowed only in the narthex or in the atrium.

We see, then, in these first efforts of the early Christians, the embryo plan, or arrangement of parts, which afterwards developed into the typical mediaeval cathedral plan. The division into nave and aisles—borrowed from the pagan basilica—is the treatment most widely adopted in buildings for Christian worship at the present day. The influence of the narthex may be traced in many cathedral plans, as at Westminster Abbey and Durham, where the westernmost bay is wider, and its piers different in character from those of the remainder of the nave. In the early basilicas, too, we see foreshadowed the transept and the resulting cruciform plan of later cathedrals. To meet the demand for extra accommodation, rudimentary transepts were formed by an extension of the space between the apse and the end of the nave : this was kept free from columns and from all other obstructions, in order that the officiating clergy might not be hampered in the administration of the ritual.

The builders of this period possessed little inventive genius, nor did they concern themselves about architectural effect. The generally accepted type of building, borrowed from their pagan fore-bears, satisfied them and was never changed unless the exigencies of the service demanded an alteration. So long as the apse sufficed for the accommodation of the limited number of higher officers for whose use it was reserved, it was retained in its primitive form, though made gloriously brilliant by an incrustation of mosaic. But as the office of the clergy assumed greater importance, and the ritual became more exclusive and elaborate, it became necessary to enlarge the space. The apse was, therefore, gradually lengthened in accordance with the requirements for in-creased accommodation, until it developed at last into the choir of the mediaeval church.

We have seen that the transepts, in the early stage of their existence, served only a utilitarian purpose. At a later period, however, more consideration was given to their architectural effect, as regards both the exterior and the interior. It was noted that the transeptal projections formed a useful break in the long, monotonous line of the building; moreover, in England especially, the great central tower—the dominant feature of its mediaeval cathedral design—springing from the intersection of the nave and the cross walls, required the abutment of the transepts in order to support its great weight. This led to the fuller development of the transepts for architectural and structural reasons. The cruciform church-plan appears, then, to have first arisen from a combination of accidental circumstances, though it was afterwards invested with a symbolical meaning, as representing the form of the cross.

The atrium, or fore-court, which some of the early basilican churches possessed, was probably suggested by the similar feature in the Roman house. It helped to shut off the sacred building from the outer world, and, as we have said, provided accommodation for those of the worshippers who were not fully qualified to attend the service within the building. In cathedrals of later date the atrium still survives in the cloister, though its position has been changed. The two ambos of the basilica are represented in modern churches by the reading-desk and the pulpit, situated on either side of the choir.

In almost every feature, then, the Gothic cathedral plan of mediaeval times represents the natural development of the old basilican church of the early Christians. One change should be mentioned, which has been made in the position of the altar and of the bishop's seat. The early Christian basilicas resembled their prototypes, as the bishop occupied the seat in the centre of the apse, which had formerly been assigned to the chief magistrate ; this seat became, in fact, the bishop's throne, and was raised up above the level of the seats of the surrounding clergy, the altar, meanwhile, being placed centrally in front of the apse. In a few of the later churches this arrangement is still adhered to, as in S. Peter's at Rome, where the Pope's throne is situated in the middle of the apse, and the high altar occupies a position in front, under the centre of the great dome. In western cathedrals generally, however, the positions have been changed: the altar occupies a central position against the wall of the apse, and the bishop is accommodated elsewhere at the side of the choir.

Great reverence was paid by the early Christians to the remains of the saint to whom the church was dedicated, whose baptistery and font —usually a circular or polygonal building—adjoined the basilica. At a later period the shrine was placed under the altar, in the apse. In due course the belief in the efficacy of various saints led to the erection of secondary altars; and, the apse being recognized as the natural position for an altar, it became customary to build apsidal recesses for its accommodation. At first the secondary apses were added on either side of the central recess, but as the main apse extended and developed into the choir, occupying the full width of the building, the apsidal chapels were either relegated to the transepts or were ranged round the main central apse, an arrangement which became a special feature of French cathedral architecture.

The exterior of the basilica was treated in the simplest manner possible, with no attempt at architectural embellishment, while the interior depended upon the accessories for its beauty, rather than upon architectural form. The walls inside were rich with veined marbles, and brilliant with mosaic—the most permanent of all forms of decoration, for the golden mosaics of these early basilicas are still undimmed after the lapse of centuries. The apse and the wall space over its arch-the triumphal arch, as it was called—were especially rich with pictures worked in these small glass cubes, many of them almost childish in drawing, but all finely decorative.

Inlaid marbles were used for the floor, in geometric patterns, forming a sort of mosaic known as opus Alexandrinum-a fine specimen of which may be seen in England in the presbytery of Westminster Abbey. In many of the buildings are found an odd mixture of columns and capitals, collected from the older buildings of pagan Rome : plain and fluted shafts are placed side by side, Ionic columns contrasting with Corinthian, as in S. John Lateran, Corinthian with Doric; small capitals upon large columns, shafts of different lengths raised upon bases of unequal heights, and so on; for, in Ruskin's words, "the architect of a Romanesque basilica gathered his columns and capitals where he could find them, as an ant picks up sticks "—a heterogeneous collection, sometimes, built up with little intelligent skill, guilty of little architectural style, but brimful of history!

Restoration in later days has destroyed much of the interest, historical and otherwise, of these early basilicas. Sta. Maria Maggiore, though to some extent restored in the Renaissance period, when the panelled ceiling was added, still retains almost its original aspect, and affords the best example of an old Christian basilica in Rome. It is a three-aisled building in the form of a long rectangle, with the usual apse, and with a narthex extending along the whole of the front. The nave is flanked by five colonnades of Ionic columns, all the columns being, in this case, of one design. Above the columns the clerestory wall is carried upon an architrave, not upon a series of arches, as in St. Paul's Outside the Walls, S. Clemente, and most of the other basilicas. S. Clemente, al-though rebuilt in the eleventh century, retains its old plan, with the choir enclosure, ambos, and baldaquin in a good state of preservation.

During the fifth and sixth centuries the city of Ravenna, on the Adriatic coast, was second only to the old capital in importance, and witnessed the erection of churches which were hardly inferior to the finest which Rome herself possessed. The principal of these—the ancient cathedral of Ravenna—was destroyed in the last century to make way for a modern building ; but of the other churches, two of the basilican type of especial interest have been preserved—S. Apollinare Nuovo (A.D. 525) and S. Apollinare in Classe (A.D. 549), the latter situated in what was formerly the port, at a distance of three miles from the city.

The plan of these churches is similar to that of the Roman basilicas ; but as Ravenna differed from Rome in possessing few pagan temples which might be despoiled for the adornment of the new buildings, it was necessary that all the details required in the basilicas should be specially worked for the places they were to occupy.

Thus in Ravenna one does not meet with the in-congruous medley which characterized many of the Christian basilicas of Rome. The features of classical Rome were imitated, but they were subjected to new influences, and the task of adapting them to the new requirements called forth the best inventive powers of the architects.

A feature of special interest in the Ravenna churches is the dosseret, or impost block, in shape like an inverted pyramid, which was interposed between the capital and the springing of the arches—a form in common use with the architects of Byzantium. Ravenna at this period carried on an extensive trade with Byzantium, and was subjugated by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 537. Thus the presence of Oriental details in the buildings can be readily accounted for. But, in addition to these details, there are found in Ravenna entire buildings — to which reference must now be made —constructed upon a plan essentially different from the basilican type. To this style the name of Byzantine has been given, since it originated from the new Eastern capital which Constantine founded at Byzantium.

The basilican form of church was adopted in all parts of Italy, and continued to be built for many centuries with but slight modifications of the interior. More changes were made externally, for, instead of the barn-like treatment which characterized the early basilicas, we find somewhat elaborate exterior decorations of marble veneer, as at S. Miniato in Florence, or picturesque wall arcades, as at Pisa, Lucca, and Pistoja.

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