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

A martyrium (Latin) or martyrion (Greek), plural martyria, sometimes anglicized martyry (pl. martyries), is a church or shrine built over the tomb of a Christian martyr. It is associated with a specific architectural form, centered on a central element and thus built on a central plan, that is, of a circular or sometimes octagonal or cruciform shape.[1]


The origin of the name of the Christian martyrium is as follows: Ancient Greek martys, "witness", to martyrion, "testimony", to Late and Ecclesiastical Latin martyrium.


The oldest Christian martyria were 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".[2] Martyria, mostly small, were very common after the early 4th century, when Constantine became the first Roman emperor to declare religious tolerance for Christianity in 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.[3]

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.[4]


The architectural form of the martyrium was developed from Roman architecture, mainly based on imperial mausolea. Constantine the Great applied this style to the tomb of Jesus at the Anastasis in Jerusalem (ca. 326–380s) and the Apostles' Church in Constantinople, while also erecting round mausolea for himself and his daughters.[5] The first step towards creating a church based on an imperial mausoleum was made around 320, when Constantine connected what was meant to become his own mausoleum with a church structure.[5]

The same form was later adopted by early Islamic architecture, which employed it in the creation of a shrine known as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, built much in the style of the Constantinian rotunda of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with which it was meant to create a "dialog of shrines", while looking down on it from a dominant position (the Temple Mount).

The central-plan martyrium church became a model for important churches not containing important relics, such as the Constantinian "Golden Octagon" at Antioch, and perhaps also the octagonal church of the Caesarea Maritima (built ca. 480–500), the San Vitale in Ravenna (526–547), and the Palatine Chapel in Aachen (ca. 792–805).[1][5]


Martyria that remain in something like their original form include the following:[6]

Other celebrated Martyria include:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Glen Bowersock, Peter Brown, Oleg Grabar (1999). Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World. Harvard University Press Reference Library (Book 9). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press. p. 376. ISBN 9780674511736. Retrieved 1 December 2015. central church martyrium octagonal.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  2. ^ Krautheimer, Richard. Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture. Yale University Press, 1986. Fourth edition, with Slobodan Ćurčić. p.518. ISBN 978-0-300-05294-7
  3. ^ Syndicus, 73-74
  4. ^ Syndicus, 73-89
  5. ^ a b c Jürgen Krüger (2000). Die Grabeskirche zu Jerusalem. Regensburg: Schnell & Steiner. pp. 58–59. ISBN 9783795412739.
  6. ^ Syndicus, 73-87


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