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NOT many years ago Greek art seemed to be marked off from Roman, and Roman from Early Christian by wide intervals. The art of Greece was typified by the buildings of the Athenian Acropolis, Roman art by those of the imperial Forum and the Palatine, and Christian art by the catacombs. Unceasing exploration and fruitful discoveries have since brought to light so many works of the transitional periods that art history has become rather the account of a continuous process than of clearly defined epochs and schools.

The art of Rome itself under the new light appears rather as one of the many later Hellenistic schools, than as purely indigenous. Part of the transition from Classical Greek may be traced in the art centers of Asia Minor, and part, again, in the non-Roman city of Pompeii. As to the latter, it is held that the sequences of style which have been distinguished in its wall-paintings were probably fashions imported from Alexandria. The covering of internal walls with thin slabs of rare colored-marbles and porphyries, and the incrustation of vaults with mosaics of gilt and colored glass, had the same origin.

This process of change in classical art carries us to some point in the early centuries of Christianity, and many groups of facts show that it was long continued. Not only did Egypt and the East export their porphyry, ivory, glass, bronze, and textiles, but craftsmen were drawn to the Roman capital from every Hellenistic city.

The works used or made by the Early Christians could at first have been differentiated in no obvious way from the current classical works of the time. When anything emerges which we can entitle Christian Art, the change is, for the most part, manifest in a new spirit dealing with old forms. The art was necessarily shaped externally by the modes and codes of expression of the time. In many cases new ideas were expressed under old forms; thus the winged angel derives from the antique Victory; the nimbus is classical as well as Christian; the story of Orpheus is interpreted as a type of Christ; and Amor and Psyche are adopted as symbols of the Divine Love and the soul.

Capella Graeca of the Catacomb of Priscilla

In so far as there was novelty it is clear that, as Christianity itself was from the East, so the changed forms must themselves have held in them much that was oriental. Early Christian art is Roman art in the widest sense, purified, orientalised, and informed with a new and epical content which held as seed the possibilities of the mighty cycle of Byzantine and Medieval art.

It is still in Rome and in the catacombs that the best connected series of works of the first three or four centuries of this early art is found. The great roads of approach to Rome were lined by countless tombs of every degree of magnificence: rotundas, pyramids, cellae, and sarcophagi. Amongst them stood vestibules to underground tomb-chambers where large numbers were buried in common. Along their walls, tier upon tier, urns of ashes were packed like vases in a museum. The Jews and other oriental peoples followed the custom of burying the unburnt body in subterranean galleries, and appropriate sites for these also were obtained round about Rome. The Christians, following the same usage, at first shared such catacombs, and in other cases formed groups of their own. The catacombs were primarily not places of hiding, however much they may have been so used. Frequently there was a space above ground planted as a garden, and made use of as a cemetery. In some were small burial chapels from which access was obtained to the catacombs beneath. The ruins of two or three such chapels have been discovered and described. They agree in having had a central apse and two lateral apses grouped together at one end.

Fractio Panis

There were also subterranean chapels, the most famous of which is the Capella Graeca of the Catacomb of Priscilla. It has, roughly, the form of a small nave or body, 8 by 25 ft., ended by an apse with lateral apses on each side of it. It opens from a long vaulted apartment or atrium. The walls are decorated with paintings of the usual subjects—Daniel, and Lazarus, Moses, Susannah, and the Adoration of the Magi. On the vault over the nave are four heads representing the seasons. Above the central apse is represented the Eucharistic repast. This recently-discovered Fractio Panis is not only one of the most interesting, it is also one of the most beautiful of the catacomb paintings, as may be seen in the large photogravure published by Wilpert. The forms and features of the seven participants are classic and gracious. It is painted in a masterly way in a few simple colors on a vermilion ground. The inscriptions on the walls are in Greek, hence the name of the chapel. In the apse was an altar-tomb. It belongs to the second century.

Another catacomb church is probably of the third century, and a third, the largest, in the catacomb of St Hermes is probably of the fourth. The catacombs themselves are complexes of subterranean passages and galleries excavated for the disposal of the dead, who rested one above another along the sides. The chambers, more or less square, were roughly vaulted above, and the vaults and walls were for the most part decorated with painting, and occasionally with stucco reliefs. This ornamentation was a branch of the ordinary house and tomb decorator's work of the time, and the painted subjects were clearly executed with the swift mastery which came of long practice in repeating a limited stock of ideas. The vaulted ceilings were usually decorated by some geometrical arrangement of panels, radiating from the centre and bounded by a large circle. In these panels were little figures, groups, birds, and foliage. The colors were reds, greens, and ochres, and a little blue, the whole mellow yet bright.


The Good Shepherd, Ceiling Fresco of the Coemeterium Maius, near the Catacomb of Priscilla


The subjects of these paintings have been most thoroughly illustrated, and their chronology analyzed, in Wilpert’s large work. Under the first century he groups several schemes of vault decoration in which the motives consist of the geometrical division of the field, and of little putti and foliage. One vault is entirely covered with a branching vine. On others of the same century are landscapes and burial feasts, while the cycle of Biblical subjects begins with Daniel standing between two lions, and the Good Shepherd. To the second century he assigns vaults on which appear the Three Children in the furnace, Moses striking the rock, the Eucharist, Noah and the Ark, scenes from the story of Jonah, and subjects from the life and miracles of Christ; the raising of Lazarus, the cure of the paralytic, the cure of the woman, and the meeting with the Samaritan. The most noticeable and beautiful is in the cemetery of Priscilla, and represents the seated Virgin and Child, with a prophet standing by, and a star or the sun above. This is a small group at the side of a central composition of the Good Shepherd, from which it is divided by a flowering tree. This central subject and the trees on either hand of it were roughly modeled in the plaster before coloring. The modeling of the tree is but a few swift marks of the tool defining the trunk, and the leaves and flowers are painted.

The Virgin and Child are beautifully drawn with some remaining tradition of classical feeling. The figures are only about a foot high, and unhappily the lower part is much injured. The whole is very like a sketch by Watts. Belonging to this century are two or three versions of the Baptism. Another subject is the mocking of Christ; others are symbolical, a ship in a storm, Orpheus charming the beasts, and orantes who represent souls rather than persons. One beautiful vault is decorated by a series of bands, on the lowest of which, on the four sides, are four typical occupations of the seasons—picking flowers, cutting corn, the vintage, and gathering olives—while the upper bands are ornamented successively with pattern-work of roses, corn, vine, and olive.

Amongst the third century paintings may be noticed Christ enthroned, the Virgin and the Magi, and Amor and Psyche gathering flowers. In the fourth century Christ is represented enthroned amidst the twelve apostles, as in the apses of the early basilicas. In the fifth century the treatment of the figures becomes more rigid and hieratic, while their costumes are much bejeweled, in a manner distinctly Byzantine. There is little in the catacomb paintings which has peculiar application to the grave. The raising of Lazarus or Daniel between the lions belong to a series of ‘deliverance’ subjects which were in general use in all forms of Early Christian art; when we come to the fourth and fifth centuries the decoration resembles that which we are accustomed to in the churches of those centuries, and the decoration of the earlier catacombs would have been equally according to the general custom of the time when they were built. That is, the pre-Constantinian churches and earlier domestic oratories must have been painted in like fashion with the catacombs. The ideas underlying the choice of subjects are of resurrection and salvation, thoughts which are further expressed in the simple epitaphs, which speak of hope, peace, and eternal welfare. Some of the subjects chosen have, indeed, been compared with the ancient prayers for the dying, “Deliver, 0 Lord, Thy servant as Thou didst deliver Enoch and Elias from the common death, as Thou didst deliver Noah from the Deluge, Job from his torments, Isaac from the Sacrifice, Moses from the hand of Pharaoh, Daniel from the lions, the three young men from the furnace, and Susannah from false accusation ... So deign to deliver the soul of Thy servant”.

The orantes, who were figured with extended arms amidst such scenes, are types of supplication. They are generally feminine, and are symbols of the soul in prayer. Thus understood they go far to explain the scope and meaning of the art of the catacombs.

There is little sculpture in the round extant from our period, but it is almost surprising that there is any. The examples are three or four figures of the Good Shepherd bearing the lamb on His shoulder. The most perfect of these, in the Lateran Museum, is a sweet pastoral figure. They have been compared with statues of Hermes bearing the ram. The composition is clearly derived, but the sentiment is very different. As usual, the Christians were using old symbols in a new spirit.

The early sarcophagi furnish us with a series of relief sculptures parallel in extent and interest to the paintings of the catacombs. Some are so little differentiated from late classical art that it is hardly possible to say whether they are indeed Christian. Others have quite a collection of the usual triumph subjects which appear in the catacombs as paintings. The most noteworthy of all of them is a fragment, now in the Berlin Museum, which was lately brought from Constantinople. On it appear Christ and two apostles, standing in niches, separated by columns. Christ is unbearded and the head has a cruciform nimbus. The figures, which are about four feet high, are draped in a dignified style like classical statues of philosophers. This remarkable work has the closest relation of style with the series of late antique sarcophagi, one of which is in the Mausoleum Room of the British Museum, another in the Cook Collection at Richmond. The Berlin relief probably belongs to the third century, and had its origin at Constantinople or in Asia Minor.

Another famous sarcophagus is that of Junius Bassus, praefect of Rome, who died in 359. It has several scenes sculptured on it, amongst which are, Christ enthroned, the Entry into Jerusalem, Christ brought before Pilate, and Pilate washing his hands; also Adam and Eve, Daniel, etc. The sculptures are in panels divided by columns, some of which are covered with scrolls of foliage among which climb amorini. This ornamentation is noteworthy, as the columns thus decorated resemble the celebrated sculptured columns at St Peter's which are usually thought to be antique. These columns formed a screen in front of the altar of Constantine's basilica; they were saved, and re-used in the new church. The motive of Cupids climbing amidst vines is also found on the mosaics of Santa Costanza (c. 360) and on many tombs.

Two more most famous sarcophagi must be spoken of—those of the Empress Helena and of Santa Costanza. Both are of royal porphyry with sculptures in high relief, and they are now in the Vatican. That of the Empress is sculptured with a military triumph, that of Costanza with amorini and the vintage, peacocks, and lambs. With the latter Strzygowski has lately compared fragments of other porphyry sarcophagi at Constantinople and Alexandria, and has shown that they must all have come from Egypt, the land of the porphyry-quarries and the place of origin of other porphyry sculptures such as the well-known group at the south-west corner of St Mark's, Venice.

A class of objects which dates from the time of the catacombs, if not from the apostolic age, is that of engraved gems. Of these the British Museum has a good representative collection. "The use of rings as signets or ornaments was as widely spread among the early Christians as among their Pagan contemporaries. St James speaks of the man who wears a gold ring and goodly apparel, and the Fathers of the Church were obliged to reprimand the community for extravagance in this respect." The devices engraved on these gems are for the most part of a simple symbolic character as befits the small field which they occupy.

Adam and Eve

In the British Museum collection we have anchors and fish, doves and trees, sheep, branches of olive and palm, shepherds' crooks, ships, sacred monograms, the word IXθYC, and the inscription Vivas in Deo. Of more pictorial subjects we have the Good Shepherd bearing the sheep, Adam and Eve, Daniel, Jonah, and the Crucifixion. Two are especially important. One of them contains quite a collection of the favorite subjects brought together on its narrow space. The Good Shepherd with the sheep, Daniel and the lions, the dove with the olive branch, and the story of Jonah, as well as two trees, fish, a star, and a monogram. The other is probably the earliest representation of the Crucifixion known, and must date from the third century at latest. On either side of the Crucified Christ are six much smaller figures, the apostles, and above is the word IXθYC. M. Brehier in Les Origines du Crucifix (1904) suggests that the representation was of Syrian origin and arose in opposition to merely symbolical interpretations. At South Kensington there are several Early Christian, Gnostic, and Byzantine rings, some of which are of importance. One is a ship with the XP monogram on its sail, another has two saints embracing, probably the Visitation. Another has a symbolic composition engraved on silver which has been figured by Garrucci and others. Later writers copy it from Garrucci and seem not to know of its being preserved now at South Kensington. From a pillar resting on a pyramid of steps spring branches of foliage above which, in a circle, is a Lamb with the XP monogram. Below the branches stand two sheep, and two doves fly toward the tree. It is inscribed IANVARI VIVAS.


The elementary symbols which are found on the engraved rings and all the other objects of art are so direct and simple, as has been said, that they are still perfectly obvious and modern. We have the anchor, cross, crook, ship, light-house, fish, and star; the dove, lamb, drinking harts, palms and olive branches, trees, baskets of fruit, lamps and candles, chalice, amphora, bowl of milk; the vintage, harvest, sowing, and fishing ; the shepherd, the orantes, Eros and Psyche; the Heavenly Sanctuary, the Celestial Banquet, and Garden of Paradise. Out of this alphabet ideas were built up by combination. Thus we have a ship with a cross-mast, and the sacred monogram on its sails; another ship on a stormy sea approaching a light-house; still another ship made fast to land, bearing vessels of wine and with a dove holding a branch of olive perched on the rigging. Or we have a Lamb lying at the foot of the Cross, or another caressing an axe. There are combined anchors and crosses, flowering crosses, crosses with birds perched on their arms, and crosses rising from a mound from which flow four rivers.

Larger objects in metal work must be mentioned, if only that attention may be drawn to the celebrated Casket of Projecta and the excellent collection of bronze candlesticks and hanging lamps at the British Museum. The silver toilet casket is entirely Pagan in style. On the top are the portraits of a husband and bride in a wreath supported by Cupids. On the front is embossed the Toilet of Venus and a lady seated between handmaids who bring to her articles of the toilet. At the ends are nereids; and the smaller spaces are filled by peacocks, doves, and baskets of fruit. The most interesting subject is that on the back, where the bride is being led to her new home, a house of two stories covered above by several domes. The inscription, which is in letters pricked on the plain border, is the only Christian thing about the work, and it is possible, as in the case of some of the sarcophagi with Pagan subjects, that it was shop work, and that the inscription was added for the purchaser. There are many indications that it was made in Alexandria.


We have in our English museums a remarkably fine collection of Early Christian Ivories. At South Kensington there is a leaf of a famous diptych, inscribed Symmachorum, the companion of which in Paris is inscribed Nicomachorum; it is not itself Christian, but it can be associated with other works which are, and it can be accurately dated as of the end of the fourth century. It is of extraordinary beauty both of design and workmanship, and is the most perfect existing example of marriage diptychs. It was made on the occasion of the marriage of Nicomachus Flavianus with the daughter of Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, consul in AD 391, or another marriage between the same families in 401.

Now there is an ivory in the Trivulzio Collection at Milan, sculptured with a representation of the Holy Sepulcher and watching soldiers, on which some of the details are identical with the one just spoken of— and a third diptych of the same class, having exactly similar details, and inscribed with the name of Rufinus Probianus is now at Berlin. They are all so much alike in style that it would seem that they must come from one shop and may even be the work of the same hand.

At the British Museum there are some pieces which formed the sides of a casket which are sculptured with scenes from the Passion. Some of the subjects have so much in common with the other ivories just discussed that they may be assigned to the same school. On these panels are represented Pilate washing his hands, St Peter's Denial, Christ bearing the Cross, the Crucifixion, Judas hanged, the Women at the Sepulcher, the incredulity of St Thomas. Pilate washing his hands is a fine classical composition which may be compared with the same subject on the Brescia coffer, which also has the Denial of St Peter, and the Death of Judas. This coffer is acknowledged to be early fourth century work, which is further confirmed by the fact that on the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus the subject of Pilate washing his hands is treated in a similar manner. The Brescia coffer has often been called the most beautiful of Christian Ivories. It has been pointed out that the cycle of subjects from the Passion represented upon it stops before the Crucifixion, and it has been held that this omission was a matter o principle, but the London series, and other still earlier treatments of the Crucifixion which are now known, contradict this view. The Holy Sepulcher as it appears on the British Museum fragments is identical with that on the Trivulzio tablet before mentioned, and the curious costume of the watching soldiers is alike in both. In both the doors of the tomb are burst open, and in both, on the panels of the doors, is carved the raising of Lazarus.

These British Museum panels have been assigned by the Museum authorities to the fifth century, but there can be little doubt that they should be classed with the other fourth century works they so closely resemble. They are distinctly earlier in style than the carved doors of Santa Sabina in Rome which are usually dated about 425.

The Brescia coffer


There are other points which go to show that these Ivories were wrought in Rome, although possibly by a school of Eastern ivory-carvers. A domed building practically identical with the upper part of the Holy Sepulcher on the British Museum Ivory is found on a fourth century Roman sarcophagus now in the Lateran. While the Trivulzio tablet has the symbols of the four evangelists appearing in the sky, which are remarkably similar to the same symbols in the apse mosaic of Santa Pudentiana, wrought about 390, these symbols hardly appear in Byzantine work, but they do in Egyptian wall-paintings. Another casket at the Museum which is carved with the stories of St Peter and St Paul has much in common with the one last described. Moses striking the Rock seems at first an intrusion amongst these subjects, but it was in fact a favorite Early Christian type of the Gospel, and is frequently found in the catacombs; Christ is the Rock, St Peter is the Moses of the New Law, and the water is that of Baptism. In some cases, indeed, the name of Peter is written over what appears to be the figure of Moses. This treatment occurs again engraved on the glass vessel from Cologne in the Museum. At South Kensington are sides of a casket sculptured with scenes from the Life of Christ, and known as the Werdan casket. The subjects comprise the Annunciation, the Angel appearing to Joseph, the Visitation, the Presentation of the Virgin, the three Shepherds, the Nativity, the Magi, men going out of Jerusalem toward the Jordan, the axe laid to the root of the tree, the Baptism. The Annunciation is represented after a form which appears in the Apocryphal Gospel of St Matthew, according to which the Virgin was drawing water at a fountain when the angel appeared. The Ox and Ass of the Nativity come from the same source, as also does the Presentation in the Temple. On this casket Christ at the Baptism is represented as small and youthful as compared to the Baptist. Mr Cecil Torr has founded on this the conjecture that an account different from that in the Gospels was followed, but it may be suggested that it came about through some stylistic formula like that of the old Egyptian monuments, whereby some persons might be bigger than others. It is true that we should expect the Christ to be the dominating figure, but may it not in this instance be the Baptist's office which is magnified?

A famous ivory book-cover at Milan has subjects which resemble those of the Werdan casket so closely that they must have come from the same shop. Except for slight changes called for by the different spaces to be filled, the Nativity, the Wise Men, the Shepherds, and the Annunciation, the Presentation of the Virgin, and the baptism, are all practically identical. There is also at the Bodleian an Ivory of the same school which contains a Baptism.

The Early Christian ‘Gilt Glasses’ (Fondi d'oro) were shallow glass bowls and other vessels decorated with figures, inscriptions, etc., in gold leaf, the detail drawing being made out by removing parts of the gold, and the whole fixed by a film of glass fused over the surface. The subjects show that vessels so ornamented were used alike by Pagans, Jews, and Christians. They have been more particularly associated with the latter, as a large number of the decorated medallions which formed the bottoms of the glasses have been found in the catacombs, where they were stuck in the plaster, probably as one means of the identification of the loculus. In the fine collection at the British Museum is a medallion with a figure of the gladiator Stratonicus which, together with some others, is evidently of pagan origin, and one with the seven-branched candlestick and other ritual objects of the Temple is Jewish.

In the main the Gilt Glasses belong to the third and fourth centuries of our era. They were most popular from c. 300 to c. 350 and few were made after 400. The method of decoration seems to have originated in the glass-works of Egypt. Many of them are inscribed ΠIE-ZHCAIC which on others is found in the corrupt form PIE-ZESES. This suggests a Greek origin, and there is in the British Museum Christian Collection a fragment of a glass bowl found at Behnesa in Egypt in 1903 which bears part of the earlier form in large engraved letters. In the Slade Collection, in the Glass Room, there are two most beautiful basins with exquisitely refined classical decoration in gold. These it is said were "probably made in Alexandria in the first century, and the method of ornamentation by designs in gold foil enclosed between two thicknesses of glass is similar to that employed in the case of Early Christian Gilded Glasses." Probably the Christian, Jewish, and pagan vessels were sold together in the same shops. Amongst those at the British Museum, for instance, there is one with profile heads of St Peter and St Paul, and Christ between, crowning them. Another has a man and wife with a small figure of Christ offering them garlands, and the inscription “Long life to thee, sweet one”. Similar pagan compositions show a Cupid or a Hercules between the husband and bride. The Jewish glass with the golden candlestick also has the popular inscription ‘Long Life’. The vessels were evidently made use of largely as memorial, anniversary, or wedding gifts, and some were specially made with personal inscriptions. Volpel, in his thorough study of these objects, has shown that where the names of two saints occur on one piece, the names also come together in the Calendar, as St Agnes and St Vincent of Zaragoza (21 and 22 January). This goes to confirm the view that they were prepared for special festivals.

In the British Museum there are also fragments of a larger glass dish, or paten, decorated with small medallions of such gilded glass which were made apart and fused into it. Glass patens were used in the Office of the Mass during the fourth century. At South Kensington Museum one little medallion, of Christ with the wand of power, is a replica of one of those on the British Museum paten. With the latter may be mentioned two beautiful plain blue glass chalices in the Slade Collection. The Biblical subjects which appear on the Gilt Glasses resemble for the most part those popular in the catacombs: Adam and Eve, Jonah and the Whale, Daniel, and so on. Some of the fragments at the British Museum may be restored by a comparison with other objects. One interesting piece which shows two columns with a lattice between the lower part, and a lamp hanging above, compared with a figure in Perate’s Manual is seen to have been, when complete, a deceased person in the attitude of prayer before the heavenly sanctuary. The inscription, IN DEO, confirms this view. No. 615, which shows the golden candlestick in the lower half, the upper being lost, must have had the Ark and the Cherubim in the upper part like another figured by Garrucci. None of these Gilt Glasses are known to have ever been found in Britain, but fragments of engraved glass, almost certainly Christian, were found at Silchester. The fashion for engraved glasses seems to have followed that for those decorated in gold. Cologne was an important centre for the production of this glass. The paten above mentioned, and another ornate Gilt Glass, were found there. So also was the cup with engraved subjects, no. 625, in our national museum; and others like it are preserved at Cologne.

Lamps. Linens 

The Antioch silver-gilt Chalice--Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City--apparently made at Antioch in the early 6th century and is of double-cup construction, with an outer shell of cast-metal open work enclosing a plain silver inner cup.


The small terracotta lamps decorated with a cross, monogram, dove, vine, or other symbol, can here be only mentioned. But a small shallow bowl of glazed ware in the British Museum must be referred to as one of the most important of Early Christian works of art. On it appears Christ having a cruciform nimbus, and the face bearded, the earliest example of the kind, which may be compared with heads of the more youthful type on some of the Gilt Glasses in the same gallery. On the bowl there are heads also of Constantine and Fausta on either hand of the chief figure; they are named in an inscription around the rim and show that it must have been made before the death of Fausta in 326. Following the analogy of the Gilt Glasses where a figure of Christ is placed between the portraits of a husband and wife, may we not suppose that this vessel was made for Constantine himself? Recently Wilpert has argued against its authenticity, but Strzygowski, who formerly doubted, is now entirely convinced. It is generally agreed that it was of Egyptian origin. Most of the objects preserved in our museums show how freely the Early Christians of the time following the Peace of the Church made use of various materials in ornamental art. A bishop, indeed, complained that the weavers rivalled painters in representing animals, flowers, and figures on their stuffs. Of late years great stores of early textiles have been found wonderfully preserved under the sands of Egypt, and a fine collection has been brought together at South Kensington. Some of the earliest figured linens seem to have been printed. Two of these, at the Museum, are of the Annunciation, and another shows some scenes from the miracles of Christ, and also Moses receiving the Law. These stained linen clothes were sometimes figured with pagan subjects. On the staircase of the Egyptian section at the Louvre there has recently been exhibited an important piece on which is depicted the story of Dionysos. In this classical piece we have the same characteristics of style : big eyes, flowing draperies, inscriptions associated with the figures and even the large nimbuses.


We must now turn from these smaller objects to the beginnings of Christian architecture. The first meeting-places of Christians were the private houses where they came together for the breaking of bread. In the Recognitions of Clement (second century) it is told that while St Peter was at Antioch, Theophilus, a leading citizen, turned his house into a basilica, that is, a place of assembly. Some of the early acts of the martyrs tell how they left their houses to the Church, and so it came about that certain churches were associated with the names of their founders, as the churches of Clement, Pudens, and Cecilia in Rome.

Basilica was a word in very general use, very much like our word Hall, and there is no direct relation between the basilicas of justice and Christian churches. More true it is that the greater private houses had triclinia and halls which were themselves called basilicas, and it is probable that these were actually used for assemblies of Christians. It is possible, further, that there may be some sympathetic relation between the developed church plan and the basilica of justice, for the scene of the Heavenly Temple in the Apocalypse appears to be cast into the form of such a basilica.

Palace Basilica of Trier made by Constantine, early 4th century A.D.


The origins of church fabrics have been worked out in great detail in regard to the possible prototypes found in private dwellings, but so far as architectural arrangement goes it is looking for elaborate explanation where but little is required. The ‘basilican’ type was the appropriate and popular plan for any place of meeting. It is found in temples as those of Apollo at Gortyna, which had an apse and internal pillars. In the isle of Samothrace was the temple of the Cabiri; this was of rectangular plan, it had a portico with an atrium, the interior was divided into three aisles and at the end was a semicircular niche. In Rome itself the temples of Venus and Rome are of the same form except that there is no subdivision of their interiors, and they were surrounded entirely by the enclosure instead of having an atrium. The temple at Jerusalem and many Hellenistic temples were in the same way isolated in a court surrounded by a colonnade. Several of the Christian churches built after the Peace of the Church were also surrounded by similar colonnaded courts entered through an outer portico. Orientation certainly derives from temple arrangement, and many of the earliest churches were built with their entrances facing the East, as was Herod's temple. Again, the foundations of several synagogues which have been discovered show a division of the interior into three or five aisles with three entrance doors in the façade. A description of the synagogue at Alexandria calls it a basilica, and speaks of its colonnades; it probably had an apse as well.

The earliest special places of assembly were the holy sites and the burial chapels of the martyrs. The subterranean chapels in the catacombs, already mentioned, belong to this class. Probably the first specifically Christian buildings were Martyriatomb chambers, usually round, which were practically memorial churches. During the course of the third century a large number of churches were built in Syria, Asia Minor, Armenia, and North Africa. An ancient church at Edessa is said on good authority to have existed before 201; but Edessa was then a Christian city. A document of 303 mentions "the house where the Christians assemble", together with its library and triclinium, at Cirta in North Africa. And another document of 305 says that, as the "basilicas" had not been repaired, the bishops met in a private house. An episcopal election, however, was held in area martyrum in casa majore.

An inscription from the tomb of Bishop Eugenius of Laodicea Combusta has lately been published. He held the see immediately after the cessation of Diocletian's persecution and speaks of rebuilding the whole of his church from its foundations, together with the colonnaded court which surrounded it. Eusebius speaks of such rebuilding as general, but says that the new churches were larger and more splendid than those that had been destroyed. Of the churches built after the imperial adoption of Christianity only a few of the most famous can be mentioned here. In and near Jerusalem three churches were built in association with the sacred sites of the Holy Sepulcher, the Nativity, and the Ascension. All three are mentioned in 333 as basilicas by a pilgrim from Bordeaux. At the Holy Sepulcher there was a memorial above the tomb called the Anastasis; and a basilica called the Great Church, or Martyrium, both included in a precinct called New Jerusalem. According to Eusebius Constantine first adorned the sacred cave, the chief point of the whole, with choice columns and other works. The Great Church rose high within a large court surrounded by porticoes. It was lined within with marble, the ceiling was carved and gilt woodwork, the roof was covered with lead. The body of the church was divided by rows of columns into five aisles. It was entered from the east by three doors; and opposite to these, continues Eusebius, was the Hemisphere, the crown of the whole work, containing twelve columns bearing bowls of silver (probably lamps). This ‘Hemisphere’ would seem to be the dome-building over the tomb, which first was spoken of as the chief point of the whole. That the anastasis and basilica were separate buildings is made clear by the account of Etheria (formerly known as St Sylvia) who, about 380, described the sacred sites. The churches at Bethlehem and the Mount of Olives were, says Eusebius, built over two sacred caves, one church at the scene of the Savior’s birth, the second on the mountain top in memory of His ascension; these two beautiful edifices were dedicated at the two holy caves.

At Bethlehem a noble basilican church still exists which many hold to be the original edifice, although there is some conflicting evidence that it was either rebuilt or repaired by Justinian. It is 180 feet long, by 85 feet wide. The head of the church over the grotto of the Nativity is cruciform, and the nave is divided into five aisles. The columns are marble with Corinthian capitals having crosses upon their abaci. The walls above are carried by level beams instead of arches. To the west was an extensive atrium. A point in favor of the antiquity of this great church is that the historian Socrates says that the church at the grotto of the Nativity was not inferior to that of the New Jerusalem.

Constantine's church on the Mount of Olives is generally understood to be the circular edifice which is known from later descriptions and which occupied the site of the present church. The pilgrim Etheria, however, says that the church was at Eleona, “on the Mount from which the Lord ascended, and in which church is that cave (spelunca) in which the Lord taught the apostles”. From thence pilgrims ascended with hymns to the Imbomon, the actual place from which the Lord ascended. Now Eusebius, although he speaks of the church as on the summit, says that in it was the cave where Christ taught His disciples the sacred mysteries.


St Eucharius, a later pilgrim, about 440, says that there were upon the Mount of Olives two celebrated churches, one where Christ taught, and the other on the site of the Ascension. The cave site is known to be below the summit, and remains of buildings have been found there. From this it seems that Constantine built a church at the cave, and probably a memorial on the summit. He also built large churches as martyr memorials at Constantinople, where that of the Apostles is described as high, covered with marble, and adorned with gilding, and situated in a court having porticoes all round and chambers opening from them. It was completed about 337. As rebuilt by Justinian it was a pronounced cross, and there seems to be no doubt that it had this form from the first. Gregory of Nazianzus speaks of the earlier building as "the splendid Church of the Apostles divided in the four parts of the arms of a cross." The account of Eusebius, that it was very high and was covered above with gilded brass which reflected the sun to a distance, suggests a dome or a tower at the crossing. That this church was cruciform in shape is confirmed by the fact that the church of the Apostles built by St Ambrose in 382 at Milan was also a cross. It has been rebuilt and is now St Nazario Grande, but it is still cruciform. An existing building which may represent the whole series is the little church of SS. Nazario and Celso, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia at Ravenna, which has four equal arms and a tower in the midst. At Antioch Constantine rebuilt the metropolitan church, which Eusebius describes as unique in size and beauty, and built in the form of an octagon. It was very high and decorated with a profusion of gold so that it came to be called the golden church. Around it was an enclosure of great extent. The great church of Tyre was also built within a large walled enclosure (peribolos), having a great fore-gate (propylon) toward the east. Within the atrium was a fountain, and the church was entered through three doors, the centre one of bronze. The pavement was marble, and it was roofed with cedar. The interior was divided into aisles by rows of columns (stoai), the altar-place (thusiasterion) was screened by lattice-work.

Other churches were erected at Nicomedia and at Mamre. The former is described as great and splendid. Such, says Eusebius, were the most noble of the sacred buildings erected by the Emperor. He only refers to those at the Holy Sites, at the Emperor's own city of Nicomedia, and in the city “which was called after his own name”. He does not mention even his own metropolitan church of Caesarea, nor does he mention the churches in Rome, much less those that arose by hundreds all over the Empire. One of these is that of Bishop Eugenius, referred to above, and further evidence as to them is frequently being brought to light. Wiegand has lately uncovered the foundations of an early church at Miletus which may be of Constantine’s time.

The Bishop of Rome built the great basilica of St Peter over the tomb of the apostle. The interior had five avenues between colonnades crossed at the end by a transept from which opened the apse raised high above the crypt which contained the apostle’s tomb. Screening the apse were twelve most beautiful columns of spiral form carved on the surface with amorini climbing amidst vines. In front of the entrances, which were at the east, was the fine atrium with a fountain in the centre. The outer gates and the facade, as well as the apse and the triumphal arch of the interior, were subsequently adorned with mosaics. The church of St Paul Outside the Walls was also of the Constantinian age; but the first church was not of the great scale of that one which still exists in a restored condition today. Its foundations were exposed in 1835. It was so small that the length of the church was almost exactly the same as the width of the present transept. It had its entrances towards the east and the atrium abutted on the Ostia road. When the great basilica was built later its orientation was reversed, but its altar, as is usually the case, yet stands over the site of the older one.

There are still three buildings in Rome whichdate from this early period; the Lateran Baptistery, the basilica of Santa Agnese, and the attached tomb-church of Santa Costanza. Santa Agnese is a most beautiful type of church having arcaded galleries within, around the two sides and the end opposite the apse. It is sunk into the ground to the level of the catacombs in which the saint was buried, and these are entered from a door in the sidewall, the descent into the church being by a long flight of steps. The church is nine bays long, and the columns are of marble. The apse is lined with marble and porphyry, and in the midst is the bishop's throne. Above, in the conch, is a fine mosaic, but not so ancient. Close by, but at the higher level of the natural ground, stands Santa Costanza, built about 354. It is circular, with an inner ring of columns which supported a dome. The diameter is about 76 feet, and the columns are only about 18 feet high. They are mostly of grey granite. The walls were sheeted with marble and the annular aisle has its vaults covered with mosaic, chiefly of pattern-work, but in some places there are vintage scenes with amorini gathering the grapes and making wine.


The most splendid feature of the early churches was the mosaic work which from the Constantinian age adorned their vaults and especially the conches of their apses. Such mosaics were generally formed of small cubes of glass variously colored and gilded. At the same time mosaics of marble of the more ordinary Roman kind were used for floors. The glass mosaics and even gilt tesserae had been employed under the Roman Empire. Glass is found so far West as Cirencester, where small parts of a floor are of that material. Gold mosaic has been found on the vaults of the Baths of Caracalla and of the Palatine Palace; also in North Africa. Quite recently a mosaic having gilt cubes has been found at Pompeii. It is next to certain that, like the vessels of gilded glass, this kind of mosaic came from the factories of Egypt. There is in the British Museum a small glass plaque, decorated with a flowering plant of several colors fused into its substance. This was found in London, while similar pieces, now at South Kensington, have lately been discovered at Behnesa in Egypt. The earliest existing Christian mosaics are those of the vaults of the round church of Santa Costanza in Rome. Besides the mosaics mentioned above there are two small, much injured, conches which display figure subjects. In one of them God the Father gives the ancient Law to Moses, and in the other St Peter receives the new Law from the hand of Christ. The whole of the central dome was once covered with mosaic, but of this only a slight drawing is now preserved.

The next mosaic in point of date, but more interesting and beautiful as a work of art, fills the apse of the basilica of Santa Pudentiana. This church, not far from the better known Santa Maria Maggiore, is deeply sunk in the ground, itself a mark of a primitive foundation. The apse mosaic forms part of a work undertaken about 390. On it Christ sits enthroned in the midst of a semicircle of apostles, while behind St Peter and St Paul stand two female figures robed in white and holding crowns; these are interpreted as the Churches of the Circumcision and of the Gentiles. Behind Christ on a mountain stands a vast jeweled cross, and on the sky are the four symbolic beasts. This noble work still retains much of classical grace, the fixity characteristic of Byzantine art is entirely absent. The color, also, is fair and extremely beautiful, gold being used to illuminate the high lights of the draperies and other parts, but not in broad fields as in the later mosaics.


The mosaic in the great apse of the Basilica of St. Pudentiana in Rome shows major Jerusalem landmarks ca. 400. Located at 160 Via Urbana in Rome , presumably built over the house of Roman senator Rufus Pudens (sometimes thought to be the Rufus of Romans 16:13 and Pudens of II Timothy 4:21).


Art in Britain

It is desirable to include here some account of Early Christian art in Britain. The discovery, about twelve years ago, of the perfect plan of a small early basilican church at Silchester makes more certain than anything else had done the existence of recognised Christian communities in British cities. The Silchester church occupied an important position near the civil basilica, but in itself was quite small. It had a nave about ten feet wide and aisles five feet; the length, including the apse, which was at the west end, was about thirty feet. The aisles had a small additional projection at the end next the apse, which made the whole plan cruciform. At the east end was a narthex, and in front of that a court with a fountain in the centre. The position of the altar in the apse was marked by a square of pattern-work in the mosaic floor. This pattern, of the chess-board type, is in quarters, what heralds call quarterly. A very accurate model of this important relic is now in the Reading Museum.

It is well known that the XP monogram appeared on a mosaic floor found about a century ago at Frampton, and figured by Lysons. The monogram occurred in the centre of a band of ornament which separated an apse from a square compartment. Lysons thought that the general style of the ornaments of the apse seemed “inferior to that of the square part”, and spoke of the monogram as “inserted”. The last writer on Christian antiquities in Britain, in Cabrol’s great Dictionary, says that the monogram must have been "inserted" at some time not earlier than the middle of the fourth century. Lysons tried to suggest, being interested in the Roman art point of view, that the pavement was pre-Constantinian, but he himself remarked that the pattern on a neighboring area occurred also on the vault mosaics of Santa Costanza at Rome, a work of the second half of the fourth century. This is, probably, the date of the whole of the Frampton mosaics, and a consideration of the sequence of the turns of the scroll ornament in the middle of which the monogram was found shows that the scroll-work and the symbol certainly formed part of one design. The only other subject figured on the floor of the apse, excepting patterns, was a single vase or chalice in the middle. At the Roman villa at Chedworth again the XP monogram has been found cut in the foundation stones of some steps. In the museum on the site there is also a small plain stone cross.

Mr Romilly Allen suggested that “two other Roman pavements found in this country may possibly be Christian”;—that at Harpole which has a circle in the middle divided into eight parts by radial lines so as to resemble one form of the monogram of Christ, and that at Horkstow which has “some small red crosses in the decoration”. The latter not only has the crosses, but at the centre is Orpheus playing the lyre, a subject frequently found in Early Christian art. The writer in Cabrol’s Dictionary has independently come to the conclusion that this mosaic is Christian. “It has passed unrecognized”, he says, “but we have no doubt of its Christian origin”. Now, if this mosaic with the catacomb subject of Orpheus and the beasts is Christian, is it not probable that the several other British mosaics which display the same subject are also works of Christian art? All these mosaics probably date from about 350, when the Church must have been a recognised institution in every city, and it is difficult to think that the subject, once Christianized, should have been employed in another sense. An Orpheus pavement was found at Littlecote Park, Ramsbury, at the centre of a triapsidal apartment resembling the Roman Christian burial chapels. Yet another pavement, at Stourton, had a quartered design practically identical with that of the altar space of the Silchester basilica. The subject of Orpheus is known to have occurred four times in the catacombs, but none of these appear to have been later than the third century, and it has indeed been suggested that the subject was taken over in profane art, especially in Gaul and Britain, but this is unproven, and in any case we get the Christian influence. Several British pavements are known in which ornamental cross-forms appear. It has been said that these cannot be Christian, as the cross symbol did not come into general use at so early a time. But the many instances which have now been found contradicting this view reopen the question. With those Roman objects having crosses which have been found in England may be mentioned the chain-bracelet with an attached cross. A comparison with fig. 1606 in Cabrol’s Dictionary makes it almost certain that it is Christian. Perhaps the most important Christian documents found in Britain are ingots of pewter found in the Thames at Battersea which are stamped several times over with the XP monogram surrounded by the words, Spes in Deo. These look like official marks.

When a full history of Early Christian art in Britain is written it will be seen that it shared in the great movement of the time, although of course it was second to Gaul and third to Italy.




St.Paul Outside the Walls Church



Santa Costanza Basilica

sarcophagus of Junius Bassus