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Church Architecture Styles: The Early Christian Period

August 28th, 2014, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously in this series: The Period of Persecution

The construction of church buildings began in the third century well before the legalization of Christianity in 313. Legalization of Christianity saw an increase in the construction of churches due to the sudden patronage of Constantine and subsequent emperors.

The Roman ‘basilica’ became the architectural form of the Christian church as it was the standard structural type used by Roman architects for housing large group meetings. Very little modification of the secular basilica was necessary to convert it into a church.

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Fig.1 – Church basilica from the 4th century in Syria. A pitched wooden roof covered the center, and sloping roofs covered the side aisles. Basilicas were the typical building type used by the Romans in structures constructed for large groups of people. Construction materials varied from region to region.

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Fig. 2 – Cross section of a 4th century church basilica. The center aisle –the ‘Nave’– was raised higher than the side aisles so that windows could puncture the higher walls to illuminate the center.  Larger churches might have four side aisles.

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Fig. 3 – This is a very basic ground plan of a simple basilica church in which we can see that altars were usually placed just at the border of the apse (the ‘chord’). Clergy sat along the curved back wall of the apse. During the Eucharistic Prayer, however, the clergy moved to the front of the altar, facing East along with the congregation. Churches were usually oriented to the East as Christ’s second coming would be from out of the Eastern sky.

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Fig. 4 – Sant Apollinare in Classe,  near Ravenna, Italy, is an excellent example of an early Christian basilica. Here we can see the raised roof supported by the walls of the clerestory which are punctured by windows. We can also see clearly the side aisle and the apse on the far right. The exterior is unfinished brick as was the norm in Italy.

Christianity developed and expanded within the Roman Empire and so the architectural forms the faith employed were Roman. Most especially this meant incorporation of the classical Greek ‘orders’ (Doric, Ionic and Corinthian) that had been adopted by the Romans and Roman structural forms derived from the Round Arch.

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Fig. 5 –  These are the three basic classical ‘Orders’ developed by the ancient Greeks. The Romans admired the Greeks and copied their architectural style of classical Orders, especially the Ionic and Corinthian. Christian basilicas used columns in these three styles to form arcades that separated the Nave from side aisles. The columns were joined by arches or by flat Entablatures.

Fig. 6 - Roman architecture is especially noted for its masterful engineering feats based upon the use of the round arch. Early Christian basilicas used the round arch mostly in the construction of arcades which separated the aisles from the nave. Sometimes, but rarely, stone vaults or concrete vaults based on extensions of the round arch covered the side aisles. The round arch was also prominent at the front of the apse where it usually formed the front edge of the curved wall and quarter domed space.

Fig. 6 – Roman architecture is especially noted for its masterful engineering feats based upon the use of the round arch. Early Christian basilicas used the round arch mostly in the construction of arcades which separated the aisles from the nave. Sometimes, but rarely, stone vaults or concrete vaults based on extensions of the round arch covered the side aisles. The round arch was also prominent at the front of the apse where it usually formed the front edge of the curved wall and quarter sphere vault.

 

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Fig. 7 – Here we can see the arcade that separates the Nave from the left side aisle consists of a row of round arches supported by a line of classical columns. Arcades form a perspective which direct the eyes of congregants toward the altar at the apse end of the space.

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Fig. 8 – The Nave and first side aisles in this basilica are separated by Corinthian columns supporting an Entablature. The second –from the Nave– side aisles are separated in this basilica from the first side aisles by an arched arcade. At the far end of the nave are two large round arches at the area in front of, and at the border of, the apse.

The exteriors of early Christian churches were plain brick or stone. The main entrance facades were sometimes decorated with paintings or mosaics.

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Fig. 9 – Without exception, the exteriors of early Christian churches were left as unfinished brick or stone. Here we can easily identify the nave, side aisle and apse of this 4th century basilica.

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Fig. 10 – On the facade of Santa Maria Trastevere, in Rome (4th century) both painting and mosaic imagery were added. Such exterior decoration was not usually part of the initial fabric of the building but were added some years later with sections perhaps completed in different periods.

After construction of the basic structure of the church building, decoration was added to the interior. Colorful mosaics of biblical scenes and theological concepts eventually dominated the interiors. The colorful interiors contrasted with the plain exteriors so much that Christian churches were sometimes called ‘houses of mystery’ for the exterior of the building did not suggest the splendor within.

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Fig. 11 – The mosaics in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, are from the 5th century.

Doors were sometimes carved with biblical scenes.

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Fig. 12 – Doors of Santa Sabina in Rome, 430-32. These are original doors of the period but experts agree that they were made for a different doorway. Each panel depicts a New or Old Testament scene.

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Fig. 13 – Crucifixion scene from the doors of Santa Sabina Basilica in Rome. This is the earliest known representation of the crucifixion (ca. 432)

Ceilings in the basilica churches were initially open timbered but in subsequent centuries were often finished with coffer paneling.

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Fig. 14 – This is a cross section drawing of the original Saint Peter’s Basilica showing the open timber ceilings, the most common type of ceiling in the early churches. You can also see that the farthest aisles out from the nave are covered not by open timber but by masonry vaults. Being smaller they were easier to vault in stone or concrete.

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Fig. 15 – The coffer wood ceiling in this basilica was gilded in gold taken from the new world. In addition to the ceiling notice the classical ionic columns supporting an Entablature. A Round Arch (called a ‘Triumphal Arch’) is also clearly prominent at the altar end.

‘Ciboria’ (Bladachins, canopies) over altars were first introduced in Old Saint Peter’s Basilica, Rome (begun ca. 320 completed ca. 336).  Saint Peter’s Basilica was built over Peter’s grave.  Similar basilicas were constructed over other martyr’s tombs in imitation of Saint Peter’s. Altars in each were positioned over the tombs and Ciboria, as  funerary memorial structures, were erected over the altars. The tradition of using Ciboria to mark the grave of a martyr continued when relics of martyrs and saints were divided up and distributed among churches not located in a cemetery. The relics were placed in or under altars and Ciboria erected over the altars.

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Fig. 16 – This shows the original ‘Ciborium’ (memorial structure) over the tomb of Saint Peter the Apostle, Rome, ca. 336. Later, this original Ciborium was removed and the floor of the chancel of the basilica was raised to cover the entire grave, including an existing arched memorial (shown in the drawing). An altar was then positioned directly above the grave. A new ‘Ciborium’ was then erected over that.

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Fig. 17 – Ciboria had to be repaired and even replaced over the centuries. In this basilica in Croatia, the columns are original and date from the 6th century. The rest of the Ciborium is renovation from later centuries.

The basilica of the early Christian period set the basic form of church architecture for centuries to come, right up to the present time. Everything following those first centuries was a variation, elaboration, or copy of the basilica form. Even so, it is a history of amazingly rich styles and expressions. Knowing the characteristics of each style greatly enhances a person’s ability to judge good from bad church architecture. It enhances our ability to appreciate various interpretations of the sacred liturgy through the centuries and guides us in our decisions regarding proposals for new churches.

Does your church have a basilica plan with arcades separating the center of the church from side aisles? Any Doric, Ionic or Corinthian columns? How about an apse? Ciborium? Clerestory?  Let us know. Maybe send me a picture: bernie@cleansingfire.org

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There is quite a variety in the purposes and styles within the general category of Early Christian church architecture. More information can be found in my online book, “History of Christian Art”, here and here.

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Picture Sources:

Fig. 5 – http://brooklynbrainery.com/blog/know-your-classical-orders

Fig. 6 – edited: http://artandpractice.blogspot.com/2013/03/huma-1315-chapter-3-architecture-pt-i.html

Fig. 10 – http://www.dioceseofgreensburg.org/Blog/adl/Lists/Posts/Post.aspx?ID=87

Fig. 13 – “SabinaCrucify”. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SabinaCrucify.jpg#mediaviewer/File:SabinaCrucify.jpg

Fig. 14 – http://www.studyblue.com/notes/note/n/midterm-flashcards/deck/2320506

Fig. 15 – http://stjosephcathedraltriplev.weebly.com/other-2012-pages.html

Fig. 17 – edited: “EuphrasiusBasilika” by Klaus D. Peter, Wiehl, Germany – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0-de via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:EuphrasiusBasilika.jpg#mediaviewer/File:EuphrasiusBasilika.jpg

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One Response to “Church Architecture Styles: The Early Christian Period”

  1. avatar christian says:

    A very interesting and well-researched post Bernie -Excellent!


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