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Early Christian Churches in Rome, Part 1

Updated: Mar 3, 2021

What follows here are some features of churches from roughly 350-1100 in Rome. Most of my photo studies are of Romanesque and Gothic, but I'm gathering these for you to show some of the roots of the architectural and artistic features of the later styles. This discussion continues in Part 2.

Santa Costanza

Santa Costanza began its life in the mid-4th-century as a mausoleum for (likely) the sister of Emperor Constantine, who was a converted Christian. It is placed over catacombs, which may hold the relics of St. Agnes, whose church is next door. As you can see, it's built as a rotunda. The sarcophagus would have been in the center, but now there is only an empty porphyry sarcophagus in the back--not the one intended to be honored. The church is outside the original walls of Rome, which was both where the city's burials were permitted (for sanitary reasons), and where early Christians (before Costanza) preferred to worship, and perhaps martyr themselves.

The Ambulatory Mosaics

These mosaics are found in the barrel arch which composes an ambulatory around the center. Pictured here are the more secular-themed mosaics. These designs are consistent with those in palaces and prestige buildings of the time, but the Dionysian grape and vine images could mark the transitional phase in Christianity, where images from pagan religion are appropriated and repurposed for the new religion. Not pictured are two apses which have images of Christ and St. Peter, which were installed a century or two later.

The Dome

The dome, which soars above the central area of the mausoleum/church, would have let in light upon the sarcophagus, and, later, the altar. The original mosaics of the dome are gone, and a 16th century fresco is in its place. It looks as though at some point there was an oculus or lantern at the crown of the dome, which would have let in even more light. I don't find records of whether the opening was later, but I'd be surprised, given the time period of construction, if it was original, because it would have displaced the "prime real estate" for an imposing central figure or scene in a mosaic form.

Santo Stefano Rotondo

This building was constructed as a church from its beginnings, about a century after Santa Costanza. The church is dedicated to Saint Stephen, an early Christian martyr. In the first centuries of Christianity, martyrdom was an act of supreme devotion to the faith. Troubling accounts exist of some Roman magistrates pleading with Christians to make a token gesture to the cult of the emperor (such as burning incense at an altar to the emperors--a kind of state religion, much like singing the national anthem at baseball games and standing for the Pledge of Allegiance is in America today), to no avail. Santo Stefano's rotunda design evokes the Roman mausoleum style, which to me resonates with the idea of glorious death by sacrifice, which would, in this religious sense, befit a kingly or queenly burial. In both Costanza and Stefano, the altar takes the center-stage, where the sarcophagus would have been in a Roman mausoleum. The altar is the site where the priest sanctifies the wine and bread, symbolically enacting the resurrection of Christ (and, in the hopes of the congregants, themselves eventually, if they die faithful). Late Renaissance murals surround the center now, with nearly three dozen saints' grisly deaths witnessed on the walls. For a modern viewer, it's a shocking series, but it would have been intended to be impressive to its contemporary congregants, signaling that the saints one prays to as intercessors have won great favor in God's eyes, and therefore can work miracles on one's behalf.

In the later Middle Ages, rotunda-style church design becomes popular again, when elite Christian fighters come back from the First Crusade, and decide to build in churches in the style of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Sant'Agnese Fuori Le Mura

Next door to Santa Costanza is another early church, from the 7th century, dedicated to Saint Agnes, whose relics were taken from the catacombs below the church and deposited in a crypt below the altar area. This church is designed in the Roman basilica (business/legal office) style. The two levels of round-arches along the nave, with two side-aisles and an apse behind the altar have by this time become a fairly standard church plan. The mosaics are original, except for the scene above the "triumphal arch" which frames the apse. The coffered ceiling fits the basilica tradition, though this one was redesigned in the early 17th century.

The Clerestory and Side-Aisle

From this view, you can see how the round arches with their Corinthian pillars are echoed in the second-story gallery, and then in the arched windows of the clerestory, near the ceiling. The mosaics are smaller and less narrative-oriented than those in the apse.

Vaulting in the Narthex and Gallery;

Plus, That Coffered Ceiling

This view may be a little disorienting, but I wanted to show you the ribbed vaulting on two different levels. The scale and depth are quite different, and it's not just the camera lens giving you this telescoping effect. The decreasing scale of each level (ground floor, gallery, clerestory, and the coffered ceiling) have the effect of pulling away from you, making the ceiling seem even more remote, yet impressive. The redesign of the ceiling in 1606 (paint is 19th c.), however, captures the light from the clerestory the way that original gilding would have. The giant bas-relief of St. Agnes hovers in the cross-shaped recess as though she were floating in heaven.

The Saint Agnes Mosaic in the Apse

The mosaics in the apse are original to the construction. Agnes is shown here in her martyrdom (being burned at the stake--note how her red shoes match the flames). It's a Byzantine-influenced mosaic style (similar to that in Ravenna of Empress Theodora), which gives Agnes the crown of martyrdom, and dresses her in jewels and silks like an empress. The gown would have been understood to be the purple which was reserved for royalty. (I asked some Byzantine art scholars about the brown robes, and they told me that purple was very hard to effect in medieval church art, whether in mosaic tesserae or later stained glass, so brown was what stood in for purple. This only reinforces that purple was *very* expensive and reserved for the most privileged and the highest ceremonial objects. Just look at how much gold is here--but purple? Too precious.). One touch I particularly like here is the rondel/medallion of the peacock near the hem of her robes. The peacock is a symbol of eternal life, and it's a counterpoint to the flames threatening to consume her.

In Part 2 of this post, I'll provide examples of some other early churches in Rome. I'll leave you with an analysis of a Byzantine church in Ravenna which explains some of the elements I've presented here:

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