For the first two centuries of Christianity’s existence, the pictorial arts held little interest for the followers of Jesus. Struggling to spread the teachings of Christ, the first Christians were poor, often persecuted, and lacking the patronage needed for the creation of works of art. Perhaps it was inevitable, however, that within a pervasively visual Greco-Roman culture the new religion would come to express its beliefs and stories in pictorial form. Those Christian who were born Jews may have seen pictures representing episodes from the Old Testament painted on the walls of synagogues or perhaps even in illustrated Bibles. Pagan converts to Christianity would have been familiar with an enormous range of images, from the statues that stood in most public places to paintings, mosaics, items of personal adornment, and decorated utensils in everyday use. Eventually all these artistic media would bear Christian themes.
Specifically Christian images first appeared around the year 200, but very little Christian art of the third century survives. What is known of the traces of Christian art follows the dissemination of the faith itself, with important early remains discovered in Syria, not far from the religion’s origins in the Holy Land, and then spreading through Asia Minor, Greece, and on to the capital of Rome. It was in Rome where the religion acquired its wealthiest and most powerful converts and eventually came to the attention of the emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306–337), who embraced the new religion and became its greatest proponent. With the acceptance of Christianity by the Roman aristocracy over the course of the fourth century, immense patronage flowed to the church. The ecclesiastical hierarchy was allowed to erect richly ornamented churches throughout the Roman Empire, and the decoration of these buildings necessitated a new form of Christian art, one that typically communicated complex theological messages.
The present article will discuss the origins of Christian art from the earliest examples in the third century, when the Christians were still a small and sometimes oppressed community, to the end of the fifth century, when the Roman Empire, now entirely converted to Christianity, shifted its political and cultural center eastward to the new capital, Constantinople.
Early Christian Images: Symbols and Exegesis.
Even before Christians created their own pictorial images, at least some theologians were giving thought to the moral problems that the use of images posed. An informative passage addressing such concerns was written around the year 200 by Clement (ca. 150–215), a highly influential theologian who taught at the Catechetical School in Alexandria, Egypt. In a treatise known as the Paedagogus (The Teacher, 3.59.2–3.60.1), which discusses many of the practical and ethical concerns of Christians living among pagans, Clement acknowledges that the use of seal rings was necessary and considers the implications of the images on seals in common use among the pagans. The symbolic meanings of the images were clearly of central concern, specifically that many pagan images were inappropriate and unacceptable for Christian use. He writes:
"And let our seals be either a dove, or a fish, or a ship running with a fair wind, or a musical lyre … or a ship’s anchor … and if the seal is a fisherman, it will recall the apostle, and the children drawn out of the water. For we are not to depict the faces of idols, we who are prohibited from attaching ourselves to them, nor a sword, nor a bow, since we follow peace, nor drinking cups, since we are temperate."
Clement makes clear that the depiction of pagan gods (“idols”) on seals was prohibited. Symbols of violence (sword and bow) were not permitted, and neither were allusions to immoral activities. On the other hand, some traditional images could be chosen and invested with Christian meaning. A dove, a fish, a ship, and a lyre are suggested, although their meanings are not specified. A fisherman can allude to the apostles as “fishers of men” (Mark 1:17). Although no seals of this date can be recognized as belonging to Christians, when they did start to design their own examples a short time later, around the middle of the third century, the seals did indeed bear symbolic images, including the dove, fish, and ship.
Symbolic (or allusive) images are characteristic of early Christian art, with shepherds, doves, and fish particularly popular. Their precise significance cannot always be established, and it is likely that they represented different concepts depending on the circumstances in which they were used. Often symbols had multiple meanings, alluding to Christ himself as well as to the various salvific doctrines of the church. Pictorial symbols thus functioned in a manner similar to Christ’s parables, which Clement himself recognized as requiring interpretation to discover deeper meaning, “For many reasons, then, the Scriptures hide the sense. First, that we may become inquisitive, and be ever on the watch for the discovery of the words of salvation” (Stromata 6.15, trans. William Wilson).
The image of the shepherd, typically shown as youthful and beardless with a lamb borne over his shoulders, had particularly rich associations. Already a popular motif in pagan funerary decoration as an allusion to the idyllic afterlife, to a Christian the shepherd would immediately recall the words of Jesus, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11), as well as the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:4–5). Representing not only Jesus, the shepherd would also symbolize salvation. For this reason the image of the shepherd appears both in funerary contexts and in baptisteries, for the sacrament of baptism brought eternal salvation.
The dove, too, had various meanings, recalling the dove sent by God to Noah as a promise of salvation, as well as the explicit representation of the Holy Spirit that descended on Jesus at his baptism.
The fish is a particularly complex symbol. It had many ancient, pagan associations and also figured in Jewish messianic belief. There are many references in the New Testament to fish. In addition to the apostles as “fishers of men,” Jesus performs the miracle of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fish and commands his disciples to catch the 153 fish (John 21:1–13). The symbol served as a reference to the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist. The fish also referred to Jesus himself through the widespread use of the word ΙΧΘΥΣ, meaning “fish” in Greek but also an acrostic composed of the first letters of the Greek words ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ ΘΕΟΥ ΥΙΟΣ ΣΩΤΗΡ, “Jesus Christ, son of God, savior.”
Early Christian artists not only utilized symbols such as these but also drew on biblical stories to create concisely composed narrative scenes meant not so much to recall the story itself as to serve an allegorical purpose requiring an exegetical interpretation. The most popular of these biblical subjects was the story of the prophet Jonah. Typically the story was shown as a series of images: Jonah thrown from the ship and swallowed by the “great fish” (depicted as the classical sea monster, the ketos), vomited forth by the monster, and reclining under the gourds. The choice of Jonah as a Christian emblem was not only as a symbol of salvation from death but also as a prefiguration (“type”) of Christ. Jesus, aware of his imminent death and resurrection, compared himself to Jonah, “For just as Jonah was for three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth” (Matt 12:38–40).
Also enjoying exceptional popularity in early Christian art were depictions of Daniel in the lion’s den, Noah in the ark, and Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac. All three stories told of rescue from harm and were interpreted by Christian theologians in various ways, not only as symbols of eternal salvation but as types foretelling the Christian sacraments and the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. Daniel’s emergence from the lion’s den was like Christ’s resurrection from the tomb. The Ark symbolized salvation through baptism (already in 1 Peter 3:20–21). Isaac was prepared to sacrifice his life for his father, just as Christ did. The North African theologian Tertullian, writing ca. 200, explicitly makes this comparison, “Isaac, when led by his father as a victim, and himself bearing his own ‘wood,’ was even at that early period pointing to Christ’s death” (Adversos Iudaeos 10, 6, trans. S. Thelwall).
Images such as these, as well as others directly relating to the life and miracles of Jesus, entered the relatively limited repertory of the early Christian artist in the third century. This small selection of abbreviated images was drawn upon, with various juxtapositions of scenes, in a variety of contexts—funerary, ecclesiastical, and private—to communicate the desired theological message. Although there are no extant records of how the images were selected, it seems highly likely that the clergy, skilled in the exegesis of biblical stories in sermons to explain Christian doctrine, directed the artists.
The Third Century: The Earliest Christian Art.
No surviving work of art with Christian imagery, or indeed decorated objects of any kind, dates from before the early third century, and it is unlikely that Christian art existed before this time. By the early third century, however, Christian communities in Syria–Palestine, North Africa, and Rome had attracted converts with sufficient status and wealth to commission artists to decorate property owned both by themselves and by their church communities. Judging from present evidence, the decision to promote Christian imagery took place simultaneously in various communities throughout the Roman Empire. The choice of subject matter, the style of execution, and the types of buildings and objects decorated varied with the geographical area. The long-established Christian communities in the eastern Mediterranean, notably in Syria–Palestine, Egypt, and Asia Minor, have unfortunately left few material remains dating from the third and early fourth centuries, although the rare surviving work suggests that there was indeed a rich pictorial tradition, now almost entirely lost. Traces of this tradition can be found in personal seals, objects of daily use such as decorated clay lamps, and even in rare examples of sculpture.
The single most remarkable discovery was made in the ruins of the garrison town of Dura Europos on the Euphrates River in eastern Syria, on the far eastern border of the Roman Empire. Excavations in the 1920s and 1930s brought to light a city remarkably well preserved thanks to its abandonment following its conquest by the Sasanian Persians in the year 256. In addition to many private houses and public buildings, Dura Europos contained a number of temples dedicated to various gods as well as a Jewish synagogue and a small, private house converted for use as a church and baptistery, indeed the earliest surviving building for Christian use. A number of the temples in Dura Europos, including one dedicated to the Palmyrene gods, a Mithraeum, and the Jewish synagogue were decorated with frescoes depicting religious images. The synagogue was a startling find, with its entire interior richly decorated with colorful frescoes of biblical scenes; the existence of such a sophisticated pictorial tradition had not been suspected by scholars before the discovery. Clearly this Jewish tradition had a profound influence on the beginnings of Christian art.
The house church in Dura Europos also was decorated with frescoes, although they are quite crude in comparison with those in the synagogue. The images, however, were chosen with care, even if the specific significance is not always certain. The Good Shepherd and his flock were painted in the area over the baptismal font, a suitable image in view of the use of Psalm 23 in baptismal liturgy. The other walls depict scenes from the life and miracles of Christ, including Jesus and Peter walking on water, the healing of the Paralytic, the Samaritan Woman at the well, and the women at the tomb of Christ, as well as smaller figures of David and Goliath and Adam and Eve from the Old Testament. The range of imagery taken from the New Testament at this relatively early date is notable. The extent of the New Testament pictorial cycle in the early third century remains uncertain but may well have been far more varied than what is known from the extant finds.
Further evidence for the variety of Christian imagery in the third century comes from objects in private use. There are a number of engraved gems that served as personal seals, just as Clement had mentioned, most of which appear to have been used in Syria and Asia Minor. Images were typically symbolic, with the fish, the Good Shepherd, and the literary symbols of the chi-rho monogram (denoting Christos, “Christ”) and the acrostic ΙΧΘΥΣ being the most popular. Other biblical scenes, however, were also used, including the Jonah cycle, the sacrifice of Isaac, and Daniel in the lion’s den. New Testament scenes were less common, although examples are known of the baptism of Christ and the raising of Lazarus. There are also several gems depicting the Crucifixion, a scene that, despite its central importance to Christianity and its popularity in later centuries, survives in very few examples before the sixth century, the reason for which is still puzzling to scholars.
A group of finely carved marble sculptures depicting the story of Jonah, thought to be from southwest Asia Minor (now in the Cleveland Museum of Art) proves that wealthy Christians were commissioning works of art of considerable quality for private use by the later third century (ca. 280–290). They were found with marble portrait busts of a married couple, no doubt the owners of the statues. Very few other marble sculptures with Christian images are known from such an early date, but they may well have been more common than the surviving evidence suggests.
Some of the earliest and most accomplished Christian images were produced in Rome. A clay lamp with mold-made relief decoration (now in Berlin) bearing the stamp of the Florentius workshop, which manufactured many lamps with various pagan images in the early third century, also produced an example decorated with the Good Shepherd surrounded by small depictions of Noah’s Ark and Jonah. Although a modest item, the pictorial composition is relatively complex and shows that a range of biblical images was available by the beginning of the third century.
The best preserved and most elaborately decorated early Christian monuments in Rome are the numerous underground burial chambers, known as catacombs, that the church began to acquire at some point around the end of the second century. The Christian theologian Hippolytus (170–235) records that one such cemetery was administered by the deacon Callixtus, who later would become pope (217–222). The so-called Catacomb of Callixtus on the Via Appia, southeast of Rome, is one of the earliest of the numerous catacombs around Rome to be decorated with frescoes on the walls and ceilings, beginning around the middle of the third century. The paintings are executed in a traditional pagan style, on a white ground divided into panels by red lines, but the images themselves are Christian: the story of Jonah shown as a series of episodes along one wall; Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac nearby; the baptism of Jesus, miracle scenes, and a fisherman on another wall; and the Good Shepherd in the domed ceiling.
By the last decade of the fourth century wealthy Christians in Rome began to commission marble sarcophagi with carved pictorial decoration, a pagan custom, but rather than displaying traditional funerary or mythological scenes, abbreviated biblical images, similar to those painted in the catacombs, were chosen. In a manner similar to that of the contemporary frescoes, these images were often juxtaposed. For example, a sarcophagus of ca. 290 in Santa Maria Antiqua shows the deceased woman standing in a gesture of prayer accompanied by the Good Shepherd and scenes of Jonah and the baptism of Jesus. Another sarcophagus of the same date from Velletri similarly shows the deceased in a gesture of prayer between two shepherds, while around her are smaller images of Adam and Eve, Noah, Jonah, Daniel, and the miracle of the multiplication of loaves. The repertoire of images served to communicate the message of salvation after death.
The Fourth Century: Rome.
Although by the end of the third century Christianity had attracted large numbers of converts, including many wealthy individuals, the religion was still often oppressed. All changed, however, when the emperor Constantine experienced a vision of the Christian God, whom he believed brought him victory over his rival Maxentius in 312. The following year Constantine issued the Edict of Milan granting Christians religious liberty, and the emperor’s continuing devotion to Christianity led to his sponsoring a remarkable program of building luxurious churches, basilicas, and pilgrimage complexes. Saint Peter’s, San Paolo fuori le Mura, the basilica of Saint John Lateran, and several other churches in Rome were all founded in the time of Constantine. The emperor also built the extensive complex of churches in Jerusalem, which became renowned centers of pilgrimage. Unfortunately, few of these monuments survive today in their original form, and almost nothing of their original decoration is preserved. There are, however, some remarkable survivals dating from the fourth century, including the enormous mosaic floor of the basilica in Aquileia in northern Italy, which admits a small depiction of Jonah within a vast seascape populated by fish and cupids, and the mosaic floor of an aristocratic villa in Hinton St. Mary, England, which displays a prominent bust of Christ against a background of traditional pagan hunting scenes and floral decoration.
One important mid-fourth-century building in Rome does preserve parts of its original mosaic ceiling decoration, the circular church of Santa Costanza in Rome, which was originally constructed as a mausoleum for Constantine’s daughter Constantina, who died in 354. The mosaics on the ceiling of the ambulatory show an ornate composition of geometric patterns, foliage, birds, heads, vases and other objects, along with cupids harvesting grapes and making wine; the image may have been intended to represent a heavenly pastoral scene, but there is no explicitly Christian reference. There are, however, two apses in the mausoleum with new Christian images. One apse shows a youthful Christ standing in heaven presenting a scroll inscribed Dominus legem dat (“The Lord conveys the Law”) to Peter, with Paul standing on the other side. This composition, known as the Traditio Legis, became an especially important symbol for the church, representing the passing of Christ’s authority to Peter, the first bishop of Rome, and thus the Church of Rome’s perpetual authority. The other apse depicts a related scene, Christ seated on a celestial globe presenting the keys of the kingdom of heaven to Peter (Matt 16:18–19). The decoration of the ceiling dome of Santa Costanza is now destroyed, but it was still partly preserved as late as the eighteenth century. A watercolor by Francesco d’Ollanda of 1538 shows an ornate scene of cupids fishing before floral columns interspersed with unusual biblical and apocryphal scenes, including Tobias with the fish, Rahab receiving Joshua’s spies (Josh 2:1–5), Susannah and the Elders before Daniel, and the offerings of Cain and Abel (Gen 4:1–5). Clearly a very extensive cycle of biblical images was available to the mid-fourth-century artist, from which a sophisticated theological message was constructed, unfortunately now incomplete and unintelligible.
Most paintings in the Roman catacombs date from the fourth century, and these show a change in both style and iconography from the frescoes of the third century. The early fourth-century frescoes in the Catacomb of Priscilla on the Via Salaria generally continued the imagery of the third century in its choice of the Good Shepherd, Jonah, and depictions of the miracles of Jesus, but new themes were added, including Noah in the ark, the Three Hebrews in the fiery furnace, and the earliest representations of the Virgin and Child and the Adoration. In addition, there is an image of Susannah and the Elders, from the apocryphal book of Daniel. Many of the other catacombs admit the new compositions that originated in church decoration, such as Christ enthroned among the apostles (in the Catacomb of Domitilla), the meeting of Peter and Paul in Rome (in the “ex Vigna Chiaravigilo” catacomb), and portraits of martyred bishops (for which see below).
The new monumental images were soon used to decorate a variety of objects for Christian use in the fourth century. Christ presenting the law to Peter before Paul (Traditio Legis), for example, not only appeared in the apses of churches but also on marble sarcophagi, on silver vessels for use in church (a few of which dating from the late fourth century survive), and finely engraved in gold in the central tondos of sandwich glass dishes (known as “gold glass”), a distinctive luxury item produced in Rome in the fourth century. Sarcophagi became ever more elaborate over the course of the fourth century, with a greater range of biblical scenes often crowded with figures, such as the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, multiple scenes of Christ’s miracles, episodes from the Passion, and Christ with apostles. Often Old and New Testament scenes were paired for exegetical purposes to show that many Old Testament figures prefigured the coming of Jesus. The major workshop for the sarcophagi was in Rome, which also exported works to other parts of the empire, including Gaul (notably Arles) and North Africa. The many fragments of gold glass dishes with Christian scenes, including Jonah, Daniel, Adam and Eve, the Good Shepherd, and the miracles of Christ, have been preserved primarily because the broken bases were frequently stuck into the plaster walls of the catacombs to mark specific graves.
Gold and silver objects, not only liturgical vessels but also candelabra and even life size figures, decorated churches, but nothing survives aside from some ewers ornamented with Peter, Paul, and other figures (church silver is better attested in the sixth century). Imperial and aristocratic donations to the church were of particular importance. The Liber Pontificalis, compiled in the sixth century, lists the immense number and variety of gold and silver objects dedicated by Emperor Constantine in the newly constructed churches of Rome. Patens, chalices, hanging lamps, candelabra, and even silver altars were presented to various churches. An enormous gold cross weighing 150 pounds bearing a dedicatory inscription from the emperor was displayed in St. Peter’s over the tomb of the apostle; it is the first recorded use of the cross as a Christian pictorial image. The basilica of Saint John Lateran received truly extraordinary items, including an architectural structure (fastigium) of silver weighing over two thousand pounds that stood before the altar. The structure was decorated with life-size figures of an enthroned Christ flanked by angels on one side and Christ with the apostles on the other. Also in the basilica stood a porphyry font fed by seven silver stags beside which stood life-size silver figures of Christ and John the Baptist flanking a lamb of gold. Such riches very likely did exist, but it is difficult to imagine their appearance. The church historian Eusebius reports that Constantine also decorated the fountains of Constantinople with gilt-bronze statues of Daniel and the Good Shepherd, but nothing like them has been discovered.
The Cult of Saints in Early Christian Art.
The reverence for those killed for their Christian faith was already an important aspect of religious expression in the early third century, but the fourth century saw an intensification of the cult, with the collection of physical remains (relics) and the promotion of tombs as places of pilgrimage. The creation of pictorial images, including portraits of the saints and narrative cycles illustrating their deeds, began at this time and continued for over a millennium. The remains of the martyred bishops of Rome were deposited in various catacombs, which were decorated with frescoes typically showing the saints standing side by side. Although no longer extant, the tomb of the influential presbyter Hippolytus (martyred in 236) was described by the writer Prudentius around the year 400 as being decorated with paintings depicting his martyrdom. He may also appear standing alongside the sainted bishops Sixtus (d. 258) and Liberius (d. 366) in a damaged late-fourth-century fresco in the Catacomb of Praetextatus in Rome. Many of the martyred bishops of Rome are also depicted on gold glass of the fourth century.
Relics were actively sought and placed in containers (reliquaries) of gold, silver, and ivory often decorated with portraits of the saints in the company of Christ, Peter, and Paul. The reliquaries were typically buried under the altars of churches, and a good number dating from the fourth and fifth centuries have been recovered in modern times (notably at Carthage, Rome, Grado, Pula, Thessalonica, and Sofia, but elsewhere as well). A large silver reliquary chest dating from the end of the fourth century from the church of San Nazaro in Milan is notable for its exceptional style and unusual compositions, which include an enthroned Christ, unconventional representations of the Adoration and the Three Hebrews in the fiery furnace, and a Judgment of Solomon. A few carved ivory reliquaries also survive, including a large chest in Venice (from Samagher, near Pula) dating from the mid-fifth century, which on one side depicts St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome with saints standing before it. An extraordinarily fine ivory chest in Brescia composed of multiple carved panels in various sizes combines an unusual selection of scenes from the Old Testament (the story of Jacob, Moses on Mt. Sinai, the worship of the Golden Calf, David and Goliath, Jonah, Daniel, and Susannah, among others) with representation of Christ’s miracles, episodes from the Passion (but not the Crucifixion itself), and several scenes from the Acts of the Apostles. The exegetical intent was very complex and not entirely intelligible today. Two groups of carved ivory panels, likely parts of a larger cycle of images dating from the early fifth century are in the British Museum. The four so-called Maskell Ivories are of superb workmanship and portray images of the Passion and Resurrection, including one of the earliest representations of the Crucifixion. Three other small ivory plaques unusually depict scenes from the Acts of the Apostles and apocrypha (Peter raising Tabitha, Peter striking water from the rock in the Mamertine prison, and Paul with Thekla).
The Fifth Century to the Fall of Rome.
The late fourth and early fifth centuries saw the ever more elaborate decoration of churches in Rome and throughout the empire, with more imposing imagery glorifying Christ, saints, and the church itself. The superb mosaic apse of the church of Santa Pudenziana of ca. 400 shows a powerful, bearded Christ with gold nimbus seated on a jeweled throne in the Heavenly City, flanked by apostles and saints. A majestic jeweled cross rises above. Grand heavenly images representing the Trinity and the Last Judgment are known to have been pictured in the apses of churches, such as those at Nola and Fundi in southern Italy, described in the late fourth century by the bishop Paulinus, but they do not survive.
The basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome contains extensive mosaic decoration completed under Pope Sixtus III (432–440). Along either side of the long nave are brightly colored and densely composed mosaic panels with episodes from the Old Testament stories of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and Joshua. The narrative cycle is unparalleled in other works of the period and recalls the compositions in illustrated Bibles of much later date. The mosaics in the nave lead to the large apsidal arch, which is decorated with registers of figural mosaics showing scenes from the infancy of Christ in rich and sometimes unconventional detail. Around this time, the two other great basilicas in Rome, Saint Peter’s and San Paolo fuori le mura, were similarly decorated with painted panels in the nave contrasting Old Testament scenes of Moses and Aaron with episodes from the life of Peter and Paul. Unfortunately, these paintings do not survive.
Local saints figure prominently in the mosaic decoration of the early-fifth-century church of Sant’Ambrogio in Milan, where standing figures of Ambrose, Nabor, and Victor are all pictured. As Ravenna became an important imperial city in the mid-fifth century, many new churches were established. The Orthodox Baptistery, completed after 458, has a spectacular mosaic in the dome depicting the baptism of Jesus ringed by standing figures of the apostles. The mausoleum of Empress Galla Placidia, erected ca. 450, also contains fine mosaics, including an image of Saint Lawrence and another of Christ as shepherd.
In the northern Greek city of Thessalonica, a round imperial building of the early fourth century was converted to the church of Saint George around the year 400. Although the interior decoration is poorly preserved, in the dome there are areas of sparkling golden mosaic of superb quality depicting a heavenly city in which stand various saints, including Porphyrius, Onesiphorus, and Damian. In the same city, the later fifth-century church of Hosios David displays in its apse another grand image of complex meaning. Christ in glory is accompanied by an angel and two prophets, Ezekiel and Habakkuk (or perhaps Zechariah), who had experienced theophanies; the composition anticipates later Byzantine works. Unfortunately, nothing of the mosaic decoration of the many churches in Constantinople survives from this date, only the later renovations made by Emperor Justinian in the sixth century and his successors over many further centuries.
Other works of the fifth century are relatively rare. Marble sculpture certainly decorated churches by the fifth century, if not earlier, but little survives. Several impressively carved busts of evangelists of mid-fifth-century date have been found in Constantinople, as well as marble capitals decorated with biblical scenes. Marble sarcophagi continued to be produced, although far fewer in Rome. An important workshop in Ravenna, however, carved large sarcophagi of exceptional quality for aristocratic clients. Sarcophagi were also made in Constantinople at this time, typically decorated with large standing figures of Christ and apostles.
Some of the finest and iconographically most complex works of art were the carved ivory diptychs, pyxides, and book covers produced in imperial workshops in the fifth century, continuing the tradition already begun in the fourth century as attested by the superb ivory reliquaries, such as the chest in Brescia. Ivory diptychs (writing tablets) were presented as gifts by the emperor, consuls, and other high officials on ceremonial occasions. Most of these ivories were secular in nature, usually depicting the donor in his official role, but some examples were carved with religious imagery of considerable sophistication. A panel in Munich depicts the Resurrection, with the women before the tomb and Christ ascending to heaven as if stepping up a hill, assisted by the hand of God. A similar panel from a diptych is in Castello Sforzesco in Milan, showing a highly detailed rendering of the Holy Sepulcher before which the women kneel before an angel.
Perhaps the most remarkable composition is the beautifully carved diptych in Florence that shows on one side Adam seated in Paradise naming the animals that surround him (Gen 2:19–20), while on the other panel are three episodes related to the ministry of Paul, taken from the Acts of the Apostles. The juxtaposition probably derives from contemporary sermons that described Adam as a symbol of man’s spiritual knowledge while still in paradise and comparing him to Paul as the virtuous, spiritual man, protected from sin and harm by his faith in Christ.
Also deriving from an imperial workshop, perhaps in Milan or Ravenna, is the superb set of book covers, presumably for a luxurious edition of the Gospels, dating from the later fifth century and now preserved in the Cathedral Treasury in Milan. Each cover is composed of five carved panels, depicting on the front cover mostly scenes from the infancy of Christ, including some drawn from apocryphal sources, and on the back cover Christ’s miracles. The central panels on both front and back are ornamented with silver-gilt cells inlaid with gems in the shape of the Lamb of God on the front and the Heavenly Cross on the back. The selection of scenes recalls the decoration of contemporary churches, notably in Ravenna. The same workshops that produced ivories for imperial patrons likely also carved the wood doors with panels depicting Old and New Testament scenes for churches in Milan and Rome, the best preserved being those in the church of Santa Sabina in Rome.
By the end of the fifth century, the Western Empire was abandoned to Gothic rule, and the Roman Empire was centered in Constantinople, although some cities in Italy, most importantly Ravenna, continued to have an important imperial presence. The wealth of Constantinople, however, was considerable, and imperial patronage of the church, notably under Emperor Justinian (527–565), produced a new style of church construction and decoration, as well as for imperial ivory carving, silver plate, and book illustration.
Illustrated Bibles and Gospel Books.
There is considerable scholarly debate regarding the origins and development of illustrated Bibles. Literary sources are silent on the subject, and there are very few surviving examples, all of which are fragmentary. Only two books date as early as the fifth century, while other comparable illustrated works belong to the sixth century. No two books are similar enough to suggest a common prototype, yet the sophisticated compositions found in many of the manuscripts must have originated in earlier works.
The most richly decorated of these works is the late fifth-century book of Genesis known as the Cotton Genesis, now in the British Library. Intact until 1731 when it was tragically reduced to fragments in a fire, the work originally had more than 200 leaves with around 350 framed illustrations. The densely populated compositions follow the biblical narrative closely, although admitting some Christian (and perhaps Jewish) exegetical details. The other fifth-century work is the so-called Quedlinburg Itala, now in the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, a poorly preserved fragment of a book of Kings written in Old Latin consisting of only five leaves, four of which are illustrated. The narrative scenes appear on full pages within frames, some pages with four scenes and others with two. Based on what is preserved, it is estimated that the full book of Kings would have had around 200 folios with 60 pages of illustrations. Stylistically, the book is related to both the illustrated Vatican Vergil and the mosaics in the nave of Santa Maria Maggiore, suggesting a date in the 430s and an origin in Rome.
Comparisons can be made to three ornately decorated Bibles of the sixth century, which are thought to be products of imperial scriptoria in Constantinople or perhaps in Syria–Palestine. The Bibles are written in silver and gold ink on purple-dyed vellum and have brightly colored illustrations on the same pages as the biblical text. The Vienna Genesis is the best preserved with 24 leaves (about a quarter of the original book) with 48 images, which are always placed at the bottom of the page. The text of Genesis is sometimes abbreviated to make room for the pictures. Although the illustrations are highly narrative in composition, they generally differ from those in the Cotton Genesis. The Rossano Gospels contains all of Matthew and all but the last page of Mark, 188 folios with 12 illustrated pages plus the portrait of the evangelist Mark.
Unlike the illustrations in the Cotton and Vienna Genesis, these illustration are not merely narrative. They depict parables and specific events in Matthew, labeled in the headings, accompanied by portraits of various prophets holding texts that serve an exegetical purpose. The very fragmentary Sinope Gospels, in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, consisting of only 43 folios of Matthew with five illustrated pages, is very similar in style and composition to the Rossano Gospels.
How to interpret these very fragmentary illustrated Bibles has long been controversial. The highly influential art historian Kurt Weitzmann argued in a number of studies that prototypes of complete illustrated Bibles of various types (Septuagint, Genesis, Octateuch, Gospel books) can be reconstructed from later illustrations in Byzantine and Western medieval illuminated Bibles, as well as medieval carved ivories. He explicitly compared his method to that of the reconstruction of ancient literary texts by comparing later manuscripts and the steps of their transmission (stemmata). Weitzman and others have noted that many of the compositions in the illustrated Bibles of the fifth and sixth centuries are strikingly similar in composition to those in later medieval depictions, indicating some degree of continuity in usage. Similarities to some pictures in the Roman catacombs are also notable, suggesting that illustrated Bibles already existed in the third century. Furthermore, the frescoes in the third-century synagogue at Dura Europos find many parallels in medieval works, pointing to Jewish prototypes that, according to Weitzmann, could be as early as the Hellenistic period (second to first centuries B.C.E.). Recent scholarship, however, has noted that the style and many details of the surviving illustrated Bibles do not date before the fifth century and that the numerous differences between manuscripts do not allow for the identification of prototypes. Nevertheless, the similarity of many biblical images, some of quite complex composition, over centuries is often very clear, and illustrated Bibles remain the best explanation for their transmission.
- Spier, Jeffrey. Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007. This exhibition catalog provides illustrations of most of the works of art cited in this article, as well as further bibliography and discussion. In addition, there are essays on Jewish art (Steven Fine), the emergence of Christian art (Mary Charles-Murray and Robin M. Jensen), Constantine and Christian art (Johannes G. Deckers), church decoration (Herbert L. Kessler), and illustrated Bibles (Kessler).
Early Christian Images: Symbols and Exegesis
- Bernabò, Massimo. Pseudepigraphical Images in Early Art. North Richland Hills, Tex.: BIBAL Press, 2001. A brief study of images derived from pseudepigraphical books, which have been much neglected.
- Bisconti, Fabrizio, ed. Temi di iconografia paleocristiana. Vatican City: Pontificio Istituto di Archeologia Cristiana, 2000. An excellent and well-illustrated encyclopedia of early Christian iconography.
- Cartlidge, David R., and J. Keith Elliott. Art and the Christian Apocrypha. London: Routledge, 2001. A good general study of images derived from Christian apocryphal books.
- Finney, Paul Corby. The Invisible God. The Earliest Christians on Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. An interesting discussion of the emergence of the earliest Christian art, notably the frescoes in the Catacomb of Callixtus.
- Garbar, André. Christian Iconography. A Study of Its Origins. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968. A careful iconographical study of early Christian art, noting both its debt to pagan models and the introduction of dogmatic content.
- Jensen, Robin Margaret. Understanding Early Christian Art. London: Routledge, 2000. A study of the exegetical significance of early Christian art.
- Mathews, Thomas. The Clash of Gods. A Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. A revisionist interpretation of early Christian iconography, concentrating on the significance of the various images of Jesus. See the review by Peter Brown, Art Bulletin 77, no. 3 (1995): 499–502.
The Third Century: The Earliest Christian Art
- Fiocchi, Nicolai Vincenzo, Fabrizio Bisconti, and Danilo Mazzoleni. The Christian Catacombs of Rome. History, Decoration, Inscriptions. Regensburg, Germany: Schnell & Steiner, 1999. An excellent survey of the Roman catacombs.
- Kraeling, Carl H. The Excavations of Dura-Europos. Final Report VIII, Part II, The Christian Building. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1967. The original publication of the Christian house church at Dura Europos, with excellent commentary on the images.
- Weitzmann, Kurt, and Herbert L. Kessler. The Frescoes of the Dura Synagogue and Christian Art. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1990. A careful study of the images in the synagogue of Dura Europos and their relation to later Christian art.
- Wilpert, Giuseppe. Roma Sotterranea. Le pitture delle catacombe romane. Rome: Desclée, Lefebvre, 1903. This volume contains superb color reproductions of the catacomb frescoes.
- Zimmermann, Norbert. Werkstattgruppen römischer Katakombenmalerei. Münster, Germany: Aschendorff, 2002. An important study of the catacomb paintings in Rome, which identifies individual workshops and establishes a firmer chronology.
Early Christian Seals
- Spier, Jeffrey. Late Antique and Early Christian Gems. Wiesbaden, Germany: Reichert, 2006. An illustrated corpus of the surviving material, from the third to the seventh century.
Early Christian Sarcophagi
- Koch, Guntram. Frühchristliche Sarkophage. Munich: C. H. Beck, 2000. A well-illustrated survey of early Christian sarcophagi from all parts of the Empire.
- Repertorium der christlich-antiken Sarkophage. 1. Bd., Rom und Ostia. Giuseppe Bovini and Hugo Brandenburg. Wiesbaden, Germany: Franz Steiner, 1967. 2 Bd., Italien mit einem Nachtrag Rom und Ostia, Dalmatien, Museen der Welt. Jutta Dresken-Weiland. Mainz, Germany: Philipp von Zabern, 1998. 3 Bd., Frankreich, Algerien, Tunesien. Brigitte Christern-Briesenick. Mainz, Germany: Philipp von Zabern, 2003. This series illustrates all the sarcophagi from Italy, France, Germany, and North Africa, with good commentary.
The Fourth Century: Rome
- Brandenburg, Hugo. Ancient Churches of Rome from the Fourth to the Seventh Century. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2005. A very good survey of the churches of Rome.
- Morey, C. R. Catalogo del Museo Sacro. Vol. 4: The Gold-Glass Collection of the Vatican Library. Vatican City: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 1959. An illustrated corpus of the surviving examples of gold glass.
- Volbach, Wolfgang Fritz. Elfenbeinarbeiten der Spätantike und des frühen Mittelalters. 3d ed. Mainz, Germany: Philipp von Zabern, 1976. An illustrated corpus of carved ivory diptychs, pyxides, and other objects dating from the fourth to the sixth centuries.
The Cult of Saints in Early Christian Art
- Buschhausen, Helmut. Die spätrömischen Metallscrinia und frühchristlichen Reliquiare. Vienna: Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1971. A useful corpus of reliquaries.
- Grig, Lucy. “Portraits, Pontiffs and the Christianization of Fourth-Century Rome.” Papers of the British School at Rome 72 (2004): 203–230. A study of portraits of Roman saints, including their appearance on gold glass.
- Noga-Banit, Galit. The Trophies of the Martyrs: An Art Historical Study of Early Christian Silver Reliquaries. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. A study of the iconography of some early Christian reliquaries.
The Fifth Century to the Fall of Rome
- Brenk, Beat. Die frühchristlichen Mosaiken in S. Maria Maggiore zu Rom. Wiesbaden, Germany: Franz Steiner, 1975. A superb study of the mosaics in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.
Illustrated Bibles and Gospel Books
- Lowden, John. “The Beginnings of Biblical Illustration.” In Imaging the Early Medieval Bible, edited by John Williams, pp. 9–59. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999. A concise but very informative review of the surviving illustrated Bibles, emphasizing the diversity of the material.
- Sörries, Reiner. Christlich-antike Buchmalerei im Überblich. Wiesbaden, Germany: Reichert, 1993. A useful compilation of photos of all the surviving early bibles with illustrations.
- Weitzmann, Kurt. Illustrations in Roll and Codex: A Study of the Origin and Method of Text Illustration. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971. First published 1947. The fundamental statement of Weitzmann’s method of reconstructing prototypical illustrated books from later survivals.
- Weitzmann, Kurt, and Herbert L. Kessler. The Cotton Genesis: British Library Codex Cotton Otho B.VI. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986. A detailed analysis of the Cotton Genesis with iconographical comparisons to later material.