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Constantine and the Church 4 – Church Buildings

Posted: August 14th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Constantine | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I hadn’t actually planned this post in the series. But a few days ago the Internet Monk had a post on Architecture for the Glory of God and some of the comments in particular caught my eye. It seems like a number of those commenting had this strange idea that churches (the buildings) somehow began with St. Constantine the Great. As I mulled that perspective, I decided this topic fit naturally in the flow of this series.

I think one of the roots of this misunderstanding arises when people read in the text of the New Testament that the Church of Philippi met in the house of Lydia or that a Church met in the house of Philemon or other similar references and without understanding the context in which it was written interpret the references in light of our more modern nuclear family dwellings. This is one of the many places where, if you do not take the time to understand or learn the historical milieu, you will simply read into the text an interpretation that does not match the reality of the experience its words express. The “houses” referenced in the New Testament bear little resemblance to our private nuclear family dwellings today.

Rather, the “houses” mentioned in Scripture would have been households containing multiple families and servants or slaves. It would have also been the center of the business of the household, whatever that business might be. We know, for instance, that Lydia was a seller of purple (which also meant she was quite wealthy). The main entrance to the dwelling would have been into the atrium, like a large courtyard though it would often have been roofed. The water source of the household (well, spring, or cistern) would typically be in the atrium just inside the entrance. At the far end would have been a raised area that served as dining area (accessible to servants from the atrium). A chopping block would typically have been front and center. People would freely enter and exit the atrium over the course of the day to conduct business and, since the dining room was raised and open to the atrium, the head of the household would typically conduct business and oversee the activity from behind the chopping block flanked by the sons and/or the key overseeing servants. In a typical household, one hundred to one hundred and fifty people could easily fit in the atrium.

When a house was converted into a church, the water source served for baptisms when outside living (running) water could not be used. The atrium was where the people gathered. The chopping block became the altar and the dining room became what we would call the nave. The bishop sat in the place of the head of household flanked by his presbyters. Now, if that’s not what comes to your mind when you hear the words “house church”, you are thinking in modern, not ancient terms.

As far as what it looked like? Well, just as the liturgy was modified  from synagogue worship, we know that the interior of ancient churches also looked not dissimilar to synagogues, only with Christian icons and symbols rather than Jewish symbols. There was even a special place for the gospels to be kept similar to the way the Torah is kept in a synagogue. But it would have been as ornate as it could be made, just as synagogues were. Think incense. Listen for the reader chanting scripture (originally from just the Septuagint, but quickly adding the Gospels, and gradually other texts that were “read in Church”) and Psalms and hymns like the cantor does in the synagogue. The “simple” church that some seem to imagine simply never existed in the ancient world. It’s a modern invention.

So what did Constantine actually do? He restored the property (probably mostly households that had been converted into churches) that had been taken from Christians in the latest persecutions and he made Christianity legal so Christians could use or convert public buildings not just private households. And Constantine and his mother Helena (mostly his mother from what I understand) did personally have a few churches built. Obviously they had more resources than just about anyone else so could spend more. But the churches they built still looked essentially like the same sort of church. In fact, that basic design endured everywhere until pews were added in the West in the Middle Ages.

The drastic changes did not really occur until, to some extent, Calvin, and then really in the radical reformation and later. I’ve mentioned that a lot of Protestantism seems very iconoclastic. And that’s true. It’s also true that iconoclasm has its roots in the influence of Islam on Christianity. However, that original iconoclasm focused on actual icons, two-dimensional images of worship (Christ and God) or of reverence (the Theotokos and the saints). Islam held that God could not be portrayed in any way, which Christians held had ceased to be true in the Incarnation. And Islam was also against the depiction of any person. The interplay within Christianity involved emperors, empresses, persecution, and took the final ecumenical to resolve, but was at its core about the Incarnation of Jesus.

However, even mosques were and often still are ornate and beautiful. Ancient iconoclasm was not against beauty and art. No Abrahamic religion adopted such a broad iconoclasm, almost a denial of the value of the material reality, until modern Protestantism. Ugliness in architecture, plainness in clothing, and a stark lack of adornment are an extreme soul-crushing form of iconoclasm. I’m glad I wasn’t among those raised to believe that was either normal or good. Because it’s neither.

And that’s not Constantine’s fault.

One Comment on “Constantine and the Church 4 – Church Buildings”

  1. 1 mike said at 6:34 am on August 14th, 2009:

    …fascinating study rabbi ….thanks