Monumentality in Early Christian Architecture

In May, I am going to a conference on the topic of monumentality in archaeology. When invited, I fired off a rather superficial abstract that talked about how Early Christian church architecture in Greece both used existing, earlier forms of urban and domestic architecture to communicate the new status of the Christian religious elite, but also subverted these forms by establishing new relationship between donor, visitors, and the social structures that informed traditional elite architecture.

This week, I’ve slowly turned my attention to this paper after completing a revised draft of the historical conclusion to the PKAP Survey Volume.

To begin, I re-read Kafka’s short story “The Great Wall of China”. The fictional narrator of the (obviously fictional) story considers the construction of the Great Wall of China and tells of how it was built piecemeal across China to preserve the moral of the workers. According to the narrator, the very enormity of the task ran the risk alienating the labor of the individual worker by reducing it to something inconsequential by comparison. To combat this, the workers built a single section of the wall – often in a remote location – and returned home for a time of recovery before heading out again like departing heroes to build another section. Thus the wall came to represent the entire community of China – and the narrator himself who hailed from the south, not the north where the wall stood – could take tremendous pride in its construction even though the purpose and extent remained as obscure and paradoxical as the body of the Emperor himself who called for the Wall’s construction. In Kafka’s story (hardly the only one in his oeuvre that featured architecture), the Wall represented the enormity of the Empire, the incomprehensibility of the Emperor, and the tension between the fragile individual and abyss of time, space, and power that surrounds human existence. (And I have to assume that the story means many other more significant, literary, and existential things!). Monumentality formed the delicate link between the individual and things much larger, more abstract, and more remote.

This story contributed to my larger meditation of monumentality in the discourse of Late Antiquity (or the Early Christian period). Shifting attitudes toward monumental architecture has represented a key indicator in social, religious, political, economic, and cultural change in the ancient world. Indeed, scholars often argue that the end of the ancient world came with the neglect and sometimes destruction of the pagan temple and the construction of Early Christian basilica style churches in their place. The widespread abandonment of basilica style churches, in turn, marks the end of the transitional period between ancient and “Medieval” or “Byzantine” forms of architecture, and scholars have neatly synced the transformation of architectural styles with political, economic, and social changes.

The link between architecture and social change often comes through the study of patronage practices. If we understand the social practices that led to the construction of Early Christian architecture to be largely identical to those that produced earlier forms of monumental architecture, then we can argue that these shift in building types is largely stylistic or a matter of taste or practice.  In other words, we can see monumental architecture as evidence for continuity between the ancient world and Late Antiquity. If we see different social mechanisms producing the Early Christian monumental building boom, then it becomes easier to claim that the shift in large scale building practices represents a shift in the organization of society on a more profound level. Along these lines, scholars have seen Early Christian architecture as evidence for discontinuity between antiquity and the Middle Ages. The issue is, of course, that we still do not understand the mechanisms that produced the boom in Early Christian architecture and how these intersect with, say, changing attitudes toward the poor among the same group of people (and the study of Late Antique attitudes toward poverty is a particularly fertile ground for recent study).

The flip side of this concern with patronage, of course, is how these buildings were understood by their audiences across the Late Antique world. Not only are did these building represent a point of contact between massive and abstract institutions like the church and the bodies of individuals living throughout the Early Christian world, but they also represent a place of critique around which community responses to new forms of religious or social organization could cohere.

As Kafka articulated in a fictional context, monumental architecture had the potential for alienating the individuals responsible for their construction as the tension between their massively concrete appearance comes all too close to the abstract entities, institutions, and ideologies which they represent. This alienation provides fertile ground of critique inscribed on the monuments themselves, on the bodies of the laborers who produced them, and in the attitudes toward the buildings in broader social discourse.

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