Early Christian

Early Christian refers to iconography and buildings related to Christianity which evolve in the Roman Empire during the 3rd through 7th centuries. After gaining approval from the Roman Empire, Christians began constructing religious structures that were adapted to Roman prototypes.

Christianity became a religion around 33 CE after the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Christianity remained illegal in the Roman Empire for three centuries yet still gained a following. Congregations were usually poor and met in private houses. Early Christians buried their dead and did not believe in cremation. Constantine, a Roman emperor won a battle that he attributed to the Christian God in 313 CE. In thanks for his victory, he issued the Edict of Milan, which gave tolerance for all religions. Christian churches, memorial structures, and mausoleums soon sprang up in Rome, Constantinople, and other cities. Constantine was the patron for the construction of the first Basilica of S. Peter in Rome. He also promoted the faith and positioned himself as head of the church as well as the empire. In 330 CE, Constantine moved the capital to what is known today as Istanbul, Turkey. His death caused the split of the Roman Empire into the east and west. Emperor Honorious then moved the capital to Ravenna in 404 CE, in an effort to prevent it from being overtaken. In 476 CE, Odacer overtook both Ravenna and Rome, marking the fall of the Roman Empire. The Eastern portion prospered as the Byzantine Empire. The period marked the transition from the Pagan world to the Christian Middle Ages.

The main symbol used was the cross. Other symbols used were the dove, fish, and lamb. The Greek letters Chi and Rho were used to form the monogram of Christ. Other common images included Christ, Mary, the apostles, saints, and shepherds and sheep represented Christ.


New Early Christian buildings included churches, mausoleums and tombs, baptisteries, and memorial structures. Roman temples were not fit for Christian worship, because they were not intended for congregational gatherings. Builders adapted the Roman basilica to fit the needs of Christian rituals. Now, the aisles focused on the altar, and the apse is where the bishop or overseer sat. The apse houses the altar, and faces east because Christ was crucified in Jerusalem. The purpose of the Christian basilica was to glorify God. Eventually, a transept was added to provide more space for relics. This created the Latin cross plan. This became the most common plan for churches in the Roman Empire. Centrally planned churches were adapted from Roman baths and tombs.

Most churches used the Latin cross plan. The main entrance is usually at the end of a long, narrow section that is opposite of the altar and apse. It opens to a large forecourt that resembles the Roman atrium. The forecourt leads to a narthex that gives access to the sanctuary.

Walls were plain brick or stone. The center of the nave was raised to accommodate clerestory windows. Windows were arched or rectangular. Doors could be carved wood or bronze. Basilica roofs are gabled, and central plan buildings have domed roofs. The surfaces were covered with rust colored clay tiles. Floors were black and white, gray, or colored marble or mosaics. In churches, an entablature or arcade on columns separates the nave from side aisles. Sometimes Roman columns were reused. The apse is framed by a triumphal arch, which had seats for clergy and a throne for the bishop. Sometimes a screen was used to separate the apse from the altar. Marble panels, frescoes, and mosaics were used to cover nave arcade, triumphal arch, and apse. Ceilings could have exposed timber trusses or beams. Those in centralized structures were vaulted and covered with mosaics.


Early Christian mosaics used glass tesserae, which gave a very intense range of colors including gold, blue, red, purple, and green. Tesserae were set unevenly to enhance light reflection. Overlap and foreshortening were used to create depth.  

There is little surviving Early Christian furniture. Church furnishings were elaborately decorated with gilding, carving, and jewels. Stools were more common than chairs. Storage pieces in churches were decorated with Christian emblems. 



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