Early Christian Art: History, Characteristics & Symbolism
- Track Progress
- 0:08 Early Christian Art: An…
- 1:05 The Catacombs of Rome
- 2:11 Sarcophagi
- 3:28 Early Christian Mosaic
- 4:43 Illuminating the Word of God
- 6:13 Lesson Summary
This lesson covers the development of early Christian art. We begin in the catacombs of Rome, looking at early Christian frescoes. We then move to later sarcophagi. A brief survey of early Christian mosaics follows, and we close with the fine art of illuminated manuscripts.
Early Christian Art: An Underground Movement
The first few centuries after the death of Jesus afforded Christians few opportunities for artistic or architectural expression. Christianity was often oppressed by the Roman Empire. Christians might have their property seized or be burned alive. In such a hostile environment, Christian artwork would have proven a liability. The only distinctly Christian symbol of this early age was the Ichthys, or 'Jesus fish.' The Ichthys was a secret symbol, whose name formed an acrostic for the central concept of Christian faith.
|English Spelling of Greek Letter||Word||Translation|
Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior.
So the nature of Jesus could all be summed up with a simple fish, allowing Christians to identify their secret places of worship as well as the burial places of the faithful.
The Catacombs of Rome
The burial of Christians was a secret affair as well. Unlike their pagan predecessors, Christians were not fans of cremation. Christians believed in a bodily resurrection. I suppose they thought Jesus wouldn't know what to do with an urn full of ashes.
So, instead of keeping the burnt remains of their loved ones on a shelf at home, Christians buried their dead. In overpopulated Rome, with its severe lack of space, this meant Christians had to find unique places to put their bodies. So Christians tunneled into the soft volcanic stone beneath the city, and there they built amazing catacombs. And it is in these catacombs that we begin to see the first traces of Christian art.
Early Christians decorated their catacombs with frescoes, or paintings on fresh plaster. These frescoes are very simple and allegorical; not refined at all.
This sort of primitive Christian painting copies the Pompeian style that was popular across the Roman Empire. They just reused an old style for new content.
After the Emperor Constantine fully legalized Christianity with the 313 Edict of Milan, Christians began moving their burials above ground, with grand sarcophagi, or stone caskets. These sarcophagi provide us with our first examples of Christian sculpture.
Yet with sculpture, Christians faced a new problem. The classical world was full of sculpture, from idols of gods to friezes to life-sized sculptures adorning buildings.
The early Christians saw pagan sculptures of gods as what they were - graven images, which are strictly forbidden by the Bible as idolatry. For this reason, sculpture took a back seat during the early Christian years.
Though the early Christians did make use of sculpture on occasion, they took special care to make sure that the sculpture was clearly part of the decoration, rather than an object of adoration. Therefore, early Christian sculpture avoided the life-sized scale of their pagan predecessors, and almost completely avoided full statues or sculpture in the round. Instead, Christians used shallow relief sculpture and depicted biblical scenes and Christian allegory.
Early Christian Mosaic
Yet Constantine did more for Christianity than just protecting it from persecution. Constantine also actively sponsored the spread of Christianity through the building of churches throughout his empire. Though these churches were very plain on the outside, their interiors were bursting with colorful design in the form of mosaics.
The mosaic had been around since Sumerian times. The Romans and Greeks did some incredibly detailed mosaics using cubes of colored marble. Provided with these vast spaces, early Christians took the art form of mosaic from the floor and spread it onto the ceilings, the walls, everywhere.
Early Christians created mosaics of biblical narratives and symbolic awesomeness. And instead of natural stone, they used colored glass, allowing them to create vibrant colors. This glass also gives the mosaic a sort of glittery, semi-translucent quality that you really must see in person to appreciate. The figures seem to shimmer as you move about.
Though the Christians created some beautiful mosaics, the art of mosaic would reach its apex in the Byzantine art to follow.
Illuminating the Word of God
Just one form of early Christian art remains to be covered, and that is the illuminated manuscript. Illuminations are illustrations to accompany a written text, usually incorporating gold leaf. This addition became possible as the ancient world shifted from the tightly wound scroll of papyrus to the bound codex, what we would call a book.
The fact that papyrus scrolls needed to be rolled made illumination all but impossible, because layers of paint would crack off and fall apart with repeated rolling and unrolling. The advent of vellum, or parchment, as a writing surface provided artists with a much more supple surface than brittle papyrus. It also meant that pages could lie flat, rather than being rolled and unrolled. The codex arrived on the scene around 100 AD, just in time for Christians to start illustrating their favorite book: the Bible.
One of the earliest surviving illuminated Bibles is the Vienna Genesis, created around 500 CE. Here we can see a naturalistic style and a strange association of place and time. The picture does not display a single event, but a whole sequence, strung out along the path of the illustration - sort of like a medieval comic book. This illustration technique allowed illustrators to pack a lot of story into a very small space.
To review, early Christian art started out as an underground affair. It began with decorating catacombs with frescoes.
With the Edict of Milan, Christianity became legal, and wealthy Christians began burying their dead in sculpted stone sarcophagi. These sarcophagi are pretty much the only examples of early Christian sculpture. They avoided monumental sculpture, fearing it would be considered idolatry by their God.
Soon after the Edict of Milan, Christianity found a new patron in the Emperor Constantine, who set about building churches throughout the empire.
These churches were very plain on the outside, but the interior was coated in gorgeous mosaics. Unlike earlier mosaics, made from naturally colored stone, these early Christian mosaics were made with colored glass. This gave early Christians a much wider range of vibrant colors to work with. It also gave these mosaics a shimmering, translucent effect. These mosaics would reach their apex in the Byzantine art to follow.
Early Christians did not simply decorate the inside of their churches, they also decorated the inside of their Bibles with beautiful illuminations, or illustrations of the stories written within. The most famous of these early Christian illuminations is the Vienna Genesis.
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Chapters in History 101: Western Civilization I
- 1. Prehistory (9 lessons)
- 2. History of the Ancient Near East (20 lessons)
- 3. History of Ancient Greece (16 lessons)
- 4. Hellenism and the Athenian Achievement (10 lessons)
- 5. The Rise of the Roman Republic (16 lessons)
- 6. The Fall of the Roman Empire (15 lessons)
- 7. The Dark Ages (14 lessons)
- 8. The Early Middle Ages (7 lessons)
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