The Evolution of the Basilica

by Cecilia Lightbourn
[student, Rome Sketchbook course, Spring 2012]
ruins of the fourth century basilica of constantine, rome
the ruins of the basilica of Maxentius/Constantine
ruins of the fourth century basilica of sant'agnese, rome
the ruins of the basilica of Sant'Agnese

Constantine's basilica was built by his predecessor Maxentius, but adapted to honour Constantine, and housed a colossal statue of him in it's main apse. It was completed in 321 ad.
In ancient Rome, a basilica was a rectangular building with a large central open space. The same structure was used for later christian churches.

After Constantine adopted Christianity, the movement was able to operate out in the open as it quickly became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Pagan temples were adapted into Christian churches and their rites were abandoned or absorbed into Christian rituals.

The Basilica of Sant'Agnese is an example of an ancient building arranged in the form of a basilica.

examples of church floor plans: San Paolo, Santa Maria in Domnica, Santa Maria Maggiore and Santa Prassede

floor plan of the basilica of san paolo
floor plan of the basilica of santa maria in domnica

floor plan of the basilica of santa maria maggiore
floor plan of the basilica of santa prassede

The facade designs often follow the principles of ancient Greek temple architecture, creating variations on the basic form.

facade, santa maria maggiore
Facade of the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore
facade, san paolo fuori le mura
Facade of the basilica of San Paolo
typical greek temple floor plan
Example of greek temple plan

Since ancient times, sacred places were built to honour the gods. Ancient greek architecture has been of great influence in western culture. Much of Roman architecture is a combination of Greek and Etruscan styles.

The Pantheon
the pantheon, facade

The Pantheon, built in 126 ad, is another example of a pagan temple that later became a Christian church. In this case, the fact that it was consecrated as a church so early meant that it was always used and is perhaps the best preserved example of ancient architecture in Rome.

the pantheon, interior details

Some ancient temples, like the Pantheon, have a circular floor plan. This is thought to be as a representation of the celestial sphere, the Universe.

Interior of the church of Santo Stefano Rotondo
santo stefano rotondo, interior views
Interior of the Mausoleum of Costanza
the mausoleum of costanza