Early Christian, or Paleochristian, art was created by Christians or under Christian patronage throughout the second and third centuries.
- Identify and describe the form, content, and context of key early Christian works
- Define key terms related to early Christian art
- Discuss the influence of Greco-Roman culture on the development of early Christian art
- Explain what replaced the Classical temple in Early Christian architecture and why it evolved
- Differentiate Early Christian sculpture from earlier Roman sculptural traditions
By the early years of Christianity (first century), Judaism had been legalized through a compromise with the Roman state over two centuries. Christians were initially identified with the Jewish religion by the Romans, but as they became more distinct, Christianity became a problem for Roman rulers. Around the year 98, Nerva decreed that Christians did not have to pay the annual tax upon the Jews, effectively recognizing them as a distinct religion. This opened the way to the persecutions of Christians for disobedience to the emperor, as they refused to worship the state pantheon.
The oppression of Christians was only periodic until the middle of the first century. However, large-scale persecutions began in the year 64 when Nero blamed them for the Great Fire of Rome earlier that year. Early Christians continued to suffer sporadic persecutions. Because of their refusal to honour the Roman pantheon, which many believed brought misfortune upon the community, the local pagan populations put pressure on the imperial authorities to take action against their Christian neighbours. The last and most severe persecution organized by the imperial authorities was the Diocletianic Persecution from 303 to 311.
Early Christian Art
Early Christian, or Paleochristian, art was produced by Christians or under Christian patronage from the earliest period of Christianity to, depending on the definition used, between 260 and 525. In practice, identifiably Christian art only survives from the second century onwards. After 550, Christian art is classified as Byzantine, or of some other regional type.
It is difficult to know when distinctly Christian art began. Prior to 100, Christians may have been constrained by their position as a persecuted group from producing durable works of art. Since Christianity was largely a religion of the lower classes in this period, the lack of surviving art may reflect a lack of funds for patronage or a small number of followers.
The Old Testament restrictions against the production of graven images (an idol or fetish carved in wood or stone) might have also constrained Christians from producing art. Christians could have made or purchased art with pagan iconography but given it Christian meanings. If this happened, “Christian” art would not be immediately recognizable as such.
Early Christians used the same artistic media as the surrounding pagan culture. These media included frescos, mosaics, sculptures, and illuminated manuscripts.
Early Christian art not only used Roman forms, but it also used Roman styles. Late Classical art included a proportional portrayal of the human body and impressionistic presentation of space. The Late Classical style is seen in early Christian frescos, such as those in the Catacombs of Rome, which include most examples of the earliest Christian art.
Early Christian art is generally divided into two periods by scholars: before and after the Edict of Milan of 313, which legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire. The end of the period of Early Christian art, which is typically defined by art historians as being in the fifth through seventh centuries, is thus a good deal later than the end of the period of Early Christianity as typically defined by theologians and church historians, which is more often considered to end under Constantine, between 313 and 325.
Early Christian Painting
In a move of strategic syncretism, the Early Christians adapted Roman motifs and gave new meanings to what had been pagan symbols. Among the motifs adopted were the peacock, grapevines, and the “Good Shepherd.” Early Christians also developed their own iconography. Such symbols as the fish (ikhthus), were not borrowed from pagan iconography.
During the persecution of Christians under the Roman Empire, Christian art was necessarily and deliberately furtive and ambiguous, using imagery that was shared with pagan culture but had a special meaning for Christians. The earliest surviving Christian art comes from the late second to early fourth centuries on the walls of Christian tombs in the catacombs of Rome. From literary evidence, there might have been panel icons which have disappeared.
Depictions of Jesus
Initially, Jesus was represented indirectly by pictogram symbols such as the ichthys, the peacock, the Lamb of God, or an anchor. Later, personified symbols were used, including Daniel in the lion’s den, Orpheus charming the animals, or Jonah, whose three days in the belly of the whale prefigured the interval between the death and resurrection of Jesus. However, the depiction of Jesus was well-developed by the end of the pre-Constantinian period. He was typically shown in narrative scenes, with a preference for New Testament miracles, and a few scenes from his Passion. A variety of different types of appearance were used, including the thin, long-faced figure with long, centrally-parted hair that was later to become the norm. But in the earliest images as many show a stocky and short-haired beardless figure in a short tunic, who can only be identified by his context. In many images of miracles, Jesus carries a stick or wand, which he points at the subject of the miracle rather like a modern stage magician (though the wand is significantly larger).
The image of The Good Shepherd, a beardless youth in pastoral scenes collecting sheep, was the most common of these images and was probably not understood as a portrait of the historical Jesus. These images bear some resemblance to depictions of kouroi figures in Greco-Roman art.
The almost total absence from Christian paintings during the persecution period of the cross, except in the disguised form of the anchor, is notable. The cross, symbolizing Jesus’s crucifixion, was not represented explicitly for several centuries, possibly because crucifixion was a punishment meted out to common criminals, but also because literary sources noted that it was a symbol recognized as specifically Christian, as the sign of the cross was made by Christians from the earliest days of the religion.
House Church at Dura-Europos
The house church at Dura-Europos is the oldest known house church. One of the walls within the structure was inscribed with a date that was interpreted as 231. It was preserved when it was filled with earth to strengthen the city’s fortifications against an attack by the Sassanians in 256 CE.
Despite the larger atmosphere of persecution, the artifacts found in the house church provide evidence of localized Roman tolerance for a Christian presence. This location housed frescos of biblical scenes including a figure of Jesus healing the sick.
When Christianity emerged in the Late Antique world, Christian ceremony and worship were secretive. Before Christianity was legalized in the fourth century, Christians suffered intermittent periods of persecution at the hands of the Romans. Therefore, Christian worship was purposefully kept as inconspicuous as possible. Rather than building prominent new structures to express religious use, Christians in the Late Antique world took advantage of pre-existing, private structures—houses.
The house church in general was known as the domus ecclesiae, Latin for house and assembly. Domi ecclesiae emerged in third-century Rome and are closely tied to the domestic Roman architecture of this period, specifically to the peristyle house in which the rooms were arranged around a central courtyard.
These rooms were often adjoined to create a larger gathering space that could accommodate small crowds of around fifty people. Other rooms were used for different religious and ceremonial purposes, including education, the celebration of the Eucharist, the baptism of Christian converts, the storage of charitable items, and private prayer and mass. The plan of the house church at Dura-Europos illustrates how house churches elsewhere were designed.
When Christianity was legalized in the fourth century, Christians were no longer forced to use pre-existing homes for their churches and meeting houses. Instead, they began to build churches of their own.
Even then, Christian churches often purposefully featured unassuming—even plain—exteriors. They tended to be much larger as the rise in the popularity of the Christian faith meant that churches needed to accommodate an increasing volume of people.
Architecture of the Early Christian Church
After their persecution ended in the fourth century, Christians began to erect buildings that were larger and more elaborate than the house churches where they used to worship. However, what emerged was an architectural style distinct from classical pagan forms.
Architectural formulas for temples were deemed unsuitable. This was not simply for their pagan associations, but because pagan cult and sacrifices occurred outdoors under the open sky in the sight of the gods. The temple, housing the cult figures and the treasury, served as a backdrop. Therefore, Christians began using the model of the basilica, which had a central with one aisle at each side and an apse at one end.
Old St. Peter’s and the Western Basilica
The model was adopted in the construction of Old St. Peter’s church in Rome. What stands today is New St. Peter’s church, which replaced the original during the Italian Renaissance.
Whereas the original Roman basilica was rectangular with at least one apse, usually facing North, the Christian builders made several symbolic modifications. Between the nave and the apse, they added a , which ran perpendicular to the nave. This addition gave the building a cruciform shape to memorialize the Crucifixion.
The apse, which held the altar and the Eucharist, now faced East, in the direction of the rising sun. However, the apse of Old St. Peter’s faced West to commemorate the church’s namesake, who, according to the popular narrative, was crucified upside down.
A Christian basilica of the fourth or fifth century stood behind its entirely enclosed forecourt. It was ringed with a colonnade or arcade, like the stoa or peristyle that was its ancestor, or like the cloister that was its descendant. This forecourt was entered from outside through a range of buildings along the public street.
In basilicas of the former Western Roman Empire, the central nave is taller than the aisles and forms a row of windows called a clerestory. In the Eastern Empire (also known as the Byzantine Empire, which continued until the fifteenth century), churches were centrally planned. The Church of San Vitale in Ravenna, in Italy, is a prime example of an Eastern church.
Sculpture of the Early Christian Church
Despite early opposition to monumental sculpture, artists for the early Christian church in the West eventually began producing life-sized sculptures. Early Christians were opposed to monumental religious sculptures. Nevertheless, they continued the ancient Roman sculptural traditions in portrait busts and sarcophagus reliefs. Smaller objects, such as consular , were also part of the Roman traditions that the Early Christians continued.
Small Ivory Reliefs
Consular were commissioned by consuls elected at the beginning of the year to mark his entry to that post and were distributed as a commemorative reward to those who supported his candidature or might support him in future.
The oldest consular diptych depicts the consul Probus (406 CE) dressed in the traditional garb of a Roman soldier. Despite showing signs of the growing stylization and abstraction of Late Antiquity, Probus maintains a . Although Christianity had been the state religion of the Roman Empire for over 25 years, a small winged Victory with a laurel wreath poses on a globe that Probus holds in his left hand. However, the standard he holds in his right-hand translates as, “In the name of Christ, you always conquer.”
The middle or body of a church, extending from the transepts to the principal entrances.
A Christian church building that has a nave with a semicircular apse, side aisles, a narthex and a clerestory.
Area in a church that surrounds the altar.
A pair of linked panels, generally in ivory, wood, or metal and adorned with rich, sculpted decoration.
Italian term for the position of a figure whose hips and legs are twisted away from the direction of the head and shoulders. Also known as Chiastisc pose.