The Octagonal Church

The archaeological remains of the octagonal church

In the second half of the fifth century a bold project was carried out in the area delimited by the fourth century enclosure wall, namely the domus-ecclesia and all the structures of the insula sacra were buried under a fill, and an octagonal church was erected on a raised level.

The Byzantine church was built according to a pattern completely different from the previous domus-ecclesia. A small E apse marked the new orientation. In order to create a direct approach to the octagonal church, several private houses along the outer W side of the enclosure wall were dismantled. For the same purpose, the W portion of the enclosure wall was cut down to the average level of the mosaic floor of the church.
The plan of the church consisted of a small central octagon, of a larger concentric octagon, and by an outer semi-octagon from which one could reach both the interior of the church and the E sacristies.
In a second phase a baptismal font was added in the middle of the E apse. The motif of a peacock, symbol of immortality, dominated the mosaic floor of the central octagon.
The foundations were built with basalt stones and strong mortar; whereas the superstructure was raised with white limestone blocks.

This bold project is to be attributed to the Gentile-Christians who by that time were strong enough to contrast the supremacy of the old Jewish-Christian community of Capernaum. It is well known that the relations between these two branches of Christianity were far from smooth; very often the Jewish Christians met strong opposition both from Orthodox Jews and from Gentile-Christians. Yet, the Gentile-Christians were not afraid of preserving the sacrality of several Jewish-Christian shrines. In the specific case of Capernaum the physical links between the buried house of St. Peter and the superimposed octagon are striking.

Actually the planning of a church of octagonal shape was dictated by a twofold preoccupation; it was meant to preserve the fourth century enclosure wall, and especially to indicate the exact location of St. Peter's house. As a matter of fact, the foundations of the central octagon were set exactly upon the walls of that special square room attributed to the house of St. Peter.
It is true that pilgrims were no longer able to see that venerated house buried under the central octagon. Yet the tradition about the house of St. Peter was not lost.

A pilgrim from Piacenza who visited Capernaum around 570 A.D. wrote: "Item venimus in Capernaum in domo beati Petri, quae est modo basilica", i. e.: "We came to Capernaum in St. Peter's house, which at present is a basilica".

More Information: Peter’s house

More Information: Domus ecclesiae

History and archeology

The Octagonal Church