During the 3rd and 4th centuries after Christ’s death, Christianity gained a firm footing in the Mediterranean world, due in large part to the evangelical trend of the faith. But for all its ubiquity, the potential persecution by the Roman Empire of Christ’s followers continually pushed them underground, so to speak. Thus, their artwork was similarly forced into hiding. Across the catacombs of Rome, sarcophagi and burial chambers abound with early Christian art. That is, until 313, when Constantine’s legalization and enforcement of Christianity as the official religion called for “a new set of images as well as contexts for those images” (Jensen 94), i.e. basilicas and public areas. Thus, early Christian art must be broken up into Pre- and Post-Constantine Eras, both thematically and contextually.
Thematically, early Christian art falls into four categories, as dictated by Robin Margaret Jensen in Understanding Early Christian Art: the adaptation of pagan images, neutral decorative motifs imbued with a subversive ideology, biblical narrative, and portraitures of Christ and the Saints. The first three categories belong firmly in the Early Christian tradition, whereas the latter only arose after the legalization of the faith.
In order to understand these four basic categories, one must first look to the foundations upon which the religion itself was built. Just as Christianity arose out of Judaism, so too did its art rise up from the prevailing norms: “Spirituality had become thoroughly tainted by popular culture and pagan idolatry” (Jensen 13). Thus, ubiquitous across art of the 3rd through 6th centuries are classic Roman images re-appropriated for a Christian context (i.e., as Jesus Christ).
Roman culture wasn’t the only influential force on the art of this era. Jewish artistic traditions, specifically in terms of the interpretation of the 2nd commandment, confronted early Christians with the question of prohibition under the law. But, contrary to popular belief, early church leaders held no grudge against art with respect to that commandment, as Islamic leaders later did. Instead, “it had become clear that in the early Christian period the prohibition [of images] was regarded in contemporary Jewish circles as definitely modified [as being solely against idolatry], while by Christians it was regarded as irrelevant save in matters of Old Testament exegesis” (Murray 223). Thus, the iconographic question was settled firmly in favor of art—at least until the Byzantine era reimagined the prohibition.
Lastly, Christian art reflected a definitively Christian mindset. Looking away from the artistic context of the era and instead to the psychological context, two obvious themes arise: eschatology and deliverance. Early Christian artists had two spheres on their mind: the heavenly and the earthly. As most of the art recovered from the period is on funerary items, the themes of resurrection and life after death are the most prevalent. In terms of earthly deliverance, some scholars argue “these subjects were selected and popularized because they, in particular, represented God’s deliverance from danger, especially in a time of persecution” (Jensen 74). But there is a lack of consensus, due to stories such as Moses striking the rock, which seemingly have no protective connotations. Tales such as Jonah and the Whale, Daniel and the Lions, and Lazarus’s resurrection, on the other hand, serve both to remind Christians of the after life, as well as offer comfort in their time of persecution here on earth.
Post-Constantine art continued with many of these themes, while simultaneously abandoning the psyche of the persecuted religion. First and foremost, artists began to grapple more openly with the image of Jesus. No longer relegated to a strict metaphor, Jesus could be seen in this era in the context of biblical miracles.As the years passed by, so too did the significance of the stories. It is only in the late 5th century that Jesus’ resurrection is portrayed. He is also depicted as a pseudo-emperor: “The visual presentation of a regnant Christ is thought to have been modeled on the figure of the enthroned emperor known from examples of imperial portraits” (Jensen 98). In these two adaptations, we see a conflation of Jesus the savior and Jesus the king, a theme that will be widely taken up in later years. The second thematic shift is in terms of Old Testament stories. Cleared of the fear of persecution, Christians dropped themes of protection like Jonah and Noah and instead took up the themes of leadership found in the stories of Moses and Elijah. Again, one can directly connect Christian imagery with the collective psychology of followers as a whole.
One prevailing theme throughout pre- and post-Constantine works is the absence of God the Father. This is justifiable, for even in the Bible, an air of sensual impossibility surrounded God: “In all of the school contexts (Epicureanism excepted) the desire to be shown the form of divinity was viewed as an epistemological impropriety” (Finney 277). Thus, more than a religious issue with the imaged of God, his invisibility represents a philosophical inability to deal with the divine.
Christ as Good Shepherd: Catacomb of Callistus in Rome, 3rd century (Photo c/o Wikimedia Commons)
This image is one of the few traditional depiction of Jesus in pre-Constantine times. Along with the Orant, the Good Shepherd fulfills the biblical description of Jesus, while paying homage to the Shepherd in Roman imagery. For the Romans, the Good Shepherd was a universal sign of kindness and compassion—displayed here, as elsewhere, by the sheep around Christ’s neck. Its biblical connotations are perhaps ever more vital to the image: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Thus, this metaphor was carefully selected from the Roman Canon for both its relevance to the bible and previous connotation as a pagan symbol.
Formally, the image of the Good Shepherd is representative of the realist catacomb art of the 3rd and 4th century. Christ’s robes are intricately detailed, as is his once-expressive face and the wool of the sheep. Whereas artists in the near future would worry less about realism and more about symbolism, artists of this era focused on depicting Christ as a very human element of the religion, since the early church very much embraced that side of him.
Christ Raising Lazarus: Catacomb of the Giordani in Rome, 3rd century (Photo c/o Digiglotting)
The wall painting to the right of Christ raising Lazarus is a classic example of early Christian art depicting Christ as a miracle worker. When Christ wasn’t disguised as a Shepherd or as a Greek god, followers often showed him in the act of his biblical miracles. Far from being as inflammatory as the resurrection, showing Jesus’ miracles was a relatively safe way to praise Christ’s divinity, if this clandestine art were ever to be discovered. That being said, the majority of these types of works are found only in the Post-Constantine era.
But the painting isn’t just an image of pacified reverence; it’s a call for salvation. The stories depicted on many of the Roman catacombs shared the common theme of protection and salvation. In this case, there is a clear analogy of the resurrection of Lazarus and the resurrection in life after death. As Christians planned for their death, they sought comfort in adorning their sarcophagi and burial chambers with images of Christ’s power to redeem the body and soul.
Christ as Helios: Mausoleum of Julii Roman in Rome, late 3rd century (Photo c/o Ad Imaginem Dei)
This depiction of Christ as Helios represents the conflation of Christian ideology and Greco-Roman influence. On the surface, the re-appropriation of the Greek sun god stands to illustrate the heavy impact current art was having on Early Christian works. This is especially true during the 3rd century, which houses the earliest known Christian artwork, and thus the least independently developed.
But ideology was not absent from this popular image. Repeatedly throughout the bible, the Holy Spirit is referenced in terms of light: “Then spoke Jesus again to them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12). Depicting the Christian divinity as Helios was thus both a safe and relevant way to pay homage as well as an accurate depiction of the image of Christ conveyed in the Gospels. Once again, early artists have re-appropriated pagan religious symbols in meaningful ways, highlighting the broad impact outside cultures had on Christianity.
Three Hebrews in a Furnace: Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome, late 3rd century, (Photo c/o Global Light Minds)
Along with images of Jesus’ miracles, early Christians had a fascination with the tales of protection against nature from the Old Testament. In addition to the tale of Jonah and the Whale and Daniel and the Lions, a popular image was that of the three Hebrews in the furnace. According to the story, the king Nebuchadnezzar burned Jews alive, but upon witnessing the three Hebrews walking about in the furnace accompanied by a divine image, he altered his stance. Much like what would happen years later with Constantine, Nebuchadnezzar declared it a sin to speak out against God and the Jews. Thus, painting this image invoked a call for divine intervention in the systematic repression of Christians in Rome.
Here, we have Christians making a direct connection to the Jewish tradition. Despite being at odds in their ideology, early Christians still found themselves in similar political predicaments similar to those faced by the Hebrews during their tumultuous history. Thus, in painting this, early Christians are not only invoking the divine, but also subconsciously expressing solidarity with the religious persecution experienced by their ancestors in the Old Testament.
The Good Shepherd: Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, 425 CE (Photo c/o Wikipedia)
This piece is often quoted as the crucial link between Pre- and Post-Constantine art in this era. The images here conflate traditional Christian symbols with a reverence for Christ as King. The image of the Good Shepherd, obvious here in his relation to the sheep, hearkens back to earlier works, where the shepherd was one of the primary rhetorical device used to envision Jesus.
Unlike earlier works, however, Christ is glowing with reverence. More so than a shepherd, what is depicted here is a King. Jesus is adorned with glowing robes of purple and a luminous halo; there is no mistaking this for the average shepherd. This embracing of Christ’s royal status came, naturally, with his widespread acceptance among Romans during the legalization. No longer did followers have to fear the punishment associated with envisioning any other king other than the Emperor of Rome—Jesus was now on the same level as that Emperor.
Formally, one can see a dearth of detail in the idealized mosaic. Gone are the intricate attempts at portraiture that come with earlier catacomb works. As Christ’s image begins to take a super-human form, the focus becomes more on depicting this symbolism rather than the reality of his likeness. This shift will come to mirror the movement of Baroque portraitures by Rembrandt and Bernini. The focus for both of these painters is not the likeness, but rather the life-likeness, or the essence of the subject, just as is depicted here with Christ’s kingly connotations.
Christ as Warrior: Archiepiscopal Chapel in Ravenna, 6th century (Photo c/o Why I Am Catholic)
This image is a classic representation of Christ as it was imagined after the Edict of Milan. Since Christianity rapidly underwent the shift from fringe cult to imperial religion, Christ’s image was brought into a new role with enthusiasm. Instead of Christ as a shepherd or as a Greek God, artists during these centuries instead depicted him in an Imperial manner. Adorned in purple and bearing the triumphant demeanor of a militant royal, Jesus bridges the apparent gap between religion and government.
As usual in these pieces, Biblical references abound. The serpent beneath his left foot represents Satan (in later works, Mary traditionally crushes the serpent), whereas the lion under his right fulfills Psalm 91:13, “You will tread on the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion and the serpent.” Armed with the cross, now a defensive weapon, and the words “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” Christ is not only a physical warrior, but a spiritual one as well.
Crucifixion or Orant: Doors of Sta. Sabina in Rome, 6th Century (Photo c/o CL Francisco)
An air of controversy surrounds this wood carving, which hangs on the door at Santa Sabina in Rome. There are two prevailing interpretations available. Seeing as the piece is dated around the 5th century, the most relevant interpretation is that of the crucifixion. As Christianity grew within the Roman Empire, its art began to deal in the finer complexities of the Gospels. Whereas earlier works had depicted Jesus as a miracle worker, the representation of Jesus as a divine martyr was an as-yet untouched topic. But as the legality of Christianity expanded, images of the nativity began to appear, followed by the Passion, and finally culminating in the miracle of the Resurrection. Thus, it was around this time that images of the death and resurrection of Christ started to emerge.
There are some, however, who argue that these figures are Orants, a popular depiction of Christ in the Pre-Constantine era. Orants often stood as signs of deference to a God or an Emperor, and therefore were adequate metaphors for the presence of God. The date of this wood carving, however, makes that interpretation seem far less likely than the former. If the intent was the depiction of Orants, the doors of Santa Sabina could be another crucial link between Pre- and Post-Constantine art, as the Good Shepherd at Galla Placidia is.
There is, however, a notable connection. Many scholars have noted that, in addition to its Roman imagery, the Orant is a subtle nod to the shape of Christ on the Cross. This imagery—the crucified Christ—often stands in for a martyr and appears in nearly every era of art, so it’s not inconceivable to believe that it existed before artists dealt directly with the concept of crucifixion and resurrection.