An atrium is an approximately square courtyard surrounded on four or at least three sides by porticoes. It was the chief interior court of a Roman house, as a peristyle was in a Greek house. An atrium served as an entrance court in many early Christian churches and continued in use in the West until about 1000, although it was seldom used in Egypt.
The atrium lies in front of the western end of the church and usually matches it in width. A well (kantharos) was often built in the center to be used for the ritual washings, particularly of the hands, that were customary there, at least in the early period. In addition, the porticoes offered protection from the rain and sun. Members of the congregation repenting of grievous sins were restricted to the atrium.
No rules governed the formation of the porticoes. Normally they were the same on all four sides, although Basilica A of Nea Anchialus has one curved portico (Soteriou, 1931, pp. 36-39). Sometimes the east portico, fronting on the church, has a more elaborate elevation or a different arrangement of columns because it forms part of the church facade. In such instances, the church often has no proper narthex (see below) because its function as an entrance is served by the east portico. Conversely, sometimes if the church has a narthex, there is no east portico. Hagia Sophia in Constantinople has both a narthex and a distinctive east portico (Stube, 1973, pp. 33-39).
It is surprising that few Egyptian churches had atria, since similar courts were common in pharaonic temples, such as those in Luxor, MADINAT HABU, and IDFU, and there was no hesitation about adapting temple structure to church architecture. The only church atria so far known in Egypt are in the East Church and the North Basilica in ABU MINA, buildings that are to be ranked with imperial architecture rather than local building. These atria have porticoes on three or four sides.
Synesius (1612, epistle 121, p. 258B) mentions some further examples. Otherwise only the great church of al-ASHMUNAYN (Hermopolis Magna) presents an atrium, but it has a form very much of its own. Instead of conforming with the axis of the church, it is divided into four sections, like a garden, by two-sided open porticoes. Evidently Egyptians preferred courts of optional form and plan that were only generally coordinated with the church. Examples are several churches in ANSINA and ANTINOOPOLIS (Mitchell, 1982, pp. 171-79). Presumably the great central court in the pilgrim center of ABU MINA had a similar significance.
- Binding, G. “Atrium.” In Lexikon des Mittelalters, Vol. 1, pp. 1175-76. Munich and Zurich, 1980.
- Brightman, F. E., ed. Liturgies, Eastern and Western. Oxford, 1896. Delvoye, C. “Atrium.” In Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, Vol. 1, pp. 421-40. Stuttgart, 1966.
- Mitchell, E. “Osservazioni: topografiche preliminari sull’ impiarto urbanistico di Antinoe.” Vicino Oriente 5 (1982):171-79.
- Orlandos, A. K. Basilik», pp. 94-110. Athens, 1952.
- Paulinus of Nola. La Correspondance de Saint Paulin de Nole et de Sulpice Sévèere. Paris, 1906.
- Strube, C. Die westliche Eingangsseite der Kirchen von Konstantinopel in justinianischer Zeit. Wiesbaden, 1973.