A church is a place where Christians gather to worship. Churches can also serve as schools, where Christians learn the principles of their faith, and as centers of charity. During the early history of Christianity, changes in the form and size of churches reflected the changing role of Christianity in the Roman Empire. After the Emperor Constantine officially tolerated Christian activities in A.D. 313, cities throughout the empire built large new churches, using elements of Roman architecture in their designs. In the centuries that followed, churches helped keep these architectural styles alive in Christian lands and also carried them to nonChristian cultures.
The First Christian Churches. Within a few years of the death of Jesus, perhaps as early as A.D. 35, Christians in various cities had begun to assemble in groups to worship together. These early assemblies did not have buildings. They met in the private homes of believers. These early Christians sometimes remodeled the interiors of their houses to create rooms that were large enough for group worship. Some of these early church-houses have been excavated* by modern archaeologists*.
By the A.D. 200s, Christians had begun to create new, specifically Christian structures, such as small shrines* in special places. In Rome, for example, Christians constructed a shrine over the tomb thought to hold the remains of St. Peter. Public churches did not yet exist, however, because Christianity did not have official status. Most Christians had to hide their religion from the pagan* Roman authorities.
* excavate to uncover by digging
* archaeologist scientist who studies past human cultures, usually by excavating ruins
* shrine place that is considered sacred because of its history or the relics it contains
* pagan referring to a belief in more than one god; non-Christian
* altar raised structure in the most sacred part of a church or temple
The Imperial Churches. The emperor Constantine’s adoption of Christianity as an official state religion brought new power, wealth, and status to the Christian religion and ushered in the age of official Christian buildings across the empire, beginning with the great churches of Rome. The builders of these churches adapted Roman architectural techniques to the needs of Christian worshipers.
Christians did not want their churches to look like the pagan temples that the Greeks and Romans had been building for centuries. Furthermore, churches functioned very differently than the temples had. Pagan temples were houses for the gods, who were often represented by statues. Rituals inside the temples generally involved only a few priests or priestesses. Ceremonies with large numbers of worshipers, if they occurred at all, took place outside the temples. In contrast, churches had to be large, enclosed spaces in which many people could worship at the same time. To create such spaces, church builders returned to the basilica form.
The basilica, introduced in Rome in the 100s B.C., had become a basic element of Roman civic architecture, an all-purpose hall used as a marketplace, courtroom, or public meeting room. Basilicas were large, rectangular structures with high, vaulted roofs of timber beams supported by columns. One end wall of a basilica often featured an apse—a semicircular recess or niche that appeared on the outside of the building as a projection. When the basilica form was used for churches, the altar* was placed within the apse.
Constantine allocated large sums of money for the construction of churches. He sponsored the huge Church of St. John Lateran in Rome, as well as the churches of St. Peter, St. Agnese (Agnes), St. Lorenzo (Lawrence), and others outside the walls of Rome. Other structures followed as Christianity gained converts and influence throughout the empire. By the middle of the A.D. 400s most Roman communities, even in the provinces*, had churches.
The Legacy of Rome. The basilica was not the only Roman contribution to church architecture. Roman builders had also achieved great success with domed structures. Domes with their large, open interiors made good churches. Several churches used the dome, rather than the basilica, as their basic structure. St. Lorenzo in Milan, built in the A.D. 300s, is one example. The most famous domed church was Hagia Sophia, Church of the Holy Wisdom, which the emperor Justinian I built in Constantinople in the A.D. 500s. Centuries later, after Constantinople fell to the Islamic Turks in 1453, Hagia Sophia became a mosque, an Islamic place of worship. The dome, which had passed from Roman pagan and Christian architecture into Islamic architecture, became the traditional shape of the mosque in Islamic lands.
The Roman churches created another legacy that influenced styles in decoration for many centuries—the emphasis on richly ornamented interiors. Pagan temples in general had fairly plain interiors. If these temples were decorated at all, those decorations tended to be on the outside, where people could see them as they passed the structure. Churches, on the other hand, were decorated on the inside, where the ritual took place. The vaulted or domed ceilings of churches created large interior spaces that architects filled with light and color. Roman builders perfected techniques of decorating walls and floors with slabs of colored marble, mosaics*, and paintings.
Even churches that were fairly plain on the outside—such as St. Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, built in the A.D. 500s—were elaborately decorated on the inside with marble panels, mosaics on the floor and walls, objects of silver and gold, and hangings made of costly fabrics, such as silk and velvet. The richness of a church’s decorations was thought to honor God, in whose name the church had been built. Rich decorations also reflected the growing wealth and power of Christianity. (See also Architecture, Greek; Architecture, Roman; Religion, Greek; Religion, Roman.)
* province overseas area controlled by Rome
* mosaic art form in which small pieces of stone or glass are set in cement; also refers to a picture made in this manner