Early Byzantine churches in Macedonia and southern Serbia

Ralph Hoddinott




I. The Legacy of Alexander  3

Egypt  6
Eastern Anatolia, Northern Syria and Northern Mesopotamia  7
Persia  8
India  11
The Semitic Peoples of Mesopotamia, Syria and Arabia  12
Celts, Scythians and their Successors  17
East and West  19

II. The Liturgical Background of the Early Byzantine Church  23

III. Sanctuary and Nave in the Early Byzantine Church  33





Chapter I. The Legacy of Alexander



More than two thousand years have elapsed since the existence of a sovereign state of Macedonia. Yet, despite a more than ample share of political vicissitudes, some kind of Macedonian identity has persisted within geographical boundaries that have changed little since the time of Philip of Macedon. Such continuity is the more extraordinary since this Macedonian identity has had neither a firm political nor a uni-national basis. Like the Byzantine Empire on a larger scale, throughout its history it has been a synthesis, sometimes easy but often antagonistic, of widely opposed cultures — in the case of Macedonia of the Greek urban and coastal region and the Slav, or, in earlier times, Thraco-Illyrian hinterland.


On a physical map of the Balkans Macedonia appears as the land area bounded in the south by the Aegean Sea and the Olympus and Pindus ranges, by the Pindus and Albanian mountains to the west, northwards by a more variable line traversing the mountains beyond Skopje, where it merges into country originally inhabited by a powerful Illyrian group known as the Dardanians and which later became the Early Byzantine province of Dardania, and to the east by the western ends of the Balkan (or Haemus) and Rhodope ranges of Bulgaria. It also includes the island of Thasos. For the greater part mountainous, the most populous district has always been the city and plain of Thessalonica facing the Gulf of Thermal in the Aegean Sea. Into this flows the Aliakmon river from the west and the Vardar (Axios) from the north.


Following courses roughly parallel to the Vardar, the Strymon (Struma) and the Nestos reach the Aegean east of the mountainous, triple-pronged peninsula of Chalcidice. Macedonia’s other important river is the Cmi Drim, flowing north from Lake Ohrid through


wild and mountainous country to carve a passage for ideas, commerce and invading armies from the northwest. It is the Vardar, however, the final stage of the natural highway from central Europe to the eastern Mediterranean, that is Macedonia’s axial and main route, connecting the fertile plains of Thessalonica, Pelagonia and Skopje, and linking them, through its tributary, the Cema, with the plain of Bitola and the lake settlements of Ohrid and Great and Little Prespa.


This seemingly natural basis for an economic and ethnic national unit was permanently disrupted by the ancient Greeks, the foundation of whose civilisation was not the land but the sea. Greek settlements, whether situated on the shores of the Aegean, the Black Sea, the eastern Mediterranean, the Ionian Sea or, farther west, the Ligurian Sea, had sea not land lanes for their natural ‘interior’ lines of communication. The wild and rugged country behind was left by them to the ‘barbarians’ whose savage natures were so appropriate to its character. When the Etruscan and Carthaginian civilisations were flourishing in the western half of the Mediterranean, Macedonia already lay partitioned between the Aegean Greeks, living in the coastal neighbourhood of Thessalonica, on the Chalcidice peninsula and on the island of Thasos, and the Thraco-Illyrians of the hinterland, although archaeological discoveries are beginning to show that there, even as early as the sixth century B.c., Hellenic art and culture had penetrated extensively. A Hellenistic gold death-mask, a bronze mixing-bowl and other items from this period now in the National Museum of Belgrade have been excavated at Trebenište to the north of Lake Ohrid. The Museum of Skopje holds a similarly dated bronze Bacchante found at Tetovo. But the Illyrian civilisation, and its accompanying economic





and military strength, was gradually broken by waves of Celtic invaders, a process which paved the way for the rise of the kingdom of Macedonia in the fourth century B.c.


In this era eastern Macedonia was dominated by the Greek island of Thasos. Conquered from the indigenous Thracians by settlers from Paros in the eighth century b.c., Hellenised Thasos had gradually established its control over the more accessible and profitable parts of the mainland. Supplementing its own natural wealth with the rich agricultural produce of the coastal plains and by exploiting the gold mines of Krenides (Philippi) and Mount Pangaeus, in return the island promoted the Hellénisation of eastern Macedonia’s Thraco-Illyrian population. The discovery ofits coins as far afield as Transylvania, Hungary, Moravia and Germany are an indication of the importance of Thasos, which was also in commercial relations with Phoenicia, Egypt and the Barbary Coast.


While Philip II (359-336B.C.) ofMacedon receives the credit for creating the first national synthesis of the Greek population of Macedonia’s coastal cities and the Illyrian and Thracian tribesmen of the interior, his achievement was founded upon this gradual germination of Greek culture among Macedonia’s non-Greek population during the previous centuries. Nevertheless, by establishing his ascendancy over the Greek city-states to the south and drawing upon their deeper rooted civilisation, Philip furthered the Hellenisation of his kingdom to a degree sufficient to give his son, Alexander the Great, the opportunity of victoriously championing the Greek accomplishment against its world rivals.


In Europe, whatever unfulfilled intentions Alexander may have had, the frontiers of Macedonia underwent little change. Both rewards and danger from this direction were relatively small. Eastwards, on the other hand, as far as India and into central Asia, he repeated the work of his father in Macedonia on a gigantic scale. Cyrus and his Achaemenian successors had dreamed of a single world state under the generous and enlightened rule of the divinely appointed Persian king. Alexander turned this dream into a Macedonian reality, creating an empire, the peoples of which became imbued with a sense of unity transcending their racial and historical differences. Hellenic culture fol


lowed in the wake of Alexander’s conquests. The ‘ core’ of the Hellenic world expanded from its ancient confines of the Aegean Sea to include the whole eastern Mediterranean. Alexandria and Antioch, with their wealthy Egyptian and Syrian hinterlands, joined such older Greek cities as Athens, Pergamum and Rhodes as its formative influences and rapidly grew to dispute their leadership of a civilisation that was changing from Hellenic to Hellenistic. Farther east, after touching more lightly the highly developed civilisations of Babylonia and Persia, Hellenism settled again in the receptive soil ofBactria, Sogdiana and Gandhara. There the art and culture of Greece, bequeathed during Alexander’s brief dominion and continued under Seleucid and Kushan rulers, sponsored the first to fourth century a.d. Buddhist art of Gandhara in northern India (Pakistan), and the sculptures of the third to fifth centuries a.d. discovered at Hadda, near Jelalabad in Afghanistan. It even travelled far beyond the limits of Alexander’s empire, as can be seen from the Fayumtype wall painting of Buddha at Miran in Sinkiang. To his Macedonian homeland, Alexander bequeathed a more lasting, even permanent legacy, an orientation towards the east which ever since has been reflected in its religious art.


The cultural influences that flowed eastwards as a consequence of Alexander’s conquests have aroused more attention than those which spread from east to west. To the Greeks, mankind fell into two classes — Greeks, and others of a lower order. Alexander and his Macedonian nobles, however, possessed no such limiting tradition. They found, particularly in the Persian Empire, a higher and more ancient standard of culture and a richer and more graceful manner of living than they had known in their own homeland, higher even than in Greece itself. Moreover, instead of the Greek system of small and quarrelsome city-states, they met there a conception of empire, which, with all its — not unattractive — despotic qualities, rejected petty nationalistic tendencies. In ideals, to some extent, as well as in territory, the Macedonian Empire was a successor to that of Achaemenian Persia.


The vision and vigour that had won Alexander his victories in war were turned to peaceful ends as he put into effect his plans for partnership between his GrecoMacedonians and those Persians and others who, but





a short time before, had been his adversaries. He offered the latter posts in his court and his army and encouraged his nobles to intermarry. This far-reaching social partnership begun by Alexander and, incredible as it seems, firmly established in the brief time at his disposal, ensured the rooting of Hellenistic culture even where it met with strong competitors. Although the impetus slowed down after Alexander’s death and the division of his empire, no immediate reaction occurred against Hellenism. Rather was it the reverse ; later indigenous or other rulers of non-Hellenic origin tended to pride themselves on their adherence to its traditions, even to the point of taking Greek names. Nevertheless, Greece, the source of Hellenism, was in a state of decline and, as the Macedonian impetus lost its force, Persia correspondingly increased its ideological contribution to the cultural federation.


In the cults of Apollo and Mithra, both identified with the sun and with youthful beauty, Greco-Macedonians and Persians found themselves on a common religious ground. It is impossible now to say how much each cult absorbed from the other, but it is likely that the interrelationship of the two was an important factor in the cultural unity of this vast region. Although Persia rejected Apollo and Greece Mithra, in later centuries troops of the Roman Empire carried from Asia the westernised, Apollo-influenced cult of Mithra throughout the non-Hellenic European provinces of Rome and established it as the deadliest rival of Christianity until the fateful decision of Constantine in favour of the latter. However, it is indicative of the then relative strengths of Roman and Persian civilisations that this was not a two-way traffic in religious ideas. In Persia, Mithra never became a supreme deity and an Apollo cult was negligible or nonexistent.


Alexander’s defeat of Darius not only assured Hellenism its role as one of the formative influences in world civilisation, it decided that the political and cultural centre of the Ancient World should be the eastern Mediterranean instead of Achaemenian Persia. Had the victory been gained by Darius, the eastern Mediterranean would have become an outlying satrapy of the Persian Empire, in art and thought as provincial as in politics. Instead, for all Hellenism’s now slowing impetus, the eastern Mediterranean, as metropolitan


region, became the hub of every main route of the Ancient World. All roads led to it, as in a later era and empire they were to lead to Rome, and along them travelled ideas from every component civilisation of Alexander’s empire as well as those lying beyond its boundaries. Macedonia’s exposure to and willing absorption of these ideas and foreign influences, mainly Asiatic in origin, were responsible for giving to much of her early Byzantine art its distinctive characteristics.


The moulds of the civilisations of Greece and Rome were the temperate climate of the Mediterranean, with its sunshine and clear sparkling air, and its — originally — forested mountain slopes and island-studded seas that provided cheap and easy means of communication. Extremes of heat and cold, vast mountain ranges and plateaux, gave altogether different characteristics to the inhabitants of Iran, the Caucasus and die interior of Asia Minor. Different again were the riparian peoples of Egypt and Mesopotamia, where intense heat was associated with more or less inexhaustible agricultural wealth, and the monsoon-governed, agricultural populations of tropical India. Similarly, the Syro-Arabian deserts, where a fierce sun and an unremunerative soil permitted little opportunity for developing the refinements of life, moulded their inhabitants differently from their Semitic brothers who were the builders of highly developed civilisations based on commerce in Mediterranean Syria and the southern parts of the Arabian peninsula. To the north, the mountains, plains and forests of eastern Europe and the vast steppes of Russia were the homelands of an unsettled and uneasy pattern of peoples, contemptuously termed barbarians by the Greek historians, but possessing characteristics that were creative as well as destructive.


In varying measures, these diverse elements had contributed towards the social structure of Alexander’s empire and were to form the foundations of the Christian world. Their interaction, a process that had begun long before Alexander, but to which he had given a dynamic impetus, continued to develop in spite of the break-up of his territorial empire. When, six centuries later, Constantine established his capital on the shores of the Bosphorus, his East Roman or Byzantine Empire was fundamentally a perpetuation of the Hellenistic tradition and, besides its Roman heritage, it





acceded automatically to the living legacy of western Asia’s past. The civilisations of western Asia and Egypt, therefore, were as much the context of Macedonian history and art as were Greece and Rome, and it is necessary for our understanding of Macedonian art, to examine briefly their potential contributions.





In many ways the Nile valley was a cul-de-sac of the Ancient World. Immensely wealthy, but easily defended with the help of its formidable natural obstacles, it was a difficult prize to gain, and one, moreover, which led to nowhere else profitable of conquest. For fifteen hundred years or more prior to the Hyksos invasion midway through the second millennium b.c., Egypt had enjoyed an undisturbed and therefore unique opportunity to develop an exclusive civilisation, the foundations of which it had originally imported from Sumerian Mesopotamia. The cumulative result of this isolation, emphasised by the brief but hated Hyksos dominion and subsequent contacts "with less highly developed civilisations during the Egyptian imperial phase, was a deeply rooted dislike and contempt for all foreigners. Internally, this was matched by a conservatism and a strong belief in the superiority and rightness of all things Egyptian.


This national attitude of innate Egyptian superiority persisted even through the degenerative period of the later dynasties of the New Empire and the Persian tyranny into which they dissolved. Nevertheless, by that time Egypt had lost the strength which had enabled her to throw off the Hyksos yoke, and, in the fourth century b.c., it was no native prince, but a new conqueror, Alexander, who ‘liberated’ Egypt. An important and a permanent consequence of this ‘liberation’ was the establishment on Egyptian soil for the first time of a new, virile Greek colony. Y et, however much the internationally minded Greeks of Egypt might occupy the limelight of intellectual thought, the Egyptian people maintained unchanged their deeply rooted attitudes towards the rest of the world, particularly in anything that affected their religion. In fact, the more thoroughly they had to submit to political overrule, the more stubbornly did they resist foreign dictation in matters of the spirit.


Egyptian life and Egyptian belief in the after-life were both based upon and revolved around two ‘miracles’, the triumphant daily rebirth of the sun and the triumphant annual rebirth of the river. It was these two ‘miracles’ which conferred upon Egypt a greater fertility of soil and a consequent continuing material prosperity than any other nation could claim. It is not difficult to see how the infallible regularity with which these two events occurred was regarded as divine confirmation that, with equal infallibility, life would succeed death and that the land and people of Egypt enjoyed divine favour above all others. From them arose the twin cult of the Sun-god and Osiris, the divine son of Isis whose death and rebirth reflected the religious aspirations of all Egyptians. But the circumstances of Egyptian fife were not conducive to mental stimulation; a pleasanter existence than the one Egyptians were able to enjoy in their earthly fife, with its luxurious, divinely given and divinely renewed abundance, great cities and splendid temples, presided over by a god-Pharaoh, was beyond their powers of imagination. The Egyptian Hereafter, therefore, for all the attention that was paid to it, was very little more than a perpetuation of the more comfortable aspects of a prosperous earthly existence.


In line with this ideology, religious art was representational and, in so far as the ordinary Egyptian was concerned, generally realistic. Size was used as an expression of divinity, but representations of godPharaohs and their fellow divinities were principally characterised by an overwhelming sense of impersonality and, as a general rule, an absence of any quality of idealism. The ceremonial practice of Egyptian religion was in the hands of a strongly entrenched and powerful priesthood. They alone held, and jealously kept, die keys to the sacred mysteries, and they ensured that no ordinary mortal might communicate with the divine powers other than through their agency.


Self-sufficient and self-centred, the direct influence of the civilisation of Ancient Egypt beyond its frontiers was small in relation to its own greatness and to the contributions of its contemporaries. An arrogant disinclination to learn made the Egyptians bad teachers. In, for instance, its doctrine of a resurrection, Egypt made an important contribution to a basic religious concept, but it had to be interpreted and conveyed to





other peoples through such intermediaries as the Jews and the Alexandrian Greeks, and perhaps also, though to a lesser extent, through their Syrian vassals dining the Egyptian imperialistic phase.


The university of Alexandria, the centre of neo-Platonic philosophy, was essentially Greek; nevertheless, it flourished significantly in its Egyptian environment, that, after the rise of Parthia, included the principal trade routes between the Mediterranean and India. Alexandria’s importance as a clearing station of ideas was immense, and it is difficult to exaggerate the value of the links which its university and its markets jointly maintained between Hellenism and the civilisations of India. Perhaps Egypt’s most important contribution to Christianity was monasticism. Although almost certainly inspired by the example of Buddhism in India, the credit for the Christian evolution of this powerful movement belongs very largely to the Egyptian Church.



Eastern Anatolia, Northern Syria and Northern Mesopotamia


In sharp contrast with Egypt, this geographically indeterminate area straddled important highways of the Ancient World. Around it, and with close contacts, were the Aegean states, the Caucasus and Armenia, Iran, Mesopotamia and Syria. Such a region was fated to be inhabited by a mixed and changing population; but two peoples, above all the others, were jointly responsible for its most constructive contribution to the early Christian era, in spite of the fact that both disappeared from history about the eighth century b.c. These were the Hurri, grouped mainly in northern Mesopotamia, and the Hittites, a confederacy of tribes, whose territory extended from northern Syria across the whole of eastern Anatolia. Although militarily the weaker, usually subject to some more powerful race, and imitators rather than originators, the Hurri were culturally the stronger of the two, and, in matters of religion and social progress, their influence played a key part in the development of the powerful Hittite civilisation.


It was in the supernatural forces of the weather that the Hurri-Hittites found their supreme deities. One was Teshub, the Weather-god, a divine personification


of the mountain storms. ‘ In Syrian art he often stands alone, wielding an axe and a symbolic flash of lightning ; in Anatolia itself he drives in a primitive kind of chariot drawn by bulls over the heads of personified mountains.’ [1] Teshub’s consort was Hebat, the Sungoddess. Sometimes one, sometimes the other was accorded primacy, a situation which significantly reflected the position of women in Hurrian civilisation. Bound together with Hebat’s queenly attributes was an even more fundamental association with the conception of the Great Mother Goddess, the deified personification of the maternal, creative and reproductive powers of the earth.


Throughout the Hurri-Hittite period we see a general tendency to assimilate the attributes of subordinate and local gods into the characters of the two principal divinities. The many minor deities on record included, however, some of an unusually ethical nature ; among them, gods ofjustice, righteous dealing and sincerity — uncommon attributes of gods in the latter part of the second and the beginning of the first millennium b.c. Another exceptional feature of Hurri-Hittite religion was its insistence upon sincere and contrite confession of sins. Man’s misfortunes might arise either from his having done wrong, thus offending the gods and calling their punishment upon him, or they might be caused by the activities of evil spirits. If the former, he had to obtain divine forgiveness through penitent confession, purification and sacrifice ; if the latter, he must defeat the evil spirits with the help of magic charms.


It was a cardinal feature of the Hurri-Hittite religion that not even the king enjoyed any form of immunity from its laws. Kingship was conferred by the nation, not by the gods. The first duty of the king was that of high priest, and in the carrying out of his priestly functions no Hittite monarch permitted himself illusions of divinity or regarded himself as anything but the representative of his people.


Too little is yet known of Hurri-Hittite religious art for very dependable conclusions to be drawn, but a general tendency towards representation of deities in relief rather than in the round may perhaps be noted. The curtain was rung down upon the Hurri-Hittite



1. O. R. Gurney, The Hittites (Harmondsworth, 2nd edition, 1954), p. 134.





civilisation by the rising power of Assyria ; but fortunately this left undestroyed a truly remarkable and enduring legacy, which modem research is only now enabling us to begin to appreciate. One of its heirs was early Greek religion, which drew to a considerable extent upon subjects of Anatolian origin. The cults of Dionysus, of the Samothracian Cabiri, Cybele-Rhea the Earth and Great Mother Goddess of the ancient Greeks, and Demeter all had deep roots in Asia Minor. It is significant, too, that in the early centuries of Christianity, it was the identical region of northern Mesopotamia, northern Syria and Cappadocian Anatolia, that once more provided leadership in the development and propagation of so many of the principles its population had pioneered in the Ancient World a thousand years before.





With the rise of the Achaemenian dynasty in the sixth century b.c., Persia succeeded to a joint inheritance of the Iranian empire of the Medes and the ancient, highly developed civilisations of the Mesopotamian plain. This fusion of military, political and social genius rapidly established the Persian Empire as a world force rivalled only by the city-states of Greece. Although Alexander’s conquest of Persia conferred upon Hellenism a brief supremacy, gradually the military, social and ideological forces of Persia made their recovery. In 248 b.c., less than a century after Alexander’s victory over Darius, a successful Parthian revolt restored Persia’s independence and in 129 b.c. a further victory expelled the authority of the Macedonian Seleucids to the Syrian banks of the Euphrates. Earlier a subject people of the Achaemenian Persians, the Parthians belonged to the northern edge of the Iranian plateau and consequently possessed close links with the Scythian nomads of the southern Asian steppes. Despite this origin, the rise of Parthia represented, in fact, a national Persian reaction against the foreign influence of Hellenism, which was visualised as the corrupter of the country’s brave traditions of independence. For the next four centuries one of the world’s leading military powers, Parthia barred any spread farther eastwards of direct Hellenistic influence, whether it appeared under a Seleucid or a Roman


standard, and provided a shield behind which the Persian nation gathered its strength for the massive counter-attack, ideological as well as military, which was to be launched by the Sassanian dynasty. The wars of the fifth, sixth and early seventh centuries between the Byzantine and the Sassanian empires were in all their fundamentals a renewal of the ancient, still unsolved, Greco-Persian rivalry.


Throughout the centuries, however, and irrespective of the military situation, the different ideologies of the two great civilisations had been intermingling. The deeply rooted culture of the Orient, of which Achaemenian Persia had assumed the leadership, had profoundly affected the Greco-Macedonian conquerors and the impact was magnified by the essentially Greek characteristic of intellectual curiosity and the limitless Greek capacity for absorbing, adapting and adopting new ideas.


This proved of particular importance in matters of religion. The religion of the Achaemenian Persians and the art that interpreted its ideology sprang predominantly from the savage grandeur of the mountain ranges and harsh desert wastes of the Iranian plateau. The Achaemenian kings were ‘ great kings ’, and ‘ kings of kings’. More than this, as part of their Mesopotamian inheritance, they were the divinely appointed, earthly representatives of the gods. Every opportunity was taken to emphasise these Achaemenian qualities of superhuman greatness and divine perpetuity in the moments they left to posterity, both in the inscribed texts and in the massive hierarchic scale of their likenesses carved on mountain faces. All that they turned their minds and hands to, whether creation or destruction, was commensurate with their claim to superhuman, semi-divine dignity. The principal monuments that have been left to us of Achaemenian art are the ruins of immense royal palaces and great rock tombs, constructed high up the sides of mountains, their façades modelled upon the façades of these same palaces. It was at the majestic portals of his palace that the Persian king revealed himself to his mortal subjects, and it was through similar carved portals that the dead king entered his mountain tomb on his way to appear before the gods. Achaemenian religious sculpture, particularly that displayed on the rock tombs, was essentially carving in relief, for no





mortal being but the king, at his death, might approach the gods.


The supreme god was Ahuramazda, the creator of heaven and earth. At Ahuramazda’s delegation the Achaemenian king governed his dominions. Below this deity were divine personifications of the elements, the sun, the moon, earth, fire, water and the wind. The ritual worship and the sacrifices to these gods were in the hands of a priestly class, the Magi, whom the Persians inherited from the Medes. Early in the Achaemenian period and more or less contemporary with the rise of Buddhism in India, this religion underwent a gradual transformation into a new, more ethical and monotheistic form, known, after its founder, as Zoroastrianism, or Mazdaism. In this, Ahuramazda became the deification of the forces of good, engaged in ceaseless struggle with those of evil.


The Persian conception of kingship as a divinely conferred appointment to rule not only Persia but the world was of immense significance to the development of subsequent religious thought. L’Orange remarks, ‘the kingdoms in the Ancient Near East mirrored the rule of the sun in the heavens. The king amongst his vassals and satraps was a reflection of the heavenly hierarchy. The king was “The Axis and Pole of the World”. In Babylonian cult the king was “The Sun of Babylon”, “The King of the Universe”, “The King of the Four Quadrants of the World”, and these titles were repeated in ever new adaptations right up to the Sassanian period when the king was the “frater Solis et Lunae”.’ [1]


Though the king never formally assumed the mantle of divinity during his earthly existence, the tradition developed of rendering him the conventional attributes of his impending apotheosis as an integral part of court and religious ceremonial. One aspect of this lay in the gradual development of the identification of the king with the sun, which he was held to personify. This conception was adopted in the Roman Empire by Nero as part of the process of his deification. Later emperors, including Caracalla, Alexander Severus, Constantius II, Constans, Valens, and Honorius, copied his example and represented themselves thus on their coinage. The symbol is even echoed in early Christian art. It is to be found, for instance, in the early third-century Roman mosaic of Christ-Helios driving a horse-drawn sky chariot, and in a similar, end-fourth-century mosaic in the chapel of S. Aquilino, in the church of S. Lorenzo, Milan.


More important, because of its wider and more enduring acceptance into Christian iconography, was the Persian convention of representing the king enthroned upon a round clipeus or shield, signifying the cosmos, of which reputedly he was the supreme and divinely appointed ruler. Winged creatures held this aloft. Sometimes these might have human forms; sometimes they might represent real or mythical beasts, or birds. Three examples of the adoption of this convention by the early Christian Church have survived in Thessalonica. In the apex of the dome of St George can be seen the remains of an end-fourth-century mosaic depicting four angels supporting a circular clipeus containing a luxuriant wreath of flowers, foliage and fruits. In the centre of this, now almost entirely lost, appeared a representation of Christ. The second example, also in St George, on the tympanum of the ciborium of Mosaic Panel No. 7 (Pl. 20b) shows the bust of Christ in a clipeus or medallion held aloft by two angels. The third, dated about a century later, is the mosaic showing the visions of Ezekiel and Habakkuk in the apse of the small church of Hosios David. Christ appears enthroned in the centre of a circular clipeus, now transformed into a translucent double rainbow. Emerging from behind the clipeus, but no longer supporting it, are four creatures, here developed into the symbols of the evangelists. With the later evolution of the Byzantine ‘ cross-in-square ’ church the four attendants, portrayed realistically as the four evangelists, take their place in the pendentives of the dome of which Christ Pantocrator occupies the apex. Here, it is interesting to note, they have returned to the position — architecturally — of supporters. To-day, the Oriental cosmic clipeus that originally signified the impending apotheosis of the ancient Persian Cosmocrator still figures in Byzantine iconography. It is found in such scenes as the Dormition, the Transfiguration, the Judgement Day and the Ascension, where, although Christ is appearing to men, emphasis is placed upon His assumption of divinity rather than upon His earthly life.



1. H. P. L’Orange, Studies on the Iconography of Cosmic Kingship in the Ancient World (Oslo, 1953), p. 13.





The anti-Hellenistic foreign policy of the Parthian Empire did not imply the complete cessation of the ancient caravan trade that, particularly after the Macedonian conquest, had crossed Mesopotamia and Iran to and from the Mediterranean in the west and India, Sinkiang and China in the east. This traffic was too valuable a source of income and foreign goods for the Parthians to interrupt it entirely. Yet transit facilities for merchants became more difficult and, in the case of nationals of rival powers, were probably wholly withdrawn. Greek could no longer deal with Greek as he passed from one Hellenistic city to another between Macedonia and India. For centuries to come, the great bulk of the traffic that passed between East and West, in ideas as well as in goods, had perforce to be handled by Arab or Jewish middlemen.


However, apart from their opposition to Hellenistic ‘imperialism’, the Parthians were distinguished by their toleration. Even Hellenism was permitted rein, as long as it was an indigenous Hellenism and served the purposes of the state. The main Parthian religion seems to have been worship of the triad, Ahuramazda, Mithra and Anahita, and in all fundamentals it was an historical continuation of that of the Achaemenian Empire. Parthian subjects also enjoyed full freedom to worship other gods of their choice. Consequently, throughout the Parthian Empire, and particularly in Mesopotamia, Christianity was able to develop in circumstances of peace and legality while, beyond the Euphrates in the Roman Empire, it was suffering at least restriction, and often outright persecution.


In art and architecture Parthia was the forerunner of its more brilliant Sassanian successor, which replaced it in the first half of the third century a.d. Parthian art was of necessity sterner than Sassanian. Its artists were needed to play their part in the rebuilding of the Persian state in face of the seductive influences of international Hellenism. They were not, therefore, primarily concerned with beauty of form. They represented their kings and gods as heavy, powerful, static and hierarchic figures. In a land where gods of so many kinds and forms competed, representation could no longer be limited to relief. Parthian architects demonstrated the inexpugnable influence of Hellenism by their free use of sculpture in the round. Neverthe-







less the frontality which is such a strong characteristic of Parthian art reflected an ancient Iranian form. And, as can be seen from the excavations at Dura-Europos, this frontality appeared in Christian churches and Jewish synagogues as well as in pagan temples.


In addition to the Mesopotamian house, which with its courtyard was the traditional plan of the western Parthian provinces, Parthian architecture developed the Iranian type of i 'vanhouse, with three chambers opening on to a hall or courtyard. The central chamber was usually larger than those on either side and had a wider opening that often extended from wall to wall (Fig. 2). It was a form of architecture particularly suited to a palace, enabling the king to hold ceremonial audiences in the central bay, his attendants and service rooms to either side, while the public stood in the main hall or courtyard. Evolved originally from the entrances of the tents of the Irano-Scythian nomads, it was another aspect of the Persian city gate and the royal portals of the Achaemenian palaces. It became the common form of public ceremonial hall in Parthia and, under the Sassanians, it reached its culminating point in the magnificent, sixth-century palace at Ctesiphon (Pl. 18 d,Fig. 3 ). It is not surprising that with such





long traditions the Persian Christian Church should adapt the ivan form to its own purposes and should thus endeavour to render to the King of Heaven no less honour than the pagans rendered the King of Kangs.


The ruined examples of Parthian palaces that can still be seen to-day give little impression of their onetime splendour. Strabo ( 63 b.c.-a.d. 25) remarked that many houses about the Bay of Naples were constructed after the model of Persian royal dwellings, but, except possibly as small details on Pompeian landscape paintings, little trace has been found of these seaside Roman villas. Nevertheless, Strabo’s comment may well be reflected in the architectural details to be seen in the last phase of Pompeii’s decorative art. These, with their close parallels to the architectural façades represented in the dome of St George in Thessalonica, are characterised by an exotic fantasy and luxuriance of ornament that is undoubtedly Asiatic for, however much they may follow a temporary fashion of the Roman court and aristocracy, they are quite foreign to the genuine traditions of the Roman world. In retrospect, the glamour and attraction of Parthian Persia appears dim beside that exerted by its Sassanian successors, but, none the less, to a steadily increasing degree its influence was casting a spell over almost every phase of contemporary Roman life.





In the third century B.c., Asoka, the great Buddhist ruler of the Maurya Empire of India, recorded in his rock and pillar edicts that he had despatched missions to the Hellenistic kingdoms of Antiochos Theos of Syria and western Asia, Ptolemy Philadelphos of Egypt, Magas of Cyrene and Antigonos Gonatas of Macedonia. Their activities apparently included preaching the Buddhist faith as well as ordinary diplomacy ; but, in spite of Greek interest in Oriental ideas, Asoka’s envoys seem to have made little impression. Their message was not, in fact, very sensational. The early Buddhism of Asoka’s time proclaimed no new god, no powerful saviour able to promise his followers a paradise after death, no mysterious rites or fields for metaphysical enquiry. Instead, the Greeks must have viewed it as a rather tedious and impracticable code of moral behaviour. In schools such as those of the Stoics, the Epicureans and the Cynics, the Greeks had already formulated other conclusions, and against such strong native opposition Buddhism stood hide chance. Those, on the other hand, whom the Greek schools failed to satisfy were even less likely to find their answer in the message from India, the more so since





Buddhism had yet to evolve an anthropomorphic art, and the symbols it was using were too essentially Indian to make headway in the Hellenic, or even Hellenistic lands. There is no evidence that at this stage Greece or Macedonia were influenced by Indian ideas to any perceptible degree.


Nor did Hellenic culture make any noticeable impression upon Maurya India. As soon as Chandragupta, the first of the Maurya rulers, had succeeded in driving the Macedonian forces of Seleucus Nicator north of the Hindu Kush range, he welcomed diplomatic, cultural and commercial relations with his Hellenistic neighbour, and accepted a Syrian princess as his wife. Nevertheless, in Maurya art and architecture it was conquered Persia and not victorious Greco-Macedonia which proved the stronger formative influence from abroad. The ruins of the palace of Asoka, Chandragupta’s grandson, at Pataliputra reveal close resemblances with those of the Achaemenian palace at Persepolis, and Megasthenes, the contemporary Seleucid ambassador to the Maurya court, compares its splendours with those of Susa and Ecbatana. Asoka’s use of rock and pillar edicts, an important factor in carrying out his religious and social policies, was similarly a borrowing from Persia and Mesopotamia. Perhaps to an even greater degree than the Macedonians, the Indians became pupils in the arts of civilisation to the Persia that had been only temporarily absorbed within the boundaries of the Hellenistic world. But for India’s steadfast allegiance to Buddhism and earlier indigenous beliefs, the penetration of Persian influence must have been still deeper and longer lasting.


Thus, mainly through common injections of the stimuli of Persian civilisation, India was brought into cultural step with the east Mediterranean region. This process, beginning some two and a half centuries before the birth of Christ, cannot but have eased the way of any subsequent cultural exchanges. Although slow in taking effect, it proceeded with an impetus that was diverted neither by the Roman conquest of the Hellenistic world, nor by the advent of the Scythian Kushan rulers in India. One example of significant parallel developments in religious art was the universality of the chariot-drawn symbol of the Sun-god or, in the Hittite version, the Weather-god. As an expression of the Sun-god it was used in fifth-century b.c. Greece. In the early Christian era, besides the Roman imperial and Christian examples already noted on page 9, we find it in a first-century representation of Zeus Theos in a Parthian temple at Dura-Europos, and in the thirdor fourth-century wall painting of the Hindu Sun-god Surya at Bamiyan. It was certainly not new at this period in India for it appears also several hundred years earlier at Bhaja and Bodh-Gaya.


The important direct contribution made by Hellenism to the religious art of India did not begin until nearly a century after the death of Alexander. When the Parthian conquest of Persia had driven a wedge between Seleucid Syria and the easternmost Hellenistic states, the isolation of the latter forced them to merge with the civilisation of India. It was then, under the Kushan dynasty, that they produced the Indo-Hellenistic, Gandhara sculptures and gave to Buddhism here, and perhaps at Mathura, its anthropomorphic art.


Yet, although the cultural and, in particular, the religious paths of western and eastern Hellenism, with their respective extensions into the Roman and Kushan empires, travelled on parallel lines rather than in association, they still followed remarkably similar courses. Contemporary with the beginnings of Christianity a new form of Buddhism had been taking shape. Without doubt this Mahayana Buddhism owed much to the same Hellenistic influences that had been responsible for evolving Gandhara art, and the parallels are many between its Indo-Hellenistic synthesis and the contemporary Jewish-Hellenistic religion of Christianity, although in their evolution the latter suffered a two and a half to three centuries’ handicap of official repression within the Roman Empire. From being little more than a moral code of limited practical application, Buddhism now evolved into a universal religion. No longer simply an ascetic moral teacher, the Buddha was now transformed into a god, like Brahma, an Absolute, who had been before all worlds and whose existence was eternal. His appearance on earth and Nirvana were explained as a device for the comfort and conversion of men. [1]


The practically simultaneous Christian and Buddhist



1. B. Rowland, The Art and Architecture of India (Harmondsworth, 1954), p. 32.





answer of nearly two thousand years ago to civilised mankind’s demand for a saviour-god proved to possess a world-wide application. Westwards, Christian missionaries took their message as far as the distant isles of Britain ; eastwards, Buddhists travelled with theirs to convert the ancient empire of China, where, later, they were followed by the Nestorian Christians of Mesopotamia and Persia. Inevitably, in time the two religions diverged, but it is significant that the causes of this were less the physical problems of distance and difficulties of communications than the physical and moral havoc that the great waves of barbarian invasions brought, in various degrees, to the civilisations of Europe, south-western Asia and China in the early centuries of the Christian era.


Mahayana Buddhism and its Indo-Hellenistic art continued to flourish in Gandhara until the catastrophic invasion of the White Huns in the sixth century, while, from A.D. 50 until 320, southern India prospered under the brilliant rule of the later Andhra dynasty. During the early centuries of this period, when for most of the time Christianity was a proscribed religion in the Roman Empire, a very considerable trade was in existence between the eastern Mediterranean and India. Most of this, though not all, as we are aware from the anonymous Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, compiled during the first half of the first century a.d., was in the hands of Arab middlemen.


It is not difficult to see an affinity between Buddhist thought and the ideologies of such religious sects as the Jewish Essenes or the Therapeutae of Alexandria, but that the penetration of Buddhist ideas into the eastern Mediterranean was not confined to the more esoteric groups receives a remarkable demonstration in Josephus’ account of the final Jewish stand against the Romans in the fortress of Massada in a.d. 70. The Jewish leader, Eleazar, proposes that, in view of the hopelessness of their struggle, they should first kill their wives and children to prevent them falling into Roman hands and follow this act with a mass suicide. In support of his argument Josephus quotes Eleazar as saying:


‘Yet if we do stand in need of foreigners to support us in this path, let us regard those Indians who profess the example of philosophy, for these good men do but unwillingly undergo the time of life, and look upon it as a necessary servitude and make haste to let their souls loose from their bodies ; nay, when no misfortune presses them to it, nor drives them upon it, these have such a desire of a fife of immortality, that they tell other men beforehand that they are about to depart, and nobody hinders them but every one thinks them happy men, and gives them letters to be carried to their familiar friends (that are dead) ; so firmly and certainly do they believe that souls converse with one another (in the other world). So when these men have heard all such commands that were to be given them, they deliver their body to the fire ; and in order to their getting their soul a separation from the body, in the greatest purity, they die in the midst of hymns of commendations made to them ; for their dearest friends conduct them to their death more readily than do any of the rest of mankind conduct their fellow citizens when they are going a very long journey, who, at the same time weep on their own account, but look upon the others as happy persons, as so soon to be made partakers of the immortal order of beings. Are we not, therefore, ashamed to have lower notions than the Indians ?’ [1]


This reference to Indian philosophy and precedents at a time of such dire crisis is an extraordinary testimonial to the hold which India must have exerted upon the thought and imagination of a people whose ramifications extended throughout the Mediterranean world, and it is noteworthy that the Massada incident occurred within less than two decades of St Paul’s journeys to Macedonia and within three-quarters of a century of the Jewish Diaspora. That this influence was neither superficial nor ephemeral is confirmed by the seventh- or eighth-century document of ‘John the Monk’, giving,in the history of Barlaam and Josaphat, a Christian version of the fife of Buddha, ‘a history which is good for the soul . . . transferred from the country of the Indians’. It seems a reasonable probability that the story which was set down in writing by John the Monk, and enjoyed widespread and lasting popularity, was no new import from seventh-century India, but one that had long been current in his native Palestine. Of even greater significance is the relationship between the apophatic or negative theology propounded by the ‘Pseudo Dionysius the Areopagite’ and the Buddhist doctrine of Nirvana.



1. Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book VII, chap. viii. Trans, by W. Whiston.





In the sphere of art, we shall consider the possible influence of Indian ideas in the expression on the face of Christ in the apse mosaic in the Thessalonian church of Hosios David (Pl. 48) in Chapter 9, Section 14. Three other, perhaps less significant, examples of artistic interrelation may be briefly quoted. The ‘Psamatia’ Christ, which appears on a fragment of a sarcophagus from Asia Minor, is remarkably similar, both in posture and technique of presentation, to contemporary representations of standing Buddhas. [1] In a third-century mosaic floor at Aquileia is a bust of an ‘Indian boxer’. A fifth- or sixth-century mosaic in St Demetrius at Thessalonica depicting a child being presented to the saint has two trees in the background ; both are shaped in the form of a three-tiered ‘umbrella’, the Indian symbol of the tree or axis of the universe which appears in an identical form at the apex of the stupa at Sanchi (Pl. IV and Fig. 4).





Lastly, but by no means least, may be cited the tremendous influence of monasticism on the development of early Christianity. The Christian version spread to Europe and western Asia from Egypt, but, as has already been pointed out, Egypt must almost certainly have obtained its original inspiration from Buddhist India. The possibility that a Buddhist influence continued to be expressed in western monasticism for some centuries is not to be disregarded.



The Semitic Peoples of Mesopotamia, Syria and Arabia


It is one of the most stubborn facts of history that despite endless and often violent divisions, the Semitic peoples have continued to maintain a fundamental unity. Even the great Jewish Diaspora of the second century A.D., a movement which gave the Jews unparalleled international connections and even deep roots in other lands, did not succeed in separating them from their historic homeland in western Asia. Similarly, for all the apparent differences between the urban Arab and his nomadic brothers, and however each may look down upon the other, the underlying concepts of both are identical. Right up to our own day the (now finally disappearing) sternly puritanical Semite of the desert has retained an ultimate moral ascendancy and, when the urban Semite has strayed too far from his old traditions, eventually his desert brother has descended upon him and ruthlessly purged him of his ‘impurities’.


To establish the fundamental Semitic tradition, therefore, we must consider the conceptions and way of life of the Semitic peoples beyond the cities. Broadly, there were two categories; the pastoral nomad, leading a tribal existence among the unproductive desert and semi-desert wastes of Syria and Arabia, and the caravaning or seafaring trader. The latter, in fact, by virtue of his commercial contacts was already beginning the first stage of the process of urbanisation.


Their environments the vast emptiness of the desert and ocean, such people led an austere, even harsh existence, physically and mentally governed by the scorching heat of the sun by day and the cold moonlit and starry expanses of the sky by night. There was time for thinking, time for conversation and the relating of tales, time for theological speculation and contemplation of the Absolute ; but little opportunity for the enjoyment of material possessions and refinements. The architecture of adherents of a civilisation of this nature was unlikely to prolificate archaeological remains, for their temples were not houses they had fashioned themselves, but the divinely erected and divinely appointed sky. If an object of particularly sacred associations needed a sanctuary, the means at hand was a portable, ceremonial tent, designed as closely as possible on the lines of the great sky dome. Their religious art was abstract and essentially nonrepresentational. It was characterised by an emphasis on geometrical design and a passion for filling in every



1. B. Rowland, Jnr., Art in East and West (Harvard, 1954). Figures 15 and 16 show a particularly interesting comparison between the Psamatia Christ and a third/fourth-century Buddha in the Museum of Kabul.





possible inch of space with symbols of good, lest the evil forces that inhabited the great expanses of the unknown might suddenly materialise and cause harm, as they too often did, in the shape of tempests, disease, famine and enemy tribes, in the people’s daily lives. Only when the Semites attained an urban existence did their worship include representational forms, as happened, for instance, in the case of the ‘golden calf’ of the Israelites. The true sacred object of the Israelites was the Ark of the Covenant, a wooden chest containing the tablets of the Law. Similarly, the prototype of Dhu-el-Shara, the chief god of the Nabatean Arabs of Petra, was a rectangular block of stone, in all probability a similar object to the sacred Kaaba worshipped in Mecca to-day.


A way of life appropriate to seafarers or pastoral nomads could not be fitted easily into a different context. The Semitic peoples who spread into agricultural areas, and traders who made their homes in foreign cities or the busy entrepôts that grew up at the intersection of caravan routes, had to adapt themselves to an urban life. In so doing, there was a natural tendency to adopt the customs of their more sophisticated neighbours. Their gods might remain more or less the same as those worshipped by their desert ancestors, but a tent or an open space appeared a mean, ignoble form of sanctuary beside the resplendent temples dedicated to the foreign gods. If, in copying such structures as these temples, a symbol of the great sky temple also was needed, a small but beautifully wrought dome or ciborium above the altar sufficed. Intermittently, in the effort to combat the lure of alien religions, Semitic abstract religious art gave way to representational forms. As can be seen in the synagogue excavated at Dura-Europos, in the third century A.D. some Jewish communities had even relaxed their scruples to the extent of covering the walls of synagogues with religious pictures to meet the competition of Christianity, and doubtless other religions such as Mithraism.


Nevertheless, however much the urbanised Semite might compromise in matters of form and method, wherever he went and wherever he stayed, he maintained with remarkably little change the fundamental identity of himself and his religion. As a result of this neutral identity in a divided world, the Semitic trader


retained his ability to buy in India what he could sell in Egypt, in Mesopotamia what he could sell in Rome. When the rise of Parthia put an end to the full ‘internationalism’ of Hellenism, it was he who replaced the Greek as the common denominator of the civilised world, and by virtue of this, continued to a very large degree the henotheistic impetus of Alexander.


In art and architecture, the urban, international Semites were carriers and adaptors rather than creators of original forms. It was an invaluable and, indeed, for the Christian civilisation of Europe and western Asia, an indispensable role ; for what the Semitic trader conveyed from one land to another was, ultimately, the expression of ideals. Discussing the art of the Arab city of Palmyra, Rostovtzeff provides us with a clue to the perpetuation into Christianity of the ethical ideals of the Hurri-Hittites centuries after their civilisation had, apparently, disappeared.


The sculpture of Palmyra represented by hundreds of busts and bas-reliefs, showing figures of gods and men and ritual scenes, presents in the treatment of the heads and bodies such softness and lack of vigour, such helplessness in modelling the limbs of a human body, such inclination towards the pictorial element and the minute rendering of details of dress and furniture (peculiarities which are entirely foreign to Greek sculpture and are typical of the eastern plastic art in general), that we can hardly call this sculpture Greek or GraecoRoman. If we look for affinities we shall see that the nearest parallels to Palmyrene sculptures will be found not so much in Babylonia, in Assyria, or in Persia, as in the north Semitic countries and in Anatolia, in the art which has been quite recently revealed by archaeological investigation of north Syria and Anatolia and which we call by the general name of Hittite. Such sites as Sendjirli, Carchemish, and Tell Halaf with their hundreds of statues and bas-reliefs show, in spite of the long stretch of time which separates them from the earlier Palmyrene sculptures, unmistakable affinities with Palmyrene plastic art. We may say, without being in danger of misleading the reader, that the sculpture of Palmyra is the Hellenised offspring of Aramaean and Anatolian plastic art. [1]


The architecture of Petra tells a slightly different story but one that follows similar lines. The original homeland of the Nabateans, according to their own traditions, lay to the south of Petra, almost certainly



1. M. Rostovtzeff, Caravan Cities (Oxford, 1932), pp. 147-8.





somewhere in the Arabian peninsula. For all the obvious contribution of Hellenistic and Roman art to the style and, in particular, the sculptural decoration of the later monuments, the underlying architectural conception of Petra is Iranian. The earlier temples are devoid of any western influence and, of the later, the Khasne (Pl. i8fc), one of the most obviously Hellenistic monuments, is the rock tomb of a Nabatean king and still a fundamentally Achaemenian conception.


From the earliest historic period until the sixth and seventh centuries a.d., when a combination of general insecurity and the final breakdown of the Marib dam instigated a large-scale migration northwards and the militancy of Islam brought about the severing of EastWest connections, the southern and some of the other coastal regions of the Arabian peninsula were the scene of a flourishing and highly developed civilisation exerting an important impact upon that of the Mediterranean. Excavations at Bahrein in the Persian Gulf are now revealing the advanced standards enjoyed by city trading stations operating the commercial routes between Mesopotamia and the Indus civilisation of India in very early times. In all probability traders of the same south-eastern Arabian cities brought the civilisation of Sumer to the early kingdom of Upper Egypt. Many centuries later the great Spice Route from India to the Mediterranean passed through and enriched the southern Arabian cities, the prosperity of which was further enhanced by the Parthian interruption of the direct overland road crossing northern Mesopotamia, and by the insatiable Roman appetite for the exotic products of the East.


To-day, among the many storied houses of the Hadhramaut one can find the astonishing spectacle of specimens of Dutch architecture, an indication, not of Dutch penetration, but of the fact that Hadhramaut trade has extended as far east as Indonesia and that, as from time immemorial, the southern Arabian trader has brought back to his homeland anything he had found abroad that seemed good to him. The most striking and characteristic architectural features of southern Arabia, however, are the great, well-proportioned, high buildings, whether in use to-day as the twenty-storied castle of Ghomdan in San’a, or in ruins as the ancient dam of Marib. As for their ornamentation, the tenth-century Arab geographer from southern


Arabia, al-Hamadani, tells us that one could see ‘ figures of all kinds sketched upon them ; wild and ravening animals . . . eagles with flapping wings and vultures pouncing upon hares . . . herds of gazelles hurrying to their death trap, dogs with drooping ears, partly leashed and partly loose, and a man with a whip, amidst horses’. These are Iranian and Irano-Scythian motives, and, whether received directly or via Byzantium, are one more indication of the powerful influences emanating from Irano-Mesopotamia since remote antiquity.


The Semitic artists were not content merely to copy the art forms of their neighbours, they would employ techniques they had observed in use in other lands. A good example of this, all the clearer for its rather clumsy naïveté, appears in the synagogue wall paintings of Dura-Europos executed about a.d. 245. Comparing them with the paintings in the Parthian temple of Zeus Theos, dated a little more than a century earlier, we find again the frontal poses, the gradation of stature according to hierarchic importance, and the verisimilitude of detail combined with lack of individual personality. On the other hand, the static and formalised effect has gone. There is movement, a movement that the painter’s brush has only momentarily arrested. Most striking of all is the impression that, for all their naïveté and clumsy postures, the figures represent human beings who are acting a story in the present tense. This impression is not even destroyed by the hierarchic nature of some of the paintings. Samuel, in the scene in which he anoints David among the sons of Jesse, stands considerably larger than the rest, but in no way does this appear to give him the stature of a god. The storytelling rather than ritual intention of the paintings is underlined by their narrative styles. In some cases the theme of one of the Jewish sacred books is presented in a series of isolated episodes. In others an attempt is made at a more continuous effect by running several incidents together within a single frame.


These narrative conventions, both of which became prominent features of Byzantine art, were not new to the east Mediterranean world. They had figured in the art of Sumer, ancient Egypt and Phoenicia. Yet, that the Jews of Syro-Mesopotamia went so far back in time for their models is unlikely for, as Rostovtzeff





has convincingly argued, [1] others were to hand. Both narrative forms appeared in second century B.c. Indian sculptures at Bharhut, where companion pieces very clearly display Persian influence, and in the relief carvings decorating the late first-century b.c. gateways of the stupa at Sanchi. [2] Following Rome’s expansion into western Asia, the second, or grouped type, became a popular artistic device in the Empire, appearing, for instance, in the early second-century Column of Trajan and, some half-century later, on that of Marcus Aurelius. In the third century, it was used by Christian artists in the Roman catacombs, for example to illustrate the story of Jonah in the cemetery of Callixtus. Both are used in Thessalonica’s early fourth-century Arch of Galerius (Pl. 8). But it was only when the Peace of the Church promoted a demand for a popular religious art, and with the removal of the centre of gravity of the Empire to the eastern Mediterranean, that the possibilities of both forms entered upon a new and greater period of exploitation.


Thus, in the realm of ideas, the Semitic contribution to early Christianity and Byzantine civilisation was twofold. Firstly, there was the powerful impetus towards an intellectual monotheism which stemmed from the austere and puritanical nomads of the deserts and voyagers of the seas. Secondly, a task to which they succeeded the Greeks after the rise of Parthia, there was the effective maintenance of free avenues of thought, irrespective of considerations of politics, distance or time ; for ideas were carried not only from country to country, but from age to age. It was the latter achievement, much of the credit for which belonged to the urban Semites, which ensured the orderly progression of the Hellenistic world into that of the Byzantine.


In architecture, the original Semitic contribution lay mainly in the ideological conception behind the domed, centralised church (though probably it had but little to do with its technical evolution) which attained a logical end in the domed mosque. In art it gave an emphasis to abstract form and design. An example, showing, incidentally, how strongly imprinted had been the influences of Hellenism, is the ornamental façade of the palace of M’shatta, in Syria. Yet, although Semitic inspiration tended generally to express itself in abstract forms, as Cumont [3] and L’Orange [4] have shown, it is likely to have been responsible for one important detail in the early iconography of Christ — the raised, open, right hand that we find in the apse of Hosios David and elsewhere in the late fourth to sixth centuries. In the books of the Old Testament reference continually occurs to Jehovah’s outstretched right hand — to use the Psalmist’s words, ‘Thou hast a mighty arm : strong is thy hand, and high is thy right hand’. [5] Throughout the Ancient Near East the gesture expressed divine omnipotence. By extension, it could signify salvation or, in the case of an angry god, destruction. But it was essentially a gesture of divinity, to be made only by the god himself or at his delegation, and, as such, was adopted particularly by the Semitic peoples. When King Jeroboam stretched his right hand against one of Jehovah’s prophets, it withered.


But, also of no small importance to later ages was what has been termed the ‘adaptive’ art of the Semitic peoples. Through their continual fertilisation of the art forms of one region or time with those of another, they played an essential part in the stupendous cooperative inter-racial effort which so long maintained the Eastern Mediterranean in its position of world leadership in the arts as well as in the religions of civilisation.



Celts, Scythians and their Successors


Beyond the northern periphery of Alexander’s conquests were two other powerful groups of peoples, the Celts and the Scythians. Documentary history has recorded little more than the comments of those who suffered from their destructive raids, but recent research has indicated that the usual Greek and Roman view of the Celts, Scythians and kindred peoples deserves considerable revision. Both groups were pastoral, though warlike, peoples, their social structure tribal; the Celts conditioned by the forests, mountains, fertile plains and rivers of Europe, the Scythians



1. M. Rostovtzeff, Dura-Europos and its Art (Oxford, 1938), chaps. 3 and 4.


2. Ibid.


3. F. Cumont, Fouilles de Doura Europos (1926), p. 70 et seq.


4. H. P. L’Orange, op. cit. p. 153 et seq.


5. Psalms lxxxix, 13.





by the vast steppe-lands over which they and their herds moved constantly in nomadic fashion. The Celts, northern neighbours of the Illyrians, undermined the latter’s vigorous civilisation by their raids around the fourth century b.c., and thus facilitated the transformation of the Macedonian kingdom into a powerful and ambitious state. Celtic depredations in the southern half of the Balkan peninsula gathered momentum until, in 279 b.c., the tribe of the Galatae succeeded in sacking Delphi, and, the following year, conquered and settled a large part of Asia Minor. That Celtic civilisation reached a high order is no longer in doubt. Modem research has tended to concentrate upon Celtic achievements in western Europe, but the tribes responsible for the sack of Rome in 390 b.c. and who held sway over large areas of eastern Europe and Asia Minor a century later must similarly have exerted a cultural influence to some extent commensurate with their military strength.


St Paul, writing his epistle from Rome to the ‘ foolish Galatians’, admonishes them for ‘the works of the flesh which are manifest, which are these: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like ; of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God’. [1] St Paul, one feels, might have castigated certain of the contemporary religious and social customs of the pagan western Celts in like terms. The nature and mother goddess worship, fertility cults, belief in magic, sacrifices and orgiastic ceremonies of primitive Celtic religion would not have been easily or quickly lost and evidently the Apostle felt that here was no occasion for mincing words.


St Paul’s strictures notwithstanding, the Celts of Asia Minor and western Europe alike proved particularly receptive to Christianity. Can we assume from this that Christianity echoed some fundamental chord in pagan Celtic religion? We have to admit the possibility, and its consequent pertinence to Illyrian reception of St Paul’s message of Christianity. Nevertheless, we still know too little at present of the Illyrians and the eastern Celts to assess the impact of the latter upon early Christian Macedonia. The powerful influence of Hellenism would have tended to stifle the more obvious Celtic expressions except in the rural, completely Illyrian regions ; but our present ignorance is not necessarily an indication that they were unimportant.


Except in the extreme north-east the Scythians never penetrated, nor in any way dominated the Balkan peninsula. Nevertheless, as powerful northeastern neighbours of the Thracians, with strong cultural and artistic as well as military traditions, their influence could hardly have been negligible.


They were, Tamara Talbot Rice writes, probably an Indo-European people who worshipped the elements.


Their main devotions were paid to the Great Goddess, Tabiti-Vesta, the Goddess of Fire and perhaps also of beasts (Fig. 5). She alone figures in their art, presiding at the taking of oaths, administering communion or anointing chieftains. ... In the Crimea, the Great Goddess is not found much before the ninth century B.c., when she is depicted standing, holding a child in her arms, though she did not then represent the goddess of fertility any more than she ever represented a matriarchy to the Scythians. ...


Fig. 5. SCYTHIAN GREAT GODDESS, TABITI-VESTA (?), WITH beasts. Detail from a gilt and engraved silver mirror found at Kelermes, the Kuban, S. Russia. Probably Greek workmanship



1. Galatians v, 19-21.





In Scythian art she sometimes appears as half-woman half-serpent, sometimes standing, sometimes seated between her sacred beasts, the raven and dog, or sometimes with an attendant or in conversation with a chieftain. [1] (Pl. 6c.)


The elaborate manner of their burial of chieftains, in some areas alone, in others together with a favourite wife and attendants, all richly dressed with valuables, accoutrements, food, wine and domestic utensils — lesser warriors enjoyed simpler interments — indicates a belief in some form of after-life. Always horses accompanied the chieftain to his grave, sometimes as few as six or eight, but in the Kuban the number might range from a score to, in one case, around four hundred.


Again lack of knowledge, this time of Thracian customs, prevents us from making any proper assessment of the degree to which they were influenced by these virile nomadic neighbours. Nevertheless, it was probably considerable. It is likely that the Macedonians, Thessalians and Boeotians received the horse from the Thracians who, in turn, had received it from the Scythians. Certainly the Thracian cult of the mounted Heroic Hunter links religious beliefs of Scythia and Greece. In the Christian period it is perhaps possible still to be able to see a reflection of Scythian influence in the zoomorphic carvings on the pillars of the doorway in the chancel screen of the Basilica of St Demetrius (Pl. 26c). Later, a recrudescence of both the Scythian and the Celtic impacts, absorbed and transmuted with much else over the course of hundreds of years into the culture of the Slavs, began in the sixth century. This, however, is beyond the scope of a chapter dealing with Byzantine Macedonia’s legacy from the Alexandrian era.



East and West


It would be wrong to make too clear distinctions between the various influences and their origins that bore upon Macedonia and the Mediterranean world from the Orient. Alexander’s conquests were only one factor in the mixing and syntheses of peoples and ideas which continued as part of the progressive momentum of civilisation. Persia was a composite empire; India variously affected by such different importations as Persian architecture and Persian social policies, Hellenistic art and Scythian rulers; Greeks, Romans, Celts and Armenians were only four of the many racial groups whose varying fortunes were continually changing the cultural complexion of Asia Minor. Persia’s political strength and her ancient civilisations ensured her the dominant position in the Orient, but she both drew from and gave to her neighbours. The political disunity of the Semitic peoples tended to disguise the strength and original nature of their important contributions. Thus although for the sake of simplicity and coherence it is necessary to use such labels as Persian, Indian or Semitic in identifying particular conceptions, it is always essential to remember that the pedigrees of such conceptions were seldom pure and were often extremely mixed.


This point is also important to bear in mind when considering the influence exerted by Antioch and Alexandria. Both were important centres of early Byzantine art, politics, theology, learning and administration. But they were essentially the products of their environments ; and the environments of both included, in constantly varying degrees, each other as well as the whole known world. The early Byzantine world was not static, and the importance of such focal cities as Alexandria and Antioch lay more in their role as markets for the exchange of ideas than as schools of original thought. Although both enjoyed a particular ease of access to certain regions of outside influence, such as Antioch to Persia and Alexandria to India, nothing of importance, except a political attitude, that one of these centres developed, imported or copied was likely to remain its exclusive product for long. Not only were the Greeks themselves always interested in something new, and a common factor in every lively minded city, but the Arabs and Jews were able to penetrate regions closed to Greeks. And they moved, constantly, everywhere, always carrying something, ideas as well as objects, to exchange elsewhere. In such circumstances an article made in Antioch may well have derived jointly, for instance, from Iran, Arabia and northern Mesopotamia, and the history of its particular function and design be ages old.


In contrast to the vigorous and deeply rooted traditions pressing from the East, the end of the second



1. T. Talbot Rice, The Scythians (London, 1957), pp. 85-6.





century a.d. saw the early symptoms of a steady deterioration in the strength of the relatively young Latin West. The Asian provinces of the Roman Empire were protected from the barbarian invaders coming from Central Asia by the natural defences of the Iranian plateau, the Caspian Sea, the Caucasian ranges and the Black Sea. Central, southern and western Europe enjoyed no such geographical advantages. For its defence it could only depend upon its armies, and these had come to bear little resemblance to the disciplined forces which had been responsible for creating the Empire. As early as the end of the second century a.d., the élite legions and even the emperors themselves were no longer of Latin stock, so severe a toll had been taken by the combination of material prosperity and the wastage of the noblest Roman families in continual civil or defensive warfare. Roman tradition, however much of the Greek and Oriental it had absorbed, had still the strength to transfer its unique contribution of law and administration to its Byzantine successor ; yet, even at the time of the change-over, the main burden of this tradition had ceased to be borne by natives of Rome. In the old capital the discipline that had been the foundation of its greatness no longer existed ; with the one all important exception of the small Christian minority. But the concern of these Christians of Rome was with a new and revolutionary future, not with the ancient pagan past.


Yet it would be quite wrong to draw the inference that Rome had a comparatively unimportant share in building the Byzantine Empire. In its imperial phase Rome had been contributing steadily to the social development of its eastern territories and neighbours as well as absorbing much from them. Roman traditions may have gradually depended less and less on natives of Rome itself, but a more important fact was the ability of a Roman emperor to create a New Rome on alien territory, and that from there he and his successors should, for more than a thousand years, continue to govern the Empire of the Romans. That Old Roman forms of religious art and architecture did not maintain themselves in New Rome is not surprising. The old order changed in Old Rome too. The Roman contribution to civilisation was fundamentally civil, not religious. Consequently, the most important of its ‘monuments’ to maintain their position in the Byzantine continuation were achievements in the sphere of law and administration. The fact that these are less easy to picture, are outside the scope of art historians, and less controversial than religious art, must not mislead us as to their importance in forming the social outlook and, thus, indirectly, the art of the Byzantines. The Byzantine Empire rose from the Orient and — not or — Rome, a synthesis created by the culture of Greece.


The Greco-Persian wars, which under one guise or another continued into the Middle Ages until outside forces reduced both protagonists to impotence, were perhaps the most spectacular aspect of the development of the eastern Mediterranean region, but they were not the most important. More fundamental was a common search for a universal religious ideal. In this field Greeks and Persians played the roles of major contributing partners rather than adversaries and Alexander took his place as the ideological successor of Cyrus rather than the military conqueror of Persia.


Christianity was the outcome of this common spiritual quest. A new dawn rather than a new world, its deep roots in past ages’ accumulation of religious ideals enabled Christianity to convey its philosophy through the language of symbols which the syncretism of Eastern and Western thought had already given universality. Plates 3 and 4 and Figures 5.7 illustrate the widespread use of one basic aspect of this syncretism, the Great Mother Goddess as the symbol of Man’s belief in Rebirth and Eternal Life. Comparison with examples in Plate 5 indicates, however, a crucial point where, influenced by Hellenism, Christianity broke decisively with its Oriental ancestry. For Christians Death-Eternal Life had ceased to be regarded with dread. The lions or serpents that had guarded Atargatis, Cybele, Lilith and other Asiatic Mother Goddesses were replaced by doves, peacocks, lambs,










the Apostles Peter and Paul, the archangels Michael and Gabriel and, later, by the two arch-interceders for mankind, the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, as the twin attendants of the Christian figure symbolising the Source of Eternal Life.


Even in the case of Daniel and the Lions, one of the earliest symbols to be used for this purpose by Christianity, the lions have been tamed by the spiritual power represented by Daniel. The terror of Death has been overcome. Earlier, Artemis had physically mastered her lions and Ceres had calmly grasped her serpents. The great contribution made by Hellenism



(Reconstructed plan by Chapouthier)



to Christianity is nowhere more graphically illustrated than by the Pignatta sarcophagus in Ravenna. Here Christ, attended by Peter and Paul, is shown resting his feet upon a quiescent lion and serpent (Pl. 5).


The tripartite nature of the symbol, whether pagan or Christian, is of such ancient origin that it would be unwise to do more than note that it appears to be a particularly prominent feature of religions practised by the Indo-European group of peoples. Unquestionably, three, the figure of the Trinity and, in sacred arithmetic, the figure of the soul, reflected a fundamental concept accepted with relatively little dispute by all the leading western Asiatic religions — except the Semitic monotheisms of Judaeism and Islam. As well as in art, Christianity was to make particular use of it in architecture, notably in the form of the tripartite sanctuary (anticipated in pagan Samothrace (Fig. 8) and Hellenistic Syria (Fig. 9)), in trefoil and triple apses, and in the adoption of the basilical nave and aisles.


When within the sphere of Christianity, the old preChristian symbols did not always suffer change. The thirteenth-century episcopal chair in the Norwegian church of Heddal carries the image of the Great Goddess flanked by two horsemen (Pl. 4), a common version of the Source of Eternal Life symbol in northern





Europe. In view of this it is not surprising to find it still in use as a traditional embroidery theme in nineteenth-century Russia (Pl. 4). The lions that had accompanied Lilith, Cybele and other Great Goddesses still flanked a fourteenth-century west European Madonna (Pl. 5), and they still crouch fiercely at the feet of the nineteenth-century episcopal throne in the church of St Clement at Ohrid in Macedonia (Pl. 5). Likewise, however, much the dragons on either side of the cross surmounting Orthodox iconostases may speak the language of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Orthodox Christianity (Pl. 5), their syntax illustrates little change from that of the Babylonian bowl of more than four millennia before (Pl. 3) or, indeed, from the mediaeval symbol on the Talisman Gate of Baghdad (Fig. 7). It would be rash indeed to assume that even now these ancient symbols have ceased to hold some subconscious meaning.



a. Slem. b. is-Sanamen A.D. 191. c. Temple of Zeus, Kanawat. d. Seraya, Kanawat




Chapter II. The Liturgical Background of the Early Byzantine Church



A church or a temple is essentially a reflection of man’s approach to his religion, for, in its fundamentals, as Lethaby has written, ‘a temple may almost be defined as a localised representation of the temple of the heavens not made by hands ’. [1] Architectural traditions and availability of building materials may dictate methods, but they are not creators of forms. The origins and subsequent geographical dispositions of the squinch and the pendentive as a means of siting a dome over a square base hold an important place in the history of architecture, but their prominence in that connection must not be allowed to screen the fact that if a domical form of temple is essential to man’s religious expression he will create one, whether the materials and skills to hand be the working of cement, stone, bricks, solid rock, wood, woven materials or skins. His work may differ in execution and in technical perfection but this will not affect the practical achievement of its purpose.


No matter what the religion, the universal essentials of a temple erected for congregational worship are the enclosure within a single precinct of a sanctuary, within the confines of which only the priesthood may officiate, and accommodation for lay members of the community. The sanctuary, specifically intended for ritual or liturgical purposes, must always be indicative of the ceremonial concepts of the priesthood, while the public part or nave, to use the general term adopted by Christianity, similarly expresses in an architectural medium the instinctive religious approach of the lay congregation. Although, both socially and architecturally, the two must function as a single unit, it does not necessarily follow that they always stem from a common root. In some circumstances, often, for instance, in temples or churches belonging to foreign missions, an architectural compromise replaces the natural unity which should exist between sanctuary and nave. Consequently, the evolution of religious architecture and its regional variations during the formative fourth, fifth and sixth centuries a.d. can provide an illuminating insight into the influences bearing upon Christianity during that critical period.


First we must examine briefly the basic religious architectural concepts of Christianity’s pagan predecessors. In the Hellenic lands of the eastern Mediterranean the weather has always borne the aspect of a friendly, neutral element. The sky, with the sun, moon, stars and rain, was regarded as a natural phenomenon, which, except for sudden storms at sea which could endanger sailors foolhardy enough to venture too far from shore, behaved with an almost unexceptionable moderation. Regarding it as a cosmic roof or ceiling arranged in their wisdom and omnipotence by the Olympian gods, the ancient Greek saw little reason to try directly to propitiate any of its components, which he logically regarded as being instruments rather than principals of divinity. His religious side, in fact, was amply occupied in contending with the vagaries of his gods, whom he visualised in the form of superhuman Hellenic men and women roaming the human world as well as the Olympian heights so that no Greek, be he ever so humble, might not be the



1. W. R. Lethaby, Architecture, Nature and Magic (London, 1956), p. 30.





subject of an Olympian prank or be seduced by a god or goddess in some ordinary, everyday disguise. Greek religious statuary developed as three-dimensional because the Greeks were always accustomed to the idea of their gods moving among them on a physical level with themselves, so that they naturally visualised them ‘ in the round ’. When social developments dictated the removal of their places of worship to urban environments, the original sacred groves encompassing the sanctuary were transformed into colonnades standing in the middle of an open space.


The Greek religious theme was echoed in Rome, possessor of a nearly similar climate and not too dissimilar geographical circumstances. For some centuries, too, it found a temporary home in western Syria, but here the predominant influence has always arisen from the desert, Semitic hinterland and not from the small, Hellenic-type strip of mountain-backed coastland that was once Phoenicia and is now the Lebanon. Elsewhere, to the desert dweller of SyroArabia, the nomad of the Eurasian steppes, the desert-bound, riparian peoples of Egypt and Mesopotamia, the seafaring Arab traders who, unlike the Greeks, were ocean as well as coastal sailors, the monsoon-dependent inhabitants of India, the highlanders of Anatolia, Iran, the Caucasian or the Balkan ranges, the weather appeared as a supernatural force, upon the vagaries of which all existence depended, and which consequently needed continual appeasement.


However much the elemental forces of the sun, moon, stars, wind and rain might be portrayed as personified divinities, they had nothing of the essential ‘humanity’ of the Greek gods. The supernatural rather than superhuman quality of their powers placed them far above the reach and comprehension of ordinary, puny mortals. Such conditions were naturally productive of an intermediary, priestly or leader caste, combining divine ‘connections’ with earthly leadership. In the non-Hellenic civilisations this priestly caste emerged in the forms most appropriate to the prevailing social scheme, from solitary Semitic leaders such as Moses among the Israelites, to the powerful, entrenched priesthoods of Egypt and India, and the divinely appointed kings and their priestly acolytes of Persia. T o such civilisations, the dwelling-place of the gods, the ‘temple of the heavens not made by hands’


was no sacred grove, it could only be the sky. According to their skills and their available materials each fashioned their ‘temples made by hands’ after the domelike shape of the great sky temple. Sometimes this took the guise of an artificial mound ; sometimes as a vault or dome of rock, stone, brick, wood or wattle ; sometimes it was a ceremonial, though simple tent. The conception persists to-day in such widely different forms as the ciborium of the European cathedral, the dome of the Orthodox church and Islamic mosque, and the ceremonial umbrella of African and Asian despots — but always, consciously or unconsciously, it signifies the omnipresent sky, where dwelt the power of life, and death, and rebirth.


Mystic ritual was the basic essential for a priesthood or leader caste whose raison d’être was its apparent effectiveness in mediating between ordinary mortals and the sky gods. It is significant that by far the greater part of the sculptural art of these peoples was relief work. Their art was primarily religious art, and, unlike the Greeks, they never approached their gods sufficiently closely or informally to see them ‘in the round ’. This was the awesome privilege of that small, exclusive, divinely appointed class, who alone had been initiated into the secret ceremonies through which, and only through which the gods could be reached. Within such a context an iconoclastic attitude towards religious art followed naturally. A statue in the round, a ‘graven image’, was an attempted reduction of a supernatural deity to a comprehensible, more or less human form. A relief sculpture or a painting compromised between a fundamental desire of ordinary mankind to approach and personally come to terms with his god and the priesthood’s vested determination to retain its role as the exclusive intermediary. As such, it developed as the generally acceptable form of religious art of the Near and Middle East.


Once Christianity had accepted its role of a world religion, it had, of necessity, to adapt itself to the Greco-Roman religious approach on one hand and to the Oriental on the other; the former, for practical purposes already an homogeneous unit, the latter, as we have seen, expressing itself with considerable variety. Nevertheless, due to Hellenistic and Semitic syncretism, the genius of the early apostles, particularly of St Paul, and the discipline which the early





Church imposed upon itself, the intrinsic development of Christianity as a religion for both East and West went, on the whole, remarkably smoothly during its first three centuries. No matter where a Christian travelled, he found his co-religionists worshipping along acceptable and familiar lines and was able to take part in their services.


Nevertheless, although Christianity had been born at a common meeting-ground of Greco-Roman and Oriental thought, the whole Christian world was very far from any real unity. Christianity was making a great and an increasingly deep impression, but by the fourth century its effect was still superficial in relation to the cumulative impact of the civilisations of the pre-Christian past. For all the forces of syncretism, there were still, to use a simplification, two opposite poles in the field of religious approach, the GrecoRoman and the Oriental. As soon as Christianity was permitted freedom in the heterogeneous Roman Empire the differences emerged in Christian religious practice and architecture just as they had in the practice and the temples of its various predecessors. The Christian traveller of the first three centuries a.d., like the Greek during the century following Alexander’s victories, was experiencing an ideal of unity that was unfortunately only temporary. In both cases the unity was destroyed by the divergent social and religious approaches of East and West, as well as, to an important but lesser extent, by political ambitions of rulers. Yet, in neither event was all lost. Hellenism followed from the first attempt at unity, although its overwhelming Greek emphasis quickly caused its rejection by the greater part of Alexander’s Asiatic conquests. The Byzantine Empire, synthesising the approaches of East and West more effectively, succeeded in balancing them more or less successfully for over a thousand years. It is in this context that Byzantine art and architecture must be considered, and it is Macedonia’s position, always at or near the fulcrum of the balance, that gives to its monuments so much of their interest and importance.


The Greek word ecclesia did not come to possess an architectural connotation until the third century a.d. Its original meaning was ‘assembly’, and the early Christians of the Roman Empire related it specifically to the solemn assembly of those fully initiated into Christianity for the celebration of the eucharist. These assemblies were held in the strictest privacy, for not only was the ceremony an exclusive, though essentially corporate act, but, despite periods of relative toleration, Christian worship in the Roman Empire was a capital crime from the reign of Nero (54-68) to that of Valerian (253-60). After this, although the law against Christian assembly was relaxed, for another fifty years the illogicality persisted that Christians were still liable to the capital charge of laesa maiestas. Diocletian’s persecution, the fiercest and most unremitting in the Church’s history, occupied the decade immediately prior to the final Edicts of Toleration. Yet, even when politically tolerated, Christians had had to contend with persistent mob hostility. A small and peace-loving but illegal sect was a useful scapegoat in time of disaster, the more so because the belief was popularly held that Christian practices included cannibalism and incest. [1]


In the Roman Empire, therefore, until the second half of the third century the use of public churches or temples for the celebration of the eucharist was out of the question. Instead, as has been found in Aquileia on the north Adriatic coast, in Ostia near Rome and at Dura Europos on the Euphrates, rooms in private houses were discreetly adapted, and a compromise found between the physical structure of the most suitable type of room available and the liturgical needs of the act of worship.


An analysis of the pre-Constantinian eucharist has been given by Dorn Gregory Dix in The Shape of the Liturgy, from which book the following summary extract is taken. The proceedings opened with an exchange of greetings between the president or bishop and the ecclesia, followed by ‘the kiss of peace enjoined by the New Testament, the bishop with the clergy round the throne, and laymen with laymen and women with women in the congregation’. A linen cloth was then spread over the altar by the deacons.


These are preliminaries. The eucharist itself now follows, a single clear swift action in four movements, with an uninterrupted ascent from the offertory to the communion, which ends decisively at its climax.


The bishop is still seated on his throne behind the altar, across which he faces the people. His presbyters



1. G. Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (London, 1945), Chap. VI.





are seated in a semi-circle around him. All present have brought with them, each for himself or herself, a little loaf of bread and probably a little wine in a flask. ... These oblations of the people, and any other offerings in kind which might be made, the deacons now bring up to the front of the altar, and arrange upon it from the people’s side of it. The bishop rises and moves forward a few paces from the throne to stand behind the altar, where he faces the people with a deacon on either hand and his presbyters grouped around and behind him. He adds his own oblation of bread and wine to those of the people before him on the altar, and so (presumably) do the presbyters. . . .


The bishop and presbyters then laid their hands in silence upon the oblations. There followed the brief dialogue of invitation, followed by the bishop’s eucharistic prayer, which always ended with a solemn doxology, to which the people answered ‘Amen’.


The bishop then broke some of the Bread and made his own communion, while the deacons broke the remainder of the Bread upon the table, and the ‘concelebrant’ presbyters around him broke Bread which had been held before them in little glass dishes or linen cloths by deacons during the recitation of the prayer by the bishop. . . .


Then followed the communion, first of the clergy, seemingly behind the altar, and then of all the people before it. Nobody knelt to receive communion, and to the words of administration each replied ‘Amen’.


After the communion followed the cleansing of the vessels, and then a deacon dismissed the ecclesia with a brief formula indicating that the assembly was closed — ‘Depart in peace’ or ‘Go, it is the dismissal’ (Ite missa est), or some such phrase. [1]


With only minor variations, this was the eucharistic rite practised by Christians of the pre-Constantine era throughout the Roman Empire. A liturgy performed upon such simple lines could be conducted in any room large enough to hold the local Christian congregation. In the large apsidal-ended rooms which were sometimes to be found in the greater Roman houses of the period, it was natural that the bishop should have his throne in the centre of the apse with his presbyters on either side. In the physically similar circumstances of a Roman civil court, it was the position of the president and his assistants. However, apse or no apse, the bishop sat at the head of the room. In front of him stood the altar table, the centre-piece of a space, probably marked off, for the ministrations of the clergy and deacons. Gathered round this space in order to experience as full a sense of participation as possible were the lay members of the ecclesia. During the long years of persecution, when attendance, if discovered, could automatically result in a sentence of death or penal servitude for bishop and layman alike, the atmosphere must have been one of simple and informal dignity, with little time or room for hierarchic pomp and ceremony.


With such a background it was natural that when, at long last, the Christians of the Roman Empire were able to build churches in which to hold their ecclesia in full freedom of worship, they should retain the form of sanctuary which had been developed in secret by successive generations, and which had been sanctified by the blood of martyrs during the years of persecution. The shape of the church, whether basilical, circular, polygonal, cruciform or square, with or without transepts, and whether the ceiling was domed, barrelvaulted or timbered, was decided by the religious instincts and special requirements of each individual locality. But the form of the sanctuary was already set, and, for a time, was common to all.


Beyond the Roman frontiers in the Parthian Empire of Persia, the Church had grown up in different circumstances, for there it had enjoyed freedom of worship from its earliest days until the middle of the fourth century. Christianity had entered by way of Edessa, one of the most influential early schools of Christian doctrine and, as a centre of Semitic culture and Syriac language, of far-reaching importance not only south-west into Syria but also south-east to the predominantly Semitic population of central Mesopotamia. A leading city of northern Mesopotamia, Edessa was also the capital of the small semi-autonomous Roman protected kingdom of Edessa, or Osrhoene, in northern Mesopotamia. It was in this region that a thousand years or so earlier the Hurri had foreshadowed, in contemporary terms but so remarkably, something of the ethical humanism of the Christian message. A legend, widely current and believed during the early centuries of Christianity, gives details of a correspondence between King Abgar of Edessa and Christ in which the former invites Christ to Edessa in order to cure him of a serious illness. Copies



1. G. Dix, op. cit. pp. 103-5.





of this alleged correspondence, which included Christ’s letter declining the invitation but promising to send one of His apostles in His place, were regarded as talismans of extreme holiness and effectiveness. Carved in stone they were inserted into or above the gates of cities, among them Macedonian Philippi. Legend apart, there is no doubt that Edessa adopted Christianity at a comparatively early date and its first Christian king is reputed to have been baptised in 206.


The one Semitic Liturgy that has survived is that of SS. Addai and Mari, the traditional ‘apostles’ of Edessa. Originally composed in Syriac, it appears to have been the standard rite of Northern Mesopotamia and differs from the Antiochene liturgy of St James in its almost entire freedom from Hellénisation. It may thus provide us with a reasonably reliable clue to the manner in which the eucharist was performed in Persia’s western provinces. Analysing this rite, Dix comments :


To come upon a eucharistic prayer which from beginning to end in its original form has no mention of God the Father or of the Holy Trinity, of the passion of our Saviour or His resurrection, which does not so much as use the words ‘bread’ and ‘wine’ or ‘cup’, or ‘Body’ and ‘Blood’, or speak the name of ‘Jesus’ is in itself remarkable. No less unusual is the omission of any explicit mention of ‘partaking’ or ‘communion’. All these things are no doubt latent there and taken for granted, but they are not of the framework of this prayer, as they are of the framework of prayers that have been inspired by the systematic Greek theological tradition, Addai and Mari is a eucharistic prayer which is concentrated solely upon the experience of the eucharist, to the momentary ignoring of all other elements in Christian belief and thought. Marantha ! ‘Our Lord, come ! (or perhaps ‘has come’), the ecstatic cry of the first pre-Pauline Aramaic-speaking disciples, is the summary of what it has to say. [1]


Comparing it with the western eucharistic prayer of St Hippolytus, the liturgy adopted by Rome, Dix says :


It is not only in their contents that the two prayers form a contrast, so that what each develops and insists upon the other leaves unsaid or barely hinted at. It is in their whole background of thought and genius that they are different. Hippolytus, for all the relics of old Jewish form, is thoroughly Hellenic in its attempt to frame its statement of the essential meaning of the eucharist in rational relation to the whole Christian revelation. Addai and Mari is equally Semitic in the intensity of its absorption in the eucharistic experience, and in its concentration upon eschatology to the exclusion of philosophising....


In Addai and Mari, by contrast with Hippolytus, the emphasis is not on the historical process of redemption by the passion and resurrection, but on its eternal results. [2]


The absence of allusions to ‘partaking’ or ‘communion’ and the emphasis on experience rather than rational relation of the Christian revelation are significant indications of the manner in which traditional Persian or Oriental approaches to religion had continued into Christianity. Nevertheless, the differences between the Eastern and Western versions are shallower than the points of agreement. It is an impressive tribute to the influence of Edessa that this should have been so, and that in spite of all the difficulties, including differences in conditions of worship, cultural background and racial mentality, and the constant warfare between Rome and Persia, the Persian church should have remained in communion with its fellow Churches of the Roman Empire as late as the first half of the fifth century.


The conditions under which the liturgy of western Persia was performed — we have no evidence to tell us how it was practised by the Christians of the eastern, non-Semitic areas — were very different from those obtaining in the Roman Empire. Had Christianity been allowed freedom of worship from its earliest days in the Roman Empire, the form of the eucharistic ceremony would not have been based on a discreet and simple service held secretly in a room of a private house. If it had been simply tolerated without actual official encouragement, it would, as an essentially proselytising religion, have had to make itself both popularly respectable and attractive in order to gain adherents, for whom there would have been no lack of competition from other religions. If, on the other hand, it had become the adopted religion of the emperor and his court, it would have been at once invested with the full panoply of imperial pomp and splendour. This last is what did, in fact, happen to Western Christianity,



1 & 2. G. Dix, op. cit. pp. 186-7.





but only after a delay of nearly three centuries, an important formative period during which other influences of a very different nature had left strong impressions.


In Persia, Christianity received toleration but not official support, which was the perquisite of the state religion of Mazdaism. Not until Constantine took the step of claiming a responsibility for Christians abroad does it appear to have been regarded as anything but a harmless minority religion by the Persian secular or religious authorities. In these circumstances we can perhaps assume that its earliest stages, under the leadership of missionaries from Edessa, were not very dissimilar from those in the pre-Nero Roman Empire which are described in the Acts of the Apostles. But in the more tolerant atmosphere of Persia it could not have been long before rooms in private houses were discarded in favour of larger, specially constructed buildings where services could be held more appropriately and, to some extent at least, on a par with those of other religions. A suitable form of building was to hand, the tripartite ivan (Fig. 2), equally adaptable to royal audiences, the requirements of a civil court or a temple for religious worship. In Mesopotamia, and probably on the Iranian plateau, it was the appropriate local environment for religious ceremonies. However, it also implied an hieratic distinction between the clergy and the lay congregation that was completely foreign to contemporary Christian communities in the Roman Empire. From this, and in the context of other Persian religions, in particular the official Mazdaism, an increased emphasis upon ceremonial aspects was an inevitable step.


Although these architectural and liturgical developments stemmed from essentially Persian origins, the border between the two rival empires was by no means as clear-cut culturally as it was politically. Trade, in the hands of Semitic merchants, flowed to and fro along the caravan routes. Prisoners of war introduced new ideas and customs. Above all, the Christian Semitic population of Edessa enjoyed almost as close relations with their brothers across the Persian frontier as with their co-subjects of Rome in northern Syria. The free Church of Persia exerted always, therefore, a degee of influence upon its fellow-Semitic co-religionists in Syria, and they, in turn, upon the non-Semitic Christians in the West. Thus, the Semitic population of Syro-Mesopotamia continued to fulfil its traditional role of synthesising civilisations, the natural tendencies of which would have been to follow divergent ways.


The original liturgical uniformity which persisted during Christianity’s first two hundred years in the Roman Empire had already begun to develop signs of regional variations when the combination of the Edicts of Toleration, imperial patronage and the Church’s early General Councils brought a new impetus to unity. Nevertheless, these brakes on disunity were neither sufficiently strong nor lasting enough. Regional differences went too deep to be cemented by episcopal discussions or imperial dictates. On the contrary, the institution of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire had the effect of converting political differences into religious issues, a form in which the activities of opposition parties could and did permissibly find expression.


It is a fact, however, that the great religious questions that shook the Christian world during the fourth and fifth centuries were not reflected in ecclesiastical architecture. Gregory of Nyssa might comment of Constantinople, ‘all places, lanes, markets, squares, streets, the clothes’ merchants, money-changers and grocers are filled with people discussing unintelligible questions. If you ask someone how many obols you have to pay, he philosophises about the begotten and the unbegotten ; if I wish to know the price of bread, the salesman answers that the Father is greater than the Son : and when you enquire whether the bath is ready, you are told that the Son was made out of nothing.’ Similar incidents were no doubt commonplace among the Greeks of Alexandria and Antioch. But Arianism and the other early Christian variations of the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries only indirectly affected the physical details of the performance of the liturgy. Doctrinal differences and architectural divergencies alike had older roots, reaching deep into the preChristian past.


Unofficial Roman Christianity had grown up within the context of, and official Roman Christianity had modelled its organisation upon, the great political divisions of the Empire. There was no accident in the coincidence of the three great apostolic foundations,





Rome, Alexandria and Antioch, with the Empire’s three leading political and administrative centres. The elevation of Constantinople to the position of capital in 330 added a fourth political and, in consequence, ecclesiastical centre, resulting, in 381, in the greater part of Asia Minor being taken from the see of Antioch to form the Constantinople patriarchate. Rome was less generous, but in the fourth century Thrace was detached from its territory and added to Constantinople. The rest of the Balkans, and even at times Thrace, remained a field of contention between the Old and New Romes, until a thousand years later, the Moslem Turks, after utilising Christianity’s dissensions to achieve their conquest, decided, on their own terms, in favour of Constantinople.


For all that Antioch had been the main territorial loser through the creation of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, it was from Alexandria that there came a virulent and even vindictive opposition to the Patriarch of the new capital. The Council of Constantinople, in creating the new Patriarchate, had specifically stated that ‘the Bishop of Constantinople shall rank next to the Bishop of Rome, because Constantinople is New Rome’. This made it clear that the Council had no intention of deposing Rome from its position of seniority, but besides paying a realistic compliment to the new capital, it had ‘ the additional aim of lowering the pride of the Patriarchate of Alexandria, whose great Bishop Athanasius had become embarrassingly influential’. [1]


Alexandria had held the position of second city of the Roman Empire since the beginning of the Christian era. With its wealth, noble buildings, famous university, library, and reputation for culture that extended throughout the known civilised world, it is not difficult to imagine that its Greek and Egyptian population considered themselves superior to the Romans in all but military prowess and the fortune of war. Constantine’s choice of Constantinople as his eastern capital had demoted Alexandria to be the empire’s third city in secular authority, but this insult was minor compared with its ecclesiastical demotion half a century later. Many complicated factors entered into the situation. Pride was one. The decision, however inevitable, but emphasised by the manner of its delivery, was received like a slap in the face, not only by Athanasius but by every Christian Alexandrian who proudly recalled that his Church had been founded by the Apostle Mark. Contemporary politics, too, played a part. And not least was the ambitious and militant personality of Athanasius, the acclaimed, if unofficial, national leader of Egypt.


Differing in so many ways, Greeks and Egyptians were one in their stubbornly active dislike of any government they did not consider was theirs. On both peoples too, a dynamic personality exerted a strong emotional appeal. In all the circumstances therefore, it was not surprising that Alexandria, representing the Christianity of the Egypt that had earlier defied imperial Rome, rose in bitter opposition against the parvenu Constantinople : and that this opposition became crystallised in the unscrupulous activities of a succession of its powerful and brilliant Patriarchs. Nevertheless, as Baynes so wisely reminds us, it is


easy to forget and essential to remember that though the opposition to the imperial government was led by Alexandria, though that Alexandrian leadership dazzles us by the great personalities in which it was incorporated, by the spectacular splendours of the vast stage on which the drama was enacted, yet behind the façade of Alexandria lay the Egyptian people. When the last great protagonist of Alexandria had suffered shipwreck at Chalcedon, there still remained the Egyptian people for whom a Monophysite faith stood as sign and symbol of their alienation from (New) Rome and the Roman government : it was the massive resolution of the Egyptian people to remain loyal to that Monophysite faith that yet again defeated all the king’s horses and all the king’s men. [2]


Less flamboyant and belligerent than Alexandria, Antioch, the other great patriarchate of the East, exerted a far more positive and durable influence on Byzantine Christianity. It had been diminished territorially by the transfer to Constantinople of the important Anatolian region, including Cappadocia, but this loss was more than offset by the authority with which its views thereby found representation in the capital. Antioch’s strategic position in the dissemination of Christian doctrines had always been strong. Now it became supreme.



1. S. Runciman, The Eastern Schism (Oxford, 1955), p. 14.


2. N. H. Baynes, Byzantine Studies and Other Essays (London, 1955), p. 101.





Towards the end of the third century, and during a considerable part of the fourth, the churches of Asia Minor, and especially those of Cappadocia, Pontus and Bithynia, had close and frequent relations with the see of Antioch. It was from Antioch, moreover, that the Gospel was carried towards these regions. Caesarea had looked to Antioch before owning obedience to Constantinople. It was by the bishops who came from Antioch or Caesarea — Gregory the Nazianzene, Nectarius, Chrysostom, Nestorius — that the Church of Constantinople was ruled at the period when it received its final organisation. [1]


The early liturgical ‘families’ of Eastern Christianity fall into four groups, usually differentiated as : the Western Syrian, practised in Antioch and Jerusalem; the Eastern Syrian or Chaldean, developed in northern Mesopotamia and Persia ; the CappadocianByzantine, which was accepted by Constantinople, Asia Minor and Armenia, and which later became the official Byzantine form ; and the Coptic, or Egyptian, adopted by Egypt, Nubia and Ethiopia. The importance of Antioch is reflected in the fact that the first three all ultimately derived from its teachings, and in the circumstances of Christianity’s early growth could hardly help but continue to be to some extent influenced by its thought. Moreover, the Byzantine emperors, for all their role and interest in doctrinal matters, regarded the internal peace and security of the empire as their first concern. In the absence, therefore, of any overriding considerations to the contrary, they were more likely to give their support to the positive attitude of Antioch than to the often negative and usually obstructive ideas of Alexandria. In following such a policy they would be certain also to have the support of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Thus, under her Patriarchs as under her Pharaohs, Egypt could make her voice heard and even gain admiration and respect abroad, but she failed completely to do more than convert fleetingly or to leave any really lasting or constructive impression on the wider issues affecting the evolution of Christian doctrine.


On the other hand, not only did a liturgy of Syrian origin develop into the Orthodox ritual of the Byzantine Church, but its architectural context, the Syrian form of sanctuary, travelled and established itself, either temporarily or permanently, as far afield as the Adriatic, Spain, Gaul and Britain. Even Rome, during the first two centuries or so of the Christian ‘renaissance’ that followed the disasters of the fifth century, was deeply affected.


Syria enjoyed another advantage over Egypt. By virtue of its Semitic population it was culturally the meeting-place as well aspolitically the frontier between the two leading world powers, the empires of Byzantium and Persia. Alexandria remained an important station on the route to India, but even here, development of the Arabian land routes must have considerably diminished its trade. Moreover, with the replacement of the Parthian Arsacid dynasty by the brilliant Sassanians, the exotic attraction which India had had for the West was gradually, but to a very considerable degree, transferred to Persia. The mosaic panels of Justinian and Theodora in S. Vitale at Ravenna are but one example of the ascendancy which Persian royal splendour and ceremonial art had gained in the Byzantine court by the reign of Justinian. Syrian influence on the West was not, therefore, confined to the simple projection of its own national and religious genius. In the Sassanian period in particular it included a pervasive and substantial Persian element that was to show itself in an added emphasis upon the ceremonial aspects of the liturgy.


While increased ceremonialisation of the pre-Constantinian liturgy was inevitable once Christianity had been awarded an official status that amounted, in effect, to imperial patronage, the manner in which this was achieved was peculiarly the result ofthe joint penetration of Byzantine Christendom by Persian ceremonial forms and the Syrian liturgy. At a very early stage, possibly as early as the second century or even before, a small difference had shown itself in the order of the eucharistic service as practised by the Church of Antioch on the one hand and that of Rome and of Alexandria on the other. In the Antiochene liturgy the offertory of bread and wine that each communicant brought to his ecclesia was handed to the deacons either before the service or at its very beginning ; in the versions of Rome and Alexandria the oblations took a ritual place after the recitations of the Creed and the Pax. Seemingly a small procedural difference, it fell



1. L. Duchesne, Christian Worship, Its Origin and Evolution (English translation of 5th edition ; London, 1931), p. 71.





within the same category as the cloud that was no bigger than a man’s hand.


When the new era of Christianity opened in the reign of Constantine we find the opening Offertory Procession an important feature of the three Syrian liturgies, the West Syrian, the East Syrian and the Cappadocian-Byzantine. It did not exist in the liturgy of Rome or Alexandria, nor, at that period, in the Franco-Spanish rite. It is interesting to see that in her account of the eucharistic ceremony in which she participated in Jerusalem in 385, Etheria, a Spanish pilgrim, makes a particular point of this procession, although she is careful to omit any mention of the bread and wine, the Body and the Blood of Christ which was still a mystery of which knowledge was reserved to the initiated, and therefore not a fit subject for description in a letter home. After speaking of the general service, in which she comments that there were many sermons, Etheria writes :


The monks escort the bishop to (the church of) the Resurrection and when the bishop arrives to the singing of hymns, all the doors of the basilica of the Resurrection are thrown open. All the people go in, but only the faithful not the catechumens. And when the people are in, the bishop enters and goes at once inside the screens of the martyrium in the cave (of the Holy Sepulchre, where the altar stands). First thanks are given to God and then prayer is made for all. Afterwards the deacon proclaims aloud. And then the bishop blesses them standing within the screens and afterwards goes out. And as the bishop proceeds out all come forward to kiss his hand. [1]


West of the Syrian sphere of liturgical influence, which did not at first include the whole of Asia Minor, ceremonial and disciplinary requirements were similarly bringing an increasing formality into Christian worship. The historians of the period, in particular Sozomenus and Callistus Nicephorus, throw fight upon an early round in that struggle between Roman Bishop or Pope and (Holy) Roman Emperor that was to colom so much of mediaeval European history.


At the end of the service which marked the public penitence of Theodosius for the Massacre of Thessalonica the weeping emperor entered the sanctuary to lay his oblations upon the altar table. He then remained there, in accordance with the practice of Constantinople, to receive the bread and wine. Ambrose sent him a message by a deacon commanding him to withdraw : ‘The Emperor must worship with the rest of the laity outside the rails. The purple robe makes emperors only, not priests.’ The penitent Theodosius humbly obeyed and, on his return to Constantinople, insisted upon following the Ambrosian rule. To Necarius, who remonstrated with him, he is said to have replied, ‘ With difficulty I have learned the difference between an emperor and a priest. It is hard for a ruler to meet with one willing to tell him the truth. Ambrose is the only man whom I consider worthy of the name of Bishop.’


But, whatever its disciplinary problems, and whether they affected emperors or the humblest of laymen, the Roman Church retained as one of its fundamental liturgical concepts its pre-Constantinian idea of ‘participation’ through the individual act of oblation. The emperor might enter the sanctuary or stay outside, but every Christian accepted into the Faith might approach it to make his offering, and could participate in the ceremony of its consecration.


In the Syrian liturgical sphere, however, it was the essentially Oriental and mystic sense of‘experience’, that characteristic of the rite of Addai and Mari, which prevailed. Early in the fifth century we find Theodore of Mopsuestia in eastern Cilicia, writing :


We must think, therefore, that the deacons who carry the eucharistic bread and bring it out for the sacrifice represent the invisible hosts of ministry (i.e. angels) with this difference, that through their ministry and these memorials they do not send forth Christ our Lord to His saving Passion (like the angel in Gethsemane). When they bring up (the oblation at the offertory) they place it on the altar for the completed representation of the passion, so that we may think of Him upon the altar as if He were placed in the sepulchre after having received Elis passion. [2]


Theodore informs us that this ceremonial procession took place ‘while all are silent, for before the liturgy begins all must watch the bringing up and spreading forth before God of such a great and wonderful object with a quiet and reverend fear and a silent and noiseless



1. G. Dix, op. cit. p. 438.


2. G. Dix, op. cit. p. 282.





prayer ’. [1] In the latter part of the sixth century, however, this silence was replaced by the singing of a specially composed hymn, the Cherubikon :


‘We who the Cherubim mystically figure forth and

sing the thrice holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity,

lay we aside all worldly cares

that we may receive the King of all things

guarded invisibly by the armies of angels.

Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.’ [2]


The Persian influence in favour of splendid and colourful ceremony which is so evident in the Justinian and Theodora mosaics in S. Vitale is no less clearly reflected in this liturgical development.


In following the progress of this Eastern, and basically Syrian, Offertory Procession, we have, in fact, been observing the origin and development of the Orthodox Byzantine ceremony of the ‘Great Entry’, the ritual act of carrying the dedicated Elements from the table or room of prothesis (gifts for God) to the altar for consecration. Although this was only officially adopted by the whole Orthodox Byzantine Church during the second half of the sixth century, it was no sudden innovation, but, as we have seen, the culmination of a lengthy evolution. In fact it had been present with a varying degree of ceremony wherever the Syrian liturgies were practised since pre-Constantinian times.



1. G. Dix, op. cit. p. 283.


2. G. Dix, op. cit. p. 285.




Chapter III. Sanctuary and Nave in the Early Byzantine Church



In its essential features Early Christian architecture was a reflection of past history rather than contemporary dogma. St John Lateran and St Peter, two of the first, as well as the most important churches to be erected by Constantine in Rome, were planned on the lines of earlier Greco-Roman basilicas. Excavations have now made it reasonably certain that St John Lateran, the first of the two and the cathedral church of the Bishop of Rome, was originally a simple Hellenistic basilica consisting of a nave and four aisles, a single, western apse and clerestory lighting ; and that its transept was a later, probably early tenth-century, addition. [1] The second, St Peter, was, in effect, a double church ; a basilica comprising a nave and four aisles, and an annexed, western transept with a central apse. The former was the church proper, the latter a martyrium,






1. J. Toynbee and J. Ward Perkins, The Shrine of St Peter (London, 1956), p. 206.






Fig. 13. CONSTANTINIAN church of the nativity, Bethlehem. Schematic reconstruction by Vincent



the purpose of which was to house the relics of St Peter. The fourth-century site of the altar, in consequence, could not have been in front of the apse in the transept, for not only would this have been in an annexe of the church, but the position was already occupied by the ciborium and crypt containing the sacred relics. Toynbee and Ward Perkins suggest that the altar, possibly a portable one, was situated in the body of the nave. [1] This was a common position for it in the Roman provinces of North Africa, a region possessing particularly close connections with Rome.


The Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius leaves us in doubt regarding the exact disposition of the sanctuary in the cathedral of Tyre built by Bishop Paulinus about 314. This church comprised a propylaeum leading into an atrium, from which three doorways opened into a splendid basilica with a high carved timber roof and possessing a


loftiness that reacheth heaven. . . . Having completed the temple he (Paulinus) adorned it with thrones, very lofty, to do honour unto the presidents, and likewise with benches arranged in order throughout in a convenient manner ; and after all these he hath placed in the midst the holy of holies even the altar, and again surrounded this part also, that the multitude might not tread thereon, with a fence of wooden lattice work,



1. J. Toynbee and J. Ward Perkins, op. p. 208.





delicately wrought with the craftsman’s utmost skill, so as to present a marvellous spectacle to those that see it.


Constantine built five churches in Syria, the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem, that of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the Eleona on the Mount of Olives on the city’s outskirts, a church at Mamre near Hebron, and the ‘Golden Church’ in Antioch. His Church of the Nativity was pulled down and rebuilt by Justinian in the sixth century, but recent archaeological research has shown that it was a basilica with, at one end, an octagonal structure enclosing the cave in which the Nativity was reputed to have occurred. Eusebius is our only source of knowledge of the group of buildings erected by Constantine on the site of the Holy Sepulchre. Here, like the cathedral at Tyre, an eastern propylaeum opened into an atrium, from which three doorways led into a magnificently decorated basilica. This basilica, known as the Martyrium, comprised a nave, four aisles, above which were galleries, and at its western end the ‘Hemisphere’, as far as can be ascertained an apse-like structure which had twelve columns, signifying the twelve apostles. Galleries, lit by upper windows, ran above the aisles, and the ceiling was constructed of richly gilded timbers. A second atrium, west of the Martyrium, connected it with the Anastasis, a circular building enclosing the Saviour’s tomb.


Almost nothing is known of the church at Mamre which was probably intended to commemorate the scene of Abraham’s hospitality to the three angels. Of the * Golden Church’ at Antioch we know only that it was a richly embellished octagon, its circular nave encompassed by aisles, above which ran galleries. In the case of the Eleona, however, through the fact that its foundations were cut in the solid rock, excavations have revealed the plan reasonably fully, indicating a close resemblance to Bishop Paulinus’ cathedral at Tyre.


From these Constantinian churches, constructed either in Rome or under imperial patronage in the Holy Land, an unimportant region in the field of Christian architecture before the fourth century and, therefore, likely to reflect Roman views with undivided fidelity, we can gain a picture of the original official Roman conception of the Christian ‘temple of the heavens not made by hands ’. It was a basilica, well ht, usually with clerestory windows. One or two aisles, marked by colonnades, lay on either side of the central nave. Above the aisles were galleries. The ceiling was flat or beamed. Three doors, the one in the centre more splendid than the other two, led from an atrium with fountains for ceremonial ablution, into the eastern end of the basilica. The western end terminated, as a general rule, in either a plain, flat wall or a martyrium. In Rome, the latter took the form of a rectangular transept; in Syria an octagonal or circular structure was preferred. The sanctuary, containing the altar, occupied part of the nave. In this position, it was easily accessible to the lay members of the congregation, from whom it was separated only by a low chancel screen.


Although translated into temple architecture, in all its essentials and particularly in its arrangement of the sanctuary, this was still the room in which pre-Constantinian Christians had secretly celebrated their rites. However, it is important to recognise that it also closely followed the form of the pre-Christian, Greco-Roman temple, with the Christian sanctuary and altar in the place of the pagan cella.


The shapes of the annexed martyria, though separate in purpose from the basilicas, are significant, for here more latitude seems to have been given to the expression of local religious attitudes. Rome preferred to house the relics of St Peter in an apsed rectangular basilica. In Palestine, however, the two most holy spots, the Grotto of the Nativity and the Holy Sepulchre, were respectively marked by domed octagonal and circular structures. Both these forms were rooted deep in Oriental antiquity. The circle, the form of the sun’s orb and the natural basis of the great sky dome, was perhaps man’s oldest religious symbol, and, as L’Orange has shown, was the idealised city plan — on both the earthly and the cosmic plane — of the Ancient Near East. [1]


An octagonal base upon which to erect a dome was not only an architectural convenience; it had been hallowed by the principles of the sacred arithmetic evolved by ancient Mesopotamian civilisations, and this played an important part in the Western



1. H. P. L'Orange, Studies on the Iconography of Cosmic Kingship in the Ancient World (Oslo, 1953), chap. 1.





development of the octagon as a baptistery. Mâle states :


This form was an application of mystical arithmetic taught by the Fathers ; but, in order to understand the symbolic significance of the figure eight, it is necessary to know that of the figure seven, which is the union of four, the figure of the body, and three, the figure of the soul ; seven is thus the figure of man. (Four is the figure of the four elements, that is to say the matter of which the body is composed ; three, the figure of the Trinity, is the figure of the soul, made in the image of the Trinity.) All that concerns human life is ordered by series of seven. There are seven capital sins, seven virtues, seven sacraments, seven requests in the Pater Noster. Each man passes through seven ages, and the world itself will last no more than seven periods, six of which have already gone by. Coming after seven, which marks the limits, the figure eight is a breaking out. It announces a new fife. It is like an octave in music by which everything begins again. It symbolises at the same time the final resurrection of the Last Day and the resurrection in anticipation which is the baptism. [1]


The experiment attempted in Constantine’s Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem of uniting an octagon and a basilica was not a success. Although not entirely dropped, for it reappeared two centuries later in a cruciform plan at Kalat Siman (St Simeon Stylites) in North Syria, it was an unsatisfactory fusion of two different religio-architectural concepts. Eastern Christianity rejected it equally with the rectangular transept and preferred, if circumstances necessitated, to build a separate, ‘twin’ church to serve as the martyrium.


Architecturally, as well as geographically, the opposite pole to Rome in the Early Christian World was situated in Persian Mesopotamia. The Mesopotamian counterpart of the Hellenistic type basilica designed for congregational or parochial purposes was a rectangular, high-walled structure with a plain exterior that is sometimes described as a ‘barn church’. Usually covered by a single roof, it was in all cases devoid of clerestory lighting. The interior consisted of a tripartite sanctuary and either a single nave ceiled by a barrel vault, if necessary supported by internal buttresses, or, more rarely, it would seem on the limited evidence available, a nave and two relatively narrow aisles, all ceiled by barrel vaults of equal height.


Discussing an ‘essentially Mesopotamian’ plan, typical of the Mosul region, Gertrude Bell comments that


the nave and aisles are invariably cut off from the sanctuary by a wall — it is too substantial to be called an iconostasis — broken by three large doors. This complete separation is not typical of primitive ecclesiastical architecture ; it results, as a rule, from a development of the ritual ; but it appears to be here a part of the original plan. The sanctuary is almost invariably divided into three parts, corresponding to the nave and aisles, and, as a rule, the central altar is covered by a dome set upon squinch arches. [2]


To the south, in central Mesopotamia, some early churches have recently been discovered at Ctesiphon and Hira (Fig. 14). All have a tripartite form of sanctuary which occupies the whole width of the east end. Describing this feature, Reuther remarks that the lateral chambers ‘were entered from the nave through narrow doors and were also connected by small entrances with the altar room, which opened into the nave with a wider door. There was, however, a door here, not the open chancel arch usual in western churches.’ [3] A second Hira church differs from the three in Figure 14 in having the entire width of the central altar room opening to the nave and in having double doors separating the lateral chambers from the public part of the church. A comparison with Figure 2 shows the clear relationship between these forms of tripartite sanctuaries and the traditional ivan plan.


‘Here, and all around Mosul, the monks belonged to the Persian church, but when you get into the Tur Abdin you will find that it belonged to Rum (Rome) ’, the prior of a religious house remarked to Gertrude Bell in the early years of the present century. [4] The Tur Abdin, or the Mount of the Servants of God, is a remote plateau — so remote that to a large extent it has been able to escape the ravages of subsequent



1. É. Mâle, La Fin du paganisme en Gaule (Paris, 1950), pp. 218-19 (trans.).


2. G. L. Bell, ‘Churches and Monasteries of the Tur Abdin and Neighbouring Districts’ (Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Architektur) (Heidelberg, 1913), p. 84.


3. O. Reuther, ‘Sassanian Architecture’, A Survey of Persian Art (ed. A. U. Pope), Oxford, 1938, Vol. I, p. 564.


4. G. L. Bell, ‘The Churches and Monasteries of the Tur Abdin’, included in Amida by M. Van Berchem and J. Strzygowski (Heidelberg, 1910), p. 224.






a. The later church and b. the earlier church at Qasr Bint al-Qadi, Ctesiphon ; c. church at Hira



invaders — that lay within the confines of the Romandominated state of Edessa. Roman connections and garrisons implied the introduction of western influences, but this by no means excluded the active presence of far older traditions as well as those current across the Persian border. The earliest surviving churches of the ‘Roman’ sector of Mesopotamia fall broadly into three main groups, the first two of which are to be found on the Tur Abdin and the third in the cities.


The first of these groups of churches, the normal monastic type on the Tur Abdin, is more or less square in plan. In every case it comprises a western narthex, a single transverse nave, its long axis running from north to south, and, as in Persian Mesopotamia, a symmetrically arranged, tripartite sanctuary, the central chamber of which contains the altar. A massive, structural wall pierced by a central and two lateral openings separates the sanctuary from the nave. Examples of this type are Mar Gabriel (Fig. 15 and the Church of the Forty Martyrs at Qartemin, Mar Ibrahim at Midyad which has the tomb church of Mar Ubil, distinguished by its single-chamber sanctuary, attached to its north side, Mar Malka, also at Midyad, Mar Yaqub at Salah with its single, rounded protruding apse (Fig. 15 b),Mar Yaqub el-Habis, which has a protruding, five-sided apse, and el-Hadr (the Church of the Virgin) at Khakh (Fig. 15c). The usual form of ceiling is barrel-vaulting throughout, but in the last named church an octagonal based dome rises above the centre of the nave.


Quite different features appear in the second, or parochial group of churches on the Tur Abdin. These are characterised by a single, long, barrel-vaulted nave, aligned on an east-west axis, and a single, deeply set apse at the east end. Doorways in the long southern wall connect the nave to an adjoining narthex and courtyard. Other doorways link the apse and one or, more often, two irregularly shaped rooms placed on either side of and behind it. Examples of this kind of





Fig. 15. MONASTIC CHURCHES OF THE TUR ABDIN, NORTHERN MESOPOTAMIA. PLANS a. Mar Gabriel, b. Mar Yaqub, Salah. c. El-Hadr, Khakh



church are Mar Aziziel and el-Hadr at Kefr Zeh, Mar Kyriakos at Amas, Mar Philoxenos at Midyad, Mar Augen, Mar Sovo at Khakh (Fig. 16).


Gertrude Bell concludes that


the monastic churches preserve a Babylonian architectural tradition, the latitudinal chamber of palace and temple, with doors in the centre of the long sides, whereas the parochial churches recall the later Assyrian scheme . . . borrowed from Western Asia. It is curious [she continues] that even the second type seems to have been considered by the Christian builders of this region in the terms of the first. The longitudinal nave of the parochial churches is always approached from the broad side, the doors are invariably in the south wall, never at the west end, where a complete adherence to the longitudinal type would place them ; the narthex and atrium lie to the south ; the whole conception is that of the latitudinal chamber, although the nave is actually disposed in the contrary fashion with relation to the apse. Thus an old architectural tradition may be said to be still perceptible, to a greater or lesser degree in all these buildings, though they are stamped so profusely with the impress of Western artistic influences.


Gertrude Bell goes on to compare the parochial type of church on the Tur Abdin with architectural forms developed in adjacent regions many centuries earlier by the Hittites.


The Hittite plan of palace and temple, which was known to the Assyrians as the Hilani ... is the local fortress gate adapted to royal, domestic and religious requirements and . . . the essential characteristic of the structure is the latitudinal arrangement of the chambers. It is startling to place the plan of Hilani 2 at Sendjirli (I select this example because it was in all probability a cult building) beside the plan of the parochial churches of the



a. Mar Kyriakos, Arnas. fc. Mar Sovo. c. Mar Augen, d. Mar Aziziel, Kefr Zeh





Tur Abdin. Here is the same entrance chamber or porch (the Christian narthex) with its door in the long side, the same latitudinal main chamber (the Christian nave) with the small room that contained the cult image at one end (the Christian apse), giving, as in the churches, a slight longitudinal emphasis which was never fully expressed in the architectural scheme. The original flanking towers of the city gate had already in Hittite times undergone considerable modification, in Hilani 2 only one of them remains ; in the small Hilanis of the upper palace, the latest monumental building on the site, the solid towers have given place to a side room or rooms. In the Tur Abdin, though the latitudinal disposition characteristic of the Hilani is retained, the towers have disappeared, and the memory of them is perpetuated only in the plan, by the subsidiary room at the eastern end of the narthex. [1]


Too little remains from the Early Christian period in the cities of ’Roman’ Mesopotamia for very definite conclusions to be drawn with regard to the third group of churches. With this qualification, however, it is perhaps permissible to note that the church of Mar Yaqub at Nisibis (Nisibin), the cruciform-octagon at Wiranshehr and, in Amida (Diyarbekr), the ruins of the Nestorian church, the Melkite church of Mar Kosmo and the Jacobite church of el-Hadr, are all characterised by large sanctuary-cum-choirs connected by relatively small openings with the naves. The dates of the three Amida churches are uncertain, but they probably belong to the fifth or sixth century; Wiranshehr is probably sixth ; Mar Yaqub is dated to the mid fourth.


In the parochial churches of Northern Syria the cultural strength of Greco-Roman Antioch enabled western influences to meet those of Persian Mesopotamia on more advantageous terms. In consequence, we find time and time again churches built in the form of a Hellenistic basilica, with a clerestoried nave and two aisles, entered sometimes from the sides but usually from the western ends. Nevertheless, the sanctuary almost invariably adopts the tripartite form, an indication that, however much the congregation belonged to the West, in matters of ritual they adhered to the practices of the East. The tripartite sanctuary was a pre-Christian form in Syria (Fig. 9) as well as in Mesopotamia. Perhaps this was a result of the Achaemenian impact, perhaps Semitic syncretism had played its part. In any case, it implied a common religious approach in the two areas and one, moreover, that had been carried from the pagan into the Christian period unshaken by the invasion of powerful Hellenistic influences. This common approach must have greatly facilitated the acceptance in Mesopotamia of a liturgy based upon Antiochene teachings. In broad terms, therefore, Syro-Mesopotamia presented a relatively unified liturgical influence to the Early Christian World. In addition, it was one which had had early experience of associating with other congregations.


In eastern Anatolia another form of church appeared. Related to the parochial churches of both northern Mesopotamia and northern Syria, this was



a. Turmanin. b. Ruweha





1. G. L. Bell, ’Churches and Monasteries of the Tur Abdin and Neighbouring Districts’ (Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Architektur) (Heidelberg 1913), p. 84.





basically a ‘barn church’, but it was distinguished by a single, protruding, eastern apse instead of an inscribed, tripartite sanctuary and by a triple-chambered Hilani narthex, a feature common in Bin Bir Kilisse (Fig. 18) and also appearing in northern Syria (Fig. 17). In Bin Bir Kilisse the ground floor of this Christianised Hilani consisted of a central entrance chamber leading into the nave and a room on either side. The southern room was customarily separated from the entrance chamber by a solid wall and could only be entered from the south aisle. The northern, on the other hand, was usually connected with the entrance chamber by an arched opening and only seldom had access to its corresponding aisle. This siting of what was, in substance, the chambers of diaconicon and prothesis in the narthex was a characteristic of Cappadocia and neighbouring parts of eastern Anatolia and clearly derives from the cult functions of the ancient Hittite Hilanis. Northern Syria and northern Mesopotamia acknowledged Hittite — or eastern Anatolian — influence sufficiently to adopt the outward forms of the Hilani narthex, but they retained unchanged their native form of tripartite sanctuary. Significantly, it was this, rather than the Anatolian, single-apse type that was adopted in Armenia, in spite of the fact that Christianity probably came to that country from Cappadocia. It would seem that only in the ancient Hittite lands of eastern Anatolia did Christianity inherit the pagan Hilani building in anything like its original cult form.


Plus ça change, plus cest la même chose ? Did a traditional form of religious architecture play an important part in shaping the Christian liturgy, whether in Rome, Syria, Mesopotamia, Cappadocia or elsewhere? Did official Christianity simply adopt the existing forms of pagan temples? Suitably qualified, either affirmative or negative replies could be given to all of these questions. In each case the answers could be partially correct, for it is the questions that are wrong. The truth is that Christianity did not suddenly appear as a violent and unheralded ideological revolution. Much of the pagan religious and social history of Greece and Rome, and of Syria, Mesopotamia and Cappadocia, is also the story of Christianity’s long period of gestation. And while the ethnic genius of each region was making its ideological contribution to the future Faith, it was simultaneously developing its pagan form of temple as its loftiest means of religious architectural expression. The greater the ideological contribution to Christianity, the stronger the influence of its preChristian architectural concepts was likely to be, not only at home, but also abroad.


Thus we find during the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries architecture faithfully reflecting the powerfiil emanation of Christian impulses from the region of north Syria and northern Mesopotamia. However, since this architectural influence was simply an offshoot of the adoption of Syrian liturgies and not due to any acceptance of a Syrian way of life or Syrian colonies, it was limited to the sanctuary. The nave, with its aisles, ceiling, means of lighting and its narthex and atrium, continued to follow the forms traditional to each particular locality.


Examples of this architectural dichotomy, resulting from marrying a form of sanctuary appropriate to a Syrian liturgy to a nave suited to a Roman congregation, occur in the east Adriatic city of Salona. At the end of the third century Salona was the leading city of the flourishing Roman province of Dalmatia. On its outskirts, the site of the present-day port of Split, Diocletian built the great palace to which he retired in 305. Salona owed its importance and prosperity entirely to the Roman conquest of Dalmatia in the first decade of the Christian era, and its development in the ensuing three centuries had been that of a Roman colony enjoying close links with the imperial capital.


However, in spite of its proximity to Rome, Salona received its Christianity from the great missionary and theological centre of Nisibis, in northern Mesopotamia. Salona’s first bishop, St Domnio, martyred by Diocletian during his persecution of the Salonitan Christians in 304, had come from Nisibis, and more than a century later Salona was still drawing her bishops from the Orient. Dyggve has given us a valuable account of the results of archaeological excavations that have been made at Salona. His reconstruction of the city’s oldest church, the tiny Oratory A, which dates from the end of the third century, shows it as a rectangular hall divided internally by a transverse screen pierced by a single central doorway. Six pillars carry the screen to about half the height of the walls and support an architrave.






Fig. 20. ORATORY A, SALONA, DALMATIA. Reconstruction of sanctuary by Dyggve




The lower part of the screen consists of stone or marble panels, the upper is open, but capable of being closed by curtains. A doorway at the back of the sanctuary, slightly the smaller of the two divisions and containing a semicircular priests’bench, provided a separate entry for the clergy. Two other doorways in the north and south walls of the nave served the lay congregation. [1] Such a separation of the nave and sanctuary and arrangement of entrances was completely Oriental and altogether foreign to contemporary Roman Christianity.


Once the Edicts of Toleration had freed Salona’s Christians from the necessity of worshipping in small, inconspicuous buildings, the community demonstrated its strength and wealth by the erection of a series of splendid and spacious churches. As far as those with a congregational purpose were concerned, the invariable form, as was to be expected in a predominantly Roman region, was basilical with clerestory lighting. In the arrangement of their sanctuaries, however, we continually find evidence of the conflicting liturgical attitudes of East and West. It is not always clear how the conflict was resolved, but the persistence of a very strong Eastern influence is shown by the number of churches in which the sanctuaries were emphatically separated from the nave and possessed a tripartite arrangement.


The fourth-century Southern Basilica, the original ‘twin’ building of the Episcopal Church, was unusual in that walls projected the colonnades separating the nave from the aisles a short distance before terminating in a semicircular apse. This was a feature of Justinian’s rebuilding of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and it had the effect of providing more space for the sanctuary. In addition, there was an oblong chamber, in outward effect a continuation of the north aisle, on the north side of the apse. The basilica at Manastirine, also fourth century, had a single protruding apse, but here the pillars of the nave ceased approximately 7.50 metres from the east wall at a massive partition one metre thick which, pierced only by five narrow doorways, separated the sanctuary (in the form of an inscribed transept) from the nave in a peculiarly Oriental manner. A possibly later concession to Western attitudes appeared in a long, narrow chancel, enclosed by the customary Western low screen, which extended from the central opening of this partition into the nave.


In the mid-fourth century Five Martyrs’ Church at Kapljuč a low chancel screen enclosed the altar space, but the apse was flanked by two irregularly shaped chambers. Almost identical was the Basilica ‘Juxta Portum’ which Dyggve describes as ‘a clear Salonitan instance of the simple universal basilica type, with a narthex and the parabemata, prothesis and diaconicon which were almost obligatory for the larger churches as they were of practical importance for the liturgical rites’.



1. E. Dyggve, History of Salonitan Christianity (Oslo, 1951), chap. 2.







Fig. 24 (below), CONSTANTINLAN BASILICA OF ST PAUL-OUTSIDE-THE-WALLS, ROME. PLAN. The Constantinian basilica, with its Syrian form of tripartite sanctuary, was demolished when the church was reconstructed and enlarged in 386. In the original church the sanctuary was placed at the west end ; in the new (shaded parts) it lay to the east but the apostle-martyr’s tomb, which had been situated within the apse of the original church, was not disturbed and remained within the sanctuary of the new basilica



The same principle seems also to have been followed in the fifth-century twin churches of St Anastasius at Marusinac, where although, in both cases, the single apses protrude, there are clear indications of internal, tripartite divisions of the sanctuaries. That Eastern influences continued to be strong in the sixth century is clear from the cruciform memorial church attached to the Basilica Urbana, and from the Basilica Occidentalis, the ground plan of which indicates similarities to that of the basilica at Alahan Kilisse (Koja Kalessi) in Cilicia.


A different picture appears in the coastal cities of the North Adriatic and their hinterlands. Here the earliest Christian influences appear to have been Roman. Not until the disruption of the W estem Empire do we find evidence of the intrusion of Syrian forms of sanctuaries. Moreover, as the original Latin population was replaced by Gothic and Lombard invaders, the changes were not limited to the sanctuary, but included the introduction in some cases of definitely Oriental church forms, notable Ravennate





examples being the cruciform, so-called ‘mausoleum’ of Galla Placidia (in fact, probably a memorial chapel to St Lawrence) and the church of S. Vitale.


The existence of Syrian tripartite sanctuaries in thirdto sixth-century Salona was not the consequence of an isolated missionary enterprise to the Adriatic. The region of North or Antiochene Syria, Cilicia, Cappadocia and north Mesopotamia, from the time of St Paul to that of the Nestorians who carried their Faith to China in the seventh century, provided Christianity with its main missionary impulse as well as the Roman Empire with its most ubiquitous traders. In Rome itself the Syrian sanctuary occurred in the Constantinian church of St Paul-outside-the-Walls, indicating the presence at that date of a reasonably sized community adhering to the Syrian rites. At Silchester in Hampshire the ruins of a fourthor fifth-century church similarly demonstrate that such communities existed even in the north-western extremity of the Roman Empire. Spain likewise. Features characteristic of fifthand sixth-century Syria and Asia Minor commonly found in surviving pre-Romanesque churches include prothesis and diaconicon chambers flanking the chancel, the horseshoe arch, horseshoe vaulting and horseshoe planned apse, barrel vaults with transverse ribs, and apses which are semicircular inside and either square or polygonal outside. [1]


The rooms of prothesis and diaconicon, described as secretaria, figure in the letters of Paulinus of Nola (circa 354-431). There are, he writes to his friend Sulpicius Severus, two secretaria, one to the right and one to the left of the apse, and he recounts their functions. The former was a place where the holy food was deposited and whence provisions and furnishings were taken to the altar ; the latter was where the priests could study the scriptures and pray in privacy after the conclusion of the service. [2]


It is to Constantinople, however, rather than to any provincial centre, that we must go to seek evidence of the real strengths of the various complementary and conflicting influences that were forming the new Byzantine architecture. This is particularly the case since the political history of the Byzantine Empire between Constantine and Justinian is essentially the story of the consolidation of imperial power, based upon the new capital. In relation to Macedonia, moreover, its proximity, coupled with its prestige as imperial capital, gave it a particular importance. Little, unfortunately, is known of the city’s earliest churches. Those of Constantine were short-lived. His great church of the Holy Apostles, the prestige of which was such that it served as a model for St Ambrose’s church of the Holy Apostles in Milan, completed in 382, appears to have been cruciform in plan, with an octagonal base for the dome covering the central intersection. Eusebius says of it :


The Emperor erected a church in Constantinople in honour of the memory of Twelve Apostles. The walls were covered with marble from pavement to roof ; the nave was vaulted ; and the dome, as well as the roof, was covered with plates of brass. Constantine caused his tomb to be erected in the centre of the church, in the midst of twelve other monuments, which he had erected in the form of columns, in honour of the Apostles.


Constantine also planned a church to be dedicated to Aghia Sophia (the Divine Wisdom) and this, a timber-roofed basilica, was completed by his son Constantius II in 360. Destroyed by fire in 404, it was rebuilt in 416, only again to be burnt to the ground during the ‘Nika’ riots in 532. Recent excavations have revealed remnants of these churches, but the evidence is still too small to permit tentative reconstructions. Constantine’s Church of Aghia Eirene (the Divine Peace) appears also to have been a basilica and an enlargement of one of the churches built in the years before Byzantium was transformed into the imperial capital. Until 360 it was the city’s cathedral and in 3 81 it was the scene of the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople.


The earliest Constantinople church that is still standing is St John of Studion, built in 463 as a part of the great monastery of Studion and dedicated to St John the Baptist. A basilica following a basically Hellenistic plan, it consists of a nave and two aisles, a single protruding apse without side chambers, galleries over the aisles, a timber ceiling, and a narthex extending the width of the church. The absence of a tribelon and the three-sided apse with three windows, on the other hand, indicate the penetration of Eastern influences.



1. B. Bevan, History of Spanish Architecture (London, 1938), p. 9.


2. Paulinus of Nola, Epistula 32.









The traces of the less firmly dated but approximately contemporary church of St Mary Chalcoprateia appear to follow much the same plan.


Justinian and Theodora inspired a resurgence of the building impetus that had been so strong a characteristic of Constantine’s reign. Between 536 and 546 the Church of the Holy Apostles was rebuilt, using a ground plan that seems to have followed broadly the lines of Constantine’s original. A dome, pierced with a line of windows near to its base, surmounted the intersection of the four basilical arms ; and four more domes, without windows, were placed at the ends of the arms. There was no apse ; the sanctuary lay under the central dome. Galleries running round the church formed a second storey. The numerous columns and scintillating decorative scheme must have provided an even more dazzling interior than that of its famous predecessor. Although destroyed following the Turkish conquest, two western European copies, St Mark of Venice and St-Front of Périgueux, are legacies of its prestige and architectural influence.


Justinian also restored the Church of the Holy Saviour-in-Chora (Kahriye Camii). Originally constructed to an unknown plan about the beginning of the fifth century or earlier, the Justinian version, parts of which were retained in subsequent restorations, was a domed basilica with a tripartite, three-apsed sanctuary.


Three of Justinian’s churches have survived into our own times, SS. Sergius and Bacchus, Aghia Eirene (the Divine Peace) and Aghia Sophia (the Divine Wisdom). The first was an ex-voto church, erected and dedicated as an act of gratitude to the two saints, the others replacements of the Constantinian foundations burnt in the abortive ‘Nika’ revolution of 532.


Begun in 527, in the first year of Justinian’s reign, SS. Sergius andBacchus (Fig. 26) was completed in 536. Essentially it consisted of a nearly square structure containing a large central dome carried by eight massive piers. A three-windowed apse, semicircular inside and three-sided outside, projected from the east wall. A narthex occupied the west front. The overwhelming emphasis given to the dome in SS. Sergius and Bacchus indicated the extent to which Oriental influences were gaining in Constantinople, but the harmonious relationship between the domed area and the rest of the church which was to characterise Aghia Sophia had not yet been achieved. SS. Sergius and Bacchus was, however, the forerunner of Aghia Sophia, not only in its general form, but in possessing the same type of lateral enclosures, which could be used for pro thesis and diaconicon, on either side of the bema, or central altar space.


Aghia Eirene was built as a much more conventional type of domed basilica with a semi-inscribed apse and tripartite sanctuary. Although domed and lacking the apsidal eastern ends of the aisles, its ground plan was closely related to that of the domed basilica at Alahan Klisse (Koja-Kalessi) in Cilicia, erected in the first half of the previous century.


Aghia Sophia was the church upon which Justinian lavished everything within his power. It was the supreme architectural achievement of Byzantine civilisation. The work of two architects, Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, two cities in the Hellenised west of Asia Minor, it was and is unique in that neither in any of its parts nor in its whole is it Hellenistic or Oriental. As no other Byzantine church before or since, it attains a perfect fusion of the Hellenistic and Oriental elements that composed the Byzantine synthesis.








Nowhere is this more evident than in, to quote Procopius’ contemporary description, ‘its golden dome, which seems not to rest on solid masonry but as if suspended from heaven to cover the space’. In fact, Aghia Sophia is ceiled by a dome that incorporates clerestory lighting ; but the dome’s brilliant design and proportions, its pendentives and its two supporting half-domes unite in perfect harmony the Oriental symbol of the sky temple and the Hellenic desire for light and simple axial symmetry. Procopius comments : ‘Within it is singularly full of light and sunshine ; you would declare that the place is not lighted from without, but that the rays are produced within itself, such an abundance of light is poured into it. The gilded ceiling adds glory to its interior, though the light reflected upon the gold from the marble surpasses it in beauty.’ Similarly the ground plan of Aghia Sophia is neither centralised nor basilical, it is a synthesis of the two.


Byzantine civilisation never again realised the architectural perfection of Aghia Sophia, for never, in any part of the Empire, was the perfect balance of its component Greco-Roman and Oriental forces again attained. It was not only the supreme architectural achievement of one of Byzantium’s greatest emperors and builders, but the climax of Alexander’s ideal of a unified Mediterranean-Oriental empire eight hundred years before. In the light of Alexander’s ideals it was fitting indeed that this climax should be the ecumenical cathedral of a religion that had been evolved through the synthesis of the Greco-Roman and the Oriental elements of his empire.


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