1902 Encyclopedia > Rome > Christian Rome - From the 4th to the 12th Century

(Part 33)



From the 4th to the 12th Century

Plate IX.

Early Churches

The era of church building in Rome may be said to begin with the reign of Constantine and the peace of the church. Before then Christian worship was conducted with various degrees of secrecy either in private houses or in the CATACOMBS (q.v.), according as the reigning emperor viewed the sect witli tolerance or dislike. The type of church which in the beginning of the 4th century was adopted with certain modifications from the pagan basilica, though varying much in size, had little or no variety in its general form and arrangement. One fixed model was strictly adhered to for many centuries, and, in spite of numberless alterations and additions, can be traced in nearly all the ancient churches of Rome.

FIG. 26.—Plan of lower church of S. Clemente. A. Celebrant's throne in western apse. B. High altar and baldacchino. C. Stairs down to confessio. D, D. Side doors in screen. E. Gospel ambo. F. Epistle ambo. G. Lectern. H. Paschal candlestick. J, J. Aisles. K. Doors at east end. L. Stairs to upper church. M. Fountain of ablution. N. Campanile.

Fig. 26 shows a typical example, omitting all later changes. The plan is that of the lower church of S. Clemente, built in the 4th century, probably in the reign of Constantine ; an existing inscription records its restoration by S. Siricius (384-398). The fittings, altar, choir-screen, &c, are not now in situ, but were moved into the upper church when that was built, between 1100 and 1118. They were then rather carelessly put together, and the proper positions of the gospel and the epistle ambo reversed. The figure shows these fittings replaced in the ancient church as they originally stood; they are rather later than the building itself, being made under Pope John, probably the second of that name (532-535); his monogram is sculptured on the marble slabs which form the low walls of the choir. In the loth century ornaments of mosaic inlay were added on these 6th-century screens by one of the Cosmati. The baldacchino which now exists in the upper church is of c. 1100, but two of the columns of a much older canopy are preserved by being used in the construction of a fine 15th-century tomb near the High altar. These have richly carved caps of semi-classical style, and, as well as the high altar, have an inscription recording their gift to the church by the priest Mercurius in the pontificate of Hormisdns (514-523). The paintings of the 9th century, and even earlier, which cover the walls of the lower church are among the most important existing specimens of early Christian art.5

Typical Plan

The typical church was a simple rectangular building, with or without aisles, having a large apse at the west end, and at the east three doors opening from a cloister-like atrium ; when space was limited three sides of the atrium were omitted, leaving only a long pillared narthex or porch which extended along the whole width of the nave. The apse or presbyteriuni, which was raised above the nave, contained a central marble throne for the celebrant and a long bench for the rest of the clergy. The high altar stood a little forward from the apse ; and over it was a square canopy or baldacchino supported on four marble columns ; each of the four arches of the canopy had a curtain, which was drawn close during the consecration of the elements ; at other times these curtains were twisted round the four columns of the baldacchino. The celebrant stood with his back to the apse, looking eastwards towards the people over the altar. The high altar stood over the tomb of some saint or confessor, hence called the "confessio"; this was so arranged as to be at least partly visible, and usually was reached by a few steps descending from the nave. In later times the confessio became frequently a spacious crypt containing a small altar of its own. At this point cancelli or marble screens ran across the whole width of the church, both nave and aisles ; and hence the part thus railed off was called the "chancel." The choir occupied most of the western half of the nave, and was raised one step above it; it was completely surrounded by a low marble wall or screen, along two sides of which a marble bench was fixed. On the right was the gospel ambo, its marble book-rest usually distinguished by a sculptured eagle, and beside it the tall paschal candlestick. On the left was the epistle ambo. The font was frequently an ancient marble or porphyry bath, as in the Lateran baptistery and that of S. Maria Maggiorc ; but in early times an ordinary parish church had no font; baptisms were only performed in one or two of the great basilicas, and then in a separate building, usually octagonal in shape. In the centre of the open atrium stood a fountain for ablutions performed before entering the church, as in an Oriental mosque.


The walls of these early churches were mostly built of concrete, faced with brick, left structurally quite plain, and decorated only with painted stucco or glass mosaics, — especially (internally) in the apse and on the face of its arch, and (externally) on the east or entrance wall, the top of which was often built in an overhanging curve to keep off the rain. The windows were plain, with semicircular arches, and w'ere filled with pierced marble screens, or in some cases with slabs of translucent alabaster ; the latter was the case at S. Lorenzo fuori le Mura, and examples of the former still exist in the very early church formed in the rooms of some thermae on the Esquiline (possibly those of Trajan), below the 6th-century church of S. Martino ai Monti. Almost the only bit of external architectural ornament was the eaves cornice, frequently (as at the last-named church) formed of marble cornices stolen from earlier classical buildings. Internally the nave columns, with their capitals and bases, were usually taken from some classical building, and some churches are perfect museums of fine sculptured caps and rich marble shafts of every material and design. At first the nave had no arches, the columns supporting a horizontal entablature, as at S. demente, S. Maria Maggiore, and S. Maria in Trastevere, but afterwards, in order to widen the intercolumniation, simple round arches of narrow span were introduced, thus requiring fewer columns. The roof was of the simple tie-beam and kingpost construction, left open, but decorated with painting or metal plates. The floor was paved either with coarse mosaic of large tesserae (as at S. Pudentiana) or with slabs of marble stripped from ancient buildings. A later development of this plan added a small apse containing an altar at the end of each aisle, as in S. Maria in Cosmedin and S. Pietro in Vincoli.

27.—Church and mausoleum of Costanza. A. Recess for altar. B. Porphyry slab in floor where the tomb stood. C. Modern altar. 1), D. Slabs of white marble, part of ancient paving. E, E. Recesses with mosaics. F, F. Ambulatory witti mosaic vault.

Circular Churches

The type of church above described was used as a model for by far the majority of early churches not only in Rome but also in England, Prance, Germany, and other Western countries. Another form was, however, occasionally used in Rome, which appears to have been derived from the round temple of pagan times. This is a circular building usually domed and surrounded with one or more rings of pillared aisles. To this class belong the combined church and mausoleum of Costanza (see fig. 27) and that of SS. Marcellinus and Petrus, both built by Constantine, the former to hold the tomb of Iiis daughters Constantia and Helena, the latter that of his mother Helena. The latter is on the Via Labicana, about 2 miles outside Rome; it is a circular domed building, now known as the Torre Pignattara, from the pignatte or amphorae built into the concrete dome to lighten it. The mausoleum of S. Costanza, close by S. Agnese fuori, is also domed, with circular aisle, or rather ambulatory, the vault of the latter decorated with mosaic or classical style (see MOSAIC, vol. xvi. p. 852). The red porphyry sarcophagi, sculptured richly with reliefs, from these mausolea are now in the Vatican. On a much larger scale is the church of S. Stefano Rotondo on the Ccelian, built by Pope Simplicius (468-483), with a double ring of pillared aisles, the outer one of which was pulled down and a new 20 enclosure wall built by E Nicholas V. Other round churches are S. Teodoro (by the Vicus Tuseus), of the 8th century, and S. Bernardo, which is one of the domed halls of Diocletian's thermae, consecrated as a church in 1598.

Space will not allow any individual description of the very numerous and important churches in Rome which are built on the above-described plan. The principal examples are these: —S. Pudentiana, traditionally the oldest in Rome, rebuilt by Adrian I. (772-795) ; S. Sabina, 5th century; S. Vitale, 5th century, founded by Innocent I. (402-417) ; S. Martino ai Monti, 500 ; S. Balbina, 6th century ; church of Ara Cceli, founded in 6th century as S. Maria in Capitolio ; S. Giorgio in Velabro, rebuilt by Leo II. (682-683) ; S. Cesáreo, 8th century ; S. Maria in Via Lata, built by Sergius I. (687-701); S. Crisogono, rebuilt in 731 by Gregory III.; S. Maria in Cosmedin and S. Giovanni ad Portam Latinam, both rebuilt c. 772 by Adrian I. ; S. Maria in Domnica, rebuilt by Paschal I. (817-824), who also rebuilt S. Cecilia in Trastevere c. 821 and S. Prassede in 822 ; S. Marco, rebuilt by Gregory IV. in 833 ; S. Maria Nuova, founded by Nicholas I. (858-867), now called S. Francesca Romana; S. Anastasia, founded in the 4th, rebuilt in the 10th century ; S. Bartolomeo in Isola and the church of the Quattro Santi Ineoronati, built by Paschal II. about 1113; and S. Maria in Trastevere, rebuilt by Innocent II. in 1139.

Though the apses and classical columns of the naves in these churches were built at the dates indicated, yet in many cases it is difficult to trace the existence of the ancient walls ; the alterations and additions of many centuries have frequently almost wholly concealed the original structure. With the exception of S. Clemente, the early choir, placed as shown in fig. 26, has invariably been destroyed ; the side walls have often been broken through by the addition of rows of chapels ; and the whole church, both within and without, has been overlaid with the most incongruous architectural features in stucco or stone. The open roof is usually concealed either by a wooden panelled ceiling or by a stucco vault. The throne and marble benches in the apse have usually given place to more modern wooden fittings, to suit the later position of the choir, which has always been transferred from the nave to the apse. In many cases the mosaics of the apse and the columns of the nave are the only visible remains of the once simple and stately original church. "


4 The plan of the upper church of S. Clemente is shown under BASILICA, fig. 13, vol. iii. p. 417; other plans of early basilicas are given in the same article.
5 See Mullonly, S. Clement and his Basilica, Rome, 1SG9; De Rossi, in Bull. Arch. CHsL, 1863, 1865, 1867, especially 1870, pt. iv.

1 The complete atrium or quadroporticus now very rarely exists; tt.e churches of S. Prassede and S. Cecilia in Trastevere still have it in a modernized form, and so has the church of the Quattro Santi Ineoronati, which also possesses the triforium galleries, like those of S. Agnese fuori.
2 The custom (adopted some centuries iater) of the celebrant standing between the altar and the people necessitated a reversal of orientation, and the high altar was then placed at the east end.
"Right" and "left" are here used of one. facing the high altar.
An analogous arrangement of the choir exists in most of the Spanish ca'hedrals, in which it occupies a great part of the nave.
S. Lorenzo and S. Agnese fuori, S. Maria in Trastevere, Ara Coeli, and numberless other churches are very rich in this respect.
G. G. Scott (Church Architecture, London, 1881) gives a valuable account of
the arrangements of early churches ; see also Hübsch, AJtchristliclien Kirchen,
Carlsruhe, 1862. The three apses are common in Eastern churches.
7 For the early church of SS. Cosmo e Damiano, see above, fig. 19.
s This list does not include the great basilicas of Rome, for which see BASILICA, vol. iii. p. 412.
Some of these marble thrones which still exist are very interesting relics of Hellenic art, much resembling the existing seats in the theatre of Dionysius at Athens, whence probably some of those in Rome were brought in classical times. Examples of these Greek thrones exist at S. Pietro in Vincoli, S. Stefano Eotondo, and in the Lateran cloister.
10 See Nesbitt, "Churches in Rome earlier than 1150," in Archceologia, vol. xh, ISOti.

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