EARLY CHRISTIAN ARCHITECTURE


EARLY CHRISTIAN ARCHITECTURE
   Early Christian architecture grew out of ancient Jewish precedents, which consisted of religious structures built to solidify Hebrew authority in the ancient land around the eastern Mediterranean Sea, Canaan, which the Romans called Palestine. However, with the establishment of Christianity came a need for architectural spaces that could be used by believers to confirm, assert, and educate others about this new religion. Because Christianity held great favor among the common man, the earliest congregants rarely had enough political favor or wealth to build large-scale religious structures. In fact, prior to Constantine's Edict of Milan in AD 313, the Christian world was private. Christians gathered before altars in private homes, which came to be called the "house-church" or ecclesia, an ancient Greek word meaning "gathering of the called-out ones." The remains of a house-church in Dura-Europos in modern-day Syria demonstrate this early development. The structure was visually prominent, which probably attests to a lesser degree of persecution at this time than has traditionally been thought. Many of these early ecclesiae reveal a mingling of early pagan, Jewish, and Christian symbolism.
   As Christianity came to be increasingly tolerated, congregants began to build nonresidential places of worship. A particularly dramatic growth of the Church occurred with the Emperor Constantine's acceptance of Christianity in Rome, which effectively ended the "Age of Persecution" and contributed to the construction of many Christian churches and other buildings through the 300s, including a home and baptistery for the pope-bishop of Rome. Hoping to distance themselves from the visual symbolism of the pagan temple, early Christians selected the Roman government building called the basilica as a model for the earliest churches, while baptisteries and martyria continued to be circular in format. A good example of the basilica-plan church is the original Saint Peter's Church in Rome. Although it does not exist today, it was begun around AD 320 by Constantine, who wanted a large monument to mark the site where Saint Peter was buried. The church of Santa Sabina, built in Rome around 422, remains one of the few early Christian churches to retain its original form. This church's basilica plan, also called a longitudinal plan, has a long, central nave flanked by side aisles. The nave is taller than the side aisles, allowing a row of clerestory windows in the upper registers to illuminate the central interior. The entrance, at the western, short end of the building, orients the visitor in a strongly axial direction down the nave, lined by a colonnade on either side, toward the high altar, located in a rounded apse at the far end of the nave. The high altar is elevated from the nave floor, demarking the choir area as the most sacred space in the church. While the exterior of Santa Sabina is a simple brick construction devoid of applied decoration, the interior reveals marble flooring and a nave arcade of round arches with fluted marble Corinthian columns. The nave also had now-lost murals or mosaics in the register above the arcade and beneath the clerestory windows.
   Because the circular church, also called the centrally planned church, was originally based on the ancient tholos, used as a funerary structure, the Christian context was often also funerary in function. The earliest surviving circular church is a mausoleum built around AD 340 for Constantina, the daughter of Constantine. Now called Santa Costanza, the church consists of a central domed area surrounded by a barrel-vaulted walkway called an ambulatory. The round arched colonnade that separates the ambulatory from the central area features a double layer of Composite columns. Marble and mosaics cover the interior walls and ambulatory ceiling. In Constantinople, the Emperor Constantine's funerary church (which does not survive today) was constructed as a centrally planned church with four equal arms, called a Greek-cross plan. With the fall of Rome, the Roman Empire moved first to Milan and then to Ravenna, an east-coast city important in Ancient Rome for its naval base and direct route to Constantinople. Therefore, Christian architecture in Ravenna exhibited a strong eastern influence that came to be called the Byzantine style. The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna dates to around 425 and was constructed as a Greek-cross-plan funerary monument for the half-sister of Emperor Honorius. Byzantine-style mosaics appear in the interior of the building, commemorating the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence. Once the city of Ravenna was captured by the Byzantine army of Emperor Justinian I in 540 from Arian Christian Ostrogoths who had lived in the city since 476, artistic influences reversed direction, stemming the transmittal of Roman culture into Constantinople, and instead bringing a fuller Byzantine style into Italy, a style that lasted there through the early years of the Renaissance.

Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts. . 2008.

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