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Early Christian Architecture

Early Christian Architecture
(313 – 800 )

·         Christianity ha its birth in Judea, an eastern province of the Roman Empire
·         It was naturally carried by St. Peter and St. Paul and other missionaries in Rome, as the center of the world empire
·         In spite of the opposition and persecution, the new religion took root and grew, till it was strong enough to become the recognized universal religion of the whole Roman empire
·         Early Christian architecture was influenced and was the logical outcome of existing Roman empire and it was modified in other parts of the empire according to the type already recognized as suitable or the geographical situation of those countries such as Syria, Asia Minor, North Africa and Egypt
·         Geological influences may be said to have acted indirectly rather than directly on Early Christian architecture for the ruins of the Roman buildings often provided the quarry whence material were obtained
·         This influenced the style, both as regards to construction and decoration, for columns and other architectural features, as well as fine sculptures  and mosaic from older buildings, were worked into basilican churches of the new faith
·         The climatic conditions of the Roman provinces as Egypt, Syria and North Africa were Christianity was established naturally modified the style
·         The fiercer the sun and hotter the climate necessitated small windows and other eastern features
·         The Early Christian period is generally taken as lasting from the reign of Constantine to the coronation of Charlemagne
·         The incursion of the Huns into Europe about 376 eventually brought about invasion from north into Italy
·         In 410 Rome was sacked by the Goths under Alaric
·         In 451, when the defeat o Atilla, king of the Huns at the Battle of Chalons aided in the consolidation of Christianity in Europe
·         In 568, the Lombards penetrated into Italy and held the northern part for 200 years
·         In 800, Charlemagne was crowned by the pope in Rome, and from this date the Empire was styled the Holy Roman Empire, a title which lasted until 1806
·         From 800 to 1000 the dominant architectural influence was no longer Rome but Lombardy, and the style which developed there was Romanesque
·         Constantine changed the capital of the empire from Rome to Byzantium in 330 when the old Roman political system came to an end and this royal convert reigned as an absolute monarch till his death in 337
·         In 364, the division of the Roman Empire took place when Valentinian became the Emperor of the west and his brother Valens in the east
·         Theodosius the Great ( 379-395) reunited for the first time the eastern and the western empires and in 438 Theodosius II published his legal code, an important work in the constitution of the emperors
·         In AD 476 series of emperors in the west came to an end and the Eastern and Western Empires were nominally reunited by Zeno, who reigned in Constantinople
·         Then again the seat o power was changed  and Theodoric the Goth reigned in Italy during a period of peace and prosperity
Ø  Byzantine art influence Early Christian art by way of Ravenna
Ø  Kings were now elected for separate states of Spain, Gaul, Northern Africa and Italy
Ø  Emancipation of western Europe from the direct imperial control resulted in  the development of Romano-Teutonic civilization which facilitated the growth of new states and nationalities
o   Gave fresh impulse to Christianity
o   Strengthen the power of the bishops of Rome
o   Resulted in the growth and development of Romance and Teutonic language which for general use, largely replaced Latin


·         Christianity has inspired the building of some of the greatest architectural monuments
·         The number of Christian communities established by Apostle Paul in his missionary journeys round the Eastern Mediterranean, in Syria, Asia Minor, Greece and Italy  produced numerous Early Christian basilican churches all throughout the district
·         Unlike those o the old Greeks and Roman temples which were built to shelter the statue of the gods, the purpose of the Christian churches was to shelter worshippers who met for prayers and praise to an unseen deity
·         In 313 Constantine and Licinus issued their celebrated Edict of Milan, giving equal rights to Christianity with other religion
·         In 326 Constantine Constantine made Christianity the official religion o the Roman Empire


·         The Early Christians, as Roman craftsmen continued old Roman tradition, but prosperity was declining and it was natural that for their buildings, they should utilize as far as possible the materials from Roman temples which had become useless for their original purpose
·         Churches were modeled after Roman basilicas, they used old columns that were brought to a uniform height
·         Basilican churches had either closely spaced columns carrying entablature or more widely spaced columns carrying semi circular arches
·         Basilican churches with three or five aisles, covered by a simple timber roof, is typical of the Early Christian style
·         The architectural character of the basilican churches is rendered impressive and dignified by long perspective of columns which carry the eye along to the sanctuary
·         The “ Arch of Triumph “, figurative of the transition through death to eternal life gave entrance to the sanctuary with the high altar at the center standing free under its “baldachino” upheld by marble columns
·         The apse is lined with marble slabs and crowned with a semi dome encrusted with glittering golden mosaics in which Christ appears surrounded by prophets, saints and martyrs
·         Timber roofs covered the central nave and only simple forms of construction, such as “king and queen post trusses” were employed
·         The narrower sides were occasionally vaulted and the apse was usually domed
·         Walls were still constructed according to Roman methods of using “ hand laid rubble concrete “ faced with brick or stone or sometimes plaster
·         Mosaic decoration was added internally and sometimes externally on the west façade
·         The introduction of color with the use of glass mosaic gave richness and mystery to interiors
·         Early Christian basilicas were usually decorated with mosaic
Ø  In the apse semi dome and wall
Ø  On the triumphal arch
Ø  On the wall above nave arcade
Ø  Sometimes on piers and arch soffits
·         Mosaics are set up purely for decorative purpose rather than as pictorial explanation of the Bible
·         Pavements were formed from the abundant storage of old marbles in Rome



·         Basilicas ( Gk. Basilikos-kingly ) or Roman halls of justice probably served the Early Christian models or their churches
·         Form a connecting link between buildings from pagan Classic times and those of the Romanesque period which followed
·         Some believed that Early Christian churches to have evolved from Roman dwelling house, where the community had been in the habit of assembling, or from “scholae” or lecture room of the philosophers or even from pagan temples
·         A basilican church usually stand/erected over the burial place o the saint to whom the church is dedicated
·         The approach of the church was through the atrium or open forecourt surrounded by arches
·         Next came the narthex between the atrium and the church which was assigned for the penitents
·         The Narthex open into the Nave lighted by a clearstory of small windows, with aisles on both sides
·         Some churches have bema, a feature that may have been the germ of the medieval transept which later converted the plan into a Latin cross
·         A choir, which became necessary owing to the growth of ritual was enclosed by low screen walls or “ cancelli” and was provided with an “ambo” or pulpit on either side, from which  Gospel and Epistle were read
·         The “apse” or sanctuary where the bishop took the central place which had been that of the “preators” in the basilicas
·         The “altar” , in front of the apse, which in the basilica has been used or libations or sacrifices to the gods was placed immediately over the burial place of the titulatory saint
·         A “ciborium” , also known as “baldachino” or “tabernacle” was erected on columns over the altar  

·         Was rebuilt over much earlier church, some of the  foundation still survive in the crypt
·         The atrium or open rectangular forecourt , surrounded by arcades forms an imposing approach to the church
·         This is followed by narthex, or entrance porch which opens into the nave and single aisles
·         In the apse semi dome is an early 12th century mosaic depicting the triumph over cross

·         Erected by Constantine near the martyrdom site S. Peter in the circus of Nero
·         Was pulled down to make way for the present cathedral
·         The atrium lead through the narthex to the great nave with double aisles terminating in five arches, the center o which was the so called “ Arch of Triumph”
·         The priest as in all Early Christian basilican churches stood behind the altar and faced the east , as the chancel was in this case at the west end

·         Founded in 380 AD, was destroyed in 1823
·         Was rebuilt on the original design and is the largest and the most impressive of all basilican churches
·         The nave has eighty great columns of Simplon granite, with mosaic mural medallions of the pope above
·         The Arch of Triumph with fifth century mosaics, the double bema, the apse with the mosaic of the thirteenth century, and the remarkable High Altar with its double baldachino over the confession of S. Paul, all contribute to the grandeur of the interior

·         Was built by Pope Sixtus III
·         Is the only basilican church of which there is evidence that it was originally a pagan basilica
·         The interiors is the most beautiful of the single aisled basilicas, with it ranges of Ionic columns of Hymettian marbles and entablature surmounts by the original mosaics of Pope Sixtus III dealing with Old Testament history, culminating in the Arch of Triumph, High Altar, and baldachino, beneath which is the confessio

·         Was founded by Constantine in 324 over the tomb of St. Agnese
·         It shares with San Lorenzo fouri Le Mura the peculiarity of having aisles in two storeys
·         The apse with altar and baldachino is at the western end and mosaics in the semi dome represent S. Agnes between two popes
·         The exterior with simple clearstorey windows is plain and the apse is flanked by campanile

·         Is the largest circular church in existence having a diameter of 64.00 m (210 ft)
·         The central circular area is encompassed by concentric inner and outer ambulatories
·         Its high central and lower aisle roofs are supported by two rings of columns from older buildings
·         Two central columns and a cross wall give additional support to the main roof timbers

·         Still clearly shows a pagan temple of Athena was converted in 640 AD into a Christian church by construction o a wall between its peristyle columns and the formation of openings in its cella walls

·         Founded by Constantine over the traditional birth place of Jesus Christ
·         One of the number of basilican churches in Palestine and Syria erected between 3rd and 7th century before the Moslem hordes overran the country
·         It is surmounted by high walls which encloses the precincts of the Latin, Greeks and Armenians who jointly own the church

·         Erected by Constantine over the reputed tomb of Christ
·         Defaced and damaged by Persians and Moslems
·         Rebuilt  by the Crusaders
·         Appeared to date back from the twelfth century for its architecture resembles that of Sicily in that period
·         The entrance leads into the transept, to the left of which is the rotunda, rebuilt by the crusaders in 1099 AD, with the Holy Sepulchre itself was reconstructed in the recent times
·         On the right is the church of the Cruaders
·         Its plan was copied at S. Gereon, Cologne  and other church in Europe
·         Models of the church before its partial destruction in 1808 AD are in the Bodleian Library, Oxford and in the British Museum

·         Separate buildings used only for the sacrament of Baptism
·         Roman circular temples and tombs were occasionally used
·         These buildings had to be of considerable size and they sometimes adjoined the atrium or fore court of the church
·         The introduction of infant baptism, the baptistery was replaced by a font in the church, close to the entrance

·         Built near the Lateran church by Pope Sixtus III and not by Constantine to whom it is generally attributed
·          Is among the oldest Italian Baptisteries
·         Is octagonal and the roof is supported by a two storeyed ring of eight porphyry and marble columns taken from old pagan temples
·         The center is an old Roman bath of green basalt converted into a font

·         Was completed and decorated under Bishop Neone for the orthodox community
·         It is octagonal with wall arcades one above the other similarly placed to the superimposed columns in the Mausoleum of Diocletian

·         It is 24.4 m (80 ft)  in diameter
·         Has ring of thirty antique columns in pairs supporting the dome which covered externally by a wooden roof
·         A barrel vaulted ambulatory encircles the whole domed area

·         Resulted to Christian objection to cremation and insistence on burial in consecrated grounds
·         An expression of the Christian faith in immortality and a memorial to the dead
·         Usually domed and often enrich with lavish mosaic decorations

·         Erected by Constantine for his daughter Constantia
·         Was converted into a church in 1256
·         The entrance leads to a central space 12.2 m (40 ft) in diameter, encircled by twelve pairs of coupled granite columns which support the dome
·         The surrounding aisle is covered by barrel vault

·         Is very early  example of a building cruciform in plan
·         The square tower, roofed by a shallow pyramid, conceals the unusual dome in which both dome and pendentives are part of the same sphere

·         Is in two storeys, of which the lower is a decagon externally 13.7 m ( 45 ft ) in diameter encloses a cruciform crypt
·         The upper storey is circular internally and has traces of external arcade
·         The extraordinary roof is formed o one huge slab of stone weighing 470 tons and hollowed into a flattish dome, 10.7 m ( 35 ft ) in diameter
·         The ashes of the founder were deposited in an urn above the dome


1. Bema – a raised stage reserved for the clergy in the Early Christian churches
2. Ambo – a raised pulpit from which the Epistle and Gospel were read
3. Baldachino – a canopy supported by columns generally placed over the altar or tomb, also known as “Ciborium”
4. Chancel – the space for clergy and choir separated by a screen from the body of the church
5. Aisles – the lateral divisions parallel with the nave in a basilica or church
6. Ambulatory – the cloister or covered passage around the east end of a church behind the altar
7. Apse – the circular or multi angular termination of a church sanctuary, first applied to Roman basilica
8. Nave – the central aisle of the basilican church
9. Narthex – a long arcaded entrance porch to a Christian basilican churches, originally appropriated for penitents       


·         T he Early Christians followed the basilican model for  their new churches 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 became prototype of Medieval towers
·         An isolated circular baptistery was  generally attached to the chief basilican church or cathedral of a city


·         Still constructed according to Roman methods of using rubble or concrete, faced with plaster, brick or stone
·         Mosaic decoration was added internally and sometimes externally on west façade; though little regard was paid to external architectural effect


·         Arcades, doors, and windows were either spanned by a semi circular arch
·         Nave arcades often rested directly on capitals without entablatures or were span by lintels
·         Ornate character of marble doors was sometimes attempted
·         Windows filled in with pierced slabs of marble, alabaster or plaster were small


·         Timber roofs covered the central nave and only simple forms of construction such as king and queen post trusses were employed
·         Narrower side aisles were occasionally vaulted
·         Apse is domed and lined with beautiful glass mosaics, which formed a fitting background to the sanctuary 


·         Differ both in design and size as they were often taken from earlier Roman buildings which had either fallen into ruins or been purposely destroyed
·         Fine marble columns, whether Doric, Ionic or Corinthian, in the churches of Rome were taken from ancient Roman buildings, except those of S. Paolo fouri le Mura
·         Carved capitals are governed by Roman pagan precedent  and sometimes by that of Byzantine


·         Course variations o the old Roman types and the carving though rich in general effect  is crude
·         Technique of the craftsman had gradually declined
·         Enrichments were incised on mouldings in low relief and the acanthus ornament, although still copied from the antique became more conventional in form


·         Introduction of color gave richness and glimmering mystery to the interior
·         Mosaic was used generally and applied on specific portion of the church or basilica
·         Colored pavements were largely formed of slices of old Roman porphyry or marble columns
·         The Cross, the symbol of Christianity, is accompanied by other Christian symbols such as the emblems of Evangelist and Saints had replaced the attributes of heathen deities and became usual features of the decorative scheme
o   Angel of St. Mathew
o   Lion of St. Mark
o   Ox of St. Luke
o   Eagle of St. John
o   Dove, peacock, anchor, olive branch and monogram o Christ ( the Chi-rho )
·         Pictures, emblems and symbols are all used heterogeneously to represent the various aspects of Christian faith
·         More ornamental work in ivory and precious metals for diptychs, crosiers, pyxes, chalices  and pattens was given utmost attention.

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