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Early Christian Architecture: Examples, History & Characteristics

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  1. 0:08 The Rise of Constantine and…
  2. 1:08 The Basilica
  3. 4:39 The Baptistry
  4. 5:51 True Beauty Lies Within
  5. 6:39 Lesson Summary
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Taught by

Max Pfingsten

This lesson looks at the advent of Christian architecture with the rise of Constantine. We examine how Constantine adapted the Roman Basilica to create the first Christian churches. We also take a quick look at baptistries. Finally, we briefly look at the contrast between these churches' plain exteriors and their lavish interiors.

The Rise of Constantine and Christianity

Christianity and the Roman Empire had a long history of bad blood. Several Roman emperors made a point of persecuting Christianity, either because they were trying to preserve the religion of their ancestors or simply because Christians provided a convenient scapegoat for the problems of the empire. Christianity was illegal throughout the empire, and Christians were subject to injustices ranging from seizure of property to death in the arena.

Yet, after three centuries of Roman Emperors grinding Christians under their feet, a new emperor decided to give Christians a hand up. His name was Constantine. Early Christian architecture exploded under the protection and patronage of this ambitious emperor. Constantine wanted to unify the crumbling Roman Empire under Christianity. To do so, he began building churches across the empire on a massive scale.

The Basilica

For centuries Christians had been meeting secretly in houses. With Constantine's conversion to Christianity, there was suddenly an opportunity to build public places of worship.

Yet what should these churches look like? They could not look like Roman temples. A Roman temple is a pretty place for an idol to sit. It holds a god, a place for ritual sacrifice and perhaps a treasury. Christian ritual is not about burning food to an idol; it's about coming together as a congregation. The problem is there's nowhere in a Roman temple for a congregation to congregate. A bigger, more open space is necessary.

To meet these needs, Constantine chose the Roman basilica as the model for his churches. Basilicas were the shopping malls of ancient Rome; they also served as council chambers, meeting halls and law courts throughout the empire. The basilica was a large rectangular hall with colonnades running down both sides. It had high windows to let in plenty of light. Many were built with a wooden roof, making their construction cheap and fast. Others featured an apse or raised semi circle at the opposite end of the entrance, framed by a triumphal arch, one of the most distinctly Roman forms of architecture.

A diagram of the interior of a basilica
Basilica Diagram

Constantine adapted this building to Christian services. The long, open rectangular colonnade was the perfect place for congregations to congregate. This area became known as the nave. That semicircular area at one end, or apse, seemed like the perfect place to put an altar. The entrances were then moved from the sides to the front, so the whole building has a single axis, with the apse as its focal point. Before the entrance, he added an atrium, or open-aired columned courtyard typical of Roman palaces. Between the atrium and the nave was the narthex, or main entrance of the church.

With these adaptations, the Constantine's basilicas provided the space the Christians needed for their congregations and lent the Church the authority of an established form of imperial architecture, thereby proclaiming Christianity's status as a state religion. Unfortunately, none of Constantine's basilicas survive unaltered. The closest surviving example is the Basilica of St Paul outside the walls in Rome.

Here we can see how these architectural elements came together to create a powerful visual and spatial effect. Entering the church requires passing through all of the elements we just covered. You start out in the columned atrium and then pass through the narthex. This brings you to the nave, which runs up to the triumphal arch, with the apse behind it. The overall effect was one of increasing grandeur as one stepped deeper and deeper into God's house.

The basilica provided Christians with a place to commune and engage in the foremost Christian sacrament: the eucharist, in which pious Christians shared a communal meal of bread and wine, symbolizing the body and blood of Christ. Yet there was another important Christian sacrament, something that made a Christian a Christian, and that was baptism.

The Baptistry

This Arian baptistry allowed church members to perform sacred baptisms.
Arian Baptistry

While baptism would eventually become a matter of sprinkling babies, the early Church followed the example of the Bible and baptized people of all ages by immersion. Indeed, the very word 'baptismo' means 'I submerge.' Most Basilicas lacked an in-ground pool, thus a different space would need to be created for this important rite of passage.

Luckily, the Romans already had the perfect public places for this service readily available: the Roman bath. The Roman bath took several forms, but the most popular was a round or polygonal building crowned with a dome. By the 1st century CE, this round design had already been expanded upon by the Romans to build temples, like the Pantheon.

The form was later adapted for tombs, like the mausoleum Constantine built for his daughter. Early Christians adapted this form to build baptistries, or places to baptize people, like this Arian baptistry built in Ravenna circa 4-500 CE. Later, the Byzantines would expand upon this form, building their churches around this central-planned, domed scheme.

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