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EARLY CHRISTIAN

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Originally appearing in Volume V02, Page 389 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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EARLY CHRISTIAN ARCHITECTURE Of the earliest examples of the housing of the Christian church few remains exist, owing partly to their destruction from time to time by imperial edicts, and partly to the fact that in most cases they were only oratories of a small and unpretending nature, which, immediately after the Peace of the Church, were rebuilt of greater size and with increased magnificence. In Rome itself, the principal religious centre was that which was found in the catacombs (q.v.), almost the only resort in times of persecution. In the houses of the wealthy Romans who had been converted, rooms were set apart for the reception of the faithful, and these may have been increased in size by the addition of side aisles. At all events, either in Rome or in the East, where greater freedom of worship was observed, the requirements of the religious had already resulted in a traditional type of plan, which may account for the similarity of all the great churches built by Constantine. It has often been assumed that the great Roman basilicas, if not actually utilized by the Christians, were copied so far as their design is concerned. This, however, is not borne out by the facts, there being very little similarity between the first churches built and the two great Roman basilicas, the Ulpian basilica and that built by Constantine; the latter was roofed with an immense vault, an imperishable covering, not attempted till two centuries later in Byzantium, and the former had its entrance in the centre of the longer side, and the tribunes at either end were divided off from the basilica by a double aisle of columns. The basilica plan was adopted because it was the simplest and most economical building of large size which could be erected, having an immense central area or nave well lighted by clerestory windows, and single or double aisles to divide the two sexes, and further because the immense supply of columns which could be taken from existing temples or porticoes enabled the architect to provide at small cost the colonnades or arcades between the nave and the aisles. On the other hand, there is no doubt that the temples, for which there was no further use, were largely appropriated, not only in Italy but in Greece, Sicily and elsewhere, and it is to this appropriation that we owe the preservation of the Parthenon, the Erechtheum and the temple of Theseus at Athens. There are some cases in which it is interesting to note the changes which were made to convert the temple into a church. In the temple of Athena at Syracuse, walls were built in between the columns of the peristyle, the cella was appropriated for the nave, and arcades were cut through the cella walls to communicate with the peristyle, so as to constitute the aisles. In the temple of Aphrodisias, in Asia Minor, a further development occurred. The walls of the cella were taken down, a wall was built outside the columns of the peristyle to form aisles, and the columns of the east and west end were taken down and placed in line with the others, in order to increase the length of the church. The earliest Christian basilica built in Rome was the Lateran, which has, however, been so completely transformed in subsequent rebuildings as to have lost its original character. The next in datewas that of the old St Peter's, which was taken down in 1506, in consequence of its ruinous condition, in order to make way for the present cathedral, begun by Pope Julius II. It was of considerable size, covering an area of 73,000 ft. Its plan consisted of an atrium, or open court, having a fountain in the centre, and arcades round; a nave, 275 ft. long and 77 ft. wide, with double aisles on each side; a transept, 270 ft. long by 54 ft. wide; and a semi-circular apse or tribune with a radius of 27 ft.: the high altar being in the centre of its choir, and ranges of marble seats and the papal throne in the middle, corresponding to the benches and the judge's seat of the Roman tribune. The nave, therefore, with its double aisles, was similar to that of the Ulpian basilica, but the aisles were not returned across the east end, and at the west end, in their place, was the great triumphal arch opening into the transept. The monolith columns of the nave and their capitals (together 40 ft. high) were all taken from ancient buildings, as also were those of the aisle arcades and in the atrium. The basilica of St Paul, outside the walls, was originally of comparatively small dimensions, with its apse at the west end; in A.D. 386 the church was rebuilt on a plan similar to St Peter's, with nave and double aisles, divided by columns carrying arches, transept and apse. In the Lateran basilica, StPeter's, Santa Maria Maggiore, and St Lawrence (outside the walls), the columns of the nave were close-set (i.e. with narrow intercolumniations) and supported architraves, but in St Paul (outside the walls) the columns of the second church (A.D. 386) were wider apart and carried arches. The same feature is found in the church of St Agnes, founded A.D. 324, but rebuilt 620–640; here the arcade is carried across the west end and there are galleries above, the arches being carried on dosseret blocks above the capitals; these are also found in the galleries over the western end of St Lawrence, added by Honorius (A.D. 620–640) ; the dosseret, a Byzantine feature, being derived either from Ravenna or from the East. In the church of Santa Maria-in-Cosmedin (A.D. 772–795) another Byzantine feature appears in the triple apse at the east end, the earliest example in Europe. In this church, as also in those of San Clemente and San Prassede, piers are built at intervals to carry the arcades separating the nave and aisles. Those in the latter, however, were probably added when the great arches were thrown across the nave. The church of San Clemente was built in 1108, above a much older church dating from 385 and restored later; it is almost the only church in Rome which has pre-served its atrium intact; the internal arrangement of the church also is different from that found elsewhere, the choir, enclosed with marble piers and screens removed from the lower church and erected in front of the tribune, dating from A.D. 514–523. The mosaics executed in 1112 are in fine preservation. Other early churches in Rome are those of Santa Pudenziana (35); San Pietro-in-Vincoli (442), with Doric columns in the nave; SS. Quattro Coronati (450) ; Santa Sabina (450), an interesting church on account of the marble inlaid decoration in the arch spandrils of the nave, which date from 824; San Prassede (817), with arches thrown across the nave later; San Vincenzo ed Anastasio alle Tre Fontane (626) ; and Santa Maria in Domnica, where there are galleries over the aisles and across the east end as in St Agnes. Hitherto we have said little about the architectural design, the fact being that externally these churches had the appearance of barns; it is only in a few cases, notably in St Peter's, that the principal fronts were decorated with mosaics. The magnificent materials employed internally, the monolith marble columns, the enrichment of the apse and the triumphal arch with mosaics, and probably the painting and gilding of the ceiling or roof, gave to the early basilican churches in Rome that splendour which characterizes those in Byzantium and in Ravenna. With the exception of the baptistery attached to St John Lateran, and the so-called tomb of Santa Constantia, both erected by Constantine, the circular form of church was not adopted in Rome; there is one remarkable circular building of great size, San Stefano Rotondo, at one time thought to have been a Roman market, but now known to have been erected by Pope Simplicius (468–482). It consisted of a central circular nave, 44 ft. in diameter, and double aisles round. In the arcade dividing the aisles the arches are carried on dosserets, the earliest known example of this feature in Rome. Although inferior in size, the two churches of S. Apollinare Nuovo, built by Theodoric (493–525) and Sant' Apollinare-in-Classe (538-549), both in Ravenna, have the special advantage that they were constructed in new materials, there being no ancient Roman temples there to pull down. The ordinary basilican plan was adhered to, but as the architects and workmen came from Constantinople, they incorporated in the building various details of the Byzantine style, with which they were best acquainted. Thus the contour of the mouldings, the carrying of the capitals and imposts, the dosseret above the capital, and the scheme of decoration of the interior with marble casing on the lower portion of the walls and mosaic above, are all Byzantine. Externally the churches are extremely plain, the wall surfaces of the nave and aisle walls being varied by blind arcades. The earliest building in Ravenna is the tomb of Galla Placidia, built 450, a small cruciform structure with a dome on pendentives over the centre, perhaps the earliest example known. The baptistery of St John, which was attached to the cathedral built by Archbishop Ursus (38o), now destroyed, is a plain octagonal building, 40 ft. in diameter, originally with a timber roof; when in 431 it was deter-mined to replace this by a vault, in order to resist the thrust, the upper part of the walls was brought forward on arches and corbels, and the interior richly decorated with paintings, stucco reliefs and mosaics in the dome. The most interesting building in Ravenna, however, from many points of view, is the church of San Vitale (fig. 3o), built 539-547, its plan and design being based on the church of SS. Sergius and Bacchus at Constantinople. The proportions of the interior of St Sergius are much finer than those in San Vitale, where the dome is raised too high; the timber roofs also of San Vitale have deprived the church externally of that fine architectural effect found in Byzantine churches. In order to lighten the dome, its shell was built with hollow pots, the end of one fitted into the mouth of the other. The interior of the church is of great beauty, owing to the alternating of the piers carrying the eight arches with the columns set back in apsidal recesses. Unfortunately the church has been much restored, but the magnificent mosaics in the choir and the variety of design shown in the capitals and dosserets render Scale of Feet o ro 20 30 40 50 6o 7o 8o this church, though small, one of the most attractive in Italy. One other Ravenna building must be mentioned, though it would be difficult to know under what style to class it. The tomb of Theodoric, having a decagonal plan in two storeys, the lower one vaulted at the upper storey, set back to allow of a " terrace " round, once sheltered by a small arcade, and covered by a single stone 35 ft. in diameter, belongs to no definite style; the mouldings of 'the upper portion have some resemblance to the mouldings of some of the Etruscan tombs at Castel d'Asso, which was probably known to Theodoric. As Dalmatia and Istria both formed part of Theodoric's kingdom, we find there the same Byzantine influence as that which was asserted in Ravenna, in both cases the work being done by artists and masons from Constantinople. There is not much left in Dalmatia, but in Istria are two important examples,—the churches at Parenzo (535–543) and Grado (571–586). Like the two churches in Ravenna, they are basilican in plan, with apses, semi-circular internally and polygonal externally, the latter being a characteristic found in all the churches in Europe which were influenced directly by Byzantine custom. Although the monolith columns were derived from ancient Roman buildings, all the capitals were specially carved for the two churches, and they have the same variety of design and in many cases are identical with those in San Vitale, Sant' Apollinare Nuovo, Sant' Apollinare-in-Classe, and those brought over from Constantinople, which now decorate St Mark's at Venice internally as well as externally. The decoration of the lower part of the walls internally with marble slabs, and the upper portion and apsidal vaults with mosaic, follows on the same lines as those at Ravenna and Constantinople. The church at Parenzo still retains its baptistery and atrium, from which fragments of the mosaics which originally decorated the west front can be seen. The church at Aquileia was rebuilt in the iith century, and the Duomo of Trieste has been so altered as to lose its original Byzantine character. (R. P. S.)
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