The exterior of an early Christian church is usually undecorated, which only heightens the glorious effect of
the interior. Enormous marble columns, often “recycled” from Roman temples, line the nave. The walls,
as well as the triumphal arch and the apse, are covered with glittering mosaics depicting stories from the
Bible or other Christian symbols. The roof of the early Christian basilica is usually a simple gable roof with
exposed beams. In most of the churches that survive from this period, the beams were eventually covered
with sumptuous gold or painted ceilings.
Another type of structure built during the early Christian period is the martyrium, a monument
commemorating a saint who died for his or her faith. The building is usually not for regular religious
services, but is used for worshippers to view the tomb or other relics in the center building; thus, the
martyrium is a relatively small structure with a central plan, like a circle or octagon. An ambulatory, or
walkway, allows viewers to pass by the tomb in a respectful manner. A dome decorated with mosaics
usually tops the building. The central plan church was also widely used in the Byzantine Empire, that is, the
eastern half of the Roman Empire. One influential Byzantine central-plan church is San Vitale, a church built
for the Byzantine emperor Justinian in the Italian city of Ravenna.
Interior of Santa Costanza, Rome, 4th century Elevation and plan of Santa Costanza
The period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the age of Charlemagne is sometimes called the Dark
Ages of European history. It might be better, however, to call these centuries the Age of Migrations and
Monasteries. At the same time that the Greek and Roman civilizations developed and reached their height,
nomadic tribes lived in the areas of present-day France, Germany, Great Britain, and Scandinavia. The
Greeks called these people “barbarians”—people who made nonsensical sounds rather than speaking
proper Greek. These people who not only spoke different languages, but also lived in a way entirely
different from the Greeks, moving from place to place in search of pastureland for their flocks. The tribes
who lived in coastal areas similarly roamed the seas in search of natural resources and plunder.