What are the Origins of Cathedrals and Chapels?

July 28, 2020

Cathedrals and chapels have played vital roles in the development of Christian culture.

As a scholar of the Bible, Judaism and Christianity, I have come to learn the historic importance of these structures and the pivotal role they play in the practice of many Christians’ faith.

Early Christian architecture

Cathedrals and chapels not only provide a space for worship, but they are also vessels for the display of religious iconography and art.

Until the early fourth century A.D., much of early Christian art and space for worship occurred in catacombs – subterranean locations where Christians would bury members of their community.

It has traditionally been thought that Christians used such catacombs due to persecutions by the Roman government. However, such persecutions were periodic and not sustained. Other explanations have been offered regarding the regular use of the catacombs as a result.

In any case, such tombs became the repositories of art expressions in the early decades of the religion.

Prominent scenes include depictions of the Bible that highlighted deliverance from death.

Depictions of Jesus of Nazareth appear in these catacombs, but often borrowing from the likeness of the Greek god Hermes, who functioned as a messenger deity as well as a carrier of souls in the afterlife.

The cross as a widely displayed symbol of Christian faith would become more frequent only after the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the fourth century A.D.

Development of cathedrals

With imperial backing, Christians began to build their places of worship, known as “churches” from the Greek kuriake “belonging to the lord,” above ground.

Such building practices borrowed from two main areas of precursors: ancient temples and places of Roman administration.

Ancient temples across cultures, including the one in Jerusalem, generally were thought of as spaces where the god or goddess lived.

Many ancient and modern Christians believe that Jesus is physically present in communion – the ritual that in some Christian thought involves the actual transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus.

As such, cathedrals such as the Basilica of San Vitale in Italy, constructed in the sixth century A.D., contain mosaics to depict Jesus as actually present in communion. These buildings tap into a widely held religious history that the deity dwells in the holy place.

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