Martyrium (architecture)

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The largely 5th century interior of Santo Stefano Rotondo in Rome

A martyrium is a structure built at "a site which bears witness to the Christian faith, either by referring to an event in Christ's life or Passion, or by sheltering the grave of a martyr".[1] Martyria, mostly small, were very common after the early 4th century, when Constantine became the first emperor to make the Nicene Creed the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. Martyria had no standard architectural plan, and are found in a wide variety of designs. There was often a sunken floor, or part of it, to bring the faithful closer to the remains of the saint, and a small opening, the fenestella, going from the altar-stone to the grave itself.[2]

Gradually they turned into churches, or annexes to them. Later churches began to bring the relics of saints to the church, rather than placing the church over the grave; the first "translation" of relics was in Antioch in 354, when the remains of Saint Babylas (which were in a sarcophagus) were moved to a new church.[3]

Martyria that remain in something like their original form include the following:[4]


  1. ^ Krautheimer, Richard. Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture. Yale University Press, 1986. Fourth edition, with Slobodan Ćurčić. p.518. ISBN 978-0-300-05294-7
  2. ^ Syndicus, 73-74
  3. ^ Syndicus, 73-89
  4. ^ Syndicus, 73-87


  • Eduard Syndicus; Early Christian Art, Burns & Oates, London, 1962