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Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

The Development of Christian Architecture

by Rev. P. F. McCaffrey, O.C.C.


This 1925 article by Fr. McCaffrey offers a "survey of the gradual development of Christian architecture as a whole down to the period of its final perfection in the Gothic style."

Larger Work

The Ecclesiastical Review


154 – 164

Publisher & Date

The Dolphin Press, Philadelphia, PA, February 1925

Having published in the Ecclesiastical Review a series of articles on Gothic church architecture1 it has been suggested that I might offer a compendious survey of the gradual development of Christian architecture as a whole down to the period of its final perfection in the Gothic style.

Christ Himself but seldom made use of a material building in which to enunciate the great truths which He had come to teach. As a Jew He was circumcised in the Temple, and, at the age of twelve, He disputed with the doctors there. He sanctified the marriage ceremony of Cana of Galilee by His presence in the home of Mary's relatives, and the first Eucharistic feast was celebrated in an upper chamber at Jerusalem. He frequently taught in the synagogue, for we read: "And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom." We might note here that the word "Synagogue" means an assembly or congregation, but was also used to denote the place where the Jews met for worship. It was known by another Greek name of similar meaning, "Ecclesia", which was afterward appropriated to Christian congregations and to the places where they met. Some of these meeting places were very fine and stately buildings, with massive pillars and cornices richly sculptured. Yet they did not, to any notable extent at least, influence the type of architecture adopted by the Christians. This may have been due to the necessity, which was so clear to the Apostle of the Gentiles, of weaning the people from the observances of Judaism. "But now, after that you have known God, or rather are known by God: how turn you again to the weak and needy elements which you desire to serve again?"2 But His labors and preachings were chiefly in the open air, on the Mount, in the plains, by the seashore, and on the highways and byways of Judea and Galilee. "The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air their nests, but the Son of Man has not whereon to lay His head."

As it was with the Master, so was it with the disciples. We find them, at first, proclaiming the Gospel among the colonnades and porticoes of the Temple at Jerusalem, and even frequenting and expounding the Law in the synagogues. Yet their minds ever turn to the upper chamber where the Eucharist was instituted. This was in a sense the first Christian church, the first type, and we find its use elsewhere, as in the case referred to in the Epistles, "the church which is in the house of Priscilla and Aquilla," for this phrase most probably refers not merely to the congregation that met there but to an oratory also. The disciples went forth wanderers over the known world, depending on alms for their sustenance, and on charity for a roof to cover them.

The virulent storm of diabolical persecution that would blot out the Christian name made church-building well-nigh impossible. It was begun by the Jews within a year after the Ascension, with the murder of St. Stephen. Ten years later Herod Agrippa put James, the brother of John, to death. In the year A.D. 64 it was intensified by the orders of Nero and continued with little abatement in the succeeding reigns till the year 312, when Constantine took the Church under his protection. In the earlier days of the persecution it had been found necessary to burrow under ground, and in the gloomy and tortuous recesses of the catacombs, where reposed the sacred remains of the martyred brethren, to meet for divine worship. The catacombs supplied the second type on which Christian architecture was to be founded. Traces of this type are still to be found in the "confessions" of the basilica churches. These are underground crypts containing the relics of a confessor or martyr. Hence the name. In these early days the Holy Sacrifice was celebrated on the tomb of a martyr, a practice which is continued in the Catholic Church to this day, since the altar-stone always contains the relics of a martyr.

During the periods of tranquility which the Church enjoyed in the third century the Christians began to possess lands and to erect public places of worship thereon. Some few of these were magnificent structures, such as the church of Nicomedia, which was demolished by the order of Diocletian and Galerius. By the end of this century church buildings had, in fact, become numerous. This is evident from the edict of Diocletian ordering their destruction and the confiscation of the lands belonging to the Church, as also from Eusebius's description of the condition of the Christians on the eve of the persecution. "The multitudes," he writes, "crowded together for worship, not in the old building, but in new and spacious churches."3 What form these first churches took is not known. Indeed little can be found that is definite until after the emperor Constantine had, in the beginning of the fourth century, declared Christianity the State religion, and its adherents were able to come out safely into the open. Then we find some of the smaller churches taking their form from the chapels in the catacombs, but the new edifices were built chiefly on the model of the Roman basilicas, which were themselves in numerous instances transformed into Christian churches. The word "basilica" means a royal or court edifice, and its continuance, as a name for the palaces wherein the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords was to hold His silent court, was most appropriate.

The basilicas were originally erected around the Forum, to serve as marketplaces and as courthouses for the administration of justice, after the Forum had itself become too small for the transaction of the rapidly increasing business of the city. The Basilica Portia, Rome, claims the honor of being the most ancient of these seats of judicial administration. Livy says it was erected in the year 183 B.C., whilst some modern archeologists place its origin as early as the year 564 B.C. The principal room in the palace or pretentious house was also known as a basilica and was on the same plan as the public courts of justice. It was here that the Christians used to assemble in the homes of the more wealthy brethren.

The plan of the basilicas was uniform. The variations were only in the details. It was a long parallelogram in which, writes Vitruvius, "the width was not greater than one-half of the length and not less than one-third of it. The ground plan of an early Christian basilica at Saglassos in Asia Minor (Fig. 1. After Stzygouski) may be taken as typical of the vast majority. A departure was made from the previous architectural forms of the pagan temples where the indispensable columns surrounded the building on the outside. They were now placed within the building dividing it longitudinally into a central avenue with two side aisles. The width of these aisles, as a rule, equaled the height of the pillars, which were, in their turn, one-third the width of the central avenue (Fig. 2). The entire hall was usually closed in by walls, but examples were to be found where this was not so. Above the enclosed space, i.e. superimposed on the horizontal entablature of the ground colonnade, other rows of pillars, shorter and slighter, were placed, in somewhat the same manner as the triforium colonnade in the Gothic style. In the basilica, however, this was not a "blind storey", but rather served the purpose of the clerestory in the later fashion, and was quite open to the elements. The pillars were eventually supplanted by a solid wall in which windows were set (Fig. 3). The whole structure was capped with a timber roof, flat on the inside, and gable-shaped on the outside. This also was the rule, the exceptions being where there was no roof at all.

At one end was a semicircular recess which served as a tribunal for the judges and which was separated from the main hall by a clear space, its clearness being due to the fact that the pillars of the nave did not continue into it, of the same width as the aisle (cf. Fig. 1). This space, which ran the full width of the building, was elevated a few steps above the nave and aisles, and was set apart for the advocates, notaries, and others employed in the public business. In the centre of the recess was placed the curule chair for the questor, or praetor, whilst on each side and behind him were ranged seats for the assessors, or judices, with the altar for the libations before them, a little in advance of the chord of the apse. It is to this place that St. John refers when he writes: "Now when Pilate had heard these words, he brought Jesus forth and sat down in the judgment seat, in the place that is called Lithostrotos (the pavement), and in Hebrew Gabbatha".4 One of the best examples of this arrangement is to be found in the Basilica Aemilia, in the Forum at Rome, which was erected in the year 168 B.C. If the reader will refer to Fig. 4, he will see how this arrangement was adapted to the Church's ritual. A style more suited to the new requirements could scarcely have been deliberately devised, apart from the fact that the conditions of the times made their adoption by the Christians most desirable. The removal of the ban from the practice of the Christian religion, combined with its adoption by the Emperor Constantine, immediately brought a great influx of converts into the Church. To build a sufficiency of churches to accommodate the now enormous congregations would have been a work of ages, whilst here were magnificent structures ready to hand with every convenience provided.

The stone seats of the judices gave place to the choir stalls of the canons or religious, the bishop's throne occupied the place of the curule chair, the altar retained its position, but the Christian Sacrifice supplanted the pagan libations thereon, the transept was set apart for the inferior clergy and the singers, whereas the aisles, in which the two sexes had been separated whilst awaiting the trying of their cases, together with the nave served admirably for the congregation. This arrangement may still be found in such basilicas as St. Mary Major's, Rome. In the early days Mass was celebrated by the priest facing west, that is, in the same position facing the congregation as was occupied in the pagan ritual, a custom that still prevails in St. Peter's whenever the Holy Father celebrates at the high altar under the baldachino. As a matter of fact this regulation, as far as the celebrant is concerned, is still supposed to hold, but, on the other hand, the position of the congregation is completely reversed so as to be behind the celebrant.

Indeed so suitable did the old basilicas prove that, when the times were found propitious for the erection of new churches, the basilica style was unhesitatingly adopted. In their erection pagan temples were frequently dismantled to provide the necessary material and we may find portions of them in the basilicas today. An interesting case is the Carmelite Church, San Martino ai Monti, Rome. There are really three churches one above the other. The first building erected on the site was a church founded by St. Sylvester in the time of Constantine. It was reconstructed, A.D. 500, and dedicated to SS. Sylvester and Martino by St. Symmachus, who at the same time prepared a burial place for Pope Martin I, in what was once the Baths of Trajan, where he was actually buried one hundred and fifty years later. This long-forgotten oratory, which is now a gloomy, time-worn, sepulchral subterranean room was called by Christian writers "Titulus Equitii", from the name of a Roman priest then the proprietor of the ground. It is an extensive quadrangle, under a high-hung vault, divided into four aisles by massive square piers. Again the nave of the upper, and present church, is separated by twenty-four ancient Corinthian columns supposed to have originally belonged to Trajan's Thermae. One strange consequence of this procedure was to bring together a mixture of styles in the details. This was especially the case in regard to the columns, so that we sometimes find in one and the same church Ionic, Corinthian, and composite architecture standing side by side.

Later developments consisted in raising the nave above the rest of the building, and the introduction of windows in the second storey, where a solid wall replaces the slender columns of the earlier churches. At first there were no windows in the wall of the ground floor. This came later still. The walls which were often of marble were decorated with mosaics, some of which are perfect still in spite of the flight of the ages. The flat timber roof in the aisles gave way to vaulting, and a gallery was sometimes added over the aisles themselves. The shape of the apses varied from the semicircular to rectangular or even trifoil, as in the case of an early church at Dodona (Fig. 5). In some of the Roman basilicas there had been an apse or tribunal at each end, an arrangement that was sometimes retained, and which was a feature especially of the early German churches of basilican plan. Again there are cases where the architectural apse was entirely omitted. The aisles were sometimes duplicated, and an aisle is found at times carried around the apse.

Certain other modifications were necessary to assimilate the basilican plan for Christian requirements. A place was required, for instance, to accommodate the catechumens and penitents. For safety's sake during the persecutions the catechumens were not permitted to be present at the celebration of the Sacred Mysteries. This difficulty was sometimes overcome by letting a curtain fall between them and the congregation. A more permanent arrangement was the introduction of the "Narthex". This was an outer court, or portico, with entrance doors admitting to the church proper (cf. Fig. 5). Writing of San Clemente at Rome S. Sophia Beale says: "In studying the plan of this church, one sees that the atrium of the basilica became the outer cloister, the side next the church being called the narthex. In the centre of the atrium stood a fountain or tank of water, where those about to enter the church washed their hands — the origin, no doubt, of the practice of dipping the fingers into the piscina (sic)".5 The space crossing between the apse and the main body of the basilica was eventually extended beyond the walls, thus providing, for practical and symbolic purposes, the Latin cross ground-plan. This was the fashion in the western empire. In the east the extension was made halfway down the church so that the ground-plan here was the Greek cross. Herein we have the seed of a style that developed alongside the basilican, the Byzantine. The transept, in the western churches, was enclosed by a screen and two ambos were placed one on each side of it, from which, originally, the Epistles and Gospels were respectively read. The baldachino was raised above the altar, and the "confession", or subterranean mortuary chapel, opened up beneath it, whilst in advance of it was the entrance to the crypt. These crypts contained the relics of a martyr or confessor. Hence the name. They are usually approached by double flights of steps in front of the High Altar, under which the actual tomb is placed. The most famous "confession" is that of the Apostles in St. Peter's, but in a sense the most interesting is to be found in the Carmelite church of San Martino ai Monti, where rest the bodies of Popes Sergius, Sylvester, Martin I, Fabian, Stephen I, Soter, Ciriacus, Anastasius, and Innocent I, with those of several other saints who were not popes, and which were transferred hither from the catacombs.

The basilica church was exceedingly plain on the exterior, so that towers, whether square or round, were from time to time introduced to elaborate it. Even these added very little in the way of the beautiful. These towers were most often detached from the main building. The baptistry is found in one of two positions, either adjoining the narthex, or entirely detached. The simple and unadorned appearance of the exterior of these early churches is well shown in the outline sketch here given (Fig. 6) of the Basilica of San Agnese. The elaborate facade with its imposing adornments and beautifully sculptured and profusely scattered figures was a gradual growth. The addition of the dome was the crowning of the perfected style with the diadem of architectural royalty. The last word in basilican development might be said to be the mighty monument of the Apostles, St. Peter's.

Symbolism was inevitably associated with this development. The taste for it had been generated in the catacombs, where it is expressed in the mural decorations. The catechumen, not yet admitted to the communion of the Church, found his place in the narthex. Only by the sacrament of baptism could its portals be opened to him. It was his initiation to the Divine Mysteries. Therefore was this ceremony performed in a detached building, a symbolism that is to some extent preserved in the Catholic Church today, where the baptistry, if not actually detached, is placed in a porch enclosed by gates. The cruciform ground-plan supplied a similar symbolism.

We might remark that the name "Basilica" is now regarded as a title of honor, and is conferred by the pope on a church without reference to its architectural arrangement. It carries with it certain privileges. In addition to the five major or patriarchal basilicas and the eight minor basilicas at Rome, the title is borne in this sense by other churches in all parts of the world, as the cathedrals of Paris and Rheims in France, and the cathedral of Notre Dame at Quebec. In the Middle Ages it was also applied to elaborate structures raised over important tombs, as that over the tomb or shrine of St. Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey, since these structures bore a resemblance to diminutive churches.


  1. January and August, 1923, and March, 1924.
  2. Galat. 4:9.
  3. Eusebius, b. viii, c. i.
  4. John, 19: 13.
  5. Guide to Architecture, p. 83.

© The Dolphin Press

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