If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Early Christian art and architecture after Constantine

By the beginning of the fourth century Christianity was a growing mystery religion in the cities of the Roman world. It was attracting converts from different social levels. Christian theology and art was enriched through the cultural interaction with the Greco-Roman world. But Christianity would be radically transformed through the actions of a single man.

Rome becomes Christian and Constantine builds churches

In 312, the Emperor Constantine defeated his principal rival Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Accounts of the battle describe how Constantine saw a sign in the heavens portending his victory. Eusebius, Constantine's principal biographer, describes the sign as the Chi Rho, the first two letters in the Greek spelling of the name Christos.
The Colossus of Constantine, c. 312-15 (Palazzo dei Conservatori, Musei Capitolini, Rome)
Colossus of Constantine, c. 312-15 (Palazzo dei Conservatori, Musei Capitolini, Rome)
After that victory Constantine became the principal patron of Christianity. In 313 he issued the Edict of Milan which granted religious toleration. Although Christianity would not become the official religion of Rome until the end of the fourth century, Constantine's imperial sanction of Christianity transformed its status and nature. Neither imperial Rome or Christianity would be the same after this moment. Rome would become Christian, and Christianity would take on the aura of imperial Rome.
The transformation of Christianity is dramatically evident in a comparison between the architecture of the pre-Constantinian church and that of the Constantinian and post-Constantinian church. During the pre-Constantinian period, there was not much that distinguished the Christian churches from typical domestic architecture. A striking example of this is presented by a Christian community house, from the Syrian town of Dura-Europos. Here a typical home has been adapted to the needs of the congregation. A wall was taken down to combine two rooms: this was undoubtedly the room for services. It is significant that the most elaborate aspect of the house is the room designed as a baptistry. This reflects the importance of the sacrament of Baptism to initiate new members into the mysteries of the faith. Otherwise this building would not stand out from the other houses. This domestic architecture obviously would not meet the needs of Constantine's architects.
Emperors for centuries had been responsible for the construction of temples throughout the Roman Empire. We have already observed the role of the public cults in defining one's civic identity, and Emperors understood the construction of temples as testament to their pietas, or respect for the customary religious practices and traditions. So it was natural for Constantine to want to construct edifices in honor of Christianity. He built churches in Rome including the Church of St. Peter, he built churches in the Holy Land, most notably the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, and he built churches in his newly-constructed capital of Constantinople.
Giovanni Ciampini, De sacris aedificiis a Constantino Magno constructis: synopsis historica, 1693, p. 33
Old St. Peter's Basilica, Rome, from: Giovanni Ciampini, De sacris aedificiis a Constantino Magno constructis: synopsis historica, 1693, p. 33

The basilica

In creating these churches, Constantine and his architects confronted a major challenge: what should be the physical form of the church? Clearly the traditional form of the Roman temple would be inappropriate both from associations with pagan cults but also from the difference in function. Temples served as treasuries and dwellings for the cult; sacrifices occurred on outdoor altars with the temple as a backdrop. This meant that Roman temple architecture was largely an architecture of the exterior. Since Christianity was a mystery religion that demanded initiation to participate in religious practices, Christian architecture put greater emphasis on the interior. The Christian churches needed large interior spaces to house the growing congregations and to mark the clear separation of the faithful from the unfaithful. At the same time, the new Christian churches needed to be visually meaningful. The buildings needed to convey the new authority of Christianity. These factors were instrumental in the formulation during the Constantinian period of an architectural form that would become the core of Christian architecture to our own time: the Christian Basilica.
Reconstruction of the interior of the Basilica Ulpia
Reconstruction of the interior of the Basilica Ulpia
The basilica was not a new architectural form. The Romans had been building basilicas in their cities and as part of palace complexes for centuries. A particularly lavish one was the so-called Basilica Ulpia constructed as part of the Forum of the Emperor Trajan in the early second century. Basilicas had diverse functions but essentially they served as formal public meeting places. One of the major functions of the basilicas was as a site for law courts. These were housed in an architectural form known as the apse. In the Basilica Ulpia, these semi-circular forms project from either end of the building, but in some cases, the apses would project off of the length of the building. The magistrate who served as the representative of the authority of the Emperor would sit in a formal throne in the apse and issue his judgments. This function gave an aura of political authority to the basilicas.
Basilica at Trier

Aula Palatina, Trier, early 4th century C.E. (photo: Beth M527, CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Basilica at Trier (Aula Palatina)

Basilicas also served as audience halls as a part of imperial palaces. A well-preserved example is found in the northern German town of Trier. Constantine built a basilica as part of a palace complex in Trier which served as his northern capital. Although a fairly simple architectural form and now stripped of its original interior decoration, the basilica must have been an imposing stage for the emperor. Imagine the emperor dressed in imperial regalia marching up the central axis as he makes his dramatic adventus or entrance along with other members of his court. This space would have humbled an emissary who approached the enthroned emperor seated in the apse.
Essay by Dr. Allen Farber

Additional resources:

Want to join the conversation?

  • female robot ada style avatar for user Hayley
    I don't understand why Constantine made Christianity the official religion of Rome after so many centuries absorbing and devoting to multiple gods. Didn't that decision originate a social crisis and protests among the people?
    (10 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • male robot hal style avatar for user Aaron Dean
    "The Christian churches needed large interior spaces to house the growing congregations and to mark the clear separation of the faithful from the unfaithful"

    I don't understand what the separation is all about. Were people not supposed to be baptized before being a member of the church? Or were there people who were not, and were segregated inside those buildings?
    (5 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • female robot grace style avatar for user Kara Larson
    I keep reading that Christianity is a "mystery religion", but I don't know what the term means. What is a "mystery religion"?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Миленa
      in the Roman world, citizens were required to worship the state religion (Jupiter, Venus, all those gods). However, the elite had an option of joining mystery religions - religious cults that usually came from foreign countries (the Cult of Mithras from Persia, the Bacchanalia from Greece). The doctrines of mystery religions were kept secret to all outsiders; to join, you had to go through a period of initiation. We usually think of Christianity as an open religion that welcomes everybody, but the reality was very different in Rome (at least until Constantine's conversion)!

      To learn more, the source Dr. Zucker provided is awesome.
      (4 votes)
  • male robot hal style avatar for user Benjamin
    I have heard that the early christian house church is called a titulus, is this correct?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • female robot ada style avatar for user Hayley
      It was called a Domus Ecclesiae, and they were generally houses of the believers that were adapted to serve them; it would be added a baptistery and the dinner room would be used to share bread and wine (agape/agapai). The houses would have to be discrete in the beggining since christianity was illegal.
      (3 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Mennatullah Hendawy
    Thank you for the article,
    Can you tell me how did the Basilica look like? does it differ from the churches we have nowadays? and when does the physical transformation from basilica to a church happened if there is any?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user Connor.henrichs10
    I read once that the height of ceilings in old st.peters basilica were used to make those entering to feel small compared to god or to draw the eye to the heavens...what are some characteristics of old st. peters basilica which represent or illustrate its culture of time in history? kimbo
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • mr pants teal style avatar for user Jd1500
    Why is Christianity constintly reffered to as a mysterie religion?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user xiawinna
    Why was it such a mystery religion?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user Nia Koleva
    How to reference this article?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user Riya Gill
    With the legalization of Christianity in Rome in 313AD by Emperor Constantine, many churches were built throughout Europe. What did early church builders use as their model?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      1) Before Constantine declared the church both acceptable and official, there were many churches in Europe.
      2) Many churches in the western part of Europe were built to reflect Roman governmental architecture, which is the pattern of the basillica.
      3) Some churches in Spain eventually came to be built based on Muslim patterns (Look up the Mozarabes)
      (1 vote)