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Early Christian Architecture - Architectural Character

( Originally Published 1921 )

Early Christian architecture may be taken to have lasted from about A.D. 300 to goo.

Each age of human development inevitably modifies the art it has inherited, in its effort, sometimes conscious and sometimes unconscious, to adapt the art of the past to express the outlook of the present. Thus in architecture one style is generally evolved from the preceding by a series of gradual changes. The Early Christians, as Roman craftsmen, continued old Roman traditions, but as they were by no means wealthy it was natural that for their new buildings they should utilise as far as possible the materials from Roman temples which had become useless for their original purpose. Further, in their churches, modelled on Roman basilicas, they used old columns which by various devices were brought to a uniform height (p. 205 A). On this account, although extremely interesting from an archaeological point of view, Early Christian buildings hardly have the architectural value of a style produced by the solution of constructive problems. Basilican churches had either closely spaced columns carrying the entablature (p. 205 B), or more widely spaced columns carrying semicircular arches (p. 205 A). The basilican church with three or five aisles, covered by a simple timber roof, is typical of the Early Christian style (p. 211 A) as opposed to the vaulted Byzantine church with its central circular dome placed over a square by means of pendentives and surrounded by smaller domes (p. 227).

The architectural character of basilican churches is rendered impressive and dignified by the long perspective of oft-repeated columns which carry the eye along to the sanctuary ; a treatment which, combined with the comparatively low height of interiors, makes these churches appear longer than they really are, as is seen in S. Paolo fuori le Mura (p. 206 F, 209 B), and S. Maria Maggiore (p. 205 B). An " arch of triumph " gave entrance to the sanctuary with the High Altar in the centre standing free under its baldachino upheld by marble columns. The vista was rounded off by an apse lined with marble slabs and crowned with a semi-dome en-crusted with glittering golden mosaics in which Christ appears surrounded by prophets, saints, and martyrs.

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