Craft Arts of Early to Late Christianity

Updated on June 3, 2018
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Nicholas is a student at Georgetown University. He is interested in international relations, global health, history, and literature.


Background on Christianity's Relationship with Art

Christianity, originally a secretive cult religion practiced underground during Roman rule, went through a metamorphosis between the founding years of the religion to around the 6th century with the start of the Late Christian art period. The Christian church as we know it split in two distinct denominations, the Roman Catholic church of Rome and the Eastern Orthodox church of Constantinople, with the Great Schism of 1054, however major differences were brewing between the two groups before then. Up until this point and long after it, art was created by practitioners of religion to assist in worship and bring stories of the Bible to life. Oddly, the Second Commandment states, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them…” (Biblehub). This commandment has been interpreted different ways by different worshippers, some who say only images of God should be avoided and others who want no image of man or beast to be found in a church.The iconoclasts, who destroyed religious images they found to be heresy, were successful from 726-787 and 814-842 during the Byzantine era. These time periods lack many icons that would be significant in art history and because of the image destruction, many pieces dating before then are now gone from history. Luxury arts specifically, also known as “minor” arts due to their small size compared to paintings and sculpture, served an important purpose in Christianity. From illuminated manuscripts to ivory carvings to the diptychs and similar icons of Early to Late Christianity, we can learn a lot about Christianity from these crafts.

Figure 1: Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well
Figure 1: Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well | Source
Figure 2: Christ before Pilate, Rossano Gospels
Figure 2: Christ before Pilate, Rossano Gospels | Source

Illuminated Manuscripts

Illuminated manuscripts are texts with added imagery and borders and which became popular in Medieval times, especially for texts of the Bible. The writings were often printed on expensive stock such as vellum and the imagery was used to tell the corresponding narrative. The Vienna Genesis, an illustrated copy of the first book of the Bible, is the oldest well-preserved manuscript containing biblical scenes. Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well (Figure 1) tells the story of Eliezer, servant to Abraham, who found Rebecca to be the wife of Abraham’s son Isaac, all in silver ink on purple-dyed vellum. Most notably about the imagery is how it follows a chronological order and Rebecca is even seen twice. Characteristic of Christian art from this time period, there is little background seen however all the detail is put into the depictions of the people. Another illuminated manuscript known as the Rossano Gospels shows Christ before Pilate (Figure 2), the story of Pilate, a magistrate who asked the Jews to choose between Jesus or Barabbas. Similarities can be seen with the Vienna Genesis as this too is silver ink on vellum, however, it shows how Late Christian art began to focus more on New Testament stories rather than the Old. The image also features an arch of people which mimics what the painting would look like if it were on the apse of a church. Illuminated manuscripts have changed throughout time and the ones that survive show us the great lengths to which Christians went to glorify Biblical stories.

Figure 3: Suicide of Judas and Crucifixion of Christ
Figure 3: Suicide of Judas and Crucifixion of Christ | Source
Figure 4: Brescia Casket
Figure 4: Brescia Casket | Source

Ivory as a Medium

Ivory is a coveted material even today and it had to be obtained from elephants hunted in Africa and India to create the elaborate carvings done by Christian artists. Ivory was also a very difficult medium to work with and artisans had to have a myriad of tools to craft reliefs. One such carving called the Suicide of Judas and Crucifixion of Christ (Figure 3) depicts a narrative in which Pilate washes his hands, Jesus hauls the cross on his back to Calvary, Peter denies Jesus, Judas commits suicide, and finally a youthful Christ hangs dead on the cross. The Virgin Mary and Joseph of Arimathea are also present along with a scene of Jesus in his tomb, coffin empty. This Passion scene, shown in the round on a box, strays from earlier Christian artwork that avoided the Crucifixion and instead depicted the story of Jonah or Christ as the Good Shepherd. The piece symbolically captures the power of Christ in his immunity to pain as he is “displayed” on the cross in a valiant manner. One perfect example of Christian ivory carving is the Brescia Casket (Figure 4), which may have been a reliquary (a box to hold relics of saints) covered in 36 different subjects. The wide array of images on the casket have been hailed as great examples of the various characteristics of Christian art that changed over time. It features stories common in earlier times such as Jonah and the whale and stories found more in later years like the hanging of Judas and the healing of the man born blind. Ivory was utilized by Christians to portray narratives from the Bible and the stories chosen often depended on the time period as certain stories became more acceptable.

Figure 5: Woman sacrificing at an altar, right leaf of the diptych of the Nicomachi and the Symmachi
Figure 5: Woman sacrificing at an altar, right leaf of the diptych of the Nicomachi and the Symmachi | Source
Figure 6: Barberini Ivory
Figure 6: Barberini Ivory | Source

Diptychs: Hinged Plaques

Another type of piece popularly crafted out of ivory during this period were diptychs, or plaques with two pieces that fold in with an attached hinge. Although the emperor Theodosius closed pagan temples and banned their cults in 391, the belief systems survived with loyal followers that challenged Christianity as the new state religion. A diptych known as the “Woman sacrificing at an altar, right leaf of the diptych of the Nicomachi and the Symmachi” (Figure 5) depicts the marriage between two families of powerful senatorial Roman families. The families pay tribute to the old pagan gods, despite the government ruling. The piece features the classical traditions of idealized human beauty while utilizing the wafer-thin frontal figures found in later art of the Middle Ages. In contrast, a Christian diptych called the Barberini Ivory (Figure 6) which depicts the emperor Justinian with a youthful Jesus above him, flanked by two angels in the style of pagan winged Victory figures. This piece truly demonstrates the melding of the pagan beliefs with Christianity, as well as the link between the emperor and divinity seen in Byzantine Late Antiquity. In the Eastern Orthodox Byzantine Empire, a balance between church and state is seen unlike with the influential Pope in the Roman Catholic state. Diptychs were used to commemorate deaths and marriages and in Eastern Orthodox tradition, could be used as an altarpiece to conjure an image of Jesus.

A Quick Summary

The timeline of Christianity from Late Antiquity to the Byzantine era shows shifts in prefered narrative depictions, styles of portraying people, and even periods where very little artwork is present due to the iconoclasm. Illuminated manuscripts show the change and innovation as New Testament verses are favored over the old and people illustrate the Bible rather than represent saints or God. Ivory carvings show the great care put into narrative telling, as well as the importance of relics to the Catholic church especially. Finally, diptychs of older pagan practices are found in striking contrast alongside Christian portrayals of the Byzantine emperor. Christian art has varied over time, however the same messages of the divinity of Jesus and the importance of Biblical stories are projected by Medieval crafts.

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