Paleochristian (Early Christian)

With Christianity widely accepted as a state religion in Rome architecture needed to respond to the demands of worship spaces. The first churches were built adopting the typology of the Roman basilica taking a cruciform shape in the memory of the crucifixion.

Old St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome, from: Giovanni Ciampini, De sacris aedificiis a Constantino Magno constructis: synopsis historica, 1693

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The Origins

Christianity had its birth in Judaea, an easter province of the Roman Empire, and it was spread and carried to Rome by St. Peter, St. Paul, and other missionaries. The Early Christian period is generally considered as lasting from the reign of Constantine (AD 306) to the death of Gregory the Great (AD 607) although in Rome and many Italian cities it continued up to the 10th century.

Sarcophagus with Scenes from the Lives of Saint Peter and Christ, Roman, 300s, Met

Image source:,_Roman,_300s,_Met_(35008208016).jpg

Pre-Constantine Architecture (AD 50-313)

In AD 200 Christian architecture did not exist yet. Starting from AD 250 Christianity took over and the first places of worship were the Domus ecclesiae, titulus in Rome. Christians also resumed underground cemeteries called Catacombs and similar overground structures (Martyria) used for the funeral rituals related to the ancient pagan customs.

Floor plan of the house-church. (Yale University Art Gallery, Dura-Europos Collection)

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Constantine Architecture (4th century)

In AD 313 Constantine allowed Christians free and unrestricted religious worship (The Edict of Milan). Domestic architecture could no longer fulfill the needs of the meeting place for Christianity adopting the typology of the Roman basilica. Originally the Roman basilica was rectangular with at the minimum one apse, usually facing North and the early churches were generally simple and functional in their design.
The Christian builders made many symbolic modifications. With the addition of a transept between the nave and the apse, perpendicular to the nave, the building took a cruciform shape in the memory of the crucifixion.
The variety was typical of this time but there are some common characteristics to all basilicas:
– the plan developed in length with a longitudinal axis;
– exposed wooden beam roof or flat countertop;
– a rectangular tribune in the shape of an apse;
– central nave and lateral aisles;
– high clerestory with large windows.

The Basilica of Constantine or Aula Palatina, Trier, early 4th century

Image source: by archer10 (Dennis)

Post Constantine (AD 335-400) and 5th century Architecture

In the last years of Constantine’s reign and for all the 4th century new types of churches were built in political/spiritual capitals as Rome (the new seat of the papacy), Milan, Alessandria, and Jerusalem. The creativity of Christian architecture was linked to the stylistic concepts and construction techniques of late ancient classicism. After the division of the Roman Empire by Theodosius in AD 395 and a great number of invasions, Ravenna became the new capital. The papacy was the new political power against the Emperor and the experimentalism of the Constantine period was replaced by standardization. However local tradition added some different elements to standard themes:
– the entrance is usually closed on four sides by a colonnade;
nartece or vestibule in front of the Church (esonartece) or inside at the beginning of the nave (endonartece);
galleries upon the aisles;
double lateral aisles;
– a crypt under or in front of the altar;
two towers by the sides of the nartece;
– a three-sided transept;
different materials.

Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna, apse mosaic

Image source: by Vanni Lazzari

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