I’m continuing with my survey of Church history, architecture, music, and liturgy this week with the period of the rise of the Roman Church (313-750 CE). It is during this time that secular authority took on a new and dramatic role in the life of the Christian faith.
But first, some backstory. The emperor Diocletian divided the Roman Empire in half in 293 CE, with a primary emperor, “Augustus” in the West, and an assistant emperor, “Caesar” in the East. In 312 CE Constantine, who had been the Augustus of the West, took control of the entirety of the empire by defeating his Caesar. There is a story recorded in historical texts of that prior to the battle of Maxentius, Constantine was instructed in a dream to place a Christian symbol on the shields of his soldiers. His victory at Maxentius confirmed his faith in Christianity, and while all religions continued to have the right to exist under his rule, the Christian religion gained special privileges.
As such, the Christian Church went from being located in people’s homes to being located in structures that resembled palaces. In fact, one of the most common church designs, the basilica (literally translated “the hall of the king”) was based on a design for governmental buildings. The basilica had a long, rectangular shape with a main entrance on one of the short ends and a hemispherical wall on the other, usually covered by a dome. Under the circular end, called an “apse” the clergy would be seated around a central altar and baptismal font while participants sat in benches along the long aisle leading from one end to another.
This era also saw the introduction of liturgical music, still mostly chanted, that we continue to use today, including the Kyrie, the Gloria, and the Sanctus. These hymns had been used widely in the eastern portion of the empire in daily offices, but they appeared in western liturgies by the fifth centure. Because there was still not the musical notation forms we are familiar with in today’s culture, these hymns were memorized by specialized musicians, with parishioners joining in the refrains and responses.
But perhaps the most significant change that occurred in Christianity under Constantine was the canonization of the Christian scriptures (aka the “New Testament”) and the beginning of standardizing some aspects of theology, illustrated in the Nicene Creed. Often overlooked is the creation of hymnals, calendars of the saints, and liturgical instruction that also occurred during this time.
Just as church buildings became more ornate, the vessels of the service also became more ornate and reflected a greater reverence for the bread and the wine. Special dishes, such as the paten (the plate for holding the bread during the service) and the pyx (a container for consecrated bread remaining from the service) appeared. Because having one cup was still maintained, but now had to accommodate large crowds of people, chalices became large urns with wide bases and handles to assist with drinking. Some of these could be six inches in diameter, and made from precious metals. Full participation in the Eucharist was still maintained, with the remoteness of the bread and wine from the congregation not appearing until the centuries that followed.
Yours in Christ,