Before the legal recognition of the new faith in the early 4th cent., Christian places of worship were of necessity inconspicuous and had no fixed architectural form. Afterward, however, imposing cult edifices were erected in many parts of the Roman Empire, especially in its major cities, Rome, Constantinople, Milan, Antioch, and Ravenna. Early Christian builders adapted structures that had long been used in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds. The basilican hall, consisting of a nave flanked by lower aisles and terminated by an apse, was adopted as the standard structure in Christian congregational worship. Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna and Santa Sabina in Rome still survive as largely unaltered examples of this type.
In Early Christian architecture a distinct emphasis was placed on the centralized plan, which was of round, polygonal, or cruciform shape. Baptisteries and memorial shrines (martyria) were based on the traditionally centralized Roman funerary monument. Martyria were erected on sites connected with certain events in the life of Jesus and other places held to be sanctified by the sacrifice of the martyrs. In such buildings as Saint Peter's in Rome and the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the martyrium structure and basilica were combined, creating a new formal synthesis of great significance for the religious architecture of the medieval period.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.