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The early Christian architecture developed between middle years of Roman period to first century AD. Since the Christianity was prohibited, the Christians never had buildings of their own and catacombs or private houses served for their gatherings and meetings. Catacombs are the underground cemeteries in Rome. They are subterranean galleries outside the city. Only in 313AD Constantine allowed Christians the right to practice their religion and in 325AD he himself converted to Christianity. In 380AD he made Christianity the official religion. Thus Christianity became the official religion 380 years after the death of Jesus Christ.

Thus the early Christian architecture can be seen chiefly in the buildings of 4 th to 9 th century in Europe. The early Christians, being the Roman craftsmen, continued the Roman traditions. After the collapse of Roman Empire the prosperity declined, which resulted in utilising the

building materials of ruins of Roman buildings. Some times a few Pagan temples were also converted for the required use. In some cases the buildings were demolished and the materials were used for the new building. Thus the Roman orders were used predominantly for the churches.

Churches were the main buildings constructed during this period. As for as the architecture is concerned the early Christian period is nothing but continuation of Roman architecture. The Christian house of worship is called a CHURCH. The church was not only the house for the deity but also a gathering place for the people who come to pray. The ROMAN BASILICA served as a suitable model for church and the early Christian churches were called as BASILICAS.


As already mentioned the Roman basilica served as a suitable model for the church plan. The plan was a long rectangular hall with apse at one end and spacious enough for congregation of large gathering. The old Roman buildings were also some times converted suitably for the needy. A typical early Christian church consists of the following elements in the plan. They are as follows:

1.The entrance porch - Propylaeum 2.Atrium 3. Roofed arcade around the atrium 4. Narthex as entrance to the main church 5. Nave with single or double aisles on both side 6. The aisles 7. The altar 8. The semi-circular apse. During later stage between the nave/aisles and altar a 9. transverse aisle like projection was developed and it was known as transepts. Normally the main entrance to the church was from west and the position of apse was at eastern end. The atrium was optional but Narthex was a common feature. The fountain in atrium was used for ablutions - a custom which is still symbolised amongst Roman Catholics at the entrance of the church. Similarly nave was common but aisles were single or double and some times they were in two levels also. The two aisles were for separate gathering for men and women. Sometimes women used upper gallery also. The apse was usually semi-circular in shape. The nave being positioned in the middle was without natural light and the required light and ventilation was only through clear storey i.e. from the upper level above the roof of aisles.

Symmetry along the long axis was maintained in most of the church plans. The nave is the main hall for the church with apse and altar as the focal point. The other parts of the church plan, which varies from church to church, are the crossing, transept, choir, chancel, pulpit, baldachino or ceborium, bema, crypt, the arch of triumph etc. The narthex acted as main entrance lobby to churches where there was no atrium. They also contained the staircase to go to upper level and upper part of the aisles or gallery. The Narthex acted as a place for penitents.

Even though there are other theories indicating that the church plans were based on Roman dwellings, lecture rooms, pagan temples etc. the common belief is that it was influenced by the basilicas. Thus the church plans were influenced by Roman basilicas i.e. rectangular in shape, circular shape too was adopted. Later when the church plans were developed with transepts terms like, Latin cross, Greek cross, Cruciform plan etc. were applied. Latin cross plan was commonly adopted in Europe where wooden roof was predominantly used. Greek cross plan was adopted at Greece and Byzantine or churches with Byzantine influence because of non-availability of timber for roofing and a compact plan to

cover the roof with the help of domes.


The interiors were more lavish when compared to the simple exteriors. As soon as one enters the church from narthex, the whole space was divided length wise with parallel rows of columns as the central voluminous nave with lower aisles on either side. These uninterrupted rows of columns in the nave directed a clear vision towards apse, the focal point. The spacing of columns was close with arches above or sometimes architrave above with clear storey lighting on top. The lighting obtained through clear storey windows in to the nave was an interesting feature. Use of false ceilings below the trusses with low height creates a visual illusion i.e. the interior looking longer. Most of the coffers found in the churches were later additions. The interior of the churches consisted of the following:

Altar: Normally in the form of table out of stone for the purpose of offering. To make this dominating it was raised over a platform with steps. It was also called as high altar.

Ciborium: Located above the altar or tomb. It was a canopy upheld by marble pillars. It was also called as Baldachino.

Crossing: It was the junction of the nave and transept. These were not found in the old churches. Normally the roof above this was

made dominating by dome, vault or tower.

Choir: The raised part before the altar. It was used for chanting. It was surrounded by a low screen called chancel with ambos on both sides.

Bema: It was the space between apse and nave in earlier churches but later it was transformed to double bema as in S.Paulo fluori le mura and finally it lead to the concept of transepts to form a Latin cross plan. It was raised from rest of the floor with seat for priests or presbyters. It was also called presbyterium.

Apse: Located at the extreme end of the church semi-circular in shape. It was normally covered with a semidome or semi octagonal slope roof. It is the main focal point of the church with Bishop’s seat or cathedra over raised platform.

Arch of Triumph: The concept behind this was a transition through death to eternal life. This leads to the sanctuary.

Crypt: Basilica churches were usually erected over the burial place of saints to whom the church was dedicated. This was the original tomb located at the basement and was called crypt or confessio. Above this was the high altar covered with Ciborium or Baldachino or tabernacle.

Most of the church interior was decorated with mosaic decoration. Colour glass mosaics for dome, walls, triumphal arch, piers, arch soffit etc. were the place for the mosaic decoration.


The exterior of the early Christian church was typical especially in the western façade. It was a high gable roof for the nave and a lower lean to roof for the aisles. The narthex with a sloping roof at a lower level covered the whole width of the façade. The east elevation too was similar but with the exception of semi-circular projection of the apse.

The exterior was simple when compared with the interior. The Roman influence can be seen in the use of order, material, arches etc. The other influence was the use of materials from Roman ruins. The timber-trussed roof with sloping roof was the predominant feature, which was a contrast when compared with the exterior of Byzantine churches.

The apse roof was with a semidome internally and covered with sloping wooden roof externally. Similarly the aisles too had vaults inside and sloping roof outside.

Occasionally the external facade was decorated with mosaic, otherwise the exterior treatment was simple with features like, clearstory window, raised gable wall for nave, projecting apse, arched openings in narthex, a flight of steps for the main entrance etc.

The paving used in the exterior were decorated with use of old marble in various geometrical patterns.


The ornamentation among Christians began with wall paintings in catacombs. Even the sarcophagi in which the dead body was buried had many decorations. Ornamentation of sarcophagus became a regular feature during this period. Many of them contained scenes from old and New Testament and other events of Christian religion. The other important source for ornamentation was the mosaic. It was well known even during the Roman period but received a fresh response during this period.

After official recognition of Christianity many new buildings were erected and naturally all of them had fresco paintings over the wall illustrating about Christian religion. For this interior blank walls were adopted and well utilised. Later gradually the mosaics replaced these paintings. The mosaic is a branch of pictorial art or of flat surface decoration, made by inlaying figures or patterns with small bits of coloured stone or other materials and known as Tessera. These are minute cubes with rough bottom attached to each other accurately. Even though Romans used this mainly for paving etc, early Christians adopted them for wall and ceiling decorations. Later even arch of triumph and clear storey walls too was adorned with mosaics. The introduction of colour gave richness and glimmering mystery to the interiors. Coloured marble tesserae were adopted for paving and for wall and ceiling decorations coloured glass tesserae were adopted. Due to variety of colour available there was more scope for artist’s expressions. Gold colour received special attention. For this a golden leaf over a contrasting background was laid and over this colourless or particular coloured glass pieces were laid to get gold colour effect. Later the sheet was cut in to pieces. The tesserae were also placed unevenly to get special shining effects where light rays falls over it. The mosaics were adorned over large spaces like domed ceilings arch of

triumph, spandrels, space below and between clear storey windows etc. Natural elements like birds, vine branches with borders were

common along with human forms of saint’s etc in the ornamentation works. This was a strong contrast to the Byzantine mosaic works. Semi circular arches, moulded lintels, Corinthian columns, arched windows became ornamental features. Small windows filled with pierced slabs of marble, alabaster or plasters were common. Later these features developed very strongly during Gothic period. The Roman mouldings were imitated roughly. Even the carvings had rich effects but they were crude due to non-availability of skilled craftsman. Low relief mouldings were common.

ROOFING GARGOYLE A grotesque carved human or animal face or figure projecting from the gutter
A grotesque carved human or animal face
or figure projecting from the gutter of a
building, typically acting as a spout to carry
water clear of a wall.


The early Christian period is nothing but continuation of Roman architecture. Hence the building techniques too were continuation of the same. Wherever the columns were closely spaced they had entablature above and wherever they were widely spaced arches were used above. Timber roof with king post and queen post trusses were common feature in most of the buildings of this period. The aisles were occasionally vaulted and the apse was covered with a semi dome. But in majority of the cases these aisles and apse, even though had vault inside, were covered with sloping roof externally. The Roman method of wall construction was adopted and the interiors were decorated mosaics. Single and double aisles were used and sometime galleries were built above the aisles by continuing the columns for upper part also. Thus the height for nave portion was more with double height lighted with clear storey window. The walls were constructed according to old Roman method only by using hand laid rubble concrete. The concrete consisted of brick or stone as the aggregate. Plaster facing to the wall was a common feature externally and the interior was finished with mosaics. The openings were spanned by using arches or lintels. The columns were often taken from old Roman buildings, purposely demolishing or from the ruins. Occasionally they were constructed afresh like those in S.Paulo fluori le-mura (Basilica of St. Paul, Rome)


Present day St. Peters in Vatican City a rebuilding of a totally different design & on a substantially enlarged scale.

St Peter was the most important of the basilica churches built by Constantine, The church has a triple entrance gate leading to an atrium

The Basilica had a wooden roof of interlocking rafters

The nave did not lead directly to the apse but instead ends in a transverse space that is as high as the nave. The nave terminated in a triumphal arch that framed the curve of the apse.

Some of the early churches were built over the tomb of martyrs and are known as martyrium.

St Peters is one of the earliest and most important of the matyrium churches.

It was built over what was believed to be the tomb of Saint Peter who was a disciple of Jesus

Built over the historical site of the Circus of Nero under the rule of Emperor Constantine I in 320AD

The original church survived without much change until towards the end of 15th Century & the nave for another century.

Remains of old foundation are present below the present flooring but details of atrium are obscure.

Dimensions: 110.0m long x 64.0m wide with double aisles on both sides.

The nave was divided from aisles by 22 varied (size & colour), huge & antique marble columns with equally varied capitals supporting the nave walls on a horizontal entablature, while similar numbers of shorter columns carrying arcades divided aisle from aisle.

It was built in the shape of Latin cross, with a gable roof, timbered on inside & at 30.0m high at centre.

An atrium known as Garden of Paradise stood at the entrance with 5 doors.

The nave ended with an arch & the Walls had parallel windows each with frescos.







It was an old church of 6 th century and rebuilt in between 1084-1108. The remaining of old church can still be seen in the crypt portion. Even though it was rebuilt, it still retains the old features of the old building.

PLANNING: A rectangular church containing most of the parts of an early Christian church. The main entrance was from east through a porch to the atrium. The atrium surrounded by vaulted corridors or ambulatory on three sides with a fountain in the centre. The fourth side i.e. on the west was the narthex. The vaulted narthex leads to the nave, a gathering place. Next to the nave there are two single aisles with a lower roof to accommodate the clear storey lighting to the nave. Bema is missing but the nave was distinctly contained various church features like the choir, cancelli, gospel, epistle ambos, raised altar with baldachino and the semi-circular apse containing the bishop’s seat.

cancelli, gospel, epistle ambos, raised altar with baldachino and the semi-circular apse containing the bishop’s seat.

S. CLEMENTE, ROME. 1099-1108AD.


First Basilica - Dedicated to Pope St. Clemente I.


Dimensions: 45.0 m x 25.0 m with width of nave as 13.0 m. The main entrance with a small porch.


The entrance with vaulted roof and timber roof externally.


Atrium with a fountain in the middle.


The narthex with vaults and timber roof. The timber roof is taller than the ambulatory roof.


Raised semi-circular apse with bishop’s seat.


The semidome has mosaic ornamentation and externally covered with timber roof.


Semi-circular clear storey windows to light the nave.


Corinthian columns along the nave with semi-circular arches.


High altar and Ciborium or baldachino.


The ambulatory roof lower than that of narthex and an entrance leading to the convent on north side.


The remaining of the old building at the basement.

VISUAL FEATURES: The interior was richly decorated when compared to the exterior. Glass mosaic was very effectively used. The Ionic columns have been used with plain as well as fluted shaft. The nave columns had arches and clear storey light above. The intradoes, space

between clear storey windows and the semidome of the apse were richly ornamented with glass mosaic. The roof trusses were covered with

richly glided coffers during renaissance time. The cancelli, balustrade between choir and sanctuary were also richly moulded and decorated

with repeating patterns. The vaults were adopted for narthex and entrance porch. The exterior was simple with sloping roof for the nave and aisles. The other features were clear storey windows, apse with sloped roof, narthex with slightly higher roof than atrium, a small entrance porch etc.

CONSTRUCTION TECHNIQUES: The structural features were ionic columns, arches, vaults, semidome, trusses with gable and lean to roof etc. The structural features were also ornamented or decorated to make the interior as well as exterior interesting. The vaults and semidomes were concealed externally with pitched roof. Below the choir and sanctuary at the basement exist the remains of the old building.


1. The spandrel with mosaic decorations.2. The Corinthian capital with curled acanthus leaves. 3. The ornamentation over sarcophagus. 4. A

Corinthian capital. 5. Decorative fonts. 6. Various doors and windows with ornamental. 7. Mosaic ornamentation for semi dome of the apse.

8. Various mosaic paving patterns.

The richly profiled altar is inscribed with a dedication to St. Clement, whose relics, along
The richly profiled altar is inscribed with a dedication to St. Clement, whose relics, along

The richly profiled altar is

inscribed with a dedication

to St. Clement, whose relics, along with those of St. Ignatius, lie directly underneath in the confessio. Here is a beautiful detail, common in paleo-Christian churches, yet unfortunately never seen today. The confessio is simply a chamber for relics below an altar. As a unit, the confessio and altar form a cube, which is the ideal geometry of an altar.

View of the nave, the schola cantorum with ambos to either side, the altar and confessio under the ciborium, and the bema at the back of the apse

under the ciborium, and the bema at the back of the apse The altar sits just

The altar sits just proud of the center of the half-dome, the apse. The spectacular mosaic tells us that this is truly the new Garden of Eden. From the Cross's base grows a sumptuously poetic

Tree of Life, filled with

doves, peacocks, phoenixes, and images of various saints.

doves, peacocks, phoenixes, and images of various saints. Part of the low wall or dado forming
doves, peacocks, phoenixes, and images of various saints. Part of the low wall or dado forming

Part of the low wall or dado forming the

enclosure of the choir of St. Clement. Another

portion of the same.

of the choir of St. Clement. Another portion of the same. Profile of the marble pulpit

Profile of the marble pulpit for the reading of the Epistle.

Profile of the marble pulpit for the reading of the Epistle. Front of the Ambos, designed

Front of the Ambos, designed for the reading of

the Gospel, accompanied by the column on which was, and still is, placed the paschal candle.


It belonged to the period of king Justinian and was constructed by the king himself during 534-39AD. It was constructed on the site where temple of Apollo existed. Here the Byzantine influence was strong even though it was located in Ravenna (Italy), known as the city of mosaics.

PLANNING: It was a typical Basilican church rectangular in plan. It had an atrium but now does not exist and the entrance to the church was directly to narthex with a few flights of steps. The narthex further leads to nave and single aisles on both sides. The size was 150’x98’. The nave directly leads to the semicircular and raised apse portion, as the bema does not exist. The semicircular portion contains the high altar with Ciborium. Below the Ciborium in the basement was the crypt. A circular campanile was attached to this church. The aisles along with windows have a few openings to the exterior.



Narthex as the main entrance to the church.


The campanile or bell tower with square base and circular shape at upper level.


The nave contains 24 columns of Greek marble. The carved capitals of the columns depict acanthus leaves, but unlike most such carvings the leaves appear twisted as if being buffeted by the wind. The nave has a high gable roof.


Single aisle with sloping roof.


Raised semicircular apse with baldachino. Semidome inside and timber sloping roof outside.


The semidome of the apse with mosaic ornament.


Semicircular clear storey windows.


Mosaic ornamentation at spandrel and above arches. Baldachino and crypt below.


Row of Corinthian columns with arches and mosaic and ornamentation.


The simple exterior treatment with sloping roofs, arch windows, mosaic decorations etc.


The exterior view and front elevation shows the simple massing of the church with bell tower, clear storey windows, sloping roof, mosaic ornamentation etc.

VISUAL FEATURES: The interior was elaborately decorated with mosaics. The nave and aisles were separated with a row of Corinthian columns 21’ high with dosseret above supporting arches, a typical feature of Byzantine church. The Corinthian capital, the doserrets, intradoes of the arches, spandrel of the arches, etc were decorated with mosaics. The 5’ band above this arcade was decorated with figures of bishops with in circular pattern. The semidome of the apse had the original mosaic and one of the finest mosaics. All these mosaic decorations indicate the influence of Byzantine craftsmen. The wooden queen post truss becomes a feature in the ceiling.

decorations indicate the influence of Byzantine craftsmen. The wooden queen post truss becomes a feature in

Here it was also worth mentioning about the sarcophagus decorations. The exterior was simple when compared to the interior. When compared with the other churches of the early Christian period the exterior was little elaborate. The arched windows, raised nave with clear storey windows, multifaceted apse with sloped roof were important features of the church. The western façade had narthex with raised floor and the gable wall of the nave was richly decorated along with the arched windows. The tall campanile was an added element to the exterior. The decoration of the apse date to the 6th century, and can be divided into two parts:

In the upper one, a large disc encloses a starry sky in which is a cross with gems and the face of Christ. Over the cross is a hand protruding from the clouds, the theme of the Hand of God. In the lower one is a green valley with rocks, bush, plants and birds. In the middle is the figure of Saint Apollinaris, portrayed in the act of praying God to give grace to his faithful, symbolized by twelve white lambs. In the spaces between the windows are the four bishops who founded the main basilicas in Ravenna: Ursicinus, Ursus, Severus and Ecclesius, all with a book in a hand.

CONSTRUCTION TECHNIQUES: Similar to all other early Christian churches the building structure had been evolved from the function i.e. the plan. The Corinthian columns,

arches, doserrets, solid walls and timber queen post trusses take care of the structural

aspects of the building.

columns, arches, doserrets, solid walls and timber queen post trusses take care of the structural aspects
columns, arches, doserrets, solid walls and timber queen post trusses take care of the structural aspects
columns, arches, doserrets, solid walls and timber queen post trusses take care of the structural aspects
columns, arches, doserrets, solid walls and timber queen post trusses take care of the structural aspects
columns, arches, doserrets, solid walls and timber queen post trusses take care of the structural aspects


Up to 4 th century the burial was prohibited with in city boundary. The Christian faith in immortality leads to the construction of memorial to the dead. This led to monumental tombs for royals & other important people. Most of the tombs were imposing structures usually with dome and the interior was enriched with mosaic decorations.

THE TOMB OF GALLA PLACIDIA: RAVENNA 425AD. This is a tomb with cruciform in plan. It can be considered as a good example for a Greek cross plan. The exterior was simple with stone wall and arched openings and sloping roof. At the crossing a square mass was raised with pyramidal roof. The interior consists of dome and vaults painted with mosaic with a blue background. At the crossing dome was constructed using the pendentive principle. This dome was covered with pyramidal roof at the exterior.



The main entrance.


Square shaped crossing space with dome on top.


The dome with pendentive.


The dome externally covered with wooden pyramidal roof.


Gable sloping roof at lowers level for the rest of spaces.


The simple exterior with stone wall, arched openings etc.

at lowers level for the rest of spaces. 6. The simple exterior with stone wall, arched


These were separate buildings for baptismal rites. Most of the Roman circular temples were converted for this purpose. Some time even the Roman tombs too were adopted. Functionally a large sized building was necessary to celebrate the festival like Easter etc. When Roman circular temples were adopted the enlargement became difficult due to roof with dome or the presence of Roman structural columns. Hence the periphery was enlarged by adding an attachment, with a roof at lower level. In the initial stages a font was provided in the centre of baptistery for the baptismal rites. But later when infant baptism was adopted the font was replaced.


It is a tomb octagonal in shape with sloped roof in the exterior. The octagon was 63’ in diameter with a central ring of 8 Corinthian columns (from old Roman buildings). This central ring is in three tiers and finally supports the dome covered externally with sloping roof. This central part is slightly sunken with steps to form the font (an old Roman bath) for the baptistery. Circular windows below the dome light the interior. One of the sides of the octagon has a porch attached to act as the main entrance with four Corinthian columns. The outer part of the octagon has slope roof slightly at lower level in such a way that the dome rises as a dominating mass.


1. An entrance porch at Southeast.

2. The octagonal hall.

3. Ring of columns from old Roman buildings.

4. Circular font with steps all round, 20’ diameter.

5. The font surrounded by ring of Corinthian columns of old Roman ruins.

6. Similar feature repeated at upper level also but in smaller scale.

7. Circular clear storey windows to light the interior.

8. The octagonal hall covered with wooden sloping roof.

9. The dome above font covered externally with sloping roof.

8. The octagonal hall covered with wooden sloping roof. 9. The dome above font covered externally


8. The octagonal hall covered with wooden sloping roof. 9. The dome above font covered externally