What did the worship space look like?

OF THE MANY CHANGES Constantine’s conversion brought to the church, perhaps none was more dramatic than the shift in the architecture of worship spaces. Before Constantine, few buildings were erected specifically for worship. The church historian Eusebius mentions that by the late third century there were “churches of spacious foundations in every city”—but many were destroyed by enemies of the growing Christian movement.

Intense persecution led to most Christians meeting in house churches. The best-preserved example, at Dura Europos on the Euphrates River, featured a large room for the Eucharist, with a small platform on which sat an altar table and the bishop’s throne. A separate room served as a baptistery, complete with baptismal font.

Constantine changed all that. He sought to establish his new-found faith more firmly by giving money to build nine new churches in Rome and others in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Constantinople. These magnificently appointed buildings looked almost nothing like the old house churches. Instead, they were based on the plan of a basilica, or Roman law court. Some basilica churches were actually former secular basilicas, now occupied by the very same Christian worshipers who had once been tried within them as criminals against the state.

The body of Christ in the body of the basilica

Whether repurposed or new, basilicas possessed a uniform floorplan: a rectangular “body” capped with a semicircular “head” called the apse. This is where the Roman judge had been seated on a throne. Now the Christian bishop replaced him, surrounded by presbyters (ordained elders/priests) sitting in chairs on either side.

The people gathered for worship in the long, narrow, rectangular body of the building, called the nave. There, until the fourteenth century when pews were invented, worshipers simply moved about to follow the action of the service: Scripture readings, prayers, processionals, the sermon, and increasingly, the consecration of the Host on various altars throughout the church. Platforms for singers extended out of the apse into the nave. One end of these featured a pulpit, and a prominent altar table occupied the middle.

Oddly enough, the pulpit was not originally used for preaching. While Scripture readers and other worship leaders used the pulpit, the bishop preached from his seat. This arrangement lasted until the golden-tongued but soft-voiced John Chrysostom (347–407) moved closer to the people to preach. The bishop also presided over the eucharist, facing the people across the altar table.

In the fifth century, as the relics of saints became more popular, many saints’ bodies were actually buried directly under altar tables. Baptismal fonts could appear anywhere—even in a separate building. most usually, however, the font stood at the entrance to the church building—a physical reminder that Christians came into god’s church through baptism.

Altar & pulpit divide

Throughout the Western middle ages, the rectangular body of the basilica grew longer and more ornate. (eastern Orthodox architecture moved instead toward featuring large domes over square buildings.) The altar moved farther and farther away from the nave and was eventually attached to the back wall of the apse.

This accompanied a significant change in the way a bishop presided over the Eucharist—no longer did he face the congregation as he spoke the eucharistic prayer. The altar was changed from a table to a square box so that it could contain saints’ relics. Side altars—which became entire side chapels for private masses, including requiem masses for the dead—were installed along the nave (relics ended up here too). Extending the trend set by Chrysostom, pulpits (increasingly large and ornate) moved out into the nave so that congregations could better hear the preacher.

The trendsetting worship spaces of the High and Late middle ages, however, were the chapels of monasteries, which had the architectural plan every other church wanted to copy. In this layout, the apse became a long chancel, with stalls on either side where the monks could chant the psalms antiphonally (alternating from side to side).

Large cathedrals took this plan and added side chapels to the chancel. even small parish churches adopted the plan, installing the clergy and the local noble family in the monastic stalls while the rest of the congregation continued to worship in the nave.

A womb of sacred imagery

While we tend to think of ornate art as the purview of wealthy churches, the average medieval church held an ample share of visual imagery and sensory stimulation. However, fervent Reformation-era Protestants removed the art and images from so many Western European churches—and in most cases today these have been imperfectly restored—that it is hard for modern observers to grasp just how much there was to see.

Walking into a medieval church was like entering a womb of sacred imagery. Carved and painted reredos (the back wall behind the main altar); statues, paintings, and tapestries along the walls and in side altars; stained-glass windows; mosaics, paintings, and even tombstones on the floors all spoke of divine things as loudly as the Word or sacraments. Above all loomed the great crucifix, or rood, over the rood screen, or panel, with a picture of Judgment Day above or behind it. These greeted the worshiper’s eyes as she raised them during the fulcrum of the eucharistic liturgy when the priest elevated the Host for everyone to see.

Many of these images were donated and cared for by guilds and members of the parish, who also bore the not inconsiderable expense of candles and lamps to illuminate all that visual richness! The well-off commonly willed items to the church with very specific instructions about how and when these items should be displayed. Just before the Reformation, one English congregant left instructions that her second-best rosary be hung on a statue of St. Anne all year, but her best rosary was to be used on St. Anne’s feast day. CH

By Jennifer Woodruff Tait

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #102+ in 2012]

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Issue 102+

History of Worship Guide

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