• University of Padova

Change of Era: The Origins of Christian Culture through the Lens of Archaeology

Learn about innovative approaches to the study of early Christianity and discover its role in a crucial period of history.

1,290 enrolled on this course

Chancel screen with chrismon, Córdoba, Mezquita, Museo de San Vicente

Change of Era: The Origins of Christian Culture through the Lens of Archaeology

1,290 enrolled on this course

  • 4 weeks

  • 5 hours per week

  • Digital certificate when eligible

  • Introductory level

Find out more about how to join this course

Delve into early Christianity

On this four-week course, you’ll gain a better understanding of a crucial period in history – one characterised by deep political, economic, cultural, and environmental transformations in the context of the end of the Western Roman Empire.

You’ll explore the emergence of the Christian world through early Christian texts and case studies of archaeological sites, key objects, and inscriptions.

By the end, you’ll understand what methods we can use to study early Christianity, what problems we need to investigate, and why it is important to study the origins of the Christian era.

Explore Christian iconography and buildings

You’ll unpack the origins of Christian iconography and culture before analysing Christian artefacts to understand their historical context and meaning.

You’ll also investigate churches and how we can use archaeology to better understand their meaning, who built them, and why.

With this knowledge, you’ll discover how constructing holy places can help create a sensibility for cultural heritage.

You’ll delve into politics and Christianity to help you investigate the connections and causations between different historical events.

Next, you’ll explore how innovative scientific methodologies are adding vital information to help us gain a better understanding of the past.

Learn from the experts at University of Padova

Throughout the course, you’ll be guided by the Mediaeval archaeologists from the University of Padova.

With their expertise, you’ll understand how to study the origins of Christian culture to gain a deeper insight into history.

Download video: standard or HD

Skip to 0 minutes and 17 seconds Do you know what the best-selling book of all time is? No. It isn’t Don Quixote or Harry Potter. It’s the Bible, the collection of writings which formed the bedrock of Christianity. This fact alone tells us how crucial Christianity has been in shaping the foundations of modern culture. Christianity’s impact isn’t limited to just religion or worship but extends to many of the rhythms of life and cultural expressions of Western societies. Churches are still to this day landmarks in our cityscapes, even if large parts of the population are no longer Christian.

Skip to 1 minute and 5 seconds Because of Christianity, many countries now follow a seven day week with a Sunday rest and celebrate Christmas and Easter holidays and even the very calendar used worldwide today is based on the alleged date of Christ’s birth.

Skip to 1 minute and 27 seconds But how did this happen? How did the expression of Christianity evolve from small symbols to the grand churches and pilgrimage centers of the world? The study of early Christianity is also essential to enlightening one of the darkest periods in history and to understanding its role and meaning within the different social and political systems that co-existed in the Mediterranean until the end of the sixth century.

Skip to 2 minutes and 3 seconds In this course, we will discover, through the study of material culture, how the beliefs of a tiny group in one corner of the mighty Roman Empire came to dominate the Mediterranean and eventually to shape our world today.

Skip to 2 minutes and 22 seconds We will learn how to decipher the meaning of Christian imagery in all kinds of objects, meeting places and burials, and explore how the development of archaeological methods is helping us to understand early Christianity in a completely new way.

Skip to 2 minutes and 44 seconds I’m Alexandra Chavarria, Professor of Medieval Archaeology at the University of Padova, and with me as your guide we will discover the emergence of the Christian world and why its study is exciting, worthwhile and even important to understanding our world today. Join me in discovering the origins of our era through the lends of archaeology.


  • Week 1

    The origins of a Christian culture

    • In the beginning

      Get to know the course and your educators

    • Representing the Gospels

      The Gospels of the Christian Bible served as inspiration for early Christian artists who represented episodes of Jesus' life and miracles in a great variety of materials.

    • Synthesis

      Christian visual culture is mainly based on the stories revealed in the Gospel relating the life of Jesus but also on the “Old Testament” or Hebrew scriptures, which were reinterpreted in a Christological way.

  • Week 2

    The image of a new culture

    • The making of a new Christian culture

      During the 3rd century, a distinctive Christian iconography began to develop, drawing on already established symbols while also building a completely new outlook.

    • Death, memory, and salvation

      The oldest archaeological evidence for Christianization in the West relates to cemeteries, funerary cults and, in particular, to sarcophagi, mosaics, paintings, and objects depicting Christian subjects, symbols, and formularies.

    • Martyrs and relics

      The persecution of Christian martyrs and their veneration became a powerful element of early Christianity.

    • Christian cemeteries

      The growing number of Christians at the beginning of the 3rd century AD required various efforts to increase group unity, even in the place of repose of the dead.

  • Week 3

    Constantine and the birth of monumental christian architecture

    • What do we know of churches before Constantine?

      The earliest Christians usually met in the houses of church members, but in the third century, Christians started converting structures for ecclesiastical use, thereby creating a specific form of architecture.

    • Divine symbols

      Constantine created a very powerful iconography related to the Chi-Rho and the Cross and linked it to the idea of military victory.

    • The churches built by Constantine

      After his victory, Constantine promoted the expansion of churches, from the place of Christ's tomb in the Holy Land to the suburbs and cities of Italy.

  • Week 4

    Religion and politics in the early christian mediterranean

    • The end of the Western Empire and the new western world

      From the 5th Century, barbarian groups forced the end of the Western Roman Empire and created new kingdoms which were mainly Christian. Religion thereby became important in establishing political relationships.

    • Diverse Christianities

      The subject of Arianism as a religious doctrine is essential in explaining the development of ecclesiastical architecture in the 6th century.

    • Conquest, religion, and architecture in the sixth century Mediterranean

      In the sixth century, Emperor Justinian I aimed to “renew” the political and religious unity of the Empire, and his reign left an exceptional architectural and artistic legacy.

    • Final synthesis

      Churches are our clearest testimony to the many transformation processes of the early Christian period and they also help us to understand the foundations of modern culture.

When would you like to start?

Start straight away and join a global classroom of learners. If the course hasn’t started yet you’ll see the future date listed below.

  • Available now

Learning on this course

On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Create a sensibility for cultural heritage, particularly archaeological sites and material culture through a better understanding of their nature and meaning
  • Explore how innovative scientific methodologies are adding vital information about the past to traditional christian archaeology
  • Interpret christian artefacts within their precise historical context and meaning.
  • Investigate the connections and causations between different historical events
  • Reflect on the meaning of churches in urban and rural contexts–why they were built and what their function was in antiquity

Who is the course for?

This course is designed for beginners in the study of early Christianity. It will be particularly useful for university students, professionals who would like to update their knowledge, and those who are simply fascinated by the subject.

Who will you learn with?

I teach medieval archaeology at the university of Padua . I love communicating knowledge and approaching people to cultural heritage.

I'm an Honorary Fellow at the University of Melbourne where I research late antique archaeology, particularly wine and oil making and the roles of both children and monasteries in production

I'm a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Padova. I'm also field archaeologist and bioarchaeologist, which entails the study of ancient human remains.

Who developed the course?

University of Padova

The University of Padova is one of Europe’s oldest and most prestigious seats of learning; it aims to provide its students with both professional training and a solid cultural background.

Ways to learn

Subscribe & save

Buy this course

Limited access

Choose the best way to learn for you!

$349.99 for one year

Automatically renews

$134/one-off payment


Develop skills to further your careerFulfill your current learning needSample the course materials
Access to this courseticktick

Access expires 23 Jul 2024

Access to 1,000+ coursestickcrosscross
Learn at your own paceticktickcross
Discuss your learning in commentstickticktick
Tests to check your learningticktickcross
Certificate when you're eligibleDigital onlyPrinted and digitalcross
Continue & Upgrade

Cancel for free anytime

Ways to learn

Choose the best way to learn for you!

Buy this course

$134/one-off payment

Fulfill your current learning need

  • Access to this course
  • Learn at your own pace
  • Discuss your learning in comments
  • Tests to boost your learning
  • Printed and digital certificate when you’re eligible

Subscribe & save

$349.99 for one year

Automatically renews

Develop skills to further your career

  • Access to this course
  • Access to 1,000+ courses
  • Learn at your own pace
  • Discuss your learning in comments
  • Tests to boost your learning
  • Digital certificate when you're eligible

Cancel for free anytime

Limited access


Sample the course materials

  • Access expires 23 Jul 2024

Find out more about certificates, Unlimited or buying a course (Upgrades)

Learning on FutureLearn

Your learning, your rules

  • Courses are split into weeks, activities, and steps to help you keep track of your learning
  • Learn through a mix of bite-sized videos, long- and short-form articles, audio, and practical activities
  • Stay motivated by using the Progress page to keep track of your step completion and assessment scores

Join a global classroom

  • Experience the power of social learning, and get inspired by an international network of learners
  • Share ideas with your peers and course educators on every step of the course
  • Join the conversation by reading, @ing, liking, bookmarking, and replying to comments from others

Map your progress

  • As you work through the course, use notifications and the Progress page to guide your learning
  • Whenever you’re ready, mark each step as complete, you’re in control
  • Complete 90% of course steps and all of the assessments to earn your certificate

Want to know more about learning on FutureLearn? Using FutureLearn

Learner reviews

Learner reviews cannot be loaded due to your cookie settings. Please and refresh the page to view this content.

Get a taste of this course

Find out what this course is like by previewing some of the course steps before you join:

Do you know someone who'd love this course? Tell them about it...

You can use the hashtag #FLchangeofera to talk about this course on social media.