Early Christian Art
As the Roman empire declined in strength, Christianity was growing in strength. There are two distinct periods in Early Christian art, a period of persecution and a period of recognition.
The period of persecution dated from 100 to 313 A.D. During this time the practice of Christianity was illegal in the Roman empire and Christians were openly persecuted.
This persecution ended with the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D. passed by the Roman emperor Constantine. Constantine attributed his military victory at Milvian Bridge to a vision of the Christian God. From 313 to 325 A.D. pagan Roman religions and Christianity were practiced side by side. In 325 A.D Constantine made Christianity the only legal religion in the Roman empire.
Constantine moved the capital of the Roman empire from Rome to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), thus dividing the empire into east and west. The western portion would weaken and eventually fall into the anarchy of the middle ages. The eastern portion would become the Byzantine empire and remain strong. The art of the west is called Early Christian art, while that of the east is Byzantine art.
Period of Persecution Art
During the period of persecution, because the practice of Christianity was illegal, Christians were unable to worship in public or bury their dead in Christian cemeteries. Worship took place in private homes. The catacombs developed as a place to bury the dead separate from pagans. The catacombs were a vast underground network of halls and galleries carved out of the soft Tufa. These catacombs spread laterally as well as vertically underneath the city of Rome. They were up to five levels deep in places and at one point held more than four million bodies. It is misconception that they were used for secret worship. They were used only as burial places and to hide fugitives from the Roman government. After the recognition of Christianity by Constantine they fell into disuse.
Frescos were painted on the ceilings and walls of the catacombs. Remember that these early Christians were Romans and grew up with Roman visual traditions. It can be said that these paintings were "Roman in style and Christian in subject". Visually, they used the Roman painting characteristics of shadowing to create a three dimensional effect. They used Christian symbolism, such as the cross shape. Christ was always depicted as either the good shepherd or a young teacher. In these paintings, he did not have a beard of halo and the crucifixion was never shown. The quality of work was poor because of the difficult conditions. The catacombs were dark, damp and stunk of four million rotting bodies. The paintings from the Catacomb of Saints Pietro and Marcelino in Rome are a good example of catacomb painting.
Period of Recognition Art
The legalization of Christianity meant that it could be practiced in the open without fear of persecution. Recognition created a need for public places of worship. Early churches were based on Roman architectural styles. These structures were adapted and modified to fit Christian needs.
Two types of architecture developed, the longitudinal plan church and the central plan church.
Old St. Peter's was the earliest longitudinal plan church. It was built on the site where the Apostle Peter was buried, the area that is now the Vatican in Rome. This church no longer stands as it was torn down and replaced by a newer structure during the Renaissance. However, drawings do exist of the original structure.
Longitudinal plan churches, such as Old St. Peter's, were based on Roman basilicas. They were long, narrow structures designed so that your eye traveled down a horizontal axis to the alter at the far end. The exteriors were plain and simple, while the interiors were glowing and beautiful, decorated with frescos, mosaics and marble columns. A mosaic is a work of art created by attaching small pieces of colored tile to a wall to form an image. These mosaics were used to reflect colored light around the church. These churches were lit by candle light and from clerestory windows. Clerestory windows were found on the upper most walls and provided light to the center of the church. This plain exterior and beautiful interior were likened to the Christian soul with a plain body and beautiful spirit. It is important to note that these early churches had flat, wooden roofs, which were a tremendous fire hazard.
The parts of a longitudinal church were much the same as churches today. The nave was the long central hall that held the congregation. The side aisles found on either side of the nave provided walkways around the nave. The narthex was an entrance to the nave that gave the visitor a chance to make a shift from the material world outside to the spiritual world inside the church. The transept was the area that crossed the nave and formed a symbolic cross shape. The apse was the semicircular area on the opposite side of the transept that held the alter.
The second type of church was the central plan church. Based on Roman domed structures like the Pantheon, these churches had a vertical axis that drew your eye up the dome toward heaven. They were usually either round, polygonal or cross shaped, where all four arms of the cross were very short. In the eastern empire these were used a churches and in the west for baptisteries and mausoleums. While some contained an apse, others placed the alter at the center of the structure. Like longitudinal churches, they were plain on the outside and beautiful on the inside, for the same theological reasons.
The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy is a good example of a central plan church. Galla Placidia was the grand daughter of Theodosius, the emperor responsible for making Christianity the only legal religion in the Roman empire. This plain brick exterior forms a cross shaped central plan church, while the interior is decorated with mosaics. Christ as the Good Shepherd is one of these mosaics. Here Christ is seen in a mature form, wearing the gold and purple robes of a Roman emperor and with a halo around his head. The sheep which represent his followers are set in a three dimensional landscape setting. Light and shadow are used in the traditional Roman style to give each object depth in space. This mosaic is strongly rooted in the traditional styles of Roman classical art.
The Egyptians were the first in this area of the world to develop paper. They made paper out of papyrus leaves and used them to form scrolls. The Greeks and early Romans also created papyrus scrolls. The later Romans replaced these scrolls with the Codex. A codex was bound like a modern book and was made possible through new developments in paper, such as vellum (calfskin) and parchment (lambskin). Each codex was treated as a work of art, hand written and illustrated with an ornate metal or jeweled cover. Very few of these early codex survive, although we do know that Constantine built a library to house them. The oldest surviving codex is the Vatican Vergil. It was pagan in content and showed an idealized illustration of Roman country life. The visual style was based on Roman painting and used light and shadow to create depth and space.
The oldest surviving Christian codex is the Vienna Genesis. It appears to draw more from earlier scrolls. The scenes are done in a narrative frieze, with more than one scene being shown in a single image. A character might be repeated several times within a single scene. The illustration was simplified into only those objects or people necessary to convey the story. While the figures were based on classical ideas of space, they are more stylized than those found in mosaic form.
Manuscript illumination and the recopying of sacred manuscripts would become the activity that sustained literacy and Christian ideas through the early middle ages.
Very few monumental sculptures were done by the early Christians, due to a fear of idolatry. For this reason, most sculpture was in the form of sarcophagi. The early Christians rejected the Roman practice of cremation and instead drew on the practice of burying the dead. Wealthier Christians were placed in a sculpted sarcophagus, based on earlier Roman sarcophagi. The Good Shepherd Sarcophagus was an excellent example of how Roman traditions were transformed into Christian symbolism. Early Christians adopted pagan iconography to their own needs. Here the subject was Christ as the good shepherd. He was surrounded by grape vines and cherubs. These Christian symbols of the blood of Christ and heavenly angels were taken directly from pagan references to the god of wine, Dionysos, and cupids. Notice that the proportions were extremely stylized in the same manner as late Roman sculptures.
When the Roman empire was divided into east and west, the eastern section developed into the Byzantine empire. While the west would fall into the anarchy of the middle ages, the Byzantine empire had a long history. It would remain strong until being taken over by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The people of this area though of themselves as Romans and practiced Christianity as their religion. They were responsible for spreading Christianity into the Balkans and to Russia. They were also responsible for keeping many of the classical ideas of Greece and Rome alive during the middle ages in the west. With the conquest of the Turks in 1453, many of the scholars fled back to western Europe bringing those ideas with them. This was one of the sparks for the Renaissance.
The first emperor of the Byzantine empire was Justinian. He considered himself to be leader of both church and state. He banned all pagan religions and heretical forms of Christianity. He practiced an orthodox style of Christianity. He was also known to have codified many of the Roman laws and was the founder of modern law codes.
While most of the Byzatine empire was located in what is now the near east (Turkey, Israel...), the city of Ravenna in Italy was still part of this empire. Justinian built the church of San Vitale in Ravenna. It was an ocatagonally shaped central plan church with a large dome in the center. The narthex was set at an angle to the apse so that visitors were forced to reorient themselves as they left the material world and entered the spiritual world. Having a plain exterior, the interior is decorated with mosaics that celebrate Justinian and orthodox Christianity. This was a two story structure with the upper gallery being used by the emperor for worship. Light flooded the interior from large clerestory windows and bounced off the mosaics filling the church with colored light that was thought to have a spiritual quality. Light can be used as a visual element in architecture. A pair of mosaics are found across from one another on the sides of the apse. They are off Justinian and his attendants on one side and his wife Theodora and her attendants on the other. Justinian carries the bread for the communion service and Theodora carries the wine.
In the mosaic of Justinian and Attendants, Justinian is seen as leader of both church and state. He is flanked on one side by the army and on the other by clergy. Carrying the bread for communion, he was ascribed divine status by the halo surrounding his head. The figures are dramatically elongated and have lost the three dimensional aspects of Roman influenced mosaics. They are essentially flat. I call this effect the coat hanger effect, because it looks as if their robes are hanging on coat hangers with no body underneath. This was done intentionally, as they believed that the dematerialization of the body was spiritual in nature, while the body represented earthly characteristics. The body here represents the body of the church not humanity. This flattening of space would become characteristic of Byzantine art. While the Romans had used spacial characteristics to achieve realistic visual qualities, Byzantine artist used them for symbolic means.
Another example of spacial aspects being used for symbolic purposes lies in the feet of each of the figures in this mosaic. In the mosaic there are three groups of three figures, Justinian and his followers, a general with two soldiers and a bishop with two priest. The feet of the leader of each group are place on top of the feet of the followers, symbolically suggesting hierarchy.
Justinians most important architectural contribution was the church of Hagia Sophia located in Constantinople. Originally built as a Christian church it was later turned into an Islamic mosque. The minarets (towers at each corner) were added when it was converted and were not part of the original architecture. The outside is characteristically plain, while the inside is radiant.
The interior of Hagia Sophia boasts a large dome that dominates the structure. The base of this dome contains a ring of small windows. Due to the dark interior, the outline of those windows often becomes fuzzy on bright days and they look as if they have merged, creating the illusion that the dome is floating. Again light being used as a visual element to suggest spirituality.
Hagia Sophia also successfully combined a longitudinal and a central plan church. It did so by using an architectural development called a pendentive. A pendentive solved the problem of placing a round dome on a square structure by taking the weight off the walls and channeling it onto massive piers.
This technology was applied in the Byzantine structure of St. Marks in Venice, which is a cross shaped building that has five domes. Support of these domes would not be possible without pendentives.
Back to KCAH 111 page