Early Christian art dates from approximately the first four centuries AD, although official sanction of the Christian religion does not begin until about 313. This is an extremely interesting area of study due to the many transitions in the political, economic, geographic, religious, and artistic factors; some of these causing immediate, revolutionary change. It is still the old Roman Empire, of course, however, one man, the Emperor Constantine the Great, who ruled from 306-337, instituted drastic alterations, beginning with his assumed conversion to Christianity around 313, and continuing with his moving of the capital from Rome to the Eastern Greek city of Byzantium in 330. (There is some debate regarding the date of Constantine's conversion, however, according to his biographer, Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, he was converted and baptized around this time.) The important facts are that a new religion was sanctioned and emphasized, a new building campaign began in the churches of St. Peter (dedicated in 333), St. Paul's outside the Walls, and others; as well as a multitude of new Christian art works, including mosaics, sarcophagi, manuscripts, and a few remarkable sculptures, such as the Good Shepherd, seen on the right.
Of course, before this extraordinary transformation, there had been many works done in secrecy by the persecuted Christians, most of which are found in the frescoes of the catacombs of Rome. Historians estimate there are some 4 million Christians buried in these underground tombs beneath the city. Such highly symbolic art works, painted in the small side chapels, provided hope for thousands. These often dealt with stories familiar to the new Jewish converts, like: Jonah and the whale, Daniel in the lion's den, the three Hebrews in the fiery furnace of Babylon, etc. These are stories of Old Testament miraculous salvation from death, which are used as symbolic prototypes for the salvation of these new believers in Christ. Such use of metaphors and symbols with complex layers of meaning is common in all the Christian art we will study and is consistent with the religious complexities of the Bible.
The Early Christians lived in a world where everything was seen to be both real and representative of a deeper, spiritual meaning. In the early centuries, it was necessary to use an abbreviated, simplistic rendering with symbols drawn from Hebrew manuscripts, from Greek acronyms such as the Chi-Rho, as well as from Greco-Roman, Persian and even Egyptian artistic sources, although always with a distinct change in meaning to relate to the complexities of the Christian iconography. The term for this transference of artistic sources from one culture and religion to another is SYNCRETISM and it is very common in circumstances where there is a desire to convert large groups of people. The Chi-Rho image is unique because it is found on a sarcophagus, a major resource for early Christian art, and substitutes for the image of Christ rising from the tomb with the sleeping disciples below. It is in this case an example of the Christian ICONOCLASTIC attitude of not representing the divinity of Christ. The statue of the Good Shepherd at the top or the example of the sarcophagus seen below are two works often used as examples of the artistic phenomenon of SYNCRETISM.
The shepherd image derives from such cross cultural sources as: Greek offering figures such as the archaic statue of the Calf Bearer, classical pastoral symbols of Orpheus who tamed the animals with the music of his lyre, as well as numerous literary metaphors from the poet Virgil, and most of all from both the Old and New Testament (John 10, Matt. 18, Psalm 23). While the believers represent the sheep, the sheep symbol also follows the model of Christ in his sacrifice. Therefore, this concept merges with the theme of the 'Lamb of God'.
By about 450 AD the Byzantine more austere and mystical concept of the Lamb of God will replace the Early Christian humanistic and down-to-earth image of the shepherd.
In the sarcophagus above, describe how the good shepherd images differ from the Statue of the Good Shepherd shown at the top. What is the meaning of the small winged figures and also the grape tendrils? Consult the text for help.
Read about The Mausoleum of Santa Costanza in your text and describe some of the syncretistic sources noted by Laurie Adams.
Mosaic from arch of S. M. Maggiori Another sheep metaphor seen at left, a mosaic from the church of S. Maria Maggiori, Rome, shows six apostles as sheep before the gates of Jerusalem, symbolizing also the gates to the Kingdom of Heaven. This mosaic is found on the triumphal arch fronting the APSE (the sanctuary) of the church and the other six apostles are located on the opposite side. It would remind the worshipers of their role as disciples and guardians of the key to the Kingdom. Click here, then on the name of the church to get a full description.
In studying early Christian art it is evident that many of the sources derive from Jewish models, from manuscripts and goldsmith art. This cross-cultural interchange of sources can be seen in all of Christian art. However, since the Hebrew religion was ICONOCLASTIC (meaning a forbidding of graven images of God), the art centered around themes from the TORAH (the books of Moses or the first five books of the Bible), the patriarchs and prophets.
One of the most unique examples of Jewish art are the paintings from the synagogue of a little known town called Dura Europos in modern Syria, originally a Roman frontier trading town, which dates to about 245 AD. Here a full cycle of scenes, one of which is seen at the right, illustrate the stories of Moses. Frequently these scenes show references to the origins of Judaism. Such images are rare in Jewish art and attest to the cross-cultural influences in this town where the religions of Persia, of Christian, of Mithraism and Judaism co-existed. Aaron (note his name in upper right) is enlarged in scale wearing a detailed priest attire, as well as the sacred objects of the temple, such as, the menorah, incense burners, and altar. These are intended to be seen as behind the crenellated wall of the temple. This unusual tilted perspective we have already seen in the Column of Trajan scenes.
|For the Catacombs:|
|For Vatican art:|
|For a site on the churches of Rome:|
|Another Painting at Dura Europus|
|Art History on the Web:|
|For the Icons of St. Catherines, Mt. Sinai|
|Art History - Early Christian (100 AD - 500 AD)|
Last Updated: 5/3/12