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The Birth Of Christian Architecture

( Originally Published 1910 )



WE left Rome in the company of the Emperor Constantine to travel a picturesque bypath in the East, and now we must return to the ruler-less city and resume our peregrinations northwestward along the main line of progress.

As might have been anticipated, the city did not long remain without some sort of dictator, but we may well be surprised to find the Roman bishop of the newly recognized religion taking charge of temporal as well as of spiritual affairs, and in course of time securing the absolute dictatorship of the state. Here was an astonishing state of things, and a portentous one. We cannot but admire the astuteness of these men, recently civil outlaws hiding in byways of the city and gathering their terrified Iittle flocks in secret places, now suddenly developing into able political organizers and firmly grasping the helm of state. The result we view with unabating astonishment. In a few short years they had laid foundations that made possible the papal dominance of all Christendom for nearly a thousand years.

The first great need of the now controlling Christians was for places of worship, and to fill this need several of the basilicas, or law courts, were converted to the purpose, becoming thereby the basis for Christian church architecture of this day.

These basilicas, or kingly courts, belonged architecturally to the early Classic, but we find their prototypes much further back, among Eastern people. From very early times Oriental potentates dispensed justice, or what passed for it, from a throne at one end of an unroofed enclosure. So in Rome, as late as the Christian era, we find the emperors doing precisely this thing. The first basilicas were unroofed except for an aisle down each side, along which ran rows of columns. The throne at the end, of course, was handsomely protected on three sides and above.

The origin of this idea of an open court can be traced to China, and, there seems little doubt that its lineal descendant is the patio of Spain and Spanish America. Thus we see an obscure early Chinese invention girdling the globe, coming to us by way of western Asia, southern Europe, and the Saracens, and on its way indirectly stamping itself upon the world's entire production of Christian religious architecture.

When Constantine gave official recognition to the Christians, the only thing he had to offer them for a place of meeting, short of a circus, was one of these basilicas. There, accordingly, the first services were held, and when one building was outgrown others were added. Constantine himself must have continued to take an interest in the Roman flock, for he built a special five-aisled basilica of much beauty for them. The Christians did not, however, develop ideas of their own in the matter of buildings, for we find few departures from type in this and all the other early basilican churches, as they are called. The churches were covered with wooden roofs, with the trusses, purlins, and rafters showing. Several of the features of the basilicas are fundamental forms in the churches to this day., The enclosure for the king's throne, flanked by seats for his chief counsellors, became the apse, containing the altar and the bishop's chairs. Outside of this, with seats for the assisting priests, was what is now called the choir. The row of columns dividing the central from the side aisles was retained, being increased in many cases, as in Constantine's basilica, to two rows of columns on either side, making a five-aisled building.

The transept, which in modern churches crosses in front of the altar, is purely Christian, being an evident though later attempt to incorporate the Christian symbol of the cross into the ground-plan of the structure, as indeed it does with greatly added beauty and majesty. You will remember that we found the churches in the East taking the form of the Greek cross at a comparatively early period. It is quite probable that the Roman Christian architects adopted this ancient symbol from the mystic East.

The use of the cross as a symbol is much older than Christianity. A cross is used to represent the symbolic hammer of the old thunder god Thor, among the Norse-men, and in very early times the north German peasants made the sign of the cross to guard themselves against the lightning. Since prehistoric times the fylfot, or four-legged cross, which resembles the hammer of Thor, was used in Egypt and Greece, where it symbolized eternal life. Many scientists claim it as a symbol of ancient Phallic worship—the deification of the earthly origin of life.

The Mongolian cross, familiar to-day as "Swastika," seems to be of similar origin. It has a very wide distribution, being found, for instance in Central American ruins, where it undoubtedly again illustrates the wide-spread primitive worship of the mysterious natural phenomenon. The sign was frequently used in medieval times as a stone mark by the Freemasons, who were apparently ignorant of its earlier significance.

The Christian cross is thus evidently an adaptation, as are many other symbols of the early Church, and it is for this reason that the symbolism did not become established until the Church had developed into a powerful and wide-spread organization. The differentiation of the two forms, now known as the Roman and Greek crosses, is odd, and had much to do with the division of types in the two branches of Christian architecture, the basilican of Rome, which culminated in the Gothic, and the Byzantine of the East. Owing to the later infusion of Byzantine influence in the West it is advisable here to differentiate briefly the two styles.

In connection with this it is also of interest to note that while the fever of church - building was wringing marvels of intricate beauty from the creative imaginations of the men of the North, Italy went on building Basilican churches for nearly a thousand years, and so slight were the changes made that it is often difficult to tell a church's age within several centuries.

The chief distinction between Basilican and Byzantine architecture is in the roof, and in the fact that there is no transept in the former. The domes of the Byzantine type are rarely found in the basilicas, the domed churches of this period in Italy being almost invariably Byzantine. The basilican roof was much like that of a modern barn, heavy and simple, structurally, because of the use of wood. The style resembles the Eastern, but differs from the classic in having no entablature—architrave, frieze, and cornice. The basilicas, except in rare cases, were oblong, though many of them are either round or octagonal. A good example is St. Vitalis, in Ravenna, built by Justinian in the sixth century. For the most part the round basilica evolved into the baptistry, of which Pisa and Florence have the best examples of the few still standing.

Now, while all this early growth of Christian architecture was under way in Italy, other things were happening. Rome, left without a war-like head, was harassed more vigorously than ever by her barbarian enemies, especially the Goths of the North. Her prayers to Constantinople for help were unanswered, and so we witness her capture and almost total destruction by the Northerners in the beginning of the fifth century. Here was devastation and disgrace indeed; but it served as a powerful stimulant, and a few years later the Goths had been driven back and the work of rebuilding the wonderful old city was begun with vigor. This time, however, it was a Christian city that was rising, and gorgeous, wicked, old pagan Rome had gone forever.

The power of the popes continued to increase, but it did not reach the point of providing adequate defence against invaders, and the Greek emperor in Constantinople having failed them, we now see the ecclesiastics deep in the game of international politics to preserve the integrity of their organization. In the eighth century the pope having played the Lombards against the Greeks, found the trick turned on himself, the indignant Lombards beginning the seizure of his headquarters. To save himself, he called on the Franks for help. These Franks, the forefathers of the French of to-day, had earlier come under the influence of Roman civilization, and had developed a considerable culture. They were still, however, merely a collection of independent cities, or principalities, and the papal appeal was to the most influential of the mayors, one Charles Martel, famous for having saved Europe from the Saracens at the great battle of Tours in 732.

It would be a most interesting matter for imaginative conjecture as to what would have happened had the Saracens won this battle. Certainly the entire aspect of modern civilization would have been quite other than it is. But we are more nearly concerned with things as they are, and must move rapidly forward with the fortunes of Italy and France. To Charles Martel were sent the keys of St. Peter's tomb in recognition of his bargain with the pope, and in return he drove back the Lombards. Then the pope made Charles Martel's son, Pepin, king, thus creating the Carlovingian dynasty of France. Pepin had been a general in the service of the last of the Merovingian overlords, whom he now forced to retirement in a monastery. Thus dynasty succeeded dynasty, with the pope as deus ex machina in those early days of reckless and endless strife, but all the time the way was being opened for that northwestward sweep of civilization and the arts that we have been following through the centuries.

Pepin was succeeded by Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, who was great because he began the nationalizing of the Frankish people, consolidating and confederating the smaller principalities upon a comparatively peaceful basis with the new idea of unity, the result of the spread of Christianity, as his most potent ally. Charlemagne is also a notable figure for his patronage of the arts, which unquestionably stimulated building immeasurably. His own building operations, though interesting, have small historic significance, as architecture rapidly outgrew him in the active succeeding centuries. In the early part of the ninth century he took Italian architects and craftsmen from Rome and Ravenna, with large quantities of Italian marbles and Byzantine decorative materials, to his home in the Far North, and built churches of much beauty after the basilican order, notably at Aix. His tastes were conservative, and he did much in transmitting to us the older forms; but he did not, as some historians have claimed, lay the foundations for the new style that was then being evolved in the South, and that somewhat later was to blossom into the Romanesque, the precursor of the Gothic.

The empire that Charlemagne had created did not last. As in the case of the Greece of Alexander and the Rome of Constantine, the territory involved was too great for the degree of cohesive power then attained through civilization, and the succeeding rulers were not strong enough to hold it together by force. Therefore we see France resolving itself into petty principalities again about the year 900.

The alliance of Church and State had promised an ideal condition, each in its proper sphere working harmoniously toward a common end—the political and spiritual expansion of the people in a logical and civilizing growth. But the Church could not long remain in its proper sphere. Its efforts for temporal power and wealth forced disintegration, and separated both rulers and ruled into antagonistic groups. This naturally led to more strife and promoted the feudal system of small principalities and kingdoms, with, however, more or less recognition of the control of the most powerful of the rulers or overlords.

But the Christian faith and Christian ethics as a cohesive force are present for the first time. The world had moved forward in the preceding centuries, and we find strong undercurrents of nationalism running through these separate principalities, and a certain indication of growth that is most significant. Although Rome had been the birthplace, so far as the West is concerned, of the Christian Church, the manifestations of its power grew as it followed "the course of empire." Our interest, therefore, soon advances into this new and vital country of the Franks, where a vast store of creative energy is beginning to find outlet in fresh interpretations of the basilican forms of Italy. Meanwhile Rome itself, while holding its ecclesiastical power, and exercising it with freedom and rigor, slipped into creative desuetude, where it remained for several centuries. We will therefore leave it for the present, not to return until a new infusion of architectural blood stirs its congealing forms and gives it consequence by exercising a new and direct influence upon the styles of today.

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