Churches

With the public acceptance of Christianity under Constantine, churches have become a common feature of the city. They are all new constructions, none much more than 50 years old, although they are almost all based around significantly older tombs, the tombs of martyrs.

Thanks to the laws of Rome, these tombs were all outside the city itself, and many were underground. The most fundamental rule followed in building the churches is that the tombs themselves cannot be moved at all; they must stay exactly where they were. Since the tomb is normally made to be visible in the floor of the church, this means that many churches are sunken below the level of the surrounding ground. Even those that are roughly on ground level are often next to hills, and thus built into a space cut away from the hillside, like Saint Peter’s Basilica. Others have a floor that is several feet underground, and a few are completely subterranean.

Whatever the location, the basic plan is consistent. Churches in Rome take the form of basilicae: long, rectangular halls, with a double row of columns. The tomb of the martyr is typically at the western end of the church, which is entered from the eastern end. This can cause problems, when there were obstacles that could not be moved. The Basilica of Saint Paul, for example, is a small church, far smaller than the importance of the saint would suggest, because the church could not be extended very far east of the saint’s tomb.

Many churches were well financed by Constantine and his successors, although Julian’s moves to return wealth to the pagan temples led to a temporary downturn. As a result, most churches are decorated with mosaics and frescoes, and use columns and stone taken from other buildings, in particular pagan temples that were demolished to make room for the churches. This can lead to some odd juxtapositions, with pagan reliefs decorating the area behind a saint’s tomb.

The tomb itself is the central feature of the church, and is normally referred to as the “trophy”; the Christians believe that death as a martyr is a great prize. Although the tomb itself is almost always extremely simple, having been constructed by people in fear of persecution, the tomb is normally surrounded by a rich framework to emphasize the worth of the martyr within.

The most significant feature of a church is the martyr who is honored there. Almost all churches are named after their martyr, and the decoration of the building normally includes scenes from the saint’s life, and most critically, the scene of his or her death. Some saints were simply beheaded, but others were burned alive, mauled to death by wild beasts, or crucified upside down. These death scenes are not painted realistically; the saints are always immensely calm, while the evil on the faces of their persecutors is emphasized. Since the martyrs of Rome were, in most respects, normal Romans, their names reflect this. Male and female martyrs are known, but male martyrs are more common.

Churches

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