House of Christ the King: Churches of the Early Christian Centuries


The earliest Christian “houses of God” not only established themselves as permanent sacred places, they reflected in many ways the divinely inspired design and construction of Solomon’s Temple and its transient precursor, the Tabernacle in the Wilderness.

Old St. Peter's

The earliest Christian "houses of God" not only established themselves as permanent sacred places, they reflected in many ways the divinely inspired design and construction of Solomon's Temple and its transient precursor, the Tabernacle in the Wilderness. But because of the religious persecutions of Christians, the faithful were not able to build such great edifices to the glory of God until 300 years after Christ's death on the Cross.

Constantine the Great (274-337), a solar henotheist (a pagan sun-worshipper) was the first Roman emperor to favor Christianity. Consequently, he became the first great patron of Christian architecture. The Edict of Milan, issued by Constantine and his co-emperor Licinius in 313, mandated toleration of the Christian religion. Public worship of Christ was not only no longer forbidden, but Constantine, because of divine inspiration, favored Christianity over the pagan cults and made large financial donations to the Church. Thus Constantine was very influential in the development of Christian architecture.

In Rome, Constantine commissioned the church now known as Old St. Peter's. The site upon which this earliest of Roman churches was built has a notorious history. It began as the garden of Agrippina, the mother of Caligula (12-41 A.D.), a Roman emperor particularly noted for his cruelty, and the grandmother of Emperor Nero. Caligula built a "circus" there where many appalling spectacles took place in the midst of a bloodthirsty crowd, not the least of which was the martyrdom of many Christians. St. Peter, the first pope, was crucified upside-down at that site. Thus, it was considered the ideal spot upon which the primatial church in Rome should be constructed.

Constantine's architects were inspired by the Roman basilica (the "house of the King," from the Greek basileus). Between 184 and 121 B.C. there were built in the Forum at Rome the basilicas of Porcia, Fulvia, Sempronia, and Opimia. These public buildings, designed to beautify the Forum, were used primarily for purposes of lawmaking (halls of justice) and commerce (marketplaces). The Roman basilica was the "noblest" form of architecture in the Empire at the time of Constantine and was thought therefore to be the most appropriate to adopt for the Christian church building.

According to the architect Vitruvius, the basic Roman basilica consisted of a roofed hall having a wide central aisle, separated from two side aisles by a colonnade on either side. The walls of the hall rose high above the aisle roofs and used clerestory windows to admit light. At one end of the great hall's central aisle, separated from the hall by a triumphal arch, was a raised platform on which stood an altar of sacrifice. The long hall terminated in a semicircular area which had seats for the Roman officials. Some basilicas had a pitched roof constructed of wooden rafters, while others were vaulted with masonry.

Adapting the Roman Basilica

The architects of Old St. Peter's adapted the general form of the Roman basilica for Christian worship — next to the Temple, it was the building type that enjoyed the greatest longevity, was constructed of the finest materials, and emphasized verticality. Furthermore, it was perfectly suitable to manifest the symbolic path to God and salvation, which in the basilica leads the Christian from the profane outside world toward the sanctuary in distinct stages. On the other hand, the pagan temples, because they were designed as sanctuaries for false gods, and because they could not accommodate an assembly of hundreds — only priests were permitted to enter — were deemed inappropriate for the purposes of the Christian church.

The architects also set a precedent by building over the tomb of a martyr, a practice that became common in early Christian Rome. Thus, the Christian basilica, as reflected in the design of Old St. Peter's, consisted of an oblong space divided into a central hall (later called the nave), with side aisles separated by a colonnade. At the eastern end of the nave was the raised platform of the sanctuary, terminated with a domed, semicircular apse. At the center of the sanctuary stood a canopied altar, and behind it the bishop's chair (cathedra), with seats for the priests and deacons on either side. The sanctuary was separated from the nave by a triumphal arch, just as in the pagan basilicas. Because the sanctuary with altar and cathedra were spiritually most important in the hierarchy of the Christian basilica, the apse and the triumphal arch were typically decorated richly with paintings or mosaics.

The altar was made of stone, and its prominence was emphasized not only by the canopy of the baldacchino (the triumphal arch), but by its placement on a stepped platform. Beneath the altar was often placed the remains of a saint, if the building was not actually built over the saint's tomb. In the case of Old St. Peter's, the body of the first pope, except for the skull, was placed in a crypt directly beneath the altar, as it is in the present structure designed by Bramante and Michelangelo. The art and architecture of the basilica worked together in unity to lead the eye down the central aisle of the nave toward the altar at the center of the sanctuary. The triumphal arch and the apse further emphasized the importance and priority given to the altar upon which the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was offered by the bishop and his clergy.

Although the pagan basilica form was more or less a simple rectangle in design, the architects modified the form for the Christian basilica by adding a short transept to either side of the nave near the sanctuary. Consequently they created the "cruciform" plan. Constantine's architects made one other conspicuous addition: the atrium, a large open forecourt cut off from the outside world by high walls and surrounded by cloisters with sloping roofs. A gateway resembling a triumphal arch gave access from the street, and the open-air interior was made up of gardens, usually with a large fountain at its center.

Some of the other significant Roman basilicas of the early Church were St. John Lateran (324), St. Paul Outside-the-Walls (386), and St. Mary Major (432). Along with St. Peter's, these churches became known as the "patriarchal basilicas of Rome." The two most unaltered basilicas from the Early Christian era, however, are Santa Sabina (422) in Rome and Sant'Apollinare (520) in Ravenna. All of these churches reflect the typical basilica arrangement used in every century since the reign of Constantine.

Religious Images

Aside from the major contribution of the basilican form, the early Christian Church, beginning in the fourth century, developed the use of the image in religious art that came to decorate the interiors of early church structures. Because fourth-century Christianity was still seen principally as the religion of the poor to whom abstract symbolism meant little, visual images began to appear in Christian artwork of the new basilica-style churches. Madonna and Child, the Annunciation, the Nativity, and other New Testament subjects began to appear in Christian painting. These early churches were first decorated with frescoes, and later more commonly with mosaics. These sacred images, however, were not valued for their own sake as decoration or objects of worship (as in pagan art), but for the spiritual significance of their content. These images, just as the basilicas themselves, became "vessels of meaning," transmitting religious truths, using both image and symbol.

In the late sixth century Pope St. Gregory the Great authoritatively ratified the use of religious imagery in churches. Many were concerned that this practice might be idolatrous, as it was regarded by the Hebrews in light of the Second Commandment and as it was practiced by the pagan cults of pre-Christian Rome. Gregory stated that sacred paintings and mosaics were "books of the poor and illiterate, a means of imparting a knowledge of Scripture." He also recognized their capacity to raise man's thoughts from the temporal to the eternal. Although the emphasis was placed on assuring Christians that these images were not for the purposes of worshipping.

The contributions of Christian architects and artists of the early Christian era is hardly insignificant. Both the basilica form and the religious image have been used in countless churches of every century since. The basic basilica form was used as the prototype for churches of western Christendom in the Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Revivalist epochs that followed upon the early Christian era.


Michael S. Rose. "House of Christ the King: Churches of the Early Christian Centuries." Lay Witness (Jan/Feb 2002).

This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine. Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.

Michael S. Rose is the author of Ugly As Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces — and How We Can Change Them Back Again, published by Sophia Institute Press. It may be ordered by calling Benedictus Books toll-free at (888) 316-2640.

This is the second installment of a series which explores the epochs of church architecture.

Copyright © 2002 LayWitness

Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter



Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.