Early Christian and Byzantine Art


Early Christian, The Good Shepherd, c. 325 (photo by By José Luis Filpo Cabana (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

In 313 Constantine the Great legalized Christianity with the Edict of Milan. It would be another 100 years or so before it became the official state religion of the Roman Empire, but this legalization did create the need for new forms of art and architecture. These forms were based in those of Roman, Greek, and Jewish traditions, with some changes to accommodate the manner in which the new religion was practiced.

Jewish art in the Roman Empire showed the impact of Roman and Greek traditions. The elaborate mosaics on the floor of the Synagogue of Hamat (Serverus Synagogue) from Hamat Tiberius, Israel, and completed between the 3rd & 5th centuries are very much like the elaborate floor mosaics found in elite Roman houses but for the subject matter. These have images of the sacred objects from Jewish religious practice and the Ark of the Covenant. The frescoes in the house synagogue of Dura-Europos, in what is now Syria and dated to c. 245, also show the influence of Late Roman Empire art and traditions, but the subject matter is from the Pentateuch, telling the story of the Jewish religion. the figures in these interact in a minimal landscape, and have the frontal postures and wide staring eyes of Late Roman art.

mosaic_floor_in_synagogue_at_hammat_tiberias_01Floor Mosaics (detail), Synagogue of Hamat (Severus Synagogue), Hamat Tiberius, Israel, 3rd-5th centuries (photo by By Praisethelorne (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)


Crossing the Red Sea, Dura-Europos Synagogue, c. 245 (Photo by By made by photographer Becklectic – http://www.flickr.com/photos/becklectic/85324990/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1352343)

In the early years, Christianity was a small cult, as it was seen before legalization, related to Jewish traditions, but made illegal by the Roman emperors at least in part because of the Christians’ refusal to worship the emperor. This meant that Early Christian art was often disguised or used imagery that was not obviously religious to the unbaptized. Since Christians worshiped indoors, as opposed to the outdoor worship of the pagan Romans, early churches were often hidden within houses, such as the one at Dura-Europos. Christians practiced full body inhumations, and so made use of the extensive catacombs carved into the tuff, or soft volcanic rock outside of the walls of Rome. These catacombs were decorated with imagery derived from paganism, such as the image of the Good Shepherd, and from Jewish traditions as well, such as Jonah and the whale, an early correlation to the Christian belief in Jesus’s death and resurrection. There were also a number of orant, or praying figures, painted on the walls of the catacombs and the larger chapel-like spaces within them. Both the Good Shepherd image, which became shorthand for Jesus, as in the image above, and Jonah and the Whale, such as the image below, were also sculpted, and may have been placed within some of the homes of wealthier Christians.


Good Shepherd image, Catacomb of S. Callisto, mid 3rd century, (photo by Public Domain, https: //commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=509452


Jonah and the Whale, 3rd century


Catacombs of Saints Marcellinus and Peter (Book plate of photo by Wilpert, Joseph. Die Malereien der Katakomben Roms, 1903). Scenes, from top:Orants, Jonah and the Whale, Moses striking the rock (left), Noah praying in the ark, Adoration of the Magi (photo by By anonimus ([1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Even the sarcophagi of the wealthier Christian Romans had the coded imagery that marked them as believers, including Good Shepherd images, orant figures, and combinations of Old and New Testament images, called typology, that were believed to go together, such as Jonah and the Whale and the crucifixion and resurrection. Some, such as the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus and the Sarcophagus with the Monogram of Christ, show scenes that relate to the Christian belief in salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Sarcophagus Front from Santa Maria Antigua, c. 270 and Sarcophagus of the Three Shepherds, late 4th century

Sarcophagus with the Monogram of Christ, mid-4th century and Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, 359 CE

After legalizing Christianity, Constantine realized the use of the Roman basilica for Christian churches. These were modified slightly so that the apse was generally only on the east end, with the entrance on the west. As Christianity grew in popularity, a crossing arm, known as a transcept was added, creating the Latin Cross plan churches. These were typically left plan on the exterior and heavily decorated on the interior, both to distinguish them from pagan temples that were heavily decorated on the outside and to refer back to the early Christian ideas of the soul. Both Old St. Peter’s Basilica and Santa Sabina in Rome are good examples of this type of building. Santa Sabina also includes columns that are spolia, taken from pagan temples or monuments.

Santa Sabina, Rome, 422-432

Old St. Peter’s was also a martyrium, which means it was a church built to mark the site believed to contain the burial of St. Peter. Martyria could also mark the space where a martyrdom had taken place or contain the relics of a martyr. In St. Peter’s, the baldacchino, or honorific canopy, marks the site believed to be St. Peter’s tomb. Martyria were often centrally planned, circular churches, such as Santa Costanza in Rome, which was the burial place of Constantine’s daughter, Costanza. The mosaics in this church combine pagan and Christian motifs, with the continuation of many of the themes already discussed in Early Christian art.


Jacopo Grimaldi, Drawing of Old St. Peter’s, 1619 copy of earlier drawing

Exterior and Interior of Santa Costanza, c. 350

Details of mosaics from Santa Costanza

In the 5th century, as Rome and the peninsula of Italy were overrun by the Huns, Goths, and Vandals, the capital of the Western Empire shifted north to Ravenna on the Adriatic Sea. There are a number of important Early Christian monuments from this site, including the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, a Roman empress, which was built c. 425-426, and lavishly decorated on the interior with mosaics. The exterior of this centrally planned structure is plain, but the mosaics reflect the increasing identification of Jesus with the emperor and royal family following the Edict of Thessalonica in 380, in which Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire and outlawed paganism. The image of the Good Shepherd in this structure shows Jesus dressed in the imperial purple with gold robes and a gold halo (an ancient sun symbol and honorific).

Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, c. 425-426 and mosaic details

With the official naming of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire, Theodosius also cemented the place of that religion. Quickly, divisions between the art and practice of religion between the East and West became apparent. In Constantinople, the Church was led by a patriarch and the emperor, and began to develop what is now known as Eastern Orthodox Christianity, which would lead to a split with the Pope in Rome in the 11th century. The Byzantine style of the eastern church was known for very static, flat figures with almond shaped eyes and heads, and an increasing removal of the background of the figures. Typically, figures are shows with wide, staring eyes, very similar to those from the Jewish and Late Roman traditions, and are in frontal poses. The prohibition against graven images led to a tradition of showing the essential spirituality and sacredness of the figures, but without any naturalism that would imply that they were actual human (or human-like) figures. One of the major art forms of this tradition are the icon paintings, small panel paintings in tempera on wood panels, often with elaborate gold backgrounds. At various points in Byzantine history, such as 726-87 and 815-43, the controversy over icons as graven images led to iconoclasm, the destruction of images, which was overturned by the Byzantine emperors (or empresses) each time. Many of the early icons still have some very Roman characteristics.


Theotokos with 2 Saints, 6th century


St. Peter, 6th century

One of the most spectacular of the Byzantine churches was the royal church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, built by Anthemios of Tralles and Isidoros of Miletos for the Emperor Justinian from 523-547 (dome rebuilt 562). The architects seem to also have been scientists and mathematicians. This was a basilica built in a centralized Greek cross plan, with rising vaults and a dome at the center. This was a new system of dome building, where the dome was placed above 4 triumphal arches with pendentives, upside-down triangular shapes, in the spaces where the arches meet. This allows for a taller dome with clerestory, or a row of windows along the bottom. The walls of Hagia Sophia are also curtain walls, which means they are not supporting walls, but are pierced with windows throughout. Originally, this church was covered on the inside with icons, which were destroyed in the iconoclasms and covered when it was made a mosque after Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmet II in 1453. Some have recently been uncovered, including the Deesis Mosaic (13th century) and some of the dedication panels from the royal box. Byzantine art is generally very static in form, with few changes to the manner in which figures are represented.

Anthemios of Tralles and Isidoros of Miletos, Hagia Sophia, Constantinople, 532-547 (Dome rebuilt 562)

Deesis Mosaic, 13th century and Dedication panel of Emperor John II Komnenos and Eriene, 1118-34

Justinian was also responsible for building the imperial basilica in Ravenna, considered the capital of the Western branch of the Empire, even though Justinian never set foot there. This is the church of San Vitale in Ravenna, built as a centrally planned octagon, and covered with mosaics and precious marbles on the interior.

San Vitale, Ravenna, c. 538-548 and plan

Interior San Vitale and mosaic details

In the apse behind the altar of San Vitale are 2 of the most interesting mosaics in the church. They show the emperor and empress, Justinian and Theodora, and their attendants bringing the bowl and chalice to the church for mass. These show the importance of the emperor in Byzantine church ritual, and locate the emperor and empress symbolically within a space they never entered. Justinian is shown with 12 attendants, connecting him symbolically with Jesus, including the bishop, Maximianus. The soldiers in mosaic have the Chi-Rho on their shields to symbolically link them with Constantine, considered, probably erroneously, to be the first Christian emperor. Theodora, who was of lower status than Justinian, stands further back in the picture plane, and has fewer attendants. She is also located in the atrium outside the church, as evidenced by the fountain in the image.

Mosaics of Justinian and Theodora, San Vitale, Ravenna

The Late Byzantine Churches of the monastery at Hoisos Loukas in Greece, dated to c. 1020 and c. 1040 respectively, show the changes in style between the early Byzantine imperial churches and these later monastic ones. The churches are still centrally planned, but now the exteriors are decorated with elaborate stone work. The mosaics have the themes of the Theotokos, or Mary the God-Bearer, and Christ Pantokrator, or Christ as ruler of all. These show the importance in later Byzantine art and worship of Mary as well as the development of the cult of icons after the last iconoclasm.

Monastery of Hoisos Loukas, Daphni, Greece and plan

Interior, Katholikon, Hoisos Loukas, c. 1020

Mosaic details, Katholikon, Hoisos Loukas, c. 1020

Another Byzantine and Early Medieval development was the switch from papyrus scrolls, or rotulus, which were often 30 feet long and fragile, to the codex, a bound book with pages made from vellum or parchment. These were often Biblical in nature, although it was in the Eastern Roman Empire that much of the Greco-Roman learning was kept and studied throughout the Middle Ages. The codicies were also often illustrated, and many of the proscriptions on icon paintings were relaxed with these. Often times, imperial books were denoted as the pages were dyed purple, as with the Vienna Genesis. The illustrations on its pages tell various parts of a single story, with the basics of a landscape shown. Others, like the Paris Psalter, show the continuation of Greco-Roman forms, like the personification of the river and the pose of David, in the illustrations.

Jacob Wrestling the Angel and Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well, Vienna Genesis, early 6th century


David Composing the Psalms, Paris Psalter, c. 960

The developments of Early Christian and Byzantine art laid the foundation for the development of the later Medieval styles, but also for the rediscovery of Roman art in the Renaissance.


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