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Early Christian Architecture - Influences

( Originally Published 1921 )

I. Geographical.—Christianity had its birth in Judaea, an eastern province of the Roman Empire, but directly it became a living organism it was naturally carried by S. Peter, S. Paul, and other missionaries to Rome, as the centre of the World-Empire. There at the fountain-head of power and influence, and in spite of opposition and persecution, the new religion took root and grew, till it was strong enough to become the recognised universal religion of the whole Roman Empire. Early Christian architecture at Rome was influenced by, and was the logical outcome of, existing Roman art, and it was modified in other parts of the Empire according to the type already recognised as suitable for the geographical situation of those countries, such as Syria, Asia Minor, North Africa, and Egypt.

II. Geological.—Geological influences may be said to have acted indirectly rather than directly on Early Christian architecture, for the ruins of Roman buildings often provided the quarry whence materials were obtained. This influenced the style, both as regards construction and decoration ; for columns and other architectural features, as well as fine sculptures and mosaics from older buildings, were worked into basilican churches of the new faith.

III. Climatic.—The climate of Italy, the most important centre of building activity in this epoch, has been dealt with in the chapter on Roman architecture (p. 130). The climatic conditions of such Roman provinces as Egypt, Syria, and North Africa where Christianity was established were more or less varied, and naturally modified the style in those countries where the fiercer sun and hotter climate necessitated small windows and other Eastern features.

IV. Religious.—In all human history there is no record so striking as that of the rise of Christianity, and no phenomenon so outstanding as the rapidity with which it was diffused throughout the civilised world, and, not only in this period but also in all subsequent ages, Christianity has inspired the building of some of the greatest architectural monuments. The number of Christian communities established by the Apostle Paul in his missionary journeys round the Eastern Mediterranean, in Syria, Africa, Greece, and Italy, might lead us to expect many more ruins of Early Christian basilican churches throughout these districts. In this connection, however, it must be remembered that the God preached by S. Paul was " not like unto gold or silver or stone graven by art and device of man," nor a God that dwelleth " in temples made with hands " like those of the old Greeks and Romans which were built to shelter the statues of the gods. The purpose of the Christian church was to shelter worshippers who met for prayer and praise to an unseen Deity, and, during the unsettled conditions at the beginning of Christianity, various places were adapted for this worship. Thus the building of pagan temples ceased before any attempt was made to build Christian churches. In A.D. 313 Constantine issued his celebrated decree from Milan, giving Christianity equal rights with other religions, and in A.D. 323 he himself professed Christianity, which became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and the Christians then began to build churches of a type suit-able to their needs and ritual. Fortified by its official position and thus freed from the need for unity within, which had been engendered by persecution from without, doctrinal differences at once developed in the church, and the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325), called by Constantine, was the first of several such councils for the settlement of disputes about heresies. The steady progress of Christianity was temporarily arrested by a reaction (A.D. 360-363) under Julian the " Apostate," and then for several generations religion suffered an eclipse as a power in European civilisation, and the whole continent was given over to war and anarchy. Pope Gregory the Great (A.D. 590-604) employed the Imperial Army of Constantinople to defend Rome against the Lombards, and thus, by making common cause with the people, early laid the foundations of the temporal power of the Papacy, which steadily increased, especially under Popes Hadrian I and Leo II.

V. Social.—Constantine changed the capital of the Empire from Rome to Byzantium in A.D. 324, when the old Roman political system came to an end, and this royal convert reigned as an absolute monarch till his death in A.D. 337. Besides the troubles caused by Julian the Apostate, Christianity suffered further disabilities during the unsettled conditions consequent upon the division of the Roman Empire, which first took place in A.D. 365 when Valentinian became Emperor of the West and his brother Valens of the East. Theodosius the Great (A.D. 379-395) reunited, for a time, the Eastern and Western Empires, and in A.D. 438 Theodosius II published his legal code, an important work on the constitutions of the Emperors from the time of Constantine. The series of Emperors in the West came to an end in A.D. 475, and the Eastern and Western Empires were nominally reunited by Zeno, who reigned at Constantinople. Then again the seat of power was changed, and Theodoric the Goth reigned in Italy (A.D. 493–526) during a period of peace and prosperity, and, in the wake of this change, Byzantine art influenced Early Christian art by way of Ravenna, which rivalled Rome in importance and was the capital of the Gothic Dynasty A.D. 493–552 with the exception of a short period when it was subdued by Justinian (A.D. 537). Kings were now elected for the separate states of Spain, Gaul, Northern Africa, and Italy, where King Odoacer recognised the supremacy of the one Roman Emperor at Constantinople. The emancipation of Western Europe from direct Imperial control resulted in the development of Romano-Teutonic civilisation, which facilitated the growth of new states and nationalities, gave a fresh impulse to Christianity, and eventually strengthened the power of the Bishops of Rome. The formation of these new states resulted also in the growth and development of the Romance and Teutonic languages, which, for general use, largely replaced Latin. It is clear that these many social changes and political disturbances could not fail to be reflected in the architecture of a period in which great formative forces were at work.

VI. Historical.—The Early Christian period is generally taken as lasting from Constantine to the death of Gregory the Great (A.D. 604), although in Rome and many Italian cities it continued up to the tenth century. The incursions of the Huns into Germany about A.D. 376 eventually brought about invasions from the north into Italy, and in A.D. 410 Rome itself was sacked by the Goths under Alaric. So many conflicting forces were at work in Europe that the spread of the new religion was arrested during this period of change and upheaval, till A.D. 451, when the defeat of Attila, King of the Huns, at the battle of Chalons aided in the consolidation of Christianity in Europe. In A.D. 568 the Lombards penetrated into Italy and held the northern part for 200 years. Then in A.D. 800 Charlemagne was crowned by the Pope in Rome, and from this date the Empire was styled the Holy Roman Empire, a title retained till A.D. 1800. Under Pope Gregory the Great (A.D. 590–604) Early Christian architecture, the latest phase of Roman art, gradually fell into disuse, and for the next two centuries architectural development was practically at a standstill in Europe ; and though the influence of Byzantium asserted itself, old Roman traditions were in abeyance till the time when Romanesque architecture was gradually evolved.

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