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Debunking the myth of the ‘domus ecclesiae’

July 25th, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

There was a photo accompanying this post which I have removed as I became convinced by a link sent in by y2kscotty (see comments) that the church is most likely Byzantine and not early 3rd century.

I became uncomfortable with leaving it knowing that it is most likely an inaccurate example of an early 3rd century church.

There is an excellent piece in the August edition of the Adoremus Bulletin titled “The Myth of the Domus Ecclesiae – and how this has influenced modern Church architecture.” The article is based on a lecture delivered at Catholic University of America and was first published in Sacred Architecture, Issue 21, 2012 (here). It should be required reading for all bishops, priests, deacons, seminarians (especially!), members of liturgy committees, church building committees, church architects, and -of course- us. I guess that’s just about everybody!

Author Stephen J. Schloeder exposes the falsehood upon which modern Catholic Church architecture has developed for over the last 60 to 70 years in Europe and certainly the last 40 to 50 years in the United States. We have all heard the yammering from the pulpit, liturgy committees, and building planning committees about how Vatican II insisted that we return to the simpler worship forms and spaces of the earliest Christians, the Christians who worshiped in private houses (the Domus Ecclesiae).

We were told that we had to give up our ways of worship developed over the past 17 centuries and return to a dining room meal. Also, we were told that we needed to build ‘non-churches’; worship spaces that didn’t look like churches but more like domestic dwellings or suburban spaces devoid of religious imagery and symbolism. We were informed that Christians for the first 300 years did not worship in separate churches; that the whole experience was domestic. It wasn’t until Constantine grabbed hold of the church and turned it into an arm of the Imperial government that Christians began to worship in large, gloriously decorated public buildings more like pagan temples.

But textural and archaeological evidence from the period contradicts that myth. I became aware of this, myself, while doing research on early Christian art and architecture. It became evident to me that Christians must have been building large urban churches well before the legalization of Christianity. For example, the emperors of the last Great Persecution, Diocletian and Galerius, could see from the imperial palace in Nicomedia, a Christian church described by Lactantius (d. 320 AD) as a “lofty edifice… situated on rising ground within the view of the Imperial Palace.” They debated whether to burn it down or pull it down. This was before the legalization of Christianity. The early Christians moved out of the more private domestic settings and into more public buildings as their groups grew larger and as they felt more secure during long periods of peaceful coexistence. That was apparently how it was that a church could have been built right under the nose of the emperor. The Great Persecution ended the longest running period of peace for Christians; the persecution came quite unexpectedly and was a shock to Christians who were nearly 50% of the population in the Eastern provinces. These were the Christians most likely to build the first large scale urban churches.

One of the textural pieces of evidence Schloeder mentions in his article I also mention in my book. The Christians in Trastevere (across the Tiber River, in Rome), ca. 225 AD, acquired property to build a church through a lawsuit that was settled by Emperor Severus Alexander –the emperor settled the dispute in favor of the building of a Christian church rather than handing the property over to “the keepers of an eating house (an inn).”

What fed the myth of a an early Christian theology and preference for domestic worship and settings was the discovery, in 1932, of a domestic church in Dura Europos. The late date of the church, 232 AD, seemed to reinforce the conviction that the early Christians worshiped in a domestic setting right up until 313 AD when Christianity was legalized. What went unrecognized -incredibly- was that Dura Europos sat on the edge of the Roman Empire and was a garrison town; it was a fortified frontier town and probably would not have had need, yet, of a large separate Christian church. Historians and liturgists took it to be confirmation of a continuing tradition of domestic worship.

Stephen J.Schloeder lists several more examples that debunk the myth of the pre-Constantine domestic church. Do give his article a read, here.

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5 Responses to “Debunking the myth of the ‘domus ecclesiae’”

  1. avatar y2kscotty says:

    Do check out “The Oratory of St. George in Rihab: The Oldest Extant Christian Building or Just Another Byzantine Church?” – http://www.bib-arch.org/online-exclusives/oldest-church.pdf.

  2. avatar Bernie says:

    y2kscotty: thank you for the link. It is excellent.

    I debated with myself as to whether to include that photo. When I first looked at the photo of St. Georgeous my reaction was the same: it couldn’t be early 3rd century. I noticed the chancel screen and the unambiguous cross on the marble slab. That had to be no earlier than the late 4th, or 5th century. The apse, too, is a problem although apses were not totally unheard of during that period, especially in private homes. I thought to myself that perhaps these were later renovations/additions, especially the chancel screen. It certainly looks Byzantine to me and I doubt (to the point of certainty after reading the link) that it is from the early 3rd century. But, it was in Schloeder’s piece so I went with it. I did note in the caption that the date was a subject of debate.

    The cave is interesting but inconclusive. Many experts have expressed reservations, such as those in your link.

    Regarding the basilica plan, it is tempting to think that it did not appear until Constantine, which would be incorrect. It was the most common form of civic building type other than temples. It would also be wrong to suggest, I think, that a basilica must have an apse, either on the short or long side. It is enough that it be rectangular or square with a center area bordered by aisles, either all the way around or on only 2 or 3 sides.

    It is, I think, not only possible but also probable, considering the textural evidence, that Christians were, if not building, then at least renovating large urban sized buildings (church ‘centers’ really) well before the time of Constantine. As the link mentions, the exteriors were most likely domestic in appearance -no sense tempting fate! (In fact, church basilicas following the legalization of Christianity continued to present plain brick exteriors.) Interiors of existing buildings were renovated for use as churches, as well as housing rooms for charitable work. One of the earliest churches in Rome is thought to have been a converted dye shop. It, by the way, had an apse as part of the shop.

    That the early Christians were concerned enough to use fine liturgical objects such as chalices, patens, candle stands and chandeliers suggest also that the interiors of these churches were probably decorated with liturgical art. That certainly was the case in the baptistery at Dura Europos (and the synagogue just down the street.)

    The bottom line is that the desire for larger and more beautiful churches was not something Constantine foisted upon Christians. That the Christian Church benefited from Constantine’s material patronage is also, of course, true. But, when the opportunity presented itself Christians were free to openly express their full understanding of what was taking place in their worship. The association with the Jerusalem Temple and its sacrifice, for example, could be fully expressed.

    Anyway, thank you for the excellent link.

  3. avatar Bernie says:

    Readers: Be sure to read the article I link to in the post. The author describes several more examples of evidence for the existence for pre-Constantine churches.

  4. avatar y2kscotty says:

    While we’re at it – looking at ancient church architecture – readers may be interested in Armenian church buildings: http://www.kamit.jp/18_armenia/gallery_eng.htm.
    The Armenians were converted in AD 301. Although it is in the Orthodox community, their churches’ interiors are not like those of the Greeks or Russians – so it seems.

  5. avatar Bernie says:

    y2kscotty: thank you for another excellent link! It is especially useful to me, personally, right now.

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