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Early Christian Architecture

( Originally Published 1915 )

We have spoken of how one style of architecture develops from another, and we are now to look briefly at a form which is chiefly important as being a link in the chain of styles.

There are not many important buildings of the Early Christian style. It came into being at a time when not much building was going on that is, during the early centuries of Christianity, and what good examples there are, are nearly all churches. During the first three centuries of the Christian era Christianity was under the ban of persecution, and there was not much chance for it to manifest itself in great architecture. But, early in the fourth century, Constantine became Emperor and was converted to Christianity. He made Christianity the State religion.

Constantine founded three large basilicas in Rome, all of which have been buried or destroyed. The chief objects to be thought of in these churches was to build without too much cost, to do it quickly, and to accommodate large congregations. A great structural principle which they used in roofing, or spanning spaces, is the truss. This is a frame of beams, or of beams and rods, so disposed and fastened as to make a continuous support or bridge across an open space. The truss was used by the Romans in roofing their basilicas.


As the great Romanesque style grew out of this early Christian architecture, let us look at the main features of the earlier and simpler style. Some of the most important of these features are preserved also in the Gothic church and we shall wish to see, as we very easily can see, how they grew out of this first early Christian style. The buildings of this style were simple in form, but of noble proportions, and, though very plain without, they were often gorgeous within. A notable circumstance about the early Christian work is the fact that its monuments were built largely from ruins and fragments quarried from earlier Roman work. No doubt much beauty was ruthlessly destroyed in this way.

Before the Christian era Cato borrowed from the Greeks their hall of justice; the first one being erected in Rome about 190 years before Christ. These basilicas usually had a large hall connected with a portico, and encircling galleries often enclosed the whole.

When Christianity became a State religion these buildings came to be used for religious purposes.

The basilica always had a central aisle; and this nave or central portion was usually separated from the side aisles by rows of columns. At the further end of the nave was the sanctuary or apse, in front of which stood the altar. In front of the whole was usually an atrium or fore-court, surrounded by a covered arcade. The exterior was extremely plain, and the interior resplendent with marbles and mosaics. A wooden roof covered the edifice. Figure 29 is the ground plan of a basilica which will show us the general arrangement, although this basilica does not happen to be an old Roman example. Above the columns that surrounded the nave there usually arose another story called the clerestory (clear story), the walls of which were pierced with windows. This is a feature which persists through later styles, and it is interesting to see its simple and plain beginning. Some of the Egyptian temples had clerestories, but the European examples date back only to early Christian architecture.

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