Home > Korinthian Matters, Late Antiquity > Early Christian Architecture and Hybrid Space

Early Christian Architecture and Hybrid Space

For my regular readers, you know that I have already posted on the topic of Early Christian architecture and the hybrid at least three times, examining mosaics, inscriptions, and imperial policy.  The last case study in my ongoing research focuses on the Lechaion basilica outside of Corinth and looks at the intersection of architecture and imperial policy a little more closely.  The Lechaion basilica was one of the largest basilica churches in the Mediterranean at the time of its construction in the 6th century.  Initially excavated by D. Pallas over a series of campaigns in the late 1950s and early 1960s, recent work has strongly suggested a Justinianic date for its completion, placing it among the large number of Justinianic building projects in the Corinth (G.D. R. Sanders and K. Slane, “Corinth: Late Roman Horizons,” Hesperia 74 (2005), 291-292).  There is little left of the church today above the foundation level, the size alone makes the building impressive.

image image
Floor plan and figures from Google Earth
(if you have installed Google Earth you can
click here for coordinates with bibliography)

Not only did the church extend for over 150 m in length but it was also adorned with spectacular decoration including opus sectile floors (made of pieces of marble and slate cut into geometric patterns) and Proconnesian marble (this is marble from the imperial marble quarries on islands in the sea of Marmara).  The presence of these elaborate touches in the Lechaion church make it appear to be an imperial foundation.  J.P. Sodini, one of the foremost scholars of Early Christian architecture in Greece, noted that the church reflected an “international style” (J. P. Sodini, “Note sur deux variantes régionales dans la basilique Grèce et des Balkans,” 587).

Such an elaborate building would not be surprising, of course, for the reign of Justinian.  The emperor was known for founding churches throughout the empire.  The furnishing of the Lechaion church probably served alongside its elaborate appointments to mark the church as having special ties to the imperial capital.  In particular, the long pathway in the center of nave of the church linking the eastern chapel with a centrally placed pulpit (or ambo).  This feature, called a solea, is characteristic of Justinianic architecture in Constantinople and appears very rarely in churches in Greece.  The centrally placed pulpit is also rare in Greece; typically Greek ambos stand offset to either the north or the south of the axis of the main nave. 

Other parts of the church, however, fit in well with churches elsewhere in Greece.  The colonnade separating the nave from the flanking aisles is set up on raised stylobates (or platforms) and the spaces between the columns are blocked off by low barrier setting the aisles apart from the main nave.  The western part of the church has a huge atrium which does not have a central door providing access to the narthex (the western hemicycle in the plan above is elevated above the floor of the atrium).  The eastern apse of the church features a synthonon — a set of seats running around the inside wall of the apse — designated for the clergy.  All these features are characteristic of Greek churches, and their regularity in a Greek context suggests that they fulfilled basic requirements of the particular kind of liturgy practiced in Greece at this time.

The north aisle of the Lechaion basilica

The combining of features from the capital and features from the provinces presents imperial power in the context of local practice and forms.  Thus, Lechaion provides another example of hybridity in Early Christian architecture in Greece.  Imperial authority not only stands out in the context of the Lechaion church but, perhaps more importantly, it is translated and coopted by the persistence of characteristically Greek architecture forms.  Such intermingling of features evocative of different liturgical observations also occurs in other Justinianic foundations in the west — most notable San Vitale in Ravenna where the famous mosaics of the Emperor and his wife Theodora almost certainly represent features of the Constantinopolitan liturgy (see O.G. von Simson, “1987. Sacred Fortress: Byzantine Art and Statecraft in Ravenna. (Princeton 1947), 30 and T. Mathews, Clash of Gods. rev. ed. (Princeton.2003), 171.). 

The importance of this hybrid expression of the 6th century liturgy can only be fully understood in the context of the 5th and 6th century ecclesiastical organization.  Greece was ecclesiastically part of the West at this time falling within the ecclesiastical province of Illyricum Orientalis which was under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome (the Pope).  Justinian’s efforts to influence ecclesiastical affairs in the West included making regular interference in Papal politics.  Moreover, the church at Lechaion (and San Vitale) provide evidence that he sought to influence to some extent liturgical observation as well.  This would be consistent with the growing importance of the liturgy in the political life of the 5th and 6th centuries.  It was common, for example, to voice opposition to imperial or ecclesiastical policies by excluding the name of the emperor or offending bishops from the lists of officials commemorated in the liturgy.  Some emperors even went so far as to insert particular prayers in the liturgy in an effort to impose their theological positions on the ecclesiastical hierarchy and the faithful. 

It is important to note, however, that such bold expressions of imperial authority over religious matters did not go unchallenged.  The translation of the imperial politics and authority into a local context often required negotiation some of which took place in the way imperial authority was manifest in Early Christian architecture.  Just as epigraphy and mosaic floors served as places where the Christian community negotiated varying understandings of being Christianity and created a new model of Christian authority, so the architecture of imperial foundations like the Lechaion basilica evoked both local and imperial influences.  Through features of the church common in a Greek context, the local ecclesiastical hierarchy asserted its control over the space and the rituals taking place there, while the emperor or his agents challenged that primacy through bold allusions to the liturgy, architecture, and wealth of the imperial capital.  In such hybrid spaces neither side “won” this contest.  Both sides, rather, expressed their overlapping claims in ways that demanded that the viewer continuously renegotiate their understanding of imperial and ecclesiastical authority.

Update: Check out Kourelis’s response to this post: http://kourelis.blogspot.com/2008/02/priest-houses-sacred-or-profane.html

  1. February 26, 2008 at 10:17 pm

    Very interesting. Was it unusual for a basilica to be situated so prominently, almost directly on a harbor front? This would have been a striking sight for those arriving at the port.

  2. February 27, 2008 at 12:45 am

    It’s not too terribly unusual for a major church to be located on the water. Consider for example the Kenchreai basilica which would have been visible at the harbor. Our site in Cyprus has at least two visually prominent basilicas on a coast. Procopius describes several churches that the faithful could sail right up to in Constantinople!
    What would have been particularly striking to a knowledgeable visitor (say a visiting member of the clergy) from the west, however, would be the architectural allusions to the liturgy of Constantinople. While Corinth was under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Pope in Rome, the architecture suggested that other influences were at play as well.
    Thanks for the comment and thanks for reading!

  3. Kostis Kourelis
    February 27, 2008 at 5:33 pm
  4. marija
    March 11, 2009 at 11:51 am

    So what would you say that the biggest difference between the early christian basillicas in the west and east (4-6 c.) are. I have noticed that the gallery appears more in the east.

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