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Early Christian Architecture - Comparative Analysis

( Originally Published 1921 )

A. Plans.—The Early Christians followed the basilican model for their new churches (pp. 198, 206) and may also have used old Roman halls, baths, dwelling-houses, and even pagan temples as places of worship. The campanile or bell-tower dates from this period, and that of S. Giorgio in Velabro, Rome, one of the earliest, is a prototype of Mediaeval towers. An isolated circular baptistery was generally attached to the chief basilican church or cathedral of a city.

B. Walls.—These were still constructed according to Roman methods of using rubble or concrete, faced with plaster, brick, or stone (p. 210 B). Mosaic decoration was added internally (p. 211), and sometimes also externally on west facades ; though little regard was paid to external architectural effect (p. 209).

C. Openings.—Arcades, doors, and windows were either spanned by a semicircular arch which, in nave arcades, often rested directly on the capitals without any entablatures (pp. 209, 211, 217 E), or were spanned by a lintel, as in the doorway of the Tomb of Theodoric, Ravenna (p. 217 R). The marble doors at Cividale show the ornate character sometimes attempted (p. 217 M). Window openings, filled in with pierced slabs of marble or alabaster, were small (p. 217 L) ; those of the nave were in the walls above the aisle roofs (p. 210 B, F). This system was developed in the wonderful clear-stories of Gothic architecture (p. 307).

D. Roofs.—Timber roofs (pp. 210 A, H, 211 A) covered the central nave, and only simple forms of construction, such as king and queen post trusses, were employed. It is believed that the decoration of the visible framework was of later date, as at S. Miniato, Florence (p. 259 B). The narrower side aisles were occasionally vaulted and the apse was usually domed and lined with beautiful glass mosaics, which formed a fitting background to the sanctuary (pp. 205, 211, 217 A, B).

E. Columns.—These differ both in design and size, as they were often taken from earlier Roman buildings, which had either fallen into ruin or been purposely destroyed (pp. 205, 209, 217 G, J). It was natural that early Christian builders should use materials and ornament of the pagan Romans, and, as these belonged to the better period of Roman art, a grand effect was obtained though the details of the design were not necessarily homogeneous. Middleton states that all the fine marble columns, whether Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian, in the churches of Rome were taken from ancient Roman buildings, except those in S. Paolo fuori le Mura.

The carved capitals are governed by Roman pagan precedent (p. 217 G) and sometimes by that of Byzantine (p. 217 J), and in both the acanthus leaf forms an important part (p. 217 C, D).

F. Mouldings.—These are coarse variations of old Roman types, and the carving, though rich in general effect, is crude ; for the technique of the craftsman had gradually declined, and was at a low ebb during this period (p. 217 R). Enrichments were incised on mouldings in low relief, and the acanthus ornament, although still copied from the antique, became more conventional in form.

G. Ornament.—The introduction of colour gave richness and glimmering mystery to interiors. The mosaics which lined the domed apses generally represented Christ surrounded by apostles and saints with all those symbolic emblems which now entered largely into decoration (pp. 211 B, 217 A, B). The " arch of triumph," separating the nave from the bema, was ornamented with appropriate subjects ; long friezes of figures line the wall above nave arcades (pp. 209 B, 211 B), and the wall spaces between the clear-story windows often had mosaics illustrating Christian history or doctrine. The figures are treated in strong colours on a gold back-ground in a bold and simple design, and an earnest and solemn expression, fitting well the position they occupy, characterises the groups. The method of execution is coarse and bold, and no attempt was made at neatness of joint or regularity of bedding of the mosaic cubes. The coloured pavements were largely formed of slices from old Roman porphyry or marble columns, worked into designs by connecting bands of geometrical inlay on a field of white marble (p. 217 Q, S, T), and they greatly added to the general decorative effect. The glass mosaics used for the High Altar, ambones, screens, Easter candlesticks, and episcopal chairs; as in the fittings of the Church of S. Clemente, Rome (p. 198 C, D, F, G, H), was of a finer and more delicate description. Fonts, as from the Venice Museum (p. 217 x), and well-heads, as that from the Cloisters of S. Giovanni in Laterano, Rome (p. 217 N), were subjects upon which much skilful carving was expended. The sculptured sarcophagi of the Early Christians belonging to the great families of Rome, though of small artistic merit, have carved bas-reliefs in the quaint and crude craftsmanship of the period (p. 217 H), and it is not unusual to find, crowded together on one and the same sarcophagus, such various incidents as Adam and Eve in the Garden, Moses striking the rock, Daniel in the lions' den, the Virgin and Child worshipped by the Magi, and the denial of Peter. Sometimes, as in S. Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna, the Cross, the symbol of Christianity, is accompanied by other Christian symbols (p. 211 B) such as the emblems of evangelists and saints, which now replaced the attributes of heathen deities, and became usual features in the decorative scheme (p. 217 D, E). The Angel of S. Matthew, the Lion of S. Mark, the Ox of S. Luke, and the Eagle of S. John, as well as the dove, peacock, anchor, olive branch, and monogram of Christ (the Chi-rho), are woven into the scheme of things.

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