Thursday, March 1, 2007

Early Christian Art and Architecture

Jeff Okada
Honors in Rome - Winter 2007

My presentation topic was on Early Christian Art and Architecture and concentrated mainly on two churches, the Santa Pudenziana and Santa Prassede basilicas. In this presentation, I tried to give a brief historical background of the churches and then to compare and contrasts their similarities and differences. Ultimately, I concluded that these two churches were similar in that they exemplified trends of early Christian churches, and were different due to their uncommon historical backgrounds.


The Santa Pudenziana basilica was named after Saint Pudenziana, the daughter of Pudente. Saint Pudenziana, along with her sister Saint Prassede, washed and collected the remains of thousands of early Christian martyrs and their relics. The grounds of Santa Pudenziana was originally the site of two ancient Roman buildings, a thermal bath and a large, two-storied house, both of which were owned by Senator Pudente. Senator Pudente came from a rich and powerful family known as the Acilii Glabriones, who had to their credit several generations of Roman senators. Living in the apostolic age, he was St. Paul’s first Christian convert in Rome and is referenced in the New Testament as a layman in the Roman Church (2 Timothy 4:21). It is also recorded that he lodged St. Peter for seven years during the Roman Emperor Nero’s persecution of Christians in the first century. The original basilica, the titulus Pudente, was built in remembrance of the hospitality given to St. Peter and was consecrated by Pope Pius I in 145 AD. The current Santa Pudenziana basilica was built between the papacies of Siricius and Innocent I and probably began in 398 AD.

After the death of her father Pudente, her sister Pudenziana and her brother Novatus, Prassedes inherited the family wealth and constructed a church which sheltered many Christians from the persecution of Emperor Antonius Pius. In the middle of the first century AD, Pope Pius I built an oratory over the present site of the church. Pope Paschal I (817-824) re-built the titulus Prassede into the present day church and added the focal piece of the building, the elaborate and ornate glass mosaics.

The Santa Pudenziana and Santa Prassede basilicas are two of the oldest Christian churches in Rome. Both of these churches have common art and architectural features that exemplify a trend in early Christian churches. On the other hand, they differ in the historical context in which they were built. The mosaics and the main architectural forms of Santa Pudenziana are mainly concerned with the exultation of Jesus Christ and the Christian ideology, and remain unchanged since their completion in the early fourth century. The mosaics and decorations of the Santa Prassede basilica were completed in the ninth century and are thus influenced by the transition of Christian art toward a more secular agenda (i.e. the glorification of Pope Paschal I and his anti-iconoclastic stance).

The proliferation of Christian churches and Christian art in the fourth century occurs because of two main factors: the end of Christian persecution and the gradual promotion of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire. During the first three hundred years after the apostolic age, early Christians faced waves of persecution at the hands of the Roman government. The Christian belief in one omnipotent God in heaven clashed with the idea of the Roman emperor as divine; the idea of pledging allegiance to an other-worldly God instead of to the emperor threatened the legitimacy of the emperor’s rule. Often, Christians were forced to hide from authorities and to perform their ceremonies and worship services in private. These early Christian churches usually comprised of a room or section in a private home, known as the domus ecclesias, that was used exclusively for worship.

The frequency of Christian persecution diminished as more and more people converted to the new religion. In 313, the council of Nicea pronounced that all citizens had freedom of religion, thereby clearing the last hurdles for Christians to worship in public. It was now one’s protected right to practice Christianity. The status of the Church changed again with the conversion of Constantine and the promotion of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire towards the end of the fourth century. With this new status, the Christian church could for the first time build permanent structures that were utilized exclusively for worship and ceremonies.

Architecturally, Christian church buildings posed many novel problems for their designs. Thomas F. Mathews argues that the architectural inventions of the early Christian church were directly tied with providing for the functionality of the church. He writes that the Christian church differed in many ways from their pagan predecessors. Pagan temples were merely a holding ground for the statue of the cult and the revenue of the temple. Actual worship was carried out either in front of the structure or in a designated courtyard. The Christian church, on the other hand, was meant to house worshippers and to function as a public meeting ground. Public meetings often included feasts to celebrate the birth dates of dead family members or patron saints. Moreover, Christian worship was much different in the early church than it is today. The pews and chairs, so ubiquitious in the modern church, were absent in the early Christian church and in the ceremonies of the liturgy there was a great deal of enthused and boisterous movements.

The new challenges posed by this difference in function led to the architectural themes in both the Santa Pudenziana and the Santa Prassede basilicas. The church buildings would be designed from a Roman basilica. Basilicas were used in ancient Rome for business transactions and law courts. They consisted of two rows of marble columns that both delimited a main center area and offered several separate side arcades. Towards one end was an apse that provided the seat of a high command or magistrate to preside over business deals and lower officials. Natural light was allowed through the top row of clerestory windows.

The design of the Roman basilica was used for Christian churches because of the practical purpose that they had the capacity to fill a large and often hectic congregation. To orient the worshipper, the Santa Prassede and Santa Pudenziana basilicas were rotated so that as one entered there stretched a long, instead of a wide, hall; the worshipper would now be led down a long building to the high altar instead of one that stretched out from the viewer’s sides. In both basilicas, the arches that would support the roof of the long nave were bolstered by marble columns from Roman antiquity. Since Christians generally faced the East to pray, the nave of the churches also had to be rotated so that it faced the easterly direction. In both the Santa Pudenziana and the Santa Prassede the area of the nave was significantly widened to accommodate large crowds of people.

Once the basic architectural model was established, a new problem arose for early Christian artists. The directionality of the church now provided a fresh space in which to educate and inspire the worshipper. The central nave ended with an apse, which housed the high altar. This served to conclude the space of the congregation and demarcate a space for the clergy. The wall space above the apse could now function to hold the object of prayer for the congregation. Artists were pressed to figure out how best to fill this space so that it accurately portrayed scenes from the New Testament, educated the illiterate in Christian concepts, and inspire those motivated more easily by images. Their solution was the apse mosaic made with glass, which is present both at Santa Prassede and Santa Pudenziana.

Mosaics were popular in Roman buildings, but mostly as decorations for the floor. Accordingly, they were designed to please the viewer but also to satisfy the practical purpose of paved flooring. Thus, mosaics were almost exclusively made of robust material such as marble. Christian mosaics were the first to be made from glass and were unusual in that they were the central object of focus for the viewer. The glass mosaics could now be adorned with a range of rich and magnificent coloring, the most important of which was gold. Gold conveyed to the viewer warmness and comfort during the day, while reflecting the intense burning from candlelights at night. The apse mosaics were also novel in that they were not broken into sections as was popular in Roman art.

The subject matter of the mosaics also represented a separation from the past and can be seen as sending messages to the worshippers. The figures of Jesus, the Apostles, or the Virgin Mary are staring out towards the viewer, engaging him or her into the mosaic. This contrasted with figures from classical art, which were removed from contact with the audience. The message being sent is that the Bible and the redemption offered by Jesus are accessible to all.

Other themes of these mosaics included the symmetry, hierarchy, and the frontal portrayal of the figures. These characteristics gave the viewer a sense of order and harmony; these images reminded the congregation that there is an order to their seemingly chaotic existence and that the key, central figure of this order is Jesus Christ, who is predominately placed in the center of the work.

The mosaics in both the Santa Prassede and Santa Pudenziana basilicas conformed to the themes of the early Christian church. The apse mosaic in the Santa Pudenziana basilica presented Jesus in the center with the twelve apostles flanked below Him on either side. Jesus holds up His hand and seems to be instructing His followers. The scroll in His left hand reads “Dominus Conservator Ecclesiae Pudentianae” or “the Lord, protector of Santa Pudenziana.” The Apostles whisper to one another and a few are looking directly at their audience. Jesus is seated over a lamb that stretches its head to a dove, which represents the Holy Ghost. Two women that personify the two parts of the original Christian community (Hebrew and pagan) are crowning St. Peter and St. Paul. Above Jesus, there is a huge gemmed cross on the Golgotha. Four evangelists at the sides of the Cross are represented in tetramorfo: St. Matthew as the angel, St. Mark as the lion, St. Luke as the calf, and St. John as the eagle. In the background are the Holy places in Palestine: the Anastatian church in Jerusalem, the basilica on Golgotha, the Constantinian Nativity church, and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

This mosaic suggested the order provided by Christianity through the artistic tactics of symmetry and hierarchy. Jesus is at the center of the mosaic, flanked by his subordinates (the twelve apostles). All of the figures present are symmetrical about a vertical axis of Jesus, the dove, and the gemmed cross. The hierarchy can be seen mainly between Jesus and his apostles. Jesus is depicted much larger than the subordinates and spatially above them on the Holy See. This not only sends a message of Jesus as above that of his apostles, but also of Jesus as presiding over the events and ceremonies of the church.

The mosaic was also very engaging to the viewer. Aside from the eye contact made by the characters depicted in the mosaics, the buildings in the background correspond to an actual landscape of Palestine that had existed at the time. The presence of actual, real buildings beside Jesus Christ and His Apostles suggest the accessibility of God to the common worshipper.

The Santa Prassede basilica contained stunning mosaics on the triumphal arch, the arch of the apse wall, the half dome of the apse, and in the chapel of St. Zeno. These mosaics provide additional evidence of the early Christian themes presented above, while also conveying the switch of Christian art as propaganda in service of the patron. These four mosaics all formed the original decorations of Paschal I’s church and, like those found in the Santa Pudenziana basilica, are made of glass tessarae.

Both the mosaic of the arch of the apse and the mosaic adorning the arch of triumph have elements of symmetry and hierarchy similar to the mosaics found in early Christian artwork. The mosaic of the arch of the apse features the lamb—Christ resurrected—on a book of God’s plan for salvation, symbolizing that only through Him can one hope to partake in God’s salvation. On the sides there are seven chandeliers (or lamps) that symbolize the “seven churches of Asia” or all Christian communities in all places at all times. There are four angels on either side representing the four evangelists in tetramorfo form. Next comes the depiction of twenty four elderly men dressed in white offering a gold crown of wisdom to Christ. Again in this mosaic, the composition is very balanced and is symmetrical about the lamb. There is a less pronounced hierarchy in this mosaic as the church is closer to Jesus than the Apostles.

In the mosaic on the arch of triumph, there is a depiction of the apocalypse and there is a gem-decorated enclosure with towers idealizing the celestial Jerusalem. Inside the celestial city, Jesus, wearing a gold tunic and outlined in red, holds a scroll and motions with a wave of a hand a blessing, while two angels look on from His sides. Underneath and to the right of Jesus is the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist. Underneath and to the left of Jesus is St. Prassedes. Further to the left of Christ is Elias, extending out his arms to Christ, and to the right of Christ is Moses with a tablet of written “Laws.” Outside the walls lies the elect awaiting entrance into the celestial city. On the left are men and women of different ages who were martyred. On the right, the elect are led by St. Peter and St. Paul. On the lower register are characters that represent figures from the book of Revelation. They are standing and facing Jesus, suggesting that they are alive and share a personal relationship with God. They are wrapped in white gowns, suggesting that they live in this relationship permanently and participate in the Resurrection of Christ. The palm leaves that they are waving represent their victory over evil. Again, this mosaic is very symmetrical around Jesus and there is a clear hierarchy in the proximity of the figures to Christ at the center of the celestial Jerusalem. The more important figures are depicted nearer Jesus than those that are not central to either the theme of the piece or Christian doctrine in general.

In the mosaic of the half dome, symmetry and hierarchy is also present suggesting a link in styles between Christian art of the eighth and fourth century. However, an important difference can be seen in the subject matter found in the newer work. Christian doctrine and ideology is no longer the sole benefactor of Christian art. The mosaic of the half dome shows how art was now produced so as to boost the reputation of the patron and his causes.

The mosaic of the half dome portrays Jesus in the center with his right arm raised to show the scars of the crucifixion on his palm, while His left arm holds a scroll. He is being crowned by God (depicted by the hand from the clouds) in recognition of His glory and honor. To the left of Christ, there is an image of St. Peter with his arm around Pudenziana, whom he presents to God. She is richly dressed and wears a crown and a white veil, which symbolizes her status as a velatio viginis. Further to the left is a deacon recognizable by a dalmatic, a large-sleeved robe used in liturgical ceremonies. To the right of Christ, there is an image of St. Paul presenting St. Prassede to God. St. Prassede is also luxuriantly dressed and wears a crown, indicating that she has been recognized for her work and eventual martyrdom. Further to the right of St. Prassede stands Pope Paschal I. He presents to Christ a model of the church that he has built and around his head is a square halo indicating that he was still alive at the time the mosaic was constructed. On either side of these seven characters are two palm trees. There is a phoenix that rests on top of one of these palms; thus this palm represents the idea of resurrection and rebirth. The palm tree to the right represents paradise.

Symmetry and hierarchy are again present in the mosaic of the half dome. The seven characters and the palm trees form a mirror image (although imperfect) about a vertical axis with Jesus in the center. The hierarchy is especially explicit; Jesus is at the center above the other characters, but is below that of His Father who is crowning Him. A priest standing below this mosaic continues the trend, so that he can be seen as being directly endowed from Jesus and God Himself.

In the lower part of the basin is present a lamb above a mound of four rivers of Paradise that stretch to the end of the Earth. Twelve lambs on either side of the center represent the twelve Apostles. They are walking away from Bethlehem (symbolic of the church of the pagan) and Jerusalem (the church of the Jews). Under the basin of the apse is written: (translation):

This resting-place in honour of the noble Prassedes beloved of the Lord in heaven, is resplendent with decoration of diverse precious stones thanks to the kindness of the Sovereign Pontif Paschal disciple of the Apostolic See. He it was who placed under these walls the bodies of numerous saints gathered from every part, confident that, by their own means, they have merited admittance to the resting-place in heaven.
Symmetry is also maintained on the lower part of the basin. Christ is portrayed at the center and is surrounded on both sides by six lambs and an ancient city. Hierarchy is also evident as Jesus, symbolized by a lamb, is again above the other figures in the mosaic and at the center of the piece.

The inscription along the bottom of the basin and the figure of Paschal I in the half dome mosaic show how Christian art has, by the eighth century, been hi-jacked by patrons for their own self-aggrandizement. The mosaics featured in the early Christian churches concentrated mainly on conveying the values of the church. Little or no ancillary agenda was pursued in these early works of art. However, the decorations in later centuries were often replete with favorable images of the patron or the overseer of the project. This is exemplified by the mosaic of Santa Prassede. Paschal I allowed himself to be conveyed in the mosaic, the only living figure in the image. His appearance, especially his regal clothing and square halo, suggested that he has enjoyed personal favor from God. Paschal I’s presence with Jesus in paradise suggested to the viewer that Paschal I has somehow obtained entrance into this holy place. The mosaic successfully painted Paschal I as holy and close to Jesus, and thus a legitimate leader of the church. This message is echoed by the inscription on the bottom of the mosaic. Paschal I is portrayed as being the patron of the church and also as champion of the preservation of remains and relics of ancient martyrs. In his role as Sovereign, Paschal I has graciously provided elaborate decorative elements for his congregation and worked industriously to secure the relics for future generations and thus proves himself a righteous ruler.

Aside from exhibiting early Christian art and architectural themes, the basilica also was meant to send political messages for the patron. In Santa Prassede, the mosaic of the half dome establishes that images and relics are valuable to God and thus furthers the cause supported by Paschal I.

Starting in the early eighth century there was a faction in the Church who viewed images as corrupting. Christian doctrine specifies that there is but one God and that all prayers and admiration must be afforded to Him. The Iconoclasts saw the proliferation of Christian art and Christian images as a dangerous way to succumb to the Christian sin of idolatry. In 724 AD, an Iconoclast, Leo VII, rose to become the Eastern emperor in Constantinople. He issued an edict calling for the destruction of all images and relics. Pope Gregory III countered by issuing an edict against destroying images. This feud between Eastern and Western factions continued into the ninth century and the papacy of Paschal I. Paschal I, aligned with the pro-images group, worked to search the ancient catacombs for relics and increase the number of art pieces being commissioned for the church. Santa Prassede was re-built to house the relics from the catacombs and as a medium space for grander and more elaborate mosaic work.

The mosaics of Santa Prassede’s basilica depict Saints Prassede and Pudenziana in regal attire and as highly favored by God and the Apostles. Since the Saints’ good deeds are based on the preservation of relics, the mosaic suggests the importance that God and the Christian faith places on relics and images. The mosaic suggests the holiness of relics and images and serves to bolster the claims of the counter revolutionaries. In this way, Christian art can be seen as transitioning into providing a platform in order to further the reputation of its patron and his political agenda.

The architecture and art of the Early Christian church is interesting to the viewer because of the interesting mix of novelty and traditional. They show the observer the limits of contemporary ideas and norms, and how new ideas and innovations arise from novel challenges. Although there are major changes that take place in the Gothic age, the Christian basilica still possesses the main attributes first designed in the early fourth century: three aisles leading to an apse, the columns supporting lateral arches, and the long corridor leading to the main altar. Also, the themes of early Christian art live on to the present day. When the apse mosaics of the early Christian period were ousted to make room for stained glass, the themes of the apse mosaics were retained and carried over to the sculptures adorning the fa├žade.

The most interesting thing that I learned while researching these churches was that both of them had rich and convoluted histories. Both churches can trace their roots back to antiquity and Santa Pudenziana still possesses two thousand year old structures beneath it. It was also interesting to learn about how propaganda could be used in the service of the church and how subtle points of the piece (say, the relative sizes of the characters) made a huge difference in terms of how the viewer understands the work.


Bibliography
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Mancinelli, Fabrizio. “Catacombs and Basilicas: the Early Christians in Rome.” Scala Books. Distributed by Harper & Row Publishers, Italy, 1989.

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Brandenburg, Hugo. “Ancient Churches of Rome From the Fourth to the Seventh Century: The Dawn of Christian Architecture in the West.” Brepols Publishers N.V., Turnhout, Belgium. 2005.

Kane, Eileen. “San Clemente: The Saint Catherine Chapel.” Collegio San Clemente, Rome, 2000.

Minor, Vernon Hyde, “Medieval Theory: Christianity, the Human, the Divine” Art History’s History. New Jersey, 1994

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