Following Helena's trip to Jerusalem in AD 327, Constantine began erecting the first church buildings throughout the Roman Empire, some at public expense.' In so doing, he followed the path of the pagans in constructing temples to honor God.'
Interestingly, he named his church buildings after saints—just as the pagans named their temples after gods. Constantine built his first church buildings upon the cemeteries where the Christians held meals for the dead saints.73 That is, he built them over the bodies of dead saints." Why? Because for at least a century beforehand, the burial places of the saints were considered "holy spaces."'
Many of the largest buildings were built over the tombs of the martyrs.' This practice was based on the idea that the martyrs had the same powers that they had once ascribed to the gods of paganism.' The Christians adopted this view completely.
The most famous Christian "holy spaces" were St. Peter's on the Vatican Hill (built over the supposed tomb of Peter), St. Paul's Outside the Walls (built over the supposed tomb of Paul), the dazzling and astonishing Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem (built over the supposed tomb of Christ), and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (built over the supposed cave of Jesus' birth). Constantine built nine churches in Rome and many others in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Constantinople."
IL Fox, Pagans and Christians, 667-668. Taylor, Christians and Holy Places, 309. Snyder, Ante Pacem, 65. These places are referred to as martyria. " Ibid., 92; Haas, "Where Did Christians Worship?" Christian History 35.
Taylor, Christians and Holy Places, 340-341. As Davies says, "As the first Christians had no holy shrines, the need for consecration did not arise. It was only in the fourth century, with the peace of the church, that the practice of dedicating buildings began" (Davies, Secular Use of Church Buildings, 9, 250). Short, History of Religious Architecture, 62. Johnson, History of Christianity, 209.
Snyder, Ante Pacem, 109. St. Peter's was 835 feet long, according to Haas, "Where Did Christians Worship?" 35. Details on St. Paul's found in Cross and Livingstone, Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 1442; on Holy Sepulcher in Edward Norman, The House of God: Church Architecture, Style, and History (London: Thames and Hudson, 1990), 38-39; on the Church of the Nativity, Ibid., 31; on the nine other churches in John White, Protestant Worship and Church Architecture, 56; White, Building God's House, 150; Grant, Early Christianity and Society 152-155.
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