Development of house churches. Continuation

The church follows the general plan of temples erected by devotees of Mithraism and other Oriental cults. The entrance is by a porchway or ante-room, perhaps just large enough to accommodate those who were not yet fully initiated into the mysteries and, in this case, containing at its north end a round base on which could be set a reading stand or offertory table. Next is the hall, or nave, terminating in a western apse that is diminutive but allows room for a clergy bench behind the altar. The Silchester building is equipped also with two small wings, or transepts, to be regarded not as side-chapels but as areas for preparing the eucharistic elements and for other ritual needs.

More demonstrably Christian than Silchester, though more primitive in pattern, is the villa discovered in 1949 at Lullingstone, in Kent (fig. 6). Here three intercommunicating rooms on the north side of the house were sealed off some time in the middle of the fourth century. Entrances that led to the rest of the building were blocked up and a new entrance constructed.

The series of chambers, as approached from the outside, begins with a small square vestibule, lacking any decoration and apparently converted from earlier uses as a kitchen. A doorway from the vestibule led into a rectangular ante-chamber embellished with a certain amount of painting on plaster, including the alpha and omega symbol for God, 'the beginning and the end’. The large hall, or chapel, beyond was much more richly decorated and by a skilful artist probably not of British origin. The west wall was brilliantly painted to show a portico with seven columns, some blue and some red, and with a human figure set within each opening.

Though varying in age and sex, each person, so far as can be judged from the reconstructed fragments of the plaster, wears splendid, ceremonial array and stands gazing straight ahead with hands raised in prayer. But the most striking figure is that of a young man, handsomely attired in tunic and pearl- bordered surcoat (fig. 7). His dark eyes contrast with flaming red hair and his arms are stretched outwards and bent at the elbow in an attitude of supplication. Behind the man a curtain is suspended in token that he has died and 'passed beyond the veil'; it is reasonable to suppose that the other figures are the living members of his family.

7. Lullingstone, wall-painting: the young man

Nearby was found a specifically Christian symbol: set between two columns, a large wreath encloses a blood-red chi-rho emblem. The bottom of the wreath is tied with a ribbon, at each end of which stands a bird pecking at berries. This may be interpreted as a depiction of human souls enjoying the fruits of life growing on the garland of victory which Christ has won. Fragments of a second chi-rho monogram enclosed by a wreath occur on the east wall, while other paintings in the sequence include not only details of a landscape but also a man holding the martyr's palm-branch, and a seated figure, clad in chainmail, who may have been intended as a soldier-saint. The Lullingstone villa can be explained simply as a private house decorated to accord with the aesthetic tastes and religious beliefs of the occupants, but the compact and serviceable unit cut off from the rest of the building seems rather to indicate a house-church used by the local Christians.

The fine mosaic floor uncovered at Hinton St Mary, in Dorset, is thought to have formed part of a Christian chapel inside a fourth-century private house. For the circular panel in the centre of the floor (Fig. 8) contains the head and shoulders of a goldenhaired young man wearing a toga while behind his head the chi-rho is prominently displayed.

8. Hinton St Mary, Dorset. Mosaic panel: head of Christ with chi-rho emblem

This is a portrait of Christ, shown full-face and confronting the worshipper in what comes to be known as the 'Byzantine' manner: here photographic realism is less valued than a motionless, hieratic posture that suggests the rich and mysterious nature of the underlying essence. It is, however, very odd to find this explicit piece of portraiture set in the floor, where presumably it was often trodden on. Even if the composition was originally designed for a domed ceiling and then transferred to decorate the floor-space, it appears that Christian belief, as demonstrated here, was of the same tolerant and adaptable character as is evidenced by a mosaic pavement found at Frampton (Dorset), where the chi-rho symbol for Christ coexists with a representation of Neptune.


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