Constantinian the Great
Between 306-337AD the Roman Empire was under the rule of Constantine the Great who was he first Roman Emperor to profess Christianity. This led to the development of a Christian Empire and by extension the growth of both the Byzantine Empire and the Western culture in the medieval period (Baker 5). Other than engaging in numerous battles and ruling Rome alone, Constantine the great is also celebrated for the introduction of new architectural design, the martyrium and the basilical Church (Krautheimer 123). This paper will focus on these architectural techniques, their functions and their origins.
Functions of the basilicas and martyrium
Constantinian basilicas were halls designed for large gatherings. These gatherings included among others gathering for the township, they acted as market places, gatherings for judicial sessions, military drills, theatres, reception halls for the wealthy and consequently as throne rooms for royal fortresses. The basilicas would later serve as Christian churches and places where the remains of the apostles were buried (Krautheimer 122).
One of the best-preserved Constantinian basilicas is the one at Trier. When Constantine ruled Trier as Caesar in the years between 305- 312 AD, the basilica was built. It served as the greatest audience hall in which the Constantine sat to receive reverence and bestow justice. This was because the basilica’s audience hall was attached to the palace. Other than the basilica at Trier, Constantine built another basilica in Rome that was attached to Lateran Roman palace. This basilica was to serve as a cathedral for the Christian bishop and his flock (Krautheimer 117-118).
It is important to note that Constantinian basilicas that served as cathedrals for Christian congregations fall in the same category in terms of design as the basilicas that Constantine laid down for other secular functions. All basilicas had an architectural role of public monumental buildings. They were built with Constantine’s monetary and political support as part of a political initiative. They were just as other basilicas meeting and audience halls. These basilicas shared similarities in size, modest construction and extravagant adornments (Krautheimer 130).
Constantinian basilicas were also built in commemoration of Apostles. This introduced a new form of architecture called the martyrium. A martyrium was a structure erected to bear witness of Christian faith. These were forms of commemoration of Christian martyrs often built on their tombs. They were sunken to bring pilgrims closer to the martyrs. Constantinian basilica at Holy Sepulchre was an example of a martyrium (Armstrong 13). This basilica took the plan of a cruciform, which was in contrast to the longitudinal plan of the other basilicas. The Holy Sepulchre and other martyriums of that time served as churches where the relics of the saints could be brought in addition to establishing the churches on top of the saints’ graves (Armstrong 13).
St. Peters basilica is also one of the great basilicas constricted under the commission of Emperor Constantine. It served as a cathedral for the Christin congregations and as a martyrium constructed in commemoration of St. Peter. In addition, the basilica served as a centre of numerous festivals including the festival of the cathedral of St. Peter on the 22nd February including the combined centenary of St. Peter and St. Paul on 29th June. During these events, Christians who wished to witness these celebrations thronged the basilica as it was designed to accommodate a throng of people (Bannister 31).
Origins of Constantinian basilicas
Architectures in the Roman antique thought in line with the grading of architectural categories and their sub categories. Ideally, the naming was determined by the purpose of the building. Each of these buildings were bestowed with suitable plans, vocabulary and stylist perception. This was concerning temples, funerary buildings, domestic architecture and public architecture. Basilicas, irrespective of their purpose, were property of the public realm. Their positions including their vocabulary had great amount of flexibility compared to other forms of buildings. The designs and eventual construction of basilicas advanced from a purely utilitarian perspective (Krautheimer 123). Those considered as public basilicas of reputation in Rome and other cities had to reflect the magnificence of the Empire and the authority of the divine ruler. This main aim was to use basilicas as tools of spreading political propaganda. Religious buildings in Rome were majorly conservative and the basilicas of this time retained their tractability until the year 300 AD when the architectural field went through a process of break-up and renaissance (Krautheimer 123).
This change in design had its preparation prior to its occurrence. These changes were to appear in both the function and the plan of the basilicas. Any public basilica for example, had both religious meanings and other ordinary functions. Within these new basilicas, the law was to be bestowed as business transactions were legitimately concluded before the image of the Emperor’s heavenly genius. In addition, the thermae basilicas also had this image or an alternative of some other divinity. The effigy whose usual place was the on the apses of the basilica was later relocated to religious edifices. This included the Synagogue at Alexandria, an enormous basilica, bestowed with double lanes but was destroyed in 116 A.D (Krautheimer 123-124).
By the beginning of the fourth century, the revitalization of the statue was complete. This meant that the presence of the Emperor in person or in effigy had become a predominant phenomenon in all basilicas. Under this structure, the borderline between religion, the law and governance in basilicas had been eliminated. This meant that any basilica was to have the sanctuary of the god of earth. The traditional design of basilicas had become obsolete. During the early reign of Constantine the main type of basilica was strictly a longitudinal structure housing throne rooms and accustomed bastions of the Emperor with lavish houses and cottages (Krautheimer 124-125). This included basilicas such as the one at Piazza Armerina built in early 300. As years progressed, basilica designs spread beyond the private and palace basilica. All monumental public basilicas became the responsibility and property of the Emperor (Krautheimer 125). The longitudinal basilica became the best of all basilicas. After 300, Constantinian church basilicas could be understood from the background of raising the church for anonymity and persecution. This made the building of church basilica a public affair (Krautheimer 126).
The construction of Constantinian basilicas and martyrium were an attempt to express power and authority in his the empire. Constantine being the first Emperor to profess Christianity used the opportunity to establish his dominance in the church (Baker 5). Initially basilicas served as market places, judicial offices and the Emperors lavish palaces (Krautheimer 122). With the acceptance of Christianity, basilicas were built to commemorate Christ’s apostles, have a place of worship for Christians and build a sanctuary for the emperor as the early God. The origin of basilicas is traceable to the traditional Roman architectural designs that through renaissance developed the technique of designing enormous buildings especially the longitudinal design that stood out as the best of all the basilicas ((Krautheimer 123, 126).
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Architectural Historians, Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 31, 1974
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Bannister, T. The Constantinian Basilica of Saint Peter at Rome. Journal of the Society of
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