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Early Christian Architecture

History of
Architecture 01

Ar. Diane A. Jose, MBA

Early Christian Architecture
• Is the architecture produced by Christians or under
Christian patronage from about the year 100 to about
the year 500.
Early Christian Architecture

• The most crucial period of Christianity was the

first three centuries A.D.
First three hundred years (300 years)
• Christianity began in the 1st century AD as a Jewish sect but
quickly spread throughout the Greco-Roman world. Although
it was originally persecuted under the Roman empire, it would
ultimately become the state religion.

• Four decades later after Christ’s crucifixion, in 70 CE the

Roman Army attacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Jewish

• The destruction of the Temple further disconnected the two

groups and caused them to spread out and travel to other
lands. From this destruction emerged two main movements:
rabbinical Judaism centered in local synagogues, and the
Christian movement.
Early Christian Architecture

• Christianity travelled to Rome,

and Peter and Paul were
martyred in Rome possibly in
64 A. D. (though the place and
date are not mentioned in the
New Testament). Supposedly,
Peter was crucified by Nero
who blamed the Great Fire of
Rome on the Christians (which
conveniently allowed him to
build his new 100-300 acres
palace right in the centre
including a large lake, which
was the future placement of
the Colosseum).
Early Christian Architecture

• For 250 years Christians

suffered from sporadic
persecutions for their refusal to
worship the Roman emperor,
considered treasonous and
punishable by execution.

• Some feel, they needed some

places to meet secretly.

Note: Nero Claudius Caesar

Drusus Germanicus
Early Christian Architecture

• Officially recognized as the state religion

of Rome in 326 A.D. by the Roman
Emperor Constantine
– Replaced Paganism (not acknowledging the
God of Christianity and Judaism and Islam)

• Constantine was the first

Roman ruler to become a
follower of the Christian
• Before Constantine's reign
Christians were often
punished for their religious
• This changed when
Constantine gave religious
freedom to all Christians living
in the Roman Empire. He also
allowed members of the
Christian Church to take part
in the Roman government.
The new freedom of worship
helped spread Christianity
into many regions of Europe.
• In A.D. 306, Constantine replaced
his father as the new ruler of the
Western Roman Empire.
• Constantine, however, was not
accepted as ruler by everyone. He
had to fight many other would-be
leaders for his position. In A.D.
312 Constantine defeated his last
rival at the Battle of Milvian
Bridge. The victory made
Constantine ruler of the entire
Western Empire. According to
legend, it was during the battle
that Constantine became a
• Around A.D. 315 the Arch of
Constantine was built in Rome to
celebrate Constantine's victory.
Arch of Constantine
Early Christian Architecture

•Most of the early representatives in painting and sculpture

were derived from Roman art, appropriately stylized to suit the
spirituality of the religion.

•An iconography/symbolism was devised to visualize Christian

concepts. For example, Christ was symbolized by a fish
(ikhthus), a cross, or a lamb, or by the combined Greek letters
chi and rho (the first two letters of the Greek spelling of Christ)
as a monogram.
Greeks, and especially Romans produced art that was very
realistic. Remember the beauty of the Greek and Roman
Whereas, early Christian art was more
concerned with Symbolic Representation.
Early Christian Architecture

•Christ the Good Shepherd was often shown as a

beardless young man, derived from pagan
embodiments of Apollo, an image that persisted into
the 6th century in Italy.
Early Christian Architecture

• First Christian architecture was modest in

scope and served two needs:
– Provided a space for spiritual needs of the
– Provided a burial place for the dead

Early Christian Architecture
• Early Christian meeting places were actually
set-up in preexisting apartments or homes
– These locations were known as titulus
– Most were rebuilt into full scale churches
• Best known early Christian architecture are the
burial places, known as catacombs
– Early Christians were quite poor
– Burial was provided in individual ―shelf‖ tombs or
private family chambers
– Usually located beneath churches
Catacomb at St. Callistus, Rome
Chapel of St. Sabina in the catacombs

Chapel of St. Sabina

Rome, Catacombs of Priscilla


• The catacombs are the ancient

underground cemeteries, used
by the Christian and the Jewish
communities, above all at Rome.
• Began in the second century
and the excavating continued
until the first half of the fifth.
• Christians did not want to
cremate their dead (as done by
the Romans) due to their belief
in bodily resurrection
• In the beginning they were only
burial places. Here the
Christians gathered to celebrate
their funeral rites, the
anniversaries of the martyrs and
of the dead.
Early Christian Architecture

• During the persecutions (until

313 A.D.), in exceptional cases,
the catacombs were used as
places of momentary refuge for
the celebration of the Eucharist.
• They were not used as secret
hiding places of the early
Christians. This is only a fiction
taken from novels or movies.


Fresco-A method of painting on plaster, either dry or wet (usually)
in the latter method, pigments are applied to thin layers of wet
plaster so that they will be absorbed and the painting becomes
part of the wall.
Early Christian Architecture

• Sarcophagus- A coffin, usually of stone,

although sometimes made of wood, metal, or
clay. In ancient times they were often
decorated with carvings of the deceased or
with some religious or mythological subject.
Early Christian Architecture

• Open air cemeteries were also in

– Actually preferred over the dreary catacombs
– Vatican Hill
• Modest monument of the late second century
• Said to have marked the grave of Saint Peter
• Now occupied by the church of Saint Peter
The Roman Emperor Constantine was the first emperor to be
tolerant of the Christian religion. He chose to built a church on
Vatican Hill, right atop the burial sight of St. Peter. He began
construction of the sight in 319.
Early Christian Architecture

Three key points of Early Christian Art:

• Symbolic- express a religious thought or
• Found on frescoed walls of catacombs
outside Rome
• Acceptance of the Christian religion
created a need for new ARCHITECTURE
- starting in the 4th century

Under imperial sponsorship, Early Christian

architecture flourished throughout the empire on a
monumental scale.

Buildings were of two types:

• The longitudinal hall, or BASILICA

• The centralized building, frequently a baptistery or
a mausoleum.

•Christian worship, being

congregational, requires a hall,
and the Roman basilica—a civic
hall—became the model for both
large and small churches.

•The basilica, processional in

form, with a long axis running
from a centered doorway to the
altar at the other end of the

The two basic shapes are combined in many

different ways, and either one can be modulated to:

•a cross-like form by the addition of projecting wings,

• or in the form of a Greek cross or a Latin cross.

Elaborate churches may have separate rooms for

baptism, for treasures and relics, for robing the
clergy, and for administration. They may also have
more than one altar and subsidiary chapels.
Two (2) Basic Architecture in Christian
The Basilica

St. Sernin (1080-1120 A.D.), the

Romanesque cathedral at Toulouse,
France, provides an example of the
basilica. Shaped like a cross, it
features a longitudinal floor plan,
intersected at one end by a transept.
1) Propylaeum- the entrance building of a sacred precinct, whether church or imperial palace.
2) Atrium- in early Christian, Byzantine, and medieval architecture, the forecourt of a church; as a rule
enveloped by four colonnaded porticoes.
3) Narthex- the entrance hall or porch proceding the nave of a church.
4) Nave- the great central space in a church. In longitudinal churches, it extends from the entrance to the
apse (or only to the crossing if the church has one) and is usually flanked by side aisles.
5) Side Aisle- one of the corridors running parallel to the nave of a church and separated from it by an
arcade or colonnade.
6) Crossing- the area in a church where the transept and the nave intersect.
7) Transept- in a cruciform church, the whole arm set at right angles to the nave. Note that the transept
appears infrequently in Early Christian churches. Old St. Peter's is one of the few example of a basilica with
a transept from this period. The transept would not become a standard component of the Christian church
until the Carolingian period.
8) Apse- a recess, sometimes rectangular but usually semicircular, in the wall at the end of a Roman
basilica or Christian church. The apse in the Roman basilica frequently contained an image of the Emperor
and was where the magistrate dispensed laws. In the Early Christian basilica, the apses contained the
"cathedra" or throne of the bishop and the altar.
9) Nave elevation- term which refers to the division of the nave wall into various levels. In the Early
Christian basilica the nave elevation usually is composed of a nave colonnade or arcade and clerestory.
10) Clerestory- a clear story, i.e. a row of windows in the upper part of a wall. In churches, the clerestory
windows above the roofs of the side aisles permit direct illumination of the nave.
Two (2) Basic Architecture in Christian
The Centralized Church

The centralized church, of circular or polygonal plan, with one large central
space, usually with a dome overhead.

1. Rotunda
2. Paired columns (composite)
3. Ambulatory
4. Narthex
Two (2) Basic Architecture in Christian
The Centralized Church

Rome’s Santa Costanza (350

A.D.), an example of the
centralized plan, features a domed
cylindrical core surrounded by a
circular ambulatory.
Rome’s Santa Costanza

Function as:
Martyria (martyr shrines), Baptisteries or Mausoleum
Santa Costanza, Rome, 350 A.D. Center dome with a
circular colonnade separating it from the ambulatory
circular barrel vault
Santa Costanza, built
for Constantine’s
daughter Constantina
who died in 354. Her
sarcophagus was
placed opposite the
door to be in direct line
of vision upon entrance
Rome’s Santa Costanza

Ambulatory ceiling of Santa

Costanza; assimilation of
the Cupid and Psyche
figures, reinterpreted by
Christian authors as an
allegory of the relationship
between body and soul.
To be continued…