Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Church Architecture Styles: Period of Persecution

August 18th, 2014, Promulgated by Bernie

During the Apostolic Age Christians continued to attend the synagogues and the Temple. The Eucharist, of course, had to be celebrated in members’ homes as that could not be done at the synagogues or Temple. Like any other group in a similar situation the homes chosen for the Eucharist may have been the largest available, the most convenient, or the ones of members who volunteered to host the group.

We can probably safely assume that the liturgy itself probably looked very much like Jewish domestic worship. In fact, the Book of Acts refers to the saying of “the prayers” as well as “praying” so, no doubt, set Jewish prayers were part of the ritual. The ‘liturgy’ was probably more liturgical than we are usually led to believe as Jewish domestic and public worship was very liturgical in the first century.

At least by the middle of the third century, domestic dwellings were being purchased or converted  for use as churches. This is the example we see in this post, at Dura Europos, a domestic building converted into a church around 245. Apparently, the entire house was used as a church center with one room used for the Eucharist and a separate one, across a courtyard, for baptism. Other rooms were used for meetings or instruction, storage, or other needs. The layout was basic and common for urban houses.

It is also known that shops or other commercial buildings were also converted into churches. A dye shop in Rome for example, in Trastevere, was transformed into a church. The ‘titular’ churches of Rome all started out as converted houses or partially converted houses..

The earliest known separate building constructed for use as a church was built in 280. But, in the case of this post, we are just looking at an example of a house church (“domus ecclesiae”).

The house church in Dura Europos was in a military town on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire in what is today, Syria.

house church labelled

fig. 1

1280px-DuraEuropos-Church w fig & labels

fig. 2

baptistry reconstuction at Yale 222

fig. 3
Room for Baptisms – reconstruction at Yale University showing some of the paintings on the walls. Over the font on the back wall is a scene of the “Good Shepherd”. On the right wall (bottom) we can see a scene of the “Three Mary’s at the Empty Tomb”. The candidate for baptism stood in the font, in water, and water was poured over him.

Duraeuropusmap  2 2

fig. 4
Dura Europos. Just two blocks down the wall from the church was a Jewish synagogue. The walls of the synagogue were covered with scenes from the Hebrew scriptures.

In a series of posts we will take a look at the various historical styles of church architecture. This first in the series has little to do with style but does answer the question as to what came before Christians started building church buildings.


For a more detailed history of the development of the earliest churches see my online History of Christian Art here.

Also, an interesting website on the the transformation into a church of Peter’s House in Caparnaum here. That transformation, however, occurred in the 4th century and shows an actual change in the interior architecture of the house. Never-the-less you may find it interesting.


Picture Sources

fig. 1: “Dura Europos domus ecclesiae isometric view” by Marsyas – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

fig. 2: edited – “DuraEuropos-Church”. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons –

fig. 3: edited – Yale University

fig. 4: edited – “Duraeuropusmap” by Map is in the public domain. – Simon James University of Leicester, School of Archeological Studies, after MFSED-H. David realisation. First published in french in 2005.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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3 Responses to “Church Architecture Styles: Period of Persecution”

  1. Sid says:

    I don’t think I’ve posted it before, but thank you Bernie for writing and sharing these nice art & architecture pieces. I find them both informative and a great place to pique interest for a further exploration in a subject. I especially appreciate that you include the source and “for more info” links. Thank you, again!

  2. christian says:

    Thank you Bernie for these very informative, interesting, and inspiring posts. This current post drives the point, especially to those unaware, that the Early Church was a Jewish Congregation who celebrated the Resurrection of Jesus and acknowledged Him as the son of God. They observed Jesus’ teachings and the new covenant. They were regarded as another sect of Judaism -an apocalyptic Second Temple Jewish sect. As your post states, they had to meet in secret for the Eucharist. Their apostles and early church leaders, (as well as their Lord and Savior), were all Jewish, and according to the Act of the Apostles, members were considered Jewish by birth or Jewish by conversion. (Historians later would refer to them as Jewish Christians). This new Jewish sect suffered horrific persecution from the pagans of their time.

    Ambrogio Ratti, Pope Pius XI adequately expressed …”I say to you it is impossible for a Christian to take part in anti-Semitism…Spiritualually, we are all Semites.” Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius XII, was against Hitler and the Nazi Party in 1929, four years before Hitler came to power. His opposition to Hitler and Nazism, and and his defense of Jews, caused Nazis to refer to him as “Chief Rabbi of the Christian World.”

    Your post is excellent in describing “the house church” in the Apostolic Age to the Ante-Nicene Period, and giving information as to architecture, art, and liturgy/worship. It helps us to draw similarities and comparisons to elements of our present day worship with that of our earlier Jewish Christian brothers and sisters of “house churches.” I really appreciate the links you posted for further information.

  3. christian says:

    Correction: Second paragraph – Ambrogio Ratti, Pope Pius XI, adequately expressed “…I say to you it is impossible for a Christian to take part in anti-Semitism…Spiritually, we are all Semites.”

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