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History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600.
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§ 106. Architectural Style. The Basilicas.


Comp. the works on the Basilicas by P. Sarnelli (Antica Basilicografia. Neapoli, 1686), Ciampini (Rom. 1693), Guttensohn & Knapp (Monumenta di Rel. christ., ossia raccolta delle antiche chiese di Roma. Rom. 1822 sqq. 3 vols.; also in German, München, 1843), Bunsen (Die Basiliken des christlichen Roms. München, 1843, a commentary on the preceding), Von Quast (Berl. 1845), and Zestermann (Die antiken und die christlichen Basiliken. Leipz. 1847).


The history of church building, from the simple basilicas of the fourth century to the perfect Gothic cathedrals of the thirteenth and fourteenth, exhibits, like the history of the other Christian arts and the sciences, a gradual subjection and transformation of previous Jewish and heathen forms by the Christian principle. The church succeeded to the inheritance of all nations, but could only by degrees purge this inheritance of its sinful adulterations, pervade it with her spirit, and subject it to her aims; for she fulfils her mission through human freedom, not in spite of it, and does not magically transform nations, but legitimately educates them.

The history of Western architecture is the richer. The East contented itself with the Byzantine style, and adhered more strictly to the forms of the round temples, baptisteries, and mausoleums; while the West, starting from the Roman basilica, developed various styles.

The style of the earliest Christian churches was not copied from the heathen temples, because, apart from their connection with idolatry, which was itself highly offensive to the Christian sentiment, they were in form and arrangement, as we have already remarked, entirely unsuitable to Christian worship. The primitive Christian architecture followed the basilicas, and hence the churches built in this style were themselves called basilicas. The connection of the Christian and heathen basilicas, which has been hitherto recognized, and has been maintained by celebrated connoisseurs,11721172   Bunsen, Schnaase, Kugler, Kinkel, Quast, &e. has been denied by some modem investigators,11731173   Zestermann (1847) and Krauser (1851). who have claimed for the Christian an entirely independent origin. And it is perfectly true, as concerns the interior arrangement and symbolical import of the building, that these can be ascribed to the Christian mind alone. Nor have any forensic or mercantile basilicas, to our knowledge, been transformed into Christian churches.11741174   The passage quoted for this view from Ausonius in his address of thanks to the emperor Gratian, his pupil, c. 2: “Forum et basilica olim negotiis plena, nunc votis, votisque pro tua salute susceptis,” implies only, according to the connection, that now all houses and public places are full of good wishes for the emperor. But in external architectural form there is without question an affinity, and there appears no reason why the church should not have employed this classic form.

The basilicas,11751175   Στοαὶ βασιλικαίThe name comes from that of the highest civil magistrate, the ἄρχων βασιλεύς, who held court in these buildings. In the church this designation was very naturally transferred to Christ, as the supreme King and Judge. Though of Greek origin, the basilicas first reached their full development in Rome, and, properly speaking, arose from the forum Romanum. They were strictly fora for the people, but roofed, and so protected from rain and heat. The city of Rome had ten of them: the Bas. Julia, Ulpia, Porcia, Marciana, &c. Zestermann, however, denies the connection of the Roman basilica with the Athenian στοὰ βασίλειος ,from the later times of Roman luxury, when the name basilicus was applied to everything grand and costly. or royal halls, were public judicial and mercantile buildings, of simple, but beautiful structure, in the form of a long rectangle, consisting of a main hall, or main nave, two, often four, side naves,11761176   Basilicas with a single nave are very rare. The pagan basilica of Trier is an instance, and the small church of St. Balbina in Rome, said to have been built by Gregory I. in the beginning of the seventh century. which were separated by colonnades from the central space, and were somewhat lower. Here the people assembled for business and amusement. At the end of the hall opposite the entrance, stood a semicircular, somewhat elevated niche (apsis, tribune), arched over with a half-dome, where were the seats of the judges and advocates, and where judicial business was transacted. Under the floor of the tribunal was sometimes a cellar-like place of confinement for accused criminals.

In the history of architecture, too, there is a Nemesis. As the cross became changed from a sign of weakness to a sign of honor and victory, so must the basilica in which Christ and innumerable martyrs were condemned to death, become a place for the worship of the crucified One. The judicial tribune became the altar; the seat of the praetor behind it became the bishop’s chair; the benches of the jurymen became the seats of presbyters; the hall of business and trade became a place of devotion for the faithful people; the subterranean jail became a crypt or burial place, the superterrene birth-place, of a Christian martyr. To these were added other changes, especially the introduction of a cross-nave between the apse and the main nave, giving to the basilica the symbolical form of the once despised, but now glorious cross, and forming, so to speak, a recumbent crucifix. The cross with equal arms is called the Greek; that with unequal arms, in which the transept is shorter than the main nave from the entrance to the altar, the Latin. Towers, which express the heavenward spirit of the Christian religion, were not introduced till the ninth century, and were then built primarily for bells.

This style found rapid acceptance in the course of the fourth century with East and West; most of all in Rome, where a considerable number of basilicas, some in their ancient venerable simplicity, some with later alterations, are still preserved. The church of St. Maria Maggiore on the Esquiline hill affords the best view of an ancient basilica; the oldest principal church of Rome—S. Giovanni in Laterano (so named from the Roman patrician family of the Laterans), dedicated to the Evangelist John and to John the Baptist; the church of St. Paul, outside the city on the way to Ostia, which was burnt in 1823, but afterwards rebuilt splendidly in the same style, and consecrated by the pope in December, 1854; also S. Clemente, S. Agnese, and S. Lorenzo, outside the walls—are examples. The old church of St. Peter (Basilica Vaticana), which was built on the spot of this apostle’s martyrdom, the Neronian circus, and was torn down in the fifteenth century (the last remnant did not fall till 1606), surpassed all other churches of Rome in splendor and wealth, and was rebuilt, not in the same style, but, as is well known, in the Italian style of the sixteenth century.

Next to Rome, Ravenna is rich in old church buildings, among which the great basilica of S. Apollinare in Classe (in the port town, three miles from the main city, and built about the middle of the sixth century) is the most notable. The transept, as in all the churches of this city, is wanting.

In the East Roman empire there appeared even under Constantine sundry departures and transitions toward the Byzantine style. The oldest buildings there, which follow more or less the style of the Roman basilica, are the church at Tyre, begun in 313, destroyed in the middle ages, but known to us from the description of the historian Eusebius;11771177   In the panegyric addressed to Paulinus, bishop of Tyre, Hist. Eccl. x. c. 4. the original St. Sophia of Constantine in Constantinople; and the churches in the Holy Land, built likewise by him and his mother Helena, at, Mamre or Hebron, at Bethlehem over the birth-spot of Christ, on the Mount of Olives in memory of the ascension, and over the holy sepulchre on Mount Calvary. Justinian also sometimes built basilicas, for variety, together with his splendid Byzantine churches; and of these the church of St. Mary in Jerusalem was the finest, and was destined to imitate the temple of Solomon, but it was utterly blotted out by the Mohammedans.11781178   Comp. the more minute descriptions of these churches in the above-mentioned illustrated work of Guttensohn and Knapp: Monumenta di religione christ., etc., 1822-’27, and the explanatory text by Bunsen: Die Basiliken des christl. Roms. München, 1848. Also Gottfried Kinkel: Geschichte der bildenden Künsten bei der christlichen Völkern, i. p. 61 sqq., and Ferd. von Quast: Die Basilika der Alten.



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