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The Architecture of the Early Christian Church

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  • 0:01 Churches of Early Christianity
  • 1:24 House Church Plan
  • 4:25 Basilica Architecture
  • 7:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will examine the architecture of two styles of early Christian churches: the house church and the basilica. We will pay special attention to how Christians adapted traditional styles to their own purposes.

Churches of Early Christianity

Welcome to the world of the early Christians! You're in for a rare treat today because you will have the opportunity to tour two styles of early Christian churches: the house church and the basilica. What? You've never heard of either of these. Well, then, we'll begin with a little background information.

During its first two centuries, Christianity was not a legal religion in the Roman-ruled world. The Romans considered Christians to be atheists because they refused to worship the Roman gods or emperor. Persecution of Christians was sporadic and not always widespread, but it was still deadly as various Roman officials considered Christians to be a nuisance at best and sometimes even a danger to the empire. Therefore, Christians had to worship in secret, so they met in house churches, which were private homes modified to accommodate the celebration of Christian sacraments, like the Eucharist and Baptism.

Things changed for the Christian community in 313 CE when the emperor Constantine legalized Christianity and gave it a protected status. Christians began building churches, adopting and adapting Roman basilicas, which were public buildings often used for judicial purposes.

The Plan of a House Church

The ruins of an ancient house church
Ruins of a house church

Now that you know the basics, get ready to begin your first tour. We'll be exploring an early Christian house church that was located in city of Dura Europos in modern day Syria, which was part of the Roman Empire in the first centuries CE. This house church was used in the early to mid 200s CE, and it is a good representative of house churches found throughout the empire. Most of these were donated by wealthy Christians or purchased by the community and then adapted for Christian worship. By using house churches, Christians could blend in with their surroundings and minimize the risk of raids by Roman authorities.

floor plan of a house church

Now let's travel back in time and begin our tour. We'll enter the house church at its northeast corner. You'll notice some benches outside where Christians sometimes sit as they wait for worship to begin. If you move straight ahead as you enter the house church, you'll step into an open courtyard, which is a usual feature in Roman homes and is useful for letting air and light into other parts of the house. Now, please turn to your right and then go through the last door on the right-hand side of the courtyard. This is the baptistry, where new Christians are baptized, or sacramentally immersed in water, as part of their initiation into Christianity. Notice the baptismal font that contains blessed water used for baptisms.

We'll leave the baptistry now, move back into the courtyard, and enter a large room on the west side of the house. Here's where catechumens, people who wish to become Christians, take instruction in Christian doctrine and practice. Now please cross over into the even-larger room at the back of the house. Here is the meeting hall where Christians celebrate the Eucharist. You'll see that it is a long room that is mostly empty. Worshipers usually stand or sit on the floor. At the east end of the room, there is an altar where the bishop or priest presides over the rites of worship. Christians look to the east when they worship because that direction symbolizes the new light of Christ, which has entered into the world, as well as the second coming of Christ in glory. This large room holds about 100 to 150 people. In some houses, the bishop's chair also holds a prominent place either close to the altar or in the center of the room.

picture of ancient Christian fresco

Before we leave, please take a close look at the paintings on the walls. These frescoes, watercolor paintings done on plaster, depict scenes from the life of Jesus, like his miracles and the Last Supper, and from the Old Testament. Christians like to be surrounded by art that helps them express and deepen their faith.

The Architecture of a Basilica

Get ready because we're going to spring about a century ahead. Christianity became legal in 313 CE, and Christians, who could now worship openly, soon began building actual churches. They borrowed the form of the Roman basilica, a public building often used for judicial proceedings, but they adapted it for their own purposes.

St Peter Basilica, Rome
Floorplan of St Peter Basilica

We're now here in 350 CE, standing in the old St. Peter Basilica in Rome, which was finished just a few years ago. We're standing on the steps just outside the basilica's entrance, and we're about to move east into the brick basilica. Just like in the house church, the points of the compass are very important. Altars in basilicas are also on the east end of the building.

As we enter the basilica, we step through the propylaeum, or entrance building to the basilica complex, and into the atrium, which is the courtyard. It's surrounded on all sides by covered walkways called porticoes. Please walk straight ahead through the atrium and into the narthex, which is a small porch or entrance area that separates the atrium from the main building. Catechumens often gather here for instruction.

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