Early Christian Architecture – Romanesque Churches

We have so far left unconsidered the most interesting and the most important department of the art history of the early Middle Ages, viz. : its architecture. There are no remains of any buildings in Northern Europe, preceding the Roman period, unless the open-air temple inclosures of the older Celtic time, like Stonehenge on Salisbury plain in England, should be considered as buildings. We have seen what monuments of architecture were universal in certain European countries under the empire, and we have seen that two centuries of church building had passed away in direct development from the Roman classic art before the downfall of the Roman Empire in the west.

The changes in architectural style which are apparent after the triumph of Christianity in the empire were not less marked than those which affected the arts of design. It is true that we can hardly point to a surviving church in Northern Europe of earlier date than the eleventh century. Crypts (underground chapels) or small portions of churches built into later ones are occasionally met with. The chapel built by Charlemagne at Aix-la-Chapelle in Germany, now a portion of the later cathedral, and one or two oratories (small churches) in Ireland are among the rare exceptions. But certain surviving churches of Italy enable us to picture the general style and arrangements of buildings which have disappeared.

Aside from the Church of the Manger at Bethlehem and, possibly, the Dome of the Rock at Jerusalem, now known as the Mosque of Omar, whose date is not absolutely certain, our references for churches between the fourth and ninth centuries, inclusive, are mainly confined to Rome and Ravenna. The chief exception is the most important building of all, the Church of St. Sophia at Constantinople, which has been a mosque since the Turkish conquest of 1453. There are also interesting ruins of ancient churches in Armenia, in Northern Syria, and in the East Jordan country.

As regards the ancient surviving churches of Rome it must be said that those which have preserved their old appearance are comparatively unimportant in respect to size or decorative details. Others of larger size and greater fame have been so transformed by the restorations, rebuilding, and would-be improvements of later date that they have absolutely no value as archaeologic references.

It is in Ravenna that the most interesting survivals of the early Christian buildings of Europe are preserved. This town, which is situated on the upper Adriatic shore of Italy, is surrounded by a swampy territory which has tended to isolate it from the commerce and intercourse of later times. It has been a poor city, without enterprise, and consequently without the wealth which in other quarters has inspired the destruction of the ancient buildings, either by reconstructions and restorations of them or by actual displacement in favor of new ones.

It is significant of this general law that the cathedral church of Ravenna is a modern building, but the “improvement” of Ravenna, fortunately for the history of art, stopped here. The situation which in later times has made Ravenna poor was once the cause of her prosperity. In the convulsions of the fifth century, when the western emperors had successively abandoned Rome and Milan as their capitals, Ravenna was chosen as their final post of refuge and defense and consequently became an important connecting link with East Rome and with Byzantine art and civilization. In the early sixth century it was the seat of the Ostro-Gothic Empire of Theodoric the Great, and in the later sixth century it was the capital of Justinian’s rule in Italy. Ravenna then became the head of that ” exarchate of Ravenna” whose territories continued Byzantine until the time of the Frankish king, Pepin, the father of Charlemagne. Pepin gave them to the popes and thus founded the “States of the Church” and the papal temporal power.

There are three Ravenna churches of the sixth century which are especially important buildings for the history of art—San Apollinare Nuovo, San Apollinare in Classe, and San Vitale. Some of their mosaics have been already mentioned. We will, however, not consider these buildings in detail aside from a general account of the system of other churches which they have survived to illustrate.

There were two distinct types of churches in use during the centuries before the Romanesque cathedrals, whose history begins after the year 1000 A.D. One was a continuation of the type of the Roman business exchange, or basilica; the other was a continuation of the type of the great domed apartments of the Roman baths. The former is the type which developed into the later medieval cathedrals, and on this account may be given the first notice.

It is in the plan of these buildings rather than in their details or style of ornament that the Roman system survived. We have one ancient building in Rome, the Triumphal Arch of Constantine, which shows that the Roman system of engaged exterior classic columns and entablatures was used in Italy in the fourth century, but there are no Christian churches which show any survivals of this system of ornament. Their exterior walls are of plain masonry, broken only by windows and occasionally relieved by blind arcades.*

The particular constructive system of the pagan Roman basilicas which was continued by the Christian churches was not like that of the Basilica of Constantine, one of vaulted ceilings of masonry or concrete. The church basilicas were timber roofed. This is one of the important points in which they differ from the typical Romanesque cathedrals, which were vaulted. Such a timber-roofed basilica, whose broken columns are one of the ruins of Rome, was the one built by the Roman Emperor Trajan.

The ground plan of a Roman basilica was oblong and rectangular, with longitudinal divisions into a central nave and side aisles and terminating in a semicircular apse, or large niche, facing the entrance. This apse was the seat of the Roman magistrate and was allotted with the adjacent portion of the building to the uses of a court of justice. It was parted from the rest of the building by a transverse row of columns. These columns are not found in the church basilicas, which devoted this part of the building to the altar, to the officiating clergy, and to the bishop. In the times of the invasions the bishop of the city took the place of the earlier Roman magistrate in many senses and there was a certain continuity of history in this arrangement.

The apse is thus the origin of the choir of the cathedral, which finally reached enormous dimensions in the period of the Gothic.

The division of the nave and aisles is also one of great importance in the plan of the later cathedrals. This results from the higher elevation of the nave as arranged for the convenience of lighting the structure from above ; for it is the supports of the nave which constitute the division. The arrangement is additionally explained by its convenience for roofing wide structures with timber beams.

If it be asked why the plan of a business exchange was adopted for churches, we can only answer that the pagan basilicas were places of large public concourse, such as were also needed in Christian worship ; whereas the temples of antiquity were shrines for statues and not intended for large gatherings. The dimensions of the antique temple were much increased by the exterior porticoes, but the interiors were not generally of large dimensions. It was therefore the interior dimensions of the basilica which caused its plan to be chosen for churches.

The supporting system of the church basilicas is one which was only known in very late Roman buildings and there is only one Roman ruin in Europe which now exhibits it—the palace of Diocletian at Spalatro. The supports were columns connected with arches. In ancient Roman use arches were supported by piers, built of aggregated masonry, and the columns and entablatures were ornamental surface additions.

Columns, when used in actual construction, always supported the straight stone beam, or lintel, as was the method of the Greeks.

The use of the column and the arch to support the walls of the nave is not absolutely universal in the ancient churches. One or two of the earlier churches of Rome employ the straight beam, as does also the Church of the Manger at Bethlehem, but the beams are not detailed in the architrave and frieze divisions of the classic entablature. In these exceptional uses of the lintel we note a survival of antique traditions, which soon yielded to the new system and absolutely disappeared. The construction of arches and columns was ultimately abandoned in the Romanesque and Gothic systems for arches and piers. Thus we emphasize the use of the arch and column and the use of the timber ceiling as important points of distinction between the system of the later cathedrals and the system of the basilicas.

Finally, the origin of the word “basilica” and its transfer to Christian churches are matters of interest. As derived from the Greek word basileus (king), the word basilica (royal house), was a fitting designation for a church, though not apparently for a business exchange. It was first used in Athens and was there applied to a public building which had been named after one of the archons, or elective officers, who retained the title of basileus, after the abolition of the monarchy, an event antedating any records of ancient Athenian history. His office was judicial.

The bell tower of the early churches was a distinct structure. It was subsequently attached to the building in the Romanesque period and was often doubled or quadrupled. It then developed into the Gothic tower or spire and so into the modern steeple. Throughout the Middle Ages in Italy, however, the bell tower was generally a separate structure.