Back To CourseArt 101: Art of the Western World
23 chapters | 278 lessons
As a member, you'll also get unlimited access to over 75,000 lessons in math, English, science, history, and more. Plus, get practice tests, quizzes, and personalized coaching to help you succeed.Try it risk-free
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Let's proceed through the narthex and enter the nave, which is the basilica's central gathering area. Worshipers assembled here to celebrate the Eucharist. The nave soars up to a timbered ceiling (in later years this will be covered with glorious art) and a row of windows called the clerestory that let in the light. Rows of columns and open arches called arcades set off the side aisles, two on each side. As we walk forward, we approach the basilica's transept, an area that stretches across the nave at a right angle, forming the shape of a cross. We'll cross the transept now and enter the apse, which is a semicircular area on the very east end of the basilica. Here we find the altar, the bishop's chair, which is called a cathedra, and seating for the priests. The tomb of St. Peter is here, too, right under the altar, and Christians often ask the saint to pray to God for them.
As we walk, look around at the decorations of the basilica. They might seem a little sparse right now because St. Peter's is so new. As the years pass, however, paintings and mosaics of Biblical scenes will ornament the space, adding color and great beauty and also teaching Christians about their faith. Please take note, too, that baptisms typically take place in a separate circular baptistry near the basilica.
Before you return to your own time, let's take a moment to review. For the first two centuries of Christianity, Christians often worshiped in house churches, which were private homes modified to accommodate the celebration of Christian sacraments. Christianity was illegal until 313 CE, and Christians had to worship in secret so they could blend into their surroundings and minimize the risk of raids by Roman authorities. We visited the house church at Dura Europos in Syria and looked through its various rooms including the courtyard, baptistry, room for instruction of catechumens (people who wish to become Christians), and meeting hall where Christians celebrated the Eucharist at the altar. We also saw the frescoes, paintings done on plaster, that covered the walls of the house church with scenes from Jesus' life and from the Old Testament.
Next, we toured the old St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. After Christianity became legal in 313 CE, Christians borrowed the form of the Roman basilica and adapted it for their own purposes. We saw all the main parts of a basilica, including the propylaeum, or entrance to the basilica complex, the atrium, or courtyard, the narthex, which is a small porch or entrance area that separates the atrium from the main building, the nave, which is the basilica's central gathering area, the side aisles, which are separated from the nave by arches and columns called arcades, the transept, an area that stretches across the nave at a right angle, forming the shape of a cross, and the apse, which is a semicircular area that contains the altar and the cathedra, or bishop's chair.
Have you enjoyed your tour of the early Christian churches? Excellent! Now hang on for your return trip back to the modern world.
You finished the lesson. Now, practice what you learned:
To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account
Already a member? Log InBack
Did you know… We have over 160 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.
To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page
Not sure what college you want to attend yet? Study.com has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.
Back To CourseArt 101: Art of the Western World
23 chapters | 278 lessons