The Martyr Shrines and Basilicas

Under Pope Damasus' direction, the Christian building program inaugurated by Constantine flourished. In place of the great imperial complexes throughout the city—the imperial fora, circuses, baths, and temples—Christian basilicas and martyr shrines now formed a new and novel social network of meeting places. They served to connect the congregants of the imperially sanctioned, post-Constantinian church with those martyrs who had died rather than observe pagan religious rites. Scenes of martyrdoms appeared in decorative mosaics in new Christian basilicas, or verses detailing the passions of individual martyrs were carved in stone and placed above their burial places and shrines. The restoration of these burial places and shrines was at the center of the ambitious propagandizing efforts of Damasus. He was determined to reinvent Rome. The topography of the ancient cultural, social, and economic center of the empire, under the providence of his episcopacy, would be renewed in a Christian renovatio urbis, "renovation of the city."

A new scale of extravagance characterized his restoration of the martyr shrines and, especially, the newly constructed basilicas. He completed three major churches and undertook work on two others, but the massive basilica dedicated to Saint Paul that he constructed on the road to Ostia, the port of Rome, was singularly remarkable. It was a magnificent structure that blended Christian and Roman architectural features. In the first century C.E., the site had housed a memorial to Paul. This was replaced by Constantine's modest longitudinal building on the same spot. Under Damasus, however, the concept of concordia apostolorum, "concord of the apostles," elevated Paul's stature. Now Peter and Paul shared an equal status as the apostolic founders of Christian Rome. The Basilica of Saint Paul had to match the grandeur of Constantine's Basilica of Saint Peter. An apsed transept covered Paul's tomb, at the end of a tall and wide nave lined with forty-two windows and forty elaborately carved Corinthian columns. The ceiling was lavishly gilded and the balanced, graceful proportions of the entire composition echoed its classical models. The splendor of this new basilica was considered proof that both Peter and Paul had suffered martyrdom in Rome. In turn, their twin martyrdoms legitimized the apostolic primacy of Rome.

Wealthy land-owning families who were attracted to Damasus' "Roman Christianity" converted in great numbers. To them, the social circuit of martyr commemorations and the pomp and luxury of his liturgical ceremonies invoked the spectacle of the lavish pagan religious celebrations. We have a unique and invaluable record of those pagan celebrations in a fourth-century calendar called the Codex-Calendar of 354 C.E. After his appropriation of pagan monumental sacred space, it remained for Pope Damasus to appropriate sacred time. For this, the Codex-Calendar was vital.

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