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Early Churches

Early Churches

Author: Ian McConnell
This lesson will discuss a few examples of early Christian churches.
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An overview of early Christian churches.

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Hello. I'd like to welcome you to this episode of "Exploring Art History with Ian." My name is Ian McConnell. Today's lesson is about early churches.

As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as many times as you feel it's necessary. And as soon as you're ready, we can begin.

Today's objectives, or the things we are going to learn today are listed below. By the end of the lesson today, you'll be able to identify and define today's key terms, and explain the two design formats and why early churches used these formats. That'll make more sense when we get into it.

Key terms today are all, as always, are listed in yellow.

First key term is basilica. A columned meeting hall in ancient Rome. Later a church with columns.

Clerestory. A clerestory is a part of a building that rises above the roofs. Basically windows above eye level, primarily for allowing light and ventilation.

A nave is a long central aisle that extends the whole length of the church.

Aisles are the walkway between the sections of seats, located, for example, in the theater.

The next key term is apse. An architectural term. A recess or semi-circular space in a building, vaulted and used often by the choir in church.

Cathedral. The main church that contains the bishop's throne.

Ambulatory. An area for walking, usually semi-circular around the apse of a church.

Mausoleum. Tomb or building containing tombs.

Mosaic. A system of patterns on a floor, wall, ceiling constructed of small colored pieces of inlaid stone, glass, or clay, or other types of materials.

The big idea for today is that many early Christian churches were based on the design format of the Roman basilica.

And there is required art work, and the page titles will be colored purple.

So when in history are we looking? Today's architecture in our work falls within the third or within the range of the third century AD to fourth century AD.

And once again, today we find ourselves in Rome.

So why do we care about early churches? Early churches are a reflection of the cultures they were created in, like a lot of art. Early Christians didn't necessarily have an inherent artistic style, so they drew upon what they knew or what they had been exposed to.

Churches themselves are often re-purposed buildings or temples, which quickly explains why they looked they way they did.

Many early churches were based on the design of the Roman basilica, which had a design that lent itself well to Christian religious ceremonies. Originally used as meeting or audience halls, the basilica was a rectangular shape with a long central aisle called a nave that terminated in a rounded semi-circular section called an apse. Examples that we'll look at today include Old Saint Peter's in Rome, which is no longer around, and in Santa Sabina in Rome, or the Church of Santa Sabina, I should say.

However, not all churches were based on the basilica design format. And as I mentioned before, it was common to reclaim a temple or building to be repurposed as a church, as was the case with Santa Costanza in Rome, which was originally built as a mausoleum for the Emperor Constantine's daughter, but later was converted to a church. Because of its original purpose, Santa Costanza is based on what's called a central plan, which I'll describe in just a moment.

So there are two main types of design plans for churches of this time period, the basilica design or the central plan. The basilica design was essentially an elongated rectangle that formed the central nave terminating in an apse. And this is a very simple diagram. The apse area with a triumphal arch, which originally would have been the place the emperor was seated in, instead became an area for the Christian altar, clergy seating, and in many cases, the choir as well.

Here is another example of the basilica style when later on the transept, which is that cross piece, was added to give it more of a cross shape.

A centrally-planned church has no long central nave. Instead the altar positioned in the middle of the church, in the central area, which is surrounded by a circular walkway, which is here shown in white, called an ambulatory. Now this style of church became more popular in the fourth and fifth centuries, but was largely replaced by the basilica-style design format later on. The cross shape, which originally was more of a coincidence, eventually became its own major and intentional design element in the design of churches.

Now this is an interior view of Santa Costanza, which was originally constructed in 350 BC. This image is taken from the ambulatory, which is separated from the central area and altar by a colonnade of Corinthian-style columns. And a clerestory is providing light from above. You can see that with the windows there.

This image is one of the surviving mosaics from inside Santa Costanza. The original design was a Bacchus motif with putti, or little chubby winged spirits, harvesting grapes for wine. Bacchus was the Roman deity of wine and the grape harvest. And in an example of syncretism, this image was kept by Christians, who felt it was evocative of the Christian rite of Eucharist, with angels gathering grapes for wine that was symbolic of the blood of Christ.

The basilica style can be seen in the other two churches we're looking at today. This is a diagram of Old Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome. It's labeled old to distinguish it from the newer Saint Peter's that was built centuries later. You can clearly see the rectangular basilica design with its central nave and auxiliary aisles, the cross shape, and the apps apse. It was originally constructed in 360 AD. Now there's no surviving Old Saint Peter's. It was deconstructed and a new church was built this place called the newer Saint Peter's, or just now Saint Peter's Basilica, in Rome.

This fresco of Old Saint Peter's provides a nice cross-section of what the fourth-century building looked like. And notice the colonnade and rounded arcade, which is that row of arches, as well as the tiered roof and resulting clerestory at the very top. Now in many ways, the basilica of Old Saint Peter's evokes many of the design elements of Egyptian temples from centuries earlier. It's no wonder, though, given that the Romans themselves were inspired by the stylistic conventions of ancient Egypt.

This image is of the basilica-style fifth-century church of Santa Sabina in Rome. At first glance it could be mistaken for the basilica at Trier, Germany, which has a very similar design, as well as an exterior brick construction. However, the interior features very familiar design elements. The central nave and side aisles are separated by a Corinthian-style colonnade that you can see here. And rounded arcade that supports the structure, and the clerestory above, which is shown by the red arrows here.

Now, church architecture is one of my favorite areas of art history, and I wish we could spend some more time digging into the little details of these amazing feats of engineering. However that may not be the case. But I do encourage you, if you're interested, to seek out the wealth of materials available on early architecture. You'll have the opportunity to delve deeper into the fun facts about places like Santa Sabina, such as this fresco within the ceiling of the apse, which was not an original artwork, but rather a more recent addition in the 16th century and replacement for the mosaic that would've originally been in place there.

So that brings us to the end of this lesson. Let's take a look at our objectives to see how we did. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms? Can you explain the two design formats and why early churches used these formats?

And once again, the big idea for today is that many early Christian churches were based on the design format of the Roman basilica. I should add, not all of them were.

And that's it. Thanks for joining me today. I'll see you next time.

Notes on "Early Churches"

Key Terms


A columned meeting hall in ancient Rome, later a church with columns.


A part of a building that rises above the roofs – basically windows above eye level primarily for allowing light and ventilation.


A long central aisle that extends the whole length of the church.


The walkway between the sections of seats located, for example in a theater.


An architectural term; a recess or semicircular space in a building, vaulted and used often by the choir in a church.


The main church that contains the bishop’s throne.


An area for walking, usually semicircular, around the apse of a church.


A tomb or building containing tombs.


A system of patterns on a floor, wall, ceiling constructed of small color pieces of inlaid stone, glass, or clay or other types of materials.


 Image of Old St. Peter's PD-1923 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Affresco_dell%27aspetto_antico_della_basilica_costantiniana_di_san_pietro_nel_IV_secolo.jpg; Old St Peters Basilica Plan; Public Domain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Old_St_Peters_Basilica_plan.png Santa Sabina Interior; Creative Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Santa_Sabina_inside.JPG; Santa Sabina Exterior; Public Domain http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:RomaSSabinaEsterno.JPG Santa Costanza Interior; Creative Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Santa_Costanza_Interior.jpg Image of Mosaic from Ambulatory of Santa Costanza, Rome, PD-old-auto-1923, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mausoleo_di_santa_costanza,_mosaici_03.jpg; Santa Sabina Apsis; Public Domain via Don Edgar: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ssabina.jpg; Image of Italy Creative Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:EU-Italy.svg; Image of Christ; Creative Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:**************************************************.jpg