Development of house churches. Story

If Dura, remote on the banks of the Euphrates, provided the typical example of the 'house-church', other buildings of this same simple pattern exist which show arrangements made for religious practice in a domestic setting. Instances of this may be found in Rome, in Spain and in Britain.

The title-churches of Rome are the oldest established churches in the city, and were administered by clergy who regarded a district, more or less fixed, as their parish. But the word 'title' in this context originally referred to a 'name'—the name, that is, of the owner of the property on which the church was situated. This at first indicated merely the private house in which one or more rooms were set apart for religious purposes. The next stage came about when an architect designed a structure which, when viewed from the outside, looked like other buildings in a given street, but which inside was specially adapted to the uses of congregational worship, the chief requirement being a hall of substantial size.

The literary evidence for churches, recognizable as such, corroborates the findings of archaeology. As early as 257 ad the emperor Valerian ordered that 'nowhere shall assemblies be held nor shall any enter the cemeteries'. These assemblies (conciliabula) naturally imply some place in which to assemble. Within fifteen years of Valerian's decree, moreover, Aurelian is to be found making a legal judgement—enthusiastically described, from the Christian point of view, as 'extremely just'—concerning the ownership of a 'church-building' at Antioch. And then, some thirty years later, in 303 ad, Diocletian ordered that all churches should be razed to the ground — confirming their presence while denying their right to exist.

The type of building which aroused the interest of the emperors is that of the earliest Roman 'title- churches': a large hall together with the ancillary rooms required for purposes of administration. The remains of a structure of this kind may be discerned in the Titulus Byzantii, beneath the church of St John and St Paul. Originally there existed on this site a Roman villa of two storeys, containing attractive frescoes: flowers and birds in the dining-room and a more ambitious Marriage of Peleus and Thetis nearby. According to tradition, this villa became the residence of two men, John and Paul, who suffered martyrdom.

To commemorate the event a Roman senator, one Byzantius, converted the house into a Christian sanctuary. The historical details of all this are most uncertain, but the present state of the building suggests that it was remodelled early in the fourth century. At a higher level than the frescoes is a small chamber which displays, within panels enclosed by red lines, a series of paintings which seem to be of Christian inspiration. Among the images is a man, with hands extended in prayer, who stands in front of curtains drawn back to indicate the soul's entry into Paradise. This little room may reasonably be claimed as a confessio, or chapel designed to shelter a martyr's relics.

The Titulus Equitii, set far beneath the Baroque church of S. Martino ai Monti, presents its original plan rather more clearly because the ground floor has been subject to little modification beyond some clumsy attempts at buttressing and strengthening pillars and columns, carried out by monks in the Middle Ages. What can still be clearly recognized is a large central hall, built perhaps as early as 250 ad, and expressly designed for regular assemblies, with adjacent service buildings, and a storey above probably intended as a residence for the clergy.

But it is San Clemente, now in the Via di San Giovanni, which most obviously displays traces of crude, early arrangement. The present church of St Clement is a structure of the eleventh century, much restored; underneath this, however, a complex of earlier buildings has been discovered. One first enters a hall, presumably a public building of some kind; close beside this is a house or shop built on the 'island' plan, that is to say, with rooms above in a second storey. The material used here is large blocks of tufa. Whether any part of this original house was used for the purposes of Christian worship cannot now be determined; certainly rooms within it were assigned to the cult of Mithras, the Persian God of Light. The anteroom, with its stone benches, may still be seen, and the alley-way leading from it into the triclinium, or dining-room, where sacrificial meals were held. This, again, has a large, sloping stone bench on each side. There is a recess at one end and, in the middle, a splendidly carved stone altar showing Mithras, all vigour and action, slaying a bull.

The Mithraeum seems to have been constructed about the beginning of the third century but it was not long before the Christians dominated the entire site. Above the tufa walls was erected a substantial structure of brick, of which the main feature was a large rectangular hall with, on the long sides, a range of openings communicating with courts or porticoes. Whether all this was built for the Christians or taken over by them, the hall would have provided a meeting-place for increasing numbers, and may reasonably be claimed as the third-century 'title-church'.

It was transformed, a hundred years later, into a regular 'basilica', by the addition of an apse at one end and, at the other, a narthex, or entrance-porch, with five arches leading into the main body of the church. Two rows of columns divided the interior into three aisles; the emphasis now was on length, leading up to the altar. It should be noted, however, that some would postpone the overthrow of Mithras and the construction of the apse to a later period, the reign of Theodosius I (379-395), when the mystery cults were suppressed.

Another example of the transition from house to church as place of worship has been provided by excavations carried out at Merida, in south-western Spain. Near the Roman theatre in this town archaeologists discovered a building of entirely different character. The walls are constructed with irregular layers of stone varied here and there by sections of brickwork. The chief portion that remains consists of a square courtyard, approached through a vestibule and surrounded by a cloister paved in patterned mosaic.

The east side of this courtyard communicates with a large room ending in an apse pierced by three windows. Here are found remains of a mosaic pavement and wall-paintings in 'Pompeian' style, mostly geometric patterns but including a dove, a child riding on a dolphin and, between the windows, four large figures, each standing on a pedestal but now in a fragmentary state and unidentifiable. Adjoining the north side of this apsidal room is another room, of similar shape but less wide; this is equipped not only with the three windows but also with three niches cut into the partition wall and with a rectangular water-tank.

Both the type of construction and the decoration resemble those of the primitive Christian basilicas, and it appears that Merida was an early home of vigorous Christianity, if one accepts the tradition that Eulalia, martyr-patroness of Spain, met her death in that city. So, although the building offers no clear trace of Christian emblems, it may reasonably enough be accepted as a church building of the early fourth century or, more probably, as a private house transformed to serve as such.

The evidence for places of Christian worship that mark the transition from house to basilica is more abundant in Britain. A little building at the Roman settlement of Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester) can be regarded, without qualification, as a church proper. Here, as at Merida, no Christian symbols have been discovered Within the building itself, but small objects found elsewhere on the site make it clear that Christianity had its established place in fourth-centurv Silchester.


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