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Early Christian Architecture - Examples

( Originally Published 1921 )


Basilicas or Roman halls of justice probably served the Early Christians as models for their churches, which thus form a connecting link between buildings of pagan Classic times and those of the Romanesque period which followed. The term " basilica " (Gk. basilikos = kingly), which was applied to a Christian church as early as the fourth century, was a peculiarly appropriate designation for buildings dedicated to the service of the King of Kings. Some authorities, however, believe Early Christian churches to have been evolved from Roman dwelling-houses, where the community had been in the habit of assembling, or from the " scholar " or lecture-rooms of the philosophers. A basilican church was usually erected over the burial-place of the saint to whom the church was dedicated, and immediately over this burial-place, crypt, or " confessio " was the High Altar covered by a ciborium, also known as a tabernacle or baldachino (p. 862). There were thirty-one basilican churches in Rome alone.

S. Clemente, Rome (A.D. 1084-1108) (pp. 198, 205 A), rebuilt over an earlier church, retains the original internal arrangement as well as fittings of the fifth century and shows the suitability of the basilican plan for Christian ritual and for sheltering a number of worshippers (p. 198 K). An atrium or open rectangular forecourt (p. 198 B), surrounded by arcades, forms an imposing approach to the church, and in the centre is a fountain of water for ablutions—a custom which is still symbolised amongst Roman Catholics by the use of the stoup of holy water at the entrance of the church. Next came the covered narthex, between the atrium and the church, which was assigned to penitents. The narthex opened into the nave, lighted by a clear-story of small windows, with an aisle on either side, usually half the width of the nave. Occasionally there are two aisles on each side of the nave, as in the Basilicas of Old S. Peter (p. 206 B, C), S. Paolo (pp. 206 E, F, 209 B), and S. Giovanni in Laterano, Rome, Galleries for women were sometimes placed over the aisles, as at S. Agnese (p. 210 A, C, D, E) and S. Lorenzo, Rome, but otherwise the sexes sat on opposite sides of the nave. There is no " bema " (Gk. platform) in S. Clemente, but one had existed in some pagan basilicas, and was the germ of the Mediaeval transept which later converted the plan into a Latin cross. Some consider, however, that this cruciform plan was derived from buildings which had been erected for sepulchral purposes as early as the age of Constantine. A choir which became necessary, owing to the growth of ritual, was enclosed by low screen walls or " cancelli " (hence " chancel ") and was provided with an " ambo " or pulpit on either side, dating from the fourth century, from which the Gospel and Epistle were read (p. 205 A). In the semicircular apse or sanctuary the bishop took the central place, which had been that of the " praetor " in the Roman basilica, and the presbyters, or members of the Church Council, occupied seats on either side corresponding to those used by the Roman " assessors." The altar, in front of the apse, which in the basilica had been used for libations or saCrifices to the gods, was now adapted for the celebration of Christian rites, and a baldachino or canopy, supported on marble columns, was erected over it. The interior of S. Clemente, as of other churches, owes much of its rich effect to the use of glass mosaic (" opus Grecanicum ") in the semi-dome of the apse (p. 205 A), which contains a central figure of Christ in glory against a golden background, or as at S. Agnese (p. 217 A) or S. Maria Maggiore.

" Below was all mosaic choicely planned, With cycles of the human tale."

The timber roofs were plainly treated with visible rafters (pp. 210 A, 211 A) often cased, in Renaissance times, with richly gilded coffers (pp. 205 A, B, 209 B). The pavement was formed from the abundant store of old marbles in Rome, and slices of columns were laid as centres to surrounding bands of inlay in intricate geometric patterns (p. 205 A) as at S. Lorenzo (p. 217 Q) and S. Giovanni e Paolo (p. 217 T).

The Basilican Church of S. Peter, Rome (A.D. 330) (p. 206 A, B, C), erected by Constantine near the site of the marytrdom of S. Peter in the circus of Nero, was pulled down to make way for the present cathedral (p. 582). The atrium led through the narthex to the great nave with double aisles terminating in five arches, the central of which was called the Arch of Triumph (p. 2(36 B, C). Beyond was the bema (p. 862) and the sanctuary or semicircular apse with the Pope's seat against the centre of the wall. The priest, as in all Early Christian basilican churches, stood behind the altar and faced east, as the chancel was in this case at the west end of the church (p. 2(36 C).

S. Giovanni in Laterano, Rome (A.D. 330) (p. 34 B), has been so much altered at various times as to have lost its original Early Christian character.

S. Paolo fuori le Mura, Rome (pp. 206 D, E, F, G, 209, 217 G), founded in A.D. 380, was destroyed in A.D. 1823, but was rebuilt on the original design, and is the largest and most impressive of all basilican churches. The nave has eighty great columns of Simplon granite, with mosaic mural medallions of the Popes above. The Arch of Triumph with fifth-century mosaics, the double bema, the apse with mosaics of the thirteenth century, and the remarkable High Altar with its double baldachino over the Confessio of S. Paul, all contribute to the grandeur of the interior.

S. Maria Maggiore, Rome (A.D. 432) (pp. 205 B, 217 B), was built by Pope Sixtus III and is the only church of which there is evidence that it was originally a pagan basilica, and it is one of the most typical of basilican churches. The interior (p. 205 B) is the most beautiful of the three-aisled basilicas, with its ranges of Ionic columns of Hymettian marble and entablature surmounted by the original mosaics of Sixtus III dealing with Old Testament history, culminating in the Arch of Triumph, High Altar, and baldachino, beneath which is the confessio.

S. Lorenzo fuori le Mura, Rome, is remarkable as being the product of two churches with their apses placed back to back, as in the pagan temple of Venus at Rome. The two churches, of which one was founded in A.D. 432 and the other rebuilt in A.D. 578, were amalgamated in A.D. 1216 by the removal of the apses.

S. Sabina, Rome (A.D. 425) (p. 211 A), although often altered, retains its original character. The basilican plan has nave and aisles separated by twenty-four Corinthian columns of Hymettian marble supporting semicircular arches, plain clear-story walls, and a simple open timber roof. The bareness of the interior is relieved by the eleventh-century baldachino and High Altar, and the mosaics of the apse.

S. Stefano Rotondo, Rome (A.D. 470) (p. 215 A, B, C, D), has a circular plan of similar type, 210 ft. in diameter, and is the largest circular church in existence. Its high central and lower aisle roofs are supported by two rings of columns from older buildings ; the outer range supports arches and the inner a horizontal architrave. Two central columns and a cross wall give additional support to the main roof timbers. The suggested restoration (p. 215 B) shows a possible original arrangement.

S. Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna (A.D. 493–525), was erected by Theodoric the Great and has many points of resemblance to its neighbour, S. Apollinare in Classe, especially in the remarkable campanile and world-famous band of mosaics above the nave arcade.

S. Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna (A.D. 534-539) (pp. 210, 211 B, 217 E), was erected by Theodoric the Great on the site of a Temple of Apollo and, like the sister church S. Apollinare Nuovo, was probably built by Byzantine craftsmen, for here the influence of Constantinople was strong. The simple plan forms a three-aisled basilican church, 150 ft. long and 98 ft. wide. The atrium has disappeared, but a narthex leads into the church. The eastern apse, which is circular internally and polygonal externally, is raised above the crypt and contains the High Altar with ciborium. On the north is one of the earliest circular campanili, of the same date. The interior is impressive with nave arcade of cipollino columns, Byzantine capitals, and dosseret blocks (p. 217 E, J) supporting arches, above which is the band, 5 ft. high, of portraits of bishops of Ravenna, while the apse retains its original mosaics showing the saint preaching to his flock.

S. Agnese fuori le Mura, Rome (A.D. 625–638) (pp. 210, 217 A), was founded by Constantine in A.D. 324 over the tomb of S. Agnese. It shares with S. Lorenzo fuori le Mura the peculiarity of having aisles in two storeys. Between nave and aisles are sixteen ancient columns supporting arches, with smaller gallery columns above. The apse with altar and baldachino is at the western end, and mosaics in the semi-dome (A.D. 1525) represent S. Agnese between two Popes (p. 217 A). The exterior, with simple clear-story windows, is plain and the apse is flanked by a campanile (A.D. 776).

Torcello Cathedral, near Venice (rebuilt A.D. 1008), still has the foundations of the original bishop's throne flanked by six rising rows of seats in the apse, which give a good idea of early Christian arrangements ; while the towering mass of the campanile with the octagonal baptistery of S. Fosca (p. 236) complete this historic group.

Syracuse Cathedral, Sicily, still clearly shows how a pagan temple of Athena (p. 84) was converted in A.D. 640 into a Christian church, by the construction of a wall between its peristyle columns and by the formation of openings in its cella walls.

The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem (A.D. 330) (p. 212 A, B, C, D), founded by Constantine over the traditional birthplace of Christ, stands foremost among a number of basilican churches in Palestine and Syria erected between the third and seventh centuries, before the Saracen hordes overran the country. It is surrounded by a high wall which encloses the precincts of the Latins, Greeks, and Armenians, who jointly own the church. This historic building, with the monolithic Corinthian columns, 19 ft. high, of the nave and double aisles, and the three apses of the sanctuary, is still, in spite of restorations, grand in its simplicity of plan and must have been peculiarly suitable to receive the immense number of worshippers at the birth-shrine of the Founder of Christianity.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem (p. 212 E, F, G), erected by Constantine over the reputed tomb of Christ, defaced and damaged by the Saracens and Persians, rebuilt by Crusaders and often restored, appears to date from the twelfth century, for its architecture resembles that of Sicily in that period. The entrance (A.D. 1140) (p. 212 E) leads into the transept, to the left of which is the rotunda, rebuilt in the eleventh century, with the Holy Sepulchre itself, reconstructed in recent times ; while on the right is the church of the Crusaders. This circular type was copied at S. Gereon, Cologne, Little Maplestead, Essex, S. Sepulchre, Cambridge, and the Temple Church, London (p. 320), and also at Aix-la-Chapelle for the tomb of Charlemagne (p. 231 E, F, G). A model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre before its partial destruction in A.D. 18o8 is in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

The Church at Qalb Louzeh (A.D. sixth century) (p. 212), in Syria, has a basilican plan with entrance flanked by two towers, and nave separated by piers carrying semicircular arches. Above are corbels supporting short columns to carry the roof trusses. The church exhibits many points common to all Syrian churches, which broke away from the Roman type owing to distance from the Capital.

S. John of the Studion, Constantinople (A.D. 463), which was attached to a monastery, is the oldest existing church of the basilican type of all those erected by Constantine in that city.

S. George, Salonica (A.D. 400), an early domed church, and S. Demetrius, Salonica (A.D. 500-550), a five-aisled basilican church with transepts and galleries, show the variety of treatment during this period.

In Asia Minor, as at Ancyra, Pergamon, and Hierapolis ; in North Africa as at Algiers ; and also in Egypt, where the early Christians were known as Copts, there are a number of basilican churches of the period, but here the style died out owing to the Saracen Conquest in the seventh century.


Early Christian baptisteries were originally used only for the sacrament of baptism, and for this rite Roman circular temples and tombs (pp. 146, 169) supplied a most suitable type of building. There was generally only one baptistery in a city, as at Rome, Ravenna, and Florence, and as the rite was administered only at the three great Christian festivals—Easter, Pentecost, and the Epiphany—these buildings had to be of considerable size, and until the end of the sixth century of our era they usually adjoined the atrium or forecourt of the church, but after this period the baptistery was replaced by a font in the church vestibule. The Early Christians sometimes modified circular Roman temples or tombs to meet their own requirements, which often necessitated an enlarged space. It was difficult to cover this increased area with one roof supported only by outside walls, and therefore, while the Romans had used internal columns attached to the walls in a decorative way, the Early Christians used columns constructively to support the central roof, and surrounded the whole with a one-storeyed aisle enclosed by an outer wall, which supported a lower roof.

The Baptistery of Constantine, Rome (A.D. 430–440) (p. 215 E, F, G), built near the Lateran Church by Sixtus III, and not by Constantine to whom it is generally attributed, is among the oldest of Italian baptisteries, of which it was probably the model. It is octagonal and the roof is supported by a two-storeyed ring of eight porphyry and marble columns taken from old pagan buildings, while in the centre is an old Roman bath of green basalt converted into a font.

The Baptistery, Nocera (A.D. 350) (p. 215 H,' J), 8o ft. in diameter, with two rings of forty antique columns, appears to be the first instance of the combination of an internal dome covered by a wooden roof externally ; for Roman architects had previously allowed the vault to show externally, as in the Pantheon. This treatment is similar to the practice of Gothic architects, who covered the thin stone vaults of their churches with protecting timber roofs (p. 301 C, F).

The Baptistery, Ravenna, founded at the end of the fourth century for the Orthodox community, is octagonal with two internal wall arcades one above the other, similarly placed to the superimposed columns in the temple, Spalato (p. 150). The upper arcade is subdivided into triple arches under each main arch, the earliest example of a treatment which became so usual in the Romanesque period (p. 411). The dome, constructed of hollow tiles, has fine fifth-century mosaics representing the Baptism of Christ.


Early Christian burial up to the end of the fourth century of the Christian era took place in the Catacombs outside Rome ; for burial within the city was prohibited by law. These tombs, cut in the tuf a formation, followed the old Roman type, except that, as the Christian church did not then allow cremation, " loculi " or wall recesses were formed to receive the bodies. These immense subterranean vaults or cities of the dead, with their winding corridors and mortuary chapels all dug out of the earth, are in no sense architectural, but at once occur to the mind when tombs in Rome are under discussion. At the commencement of the fifth century the first cemetery inside the walls of Rome appears to have been made, and about the middle of the seventh century burial within the city boundaries became customary, for the enforcement of the old law against intra-mural burial was no longer considered necessary, owing to the decreased population. Architecture was, however, still used for monumental tombs which were at once an expression of the Christian faith in immortality and a memorial to the dead.

S. Costanza, Rome (A.D. 330) (p. 216 A, B, C, D, E), erected by Constantine for his daughter, was converted into a church in A.D. 1256. The entrance leads to the central space, 35 ft. in diameter, encircled by twelve pairs of coupled granite columns which support the dome, and it has a surrounding aisle covered with a barrel vault, ornamented with mosaics of the fourth century representing the vintage.

The Tomb of Galla Placidia, Ravenna (A.D. 420) (p. 216 F, G, H, J, 239 B), appears to be the earliest building which is cruciform in plan, and is extremely interesting as the sarcophagi still remain in their original positions in the arms of the cross. It is 39 ft. by 33 ft. internally, and the crossing is covered by an unusual dome in which both dome and pendentives are portions of the same hemisphere (p. 223 B, C). The walls are lined with marble slabs, and the dome and vaults still retain the ancient coloured mosaics.

The Tomb of Theodoric, Ravenna (A.D. 530) (p. 216 K, L, M), is in two storeys, of which the lower, a decagon externally 45 ft. in diameter, encloses a cruciform crypt, while the upper storey is circular internally and has traces of an external arcade. The extraordinary roof is formed of one huge slab of stone weighing 470 tons and hollowed into a flattish dome, 35 ft. in diameter, on which stone handles are formed for hoisting it into position. The ashes of the founder were deposited in an urn above the dome.

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