Early Christian Architecture: Examples, History & Characteristics

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  • 0:01 The Early Church
  • 0:56 Basilicas, Not Temples
  • 2:11 Baptistries
  • 2:52 Interior vs. Exterior
  • 4:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Christianity managed to exist for hundreds of years before becoming the official religion of Rome. In this lesson, we'll take a look at the early architecture of the Christian church.

The Early Church

For an institution that has been around for 2,000 years, Christianity certainly got off to a rough start. Not only was it illegal but it was also forbidden for Christians to build any sort of worship space for much of its early history. And yet, the religion expanded so thoroughly throughout the Roman Empire that by 313, the Edict of Milan (which granted religious freedom throughout the Empire) was largely passed to satisfy a group of growing Christian population. Clearly, Christianity wasn't going anywhere and they were going to need places to worship. However, as this lesson demonstrates, the unique beliefs, practices, and aesthetics of Christianity would present equally unique problems for anyone who wasn't thoughtful in how to establish a place of worship for this growing group.

Basilica, Not Temples

First things first: you may be thinking that this is all overblown. After all, the Romans had tons of temples and those should all be easy to convert into churches, right? Actually, not at all. All those places were essentially places for ceremonies to be held and not for religious meetings like the early Christians liked to hold. In order to find a meeting place, which Christian belief necessitated, civic leaders would have to look elsewhere.

Luckily, many Roman settlements already had just the place; the basilica, a meeting place and courthouse rolled into one large building, was a central point of building most Roman towns. By its very nature as a courthouse and the meeting place, it had the ideal amount of space for large groups of people to come together in church meetings. This would prove to be even more true as the Roman empire became weaker and weaker. While the rule of law gave way to internal weakness and barbarian invasions, the church began to play an ever-larger role within the basilica walls. As such, much of the architecture of the Basilica would become common in standard church plans for several hundred years.


One place where the early Christians were willing to simply take leftover structures were baptisteries, the special buildings in which Christians were baptized. The sacrament of baptism was among the most important in early Christianity and as such, the place where the sacrament was carried out had to be equally unique. At first, baptisteries were built as part of the existing basilica. However, as the church became more and more wealthy, soon, baptisteries were built adjacent to the church. These buildings were full of opulent decorations, imparting on the individuals gathered that baptism was one of the most important acts that an individual could undergo as a member of the church.

Interior vs Exterior

One important aspect to note about early church buildings is that they were rather plain on the outside but extremely ornate on the inside. There are two major explanations for this: first of all, there was still a lot of animosity towards the church during its earliest days, so people were wise to avoid too much decoration.

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