The Development of Early Christian Art

Updated on October 19, 2018
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B. A. Johnson is an avid student of history. He endeavors to provide detailed and carefully documented histories of the Christian church.

The Good Shepherd
The Good Shepherd | Source

Origins of Christian Art

Of the many remarkable traits of Christianity’s first centuries, one of the most striking is the spread of the church. At first little more in the eyes of Rome than a minor disturbance in Judea, the church exploded across the Roman world and even beyond. By 100A.D., 64% of all Roman port cities had a church*. Before the end of the second century, the church had spread to more than half of all inland cities as well1. By the end of the fifth century, Christianity had become so widespread among the cities that adherents of the old Roman religions were thought of as uncouth rustics – “paganus.”

When considering how quickly the church spread, many will be surprised to realize how contrastingly slow Christian art was to develop. Though many older publications will give an earlier date, current studies suggest the earliest identifiably Christian art does not appear until the third century A.D.2.

There is good reason for this, however. Setting aside earlier examples of Christian art that may exist but have not yet been discovered, the earliest church was an almost exclusively Jewish one. Most conservative Jews considered the commands of Scripture against “graven images” to extend to all forms of art, not merely objects for religious reverence. Thus, the early church rejected art as idolatrous. It was only as the church became increasingly “Gentile” that a more restricted interpretation of the commandment was embraced by Christians of non-Jewish origin3.

The Development of a Christian “Visual Culture”

Despite this initial delay, some Christians may have begun developing an early “visual culture” which may have preceded the onset of true art. If so, the clue to this development can be found in manuscripts of the New Testament dated as early as 175 A.D..

Particularly in texts considered by the early church to be Scripture, scribes used a series of abbreviations for certain names and words, known today as Nomina Sacra. Among these, two in particularly stand out as unique – the abbreviation used for the words “cross” and “crucify,” (Stauros and Staurow). Rather than following the usual patterns associated with Nomina Sacra, these words are abbreviated with the letters Tau (T) and Rho (P), often superimposed upon each other to form an image similar to an Ankh(see picture). It has been suggested that this “Tau-Rho” monogram may have been fashioned in such a unique way to resemble a man on a cross – the first known visual representation of Christ’s crucifixion2.

The Tau-Rho’s resemblance to an Ankh may have partially influenced the Christian church’s much-later adoption of the ankh as a symbol of the faith, representing both its original meaning (eternity or eternal life) and Tau-Rho’s cruciform significance2. Of course, this is only theoretical, but there are other examples of Nomina Sacra eventually taking artistic form, such as the well-known Chi-Rho (XP) abbreviation for Christ (Xristos).

Paralleling this possible example of textual-to-visual evolution is the Ichthys, or “Fish.” Inscriptions in the mid-late second century use ixθús as an acronym for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.**” In the beginning of the third century, the symbol of a fish features prominently in the first confirmed examples of Christian Art.

An Oil Lamp with the Tau-Rho "Staurogram" engraved on it
An Oil Lamp with the Tau-Rho "Staurogram" engraved on it | Source

Christian Art in the Third Century

As mentioned before, Christian art was first the product of Graeco-Roman gentiles converted to the faith, not Jewish Christians. It should be no surprise, therefore, that Christian art is distinguishable from secular or pagan art of the day only by its subject matter, not its style4.

It is interesting, however, that the scenes and images depicted by these gentile Christians are almost exclusively drawn from the Old Testament, rather than the New. Particularly popular were depictions of stories from the Old Testament widely understood to prefigure Christ, his ministry, or his sacrifice on the cross and resurrection3. Jonah and the Whale, Noah in the Ark, or the rock which gave water in the desert appear in abundance. There are however, some early pieces of art harkening to Jesus and his ministry such as paintings of a loaf and fish4 or the raising of Lazarus1.

Of course, some note must be given to the context in which these works are found. The vast majority of Christian artwork from the third and fourth centuries were created in the Catacombs of Rome and other cities. By extension, they are largely funerary in nature, thus limiting the likely choices of depictions to those relevant to such a setting4.

Third Century depiction of Noah in the Ark
Third Century depiction of Noah in the Ark

Further Developments in Christian Art

Christian art of the third and fourth century is predominately very simple, even primitive. In part, this is because the church of that time was largely composed of members of the lowest classes1. Only more skilled artisans or the rich who could afford finer funerary work could produce finer (and better lasting) works.

However, there are some examples of very fine workmanship from the third century and this increases in number over the course of the fourth and especially the fifth century when Christianity1. Although artforms still remain predominately funerary in nature (for reasons which we will address shortly) they become more complex. Sarcophagi, which could be afforded only by the wealthy, become more abundant, often adorned with elegant engravings of Biblical themes.

Unfortunately, as Christianity entered into a period of Imperial favor, many gravitated toward the faith simply because it had come into fashion. The result was an increasing religious syncretism among those who professed to be Christians which is visible in the artwork of the time.

The sixth century is riddled with images of haloed Saints to be revered above lesser believers, prominent among them are Mary and the Apostle Peter. The wisdom of the early church’s rejection of art finds some support when these images begin to receive a form of worship (“dulia”), which was distinguished as a lesser form of veneration not to be compared to the worship due only God, (“Latria”). Not everyone was quick to accept this “veneration” of images, and so began the Iconoclastic controversies of the seventh to ninth centuries1.

Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, 359A.D.
Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, 359A.D. | Source

The Iconoclastic Controversy

The Iconoclastic Controversy spans two centuries, enveloping the Eastern Roman Empire in schism while the west remained largely uninvolved. The parties were known alternately as the Iconoclasts – those who refused to venerate images to the point of destroying them, and the Iconodules – those who worshiped images of God and the Saints.

For several periods, the Iconoclasts gained power. For this reason, Christian art from before the ninth century is extremely scarce by comparison. Images that the Iconoclasts found, they destroyed in their zeal to reverse the Iconodule trend. This is why even artwork produced after the first few centuries of Roman persecution are still overwhelmingly funerary; many of the Catacombs and more remote monasteries escaped the Iconoclasts reach, leaving them untouched while more public venues were completely defaced4.

Ultimately, however, the Iconodules won out in the east. In 787A.D., a council declared the veneration of images to be acceptable. Although Iconoclasts enjoyed a brief resurgence of power after this Second Council of Nicaea, they were quickly displaced. The Eastern Orthodox Church still celebrates the final restoration of religious Icons in 842A.D. with the “Feast of Orthodoxy.”

In the west, where Latin had become the language of the church, the Greek linguistic distinction between “Latria” and “Dulia” was not well understood. This caused a great deal of suspicion and sympathy for the Iconoclastic view. In the end, however, even the West was swayed enough to bring images into their churches for veneration1.

6th century Icon of the Apostle Peter from the remote Monastery of Saint Catherine, Sinai.
6th century Icon of the Apostle Peter from the remote Monastery of Saint Catherine, Sinai.

Footnotes

* Ecclesia – an assembly of believers, not a set structure for Christian worship. Established churches would not appear till much later.

** "Iesous Xristos Theou Uios Soter"



1. Gonzalez, the Story of Christianity, Vol 1

2. Hurtado, Earliest Christian Artifacts

3. Dr. Allen Farber, https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/medieval-world/early-christian1/a/early-christian-art

4. Lord Richard Harries, Grisham College, The First Christian Art and its Early Developments - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dcQ9NB3D_ho&t=2001s

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