Early Christian Art

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Tanya Bastian
Art 181: Ancient and Medieval Art
Essay: Early Christian and Byzantine Art Chapter 8 & 9

The form and function of the Early Christian basilica

By the beginning of the fourth century Christianity was growing in the Roman world. Greco-Roman style and culture influenced Christian art and ideology, but the main catalyst in the Christianity movement was Constantine. The Emperor Constantine defeated his rival, Maxentius, in battle and became the principal patron of Christianity. In 313 Constantine delivered the Edict of Milan which granted religious liberty. Rome became Christian and Christianity took the air of imperial Rome.

To exemplify the new status of Christianity Constantine wanted to construct new churches. The impetus is similar to Roman Emperors who gave physical evidence to their authority and piousness by constructing temples. The pre-Constantine Christian structures like the Dura-Europos Christian meeting house no longer showed the eminence of Christianity. The traditional form of the Roman temple would not be appropriate due to the associations of pagan cults and the difference in function. Christianity was still a mystery religion that required an introduction to participate in religious practices. The new Christian churches need a large interior space to accommodate the congregation, they needed to be visually significant and convey the new authority of Christianity. All these factors led to the architectural form known as, the Christian Basilica.

In 319 Constantine began construction on Old Saint Peter’s church in Rome. The basilica was built over the site of the tomb of St. Peter, the principal disciple of Christ and the first bishop of Rome, and marked the model of future basilicas. Concentrating on the tomb of St. Peter in the apse of the church, Old St. Peter’s should be categorized as a martyrium in contrast to a community church. This led to the new architectural form called transept which marks the...
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