Early Jewish and Christian Art

During the third and fourth centuries, Roman and Near Eastern Art influenced Jewish and Christian art.


By the end of this module you will be able to:

  • Describe the form, content, and context of key early Jewish and Christian art
  • Define key terms related to early Jewish and Christian art
  • Distinguish between changes in formal stylistic elements, and religion-specific narrative content
  • Explain the Roman influence on the origins of Christian art 

Jewish Art

How is it that the Jews, called by Scripture “the smallest of all the nations” (Deut. 7:7) merit a section on religious architecture placed alongside the glories of Christendom, Islam, and Buddhism? After all, the Jews today number something around fourteen million, the same number that existed before the massacre of six million in Europe and the dissolution of communities across Europe and the Arab world during the 1940s. This is a numerical highpoint. In previous centuries, the numbers were far smaller. Just on the basis of demography, then, it would be hard to justify the inclusion of Judaism in this history of art and architecture.

A National Style?

More difficult, perhaps, from the first century through the establishment of modern Israel in 1948 Jews could not claim (or assert, as new European nations states did) a “national” identity or a “national” style of art based upon landed nationalism—categories that were of central importance to nineteenth and twentieth-century constructions of architectural history and style. Theirs was a minority architecture, reflecting a minority existence.

The Temple of Solomon (c. 900 BCE), modern scholars tell us, was a typical near-eastern temple, while the great synagogues constructed at the turn of the twentieth century were art deco palaces. Even on a quality level, it is hard to include Jewish architecture among the great religious architecture of the world.



Model of the Temple of Jerusalem, Israel Museum
Model of Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem: Israel Museum

The greatest of Jewish building, the temples of Solomon (destroyed 586 BCE) and Herod in Jerusalem (destroyed 70 CE) are long gone, and never again have Jews controlled extensive resources for building, nor land for construction. There is no Jewish parallel to Saint Peter’s (neither the “Old” one built by Constantine nor Julius II’s), nor Hagia Sophia, the temples of Varanasi, nor the Forbidden City. Small Jewish communities, stretched across the world from late-antique Palestine to Kaifeng in 17th century China to contemporary America and Israel built synagogues—often buildings of great beauty and historical significance, but mostly pretty limited from an architectural standpoint. There were no Jewish benefactors to compete with Justinian or Saladin or the della Rovere; and virtually no government sponsorship of magnificent synagogues. Jewish architecture is always derivative of local styles and patterns and responds to the needs of local minority communities. It never drove those styles. Jewish “architecture” through the ages was a hybrid architecture—a term scorned by nineteenth and twentieth-century racial and national purists but celebrated in our own “post-modern” age.



The Zodiac, mosaic floor, Beit Alpha Synagogue, early 6th century (Beit Alpha National Park, Israel)
The Zodiac: mosaic floor, Beit Alpha Synagogue, early 6th century (Beit Alpha National Park, Israel)


What Jews lacked in territory, wealth and numbers, they made up for in longevity. Jews—short for “the Judeans,” trace their cultural heritage, and sometimes their physical lineage, to the biblical patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (also called Israel) and to the land of Israel (called in Roman times Judaea)—an unbroken chain of 3000 years. This is not just an “imagined” history. No other western community can assert—based upon rich documentary and physical evidence—to have encountered both Cyrus the Great and Innocent III, Caligula and Mohammed, Victoria, Stalin and Rembrandt. Though a minority, Jews maintained rich mimetic traditions across the empires that make up the “Western world,” and an astonishingly complex book culture that has sustained their sense of group cohesion. From antiquity to modern times, it was (and in many ways, still is) possible to travel from Jewish community to Jewish community from Persia to Spain and beyond—as travellers did—and find Jews who shared an all-encompassing religious culture—even if they ate “strange” (though always kosher) foods, dressed “funny” (though males still wore the biblically mandated ritual “fringes”) and practiced “strange” local liturgical customs. Not speaking the same vernacular language, a visitor from, say, Germany might have communicated with his hosts in, say, Egypt, by drawing upon a mix of “peculiarly pronounced” Hebrew and Aramaic gained through exposure to vast quantities of canonical religious texts.

Jews and their texts—not always together—have been active in what some textbooks still call “the Western Experience” from its beginning. The religious traditions associated with Jesus and Mohammed both assert that Jewish scripture, and interaction with Jews, is essential to their own revelations, both of which assert relationship by virtue of having “superseded” the revelation of Moses. In other words, Jews “matter” to Christians and to Muslims, and by virtue of living among them, Christians and Muslims “mattered” to Jews.

The Study of Jewish Art and Architecture

The academic study of Jewish architecture developed from the eighteenth century onward, when Christian Hebraists and bible scholars developed interests in biblical architecture—the Mosaic Tabernacle, the Solomonic Temple and the Herodian Temple—the latter visited by Jesus, who according to the Gospels predicted its destruction in 70 CE under emperor Vespasian. Post-“biblical” Jewish architecture did not become a focus of research until discoveries by the Palestine Exploration Fund of late antique synagogues during the 1860s. Medieval and early modern buildings took a bit longer to occasion scholarly interest. Jews in 19th century Europe, America and to some degree Islamic lands and south Asia, were engaged in a full-scale building boom; the largest since Herod the Great’s rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple beginning 20-19 BCE. Newly emancipated and emancipating communities asserted their presence by building huge synagogues, experimenting with a wide range of forms, from neo-Egyptian to neo-classical and neo-Moresque, eventually settling upon the modern yet traditionalist tones of art deco.

Only at the end of the 19th century did scholars begin to look back and study “Jewish art,” including Jewish architecture; often looking—whether intentionally or not—for roots for the contemporary boom in earlier periods. Hoping to prove that “Jews do art too,” Jews of all stripes hoped to prove their humanity through the creation and study of Jewish art. It was only in post-war New York that the first—and perhaps still the best—comprehensive surveys of Jewish religious architecture were written, both by art historian/architect Rachel Wischnitzer. These were entitled European Synagogue Architecture and Synagogue Architecture in America. By then, the State of Israel had been established, and “Jewish art”—including architecture—became the national art.

The canonical book of this process was Cecil Roth’s Jewish Art: An Illustrated History, first published in Hebrew in 1958 and still in print in Hebrew. This anthology brought together scholars who had been scattered throughout the world due to the War to present a comprehensive history, from Solomon to the present. Architecture—until the modern period, all of it “religious” appears in every period and in almost every article, with some articles dedicated to this subject. The study of Jewish architecture has been of particular interest to Israeli scholars, but also to Americans and Europeans, and the Hebrew University’s Center for Jewish Art has sent teams across the world to document historical synagogues—most no longer used. In Europe, this work takes on additional significance, as it has been spawned by a real interest to regain a now-lost heritage—particularly in the East, as Europe, particularly since the fall of Communism, has sought to develop a more tolerant European tradition and usable history.

In recent years, Jewish visual culture has been deeply assimilated into the academic study of Judaism, really for the first time. Cultural historians, working with art historians and architectural historians, have begun to focus upon the very elements of Jewish “minority” architecture that in previous generations were often spurned. The process by which a small minority group melded with its general environment, transforming and being transformed within that environment has become the stuff of contemporary scholarship. In many ways, the Jews have been the “canary in the coal mine,” the test case for theoretical discussion of what it means to live in a diaspora and to be Europe’s first, earliest and most intimate—colonized people.

Early Christian Art

The beginnings of an identifiable Christian art can be traced to the end of the second century and the beginning of the third century. Considering the Old Testament prohibitions against graven images, it is important to consider why Christian art developed in the first place. The use of images will be a continuing issue in the history of Christianity. The best explanation for the emergence of Christian art in the early church is due to the important role images played in Greco-Roman culture.

As Christianity gained converts, these new Christians had been brought up on the value of images in their previous cultural experience and they wanted to continue this in their Christian experience. For example, there was a change in burial practices in the Roman world away from cremation to inhumation. Outside the city walls of Rome, adjacent to major roads, catacombs were dug into the ground to bury the dead. Families would have chambers or cubicula dug to bury their members. Wealthy Romans would also have sarcophagi or marble tombs carved for their burial. Christian converts wanted the same things. Christian catacombs were dug frequently adjacent to non-Christian ones, and sarcophagi with Christian imagery were apparently popular with the richer Christians.



Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, marble, 359 C.E. (Treasury of Saint Peter's Basilica)
Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus: 359 CE, marble (Treasury of Saint Peter’s Basilica)

Junius Bassus, a Roman praefectus urbi, or high-ranking government administrator, died in 359 CE. Scholars believe that he converted to Christianity shortly before his death accounting for the inclusion of Christ and scenes from the Bible. (Photograph above shows a plaster cast of the original.)

Themes of Death and Resurrection

A striking aspect of the Christian art of the third century is the absence of the imagery that will dominate later Christian art. We do not find in this early period images of the Nativity, Crucifixion, or Resurrection of Christ, for example. This absence of direct images of the life of Christ is best explained by the status of Christianity as a mystery religion. The story of the Crucifixion and Resurrection would be part of the secrets of the cult.

While not directly representing these central Christian images, the theme of death and resurrection was represented through a series of images, many of which were derived from the Old Testament that echoed the themes. For example, the story of Jonah—being swallowed by a great fish and then after spending three days and three nights in the belly of the beast is vomited out on the dry ground—was seen by early Christians as anticipation or prefiguration of the story of Christ’s own death and resurrection. Images of Jonah, along with those of Daniel in the Lion’s Den, the Three Hebrews in the Fiery Furnace, Moses Striking the Rock, among others, are widely popular in the Christian art of the third century, both in paintings and on sarcophagi.

All of these can be seen to allegorically allude to the principal narratives of the life of Christ. The common subject of salvation echoes the major emphasis in the mystery religions on personal salvation. The appearance of these subjects frequently adjacent to each other in the catacombs and sarcophagi can be read as a visual litany: save me, Lord, as you have saved Jonah from the belly of the great fish, save me Lord as you have saved the Hebrews in the desert, save me Lord as you have saved Daniel in the Lion’s den, etc.

One can imagine that early Christians—who were rallying around the nascent religious authority of the Church against the regular threats of persecution by imperial authority—would find great meaning in the story of Moses of striking the rock to provide water for the Israelites fleeing the authority of the Pharaoh on their exodus to the Promised Land.

Christianity’s Canonical Texts and the New Testament

One of the major differences between Christianity and the public cults was the central role faith plays in Christianity and the importance of orthodox beliefs. The history of the early Church is marked by the struggle to establish a canonical set of texts and the establishment of orthodox doctrine.

Questions about the nature of the Trinity and Christ would continue to challenge religious authority. Within the civic cults, there were no central texts and there were no orthodox doctrinal positions. The emphasis was on maintaining customary traditions. One accepted the existence of the gods, but there was no emphasis on belief in the gods.

The Christian emphasis on orthodox doctrine has its closest parallels in the Greek and Roman world to the role of philosophy. Schools of philosophy centred around the teachings or doctrines of a particular teacher. The schools of philosophy proposed specific conceptions of reality. Ancient philosophy was influential in the formation of Christian theology. For example, the opening of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God…,” is unmistakably based on the idea of the “logos” going back to the philosophy of Heraclitus (c. 535 – 475 BCE). Christian apologists like Justin Martyr writing in the second century understood Christ as the Logos or the Word of God who served as an intermediary between God and the World.

Early Representations of Christ and the Apostles


Christ and the Apostles, Catacombs of Domitilla, 4th century C.E., Rome
Christ and the Apostles: Catacombs of Domitilla, 4th-century CE, Rome

An early representation of Christ found in the Catacomb of Domitilla shows the figure of Christ flanked by a group of his disciples or students. Those experienced with later Christian imagery might mistake this for an image of the Last Supper, but instead, this image does not tell any story. It conveys rather the idea that Christ is the true teacher.

Christ draped in classical garb holds a scroll in his left hand while his right hand is outstretched in the so-called ad locutio gesture or the gesture of the orator. The dress, scroll, and gesture all establish the authority of Christ, who is placed in the center of his disciples. Christ is thus treated like the philosopher surrounded by his students or disciples.


  • Jews, like other early religious communities, were wary of art being used for idolatrous purposes. Over time, official interpretations of the Second Commandment began to disassociate religious art with graven images.
  • Early Christian, or Paleochristian, art was produced by Christians or under Christian patronage from the earliest period of Christianity to between 260 and 525.
  • The lack of surviving Christian art from the first century could be due to a lack of artists in the community, a lack of funds, or a small audience.
  • Early Christians used the same artistic media as the surrounding pagan culture. These media included frescos, mosaics, sculptures, and illuminated manuscripts.
  • Early Christians used the Late Classical style and adapted Roman motifs and gave new meanings to what had been pagan symbols. Because the religion was illegal until 313, Christian artists felt compelled to disguise their subject matter.
Adapted from Dr. Steven Fine, “Writing a history of Jewish architecture,” in Smarthistory, August 8th. https://smarthistory.org/writing-a-history-of-jewish-architecture/License: Creative CommonsAttribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License
And from Dr. Allen Farber, “Early Christian art,” in Smarthistory, August 8, 2015. https://smarthistory.org/early-christian-art/. License: Creative Commons
Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License


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Art and Visual Culture: Prehistory to Renaissance Copyright © by Alena Buis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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