Early Christian Churches

church ruins of Asia Minor

An outline of the Evolution of the Architectural form of the Early Christian Church on the Coast of Asia Minor (now Turkey): from 310 to the 8th Cent AD

This essay seeks to show the evolution of the form of the early Christian Church from the conversion to Christianity in 306 AD of Emperor Constantine to the reign of Emperor Justinian 527 – 567 AD.

During this period the form of church buildings changed dramatically both with the changing needs and aspirations of the leaders of the church, increase in the wealth of the church and developments in building techniques.  As the fortunes of the church grew enormously this was paralleled by great developments in the liturgy and performance of the mass.

The churches of Asia Minor are particularly helpful because, although they are all ruined, they lie where they fell and have never been built over, with few exceptions. Therefore they can be studied, apart from perhaps Syria, there is nowhere this evolution can more easily be seen particularly if coastal travel is by boat.
Asia Minor and St. Paul.

Through the journeys of St. Paul and others the Christian message spread quite fast following the important coastal trade routes from the Middle East via Antioch, Myra, Patara, Caunus, Cnidus, Miletus and Ephesus.  However, the earliest church buildings – the Seven Churches of Asia Minor, did not survive because of strong opposition from pagan Rome. An opposition which was enforced by brutal persecution until the final General Persecutions of 250 and 257-60 AD ordered by Emperor Diocletion.  Consequently, there were no Church buildings.

Christians found it prudent to be inconspicuous and met only in private houses or domestic meeting places known as domus ecclesiae.  Not before Constantine are Christian concepts expressed in official architecture.  When Constantine took away the penalties and proscription of public assemblies for worship there was a sudden demand for congregations of hundreds, even thousands to assemble.  The fathers of the church were not experienced in designing and building churches and found it easier to use the largest roofed buildings available – the halls known as basilicas.  They were large, with plenty of them throughout the Empire and their plans were convenient, a long rectangular shape, mostly, with a central nave (naos) with aisles on either side.  At opposite end from the entrance was a semi-circular space with a hemi-dome above.  This drew the attention to the seat of authority.  Throughout the 4th century AD the ‘basilican plan’, was virtually standard.  It was encouraged by Constantine who regarded himself as head of Church and State and God’s vicar on earth.  The basilican plan, however, had serious disadvantages which in time the fathers of the church found out.  They became, and were encouraged to become, well organised as a professional order of bishops, elders (presbyters) and deacons capable of ordering their own affairs..

The first stage of evolution is, therefore, marked by the taking over of existing Roman basilicas in Italy, Asia Minor, the Middle East and North Africa. This stage existed until about 350AD and there is one striking example in Ephesus, the Church of the Councils (The Church of the Virgin Mary), used for two meetings of the Ecumenical Council in 431 to discuss the principles of Christianity.  It is huge, 85 metres long with no galleries, and was formed from three Roman law courts with a large apse.  A bishop’s palace was added.  The second stage of evolution was the new-build churches, still in the basilican form, some large , some small.  Prior to 350 AD there was no such thing as a Christian basilica.  In the second stage some of the disadvantages were changed by modifying the basic basilican form.

The modifications needed were;

  • To shorten the building so that those at the back of the congregation could hear.
  • To protect an area, the sanctuary, and avoid the forward pressure of the congregation. This was done by building altar rails or a small colonnade.
  • To provide more space at the entrance for the catechumens (those not yet baptised) who were not admitted to the mass). This was met by building a porch (narthex) and in many cases, a walled garden space in some cases, with colonnade around and with just one door opening into the street to control the entrance.
  • To provide more light to reduce the gloom and focus attention on the east end. This was done by lifting the walls above the nave and put in more or larger windows. This was also to follow Constantine’s wishes, he regarded himself as The Invincible Sun, The Sun of Justice. It as also necessary to illuminate images of Christ, the apostles and the bible stories by painting (or by mosaics) in the apse or on the walls for a largely illiterate congregation.

As the floor was flat, it was necessary to provide lifted seating in three or five rows for the priest (or bishop) and his acolytes so they could be see.

As baptism was essential for entry to the church a special room (baptistery) was needed and usually added to the northeast corner. In time this room was designed in a special way for total immersion in a tank below floor in an attractive clover-leaf-shaped plan.

With these modifications the plan became fairly standard in Italy, the northern Aegean and the coast of Asia Minor.  You will see examples at Cnidus and St. Nicholas’s Island (Gemili).  There are others further down the coast at Patara and Myra.  Further to the east there are still many to be seen Syria.

The third stage started when Justinian became Emperor in 527AD and the design of churches broke with tradition.  The new designs were centrally planned with a dome on pendentives sitting on the top illuminating the centre of the church.  This design evolved both to overcome the disadvantages of the basilican plan but much more importantly in response to how the Christian liturgy developed on the Aegean coastlands.  These new designs allowed for an elaborate performance of the mass to occupy the central area and allow for the development of processional entrances.

Today this can be seen in Greek churches were the congregation in repositioned in the aisles.  The design and building of a masterpiece in Constantinople (Istanbul), Hagia Sophia (The Church of Holy Wisdom) by two architects, Anthemios of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus in Asia Minor.  This spectacular building appeared in 537 to 558 in Justinians’s reign.  The implication of this design for more modest buildings was striking but a simpler more standard, less elaborate version was required.

Some basilican churches were substantially modified to insert a dome which had to sit on four arches founded on four massive masonry support which identify this developments.  These can be seen at the Church of the Councils at Ephesus and at a small church in Priene.

There are two further churches built de novo, in Asia Minor one large and one small, which belong to this period or later.  One is the Basilica of St. John at Seljuk (565) near Ephesus which is a strikingly successful design, marrying the new ideas with the older basilican ideas.  It is so successful as a design that it looks definitive.  Indeed its importance in such that it was followed in the West (Catholic Latin churches) but without the domes.  The other is a small masterpiece at Caunus, it is small, elegant, works perfectly and not so extravagant and could be copied all through the Eastern Christian church.

Truly the schism between East and West (which largely went on to develop the basilican plan) in the world of architecture was established and a deep split; perhaps more than the religious schism.

At about 650 AD all the churches, in all the towns, were destroyed by the Arab invasion, but the Church at Caunus may well be, the last masterpiece on the coast.

Dargan Bullivant