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Material Culture, Early Church

Oxford Encyclopedias of the Bible What is This? Provides accessible, authoritative coverage for all major topics pertaining to the Bible and the study of the Bible.

Material Culture, Early Church

The letters of Paul from the first century mention several women such as Prisca and Phoebe, leading to an argument that women possibly had some type of leadership role in the earliest Christian communities. Later texts suggest less of an egalitarian leadership structure as early Christianity progressed. But recovered evidence reveals that women are featured in the earliest Christian art from its inception, suggesting that early Christian communities valued women as members and possibly as leaders. This reality can be seen in the subject matter that early Christians chose to depict, subjects that included females from scripture such as Susanna and the women at the well, and non-scriptural images such as the orant. This entry will describe these depictions as part of the larger whole of the emergence of early Christian art that focused on the theme of miracles portrayed in a funerary environment.

Early Christian Attitudes toward Visual Culture

The second century C.E. non-canonical text Acts of John boasts a scene describing an early Christian reaction to visual culture. The narrative portrays the apostle John performing a miracle involving the raising of the dead. As a gift to reward the apostle, the “patient,” Lycomedes, sought to commemorate the apostle by having an artist paint John’s likeness. Lycomedes received the portrait and “crowned it with garlands” and had “lamps and altars set before it” (Acts of John, 27). John saw the portrait and first reacted with wonder since he “had never at any time seen his own face.” But he excoriated Lycomedes for the creation of the portrait claiming that human souls under the care of Christ are “painted” with more tangible colors of human emotion. What Lycomedes commissioned is “childish and imperfect: thou has drawn a dead likeness of the dead” (Acts of John, 29).

Such a text neatly outlines the dilemma early Christians faced with the creation of a Christian material and visual culture. While John subtly admires his portrait, he believes Lycomedes is guilty of the Roman cultic practice of icon veneration, as Lycomedes decorating the image with garlands and worshipping it in the private sphere. Thus the artwork must be condemned as un-Christian. However, Lycomedes’ first inclination to honor John is to create a portrait, to preserve his likeness in art, and to have a visual reminder of the miracles the apostle wrought.

The Acts of John is but one early Christian text that notes the growing pains early Christians faced with the development of an artistic language. Early Christians were visually oriented, just like their non-Christian neighbors that included Roman religionists and late antique Jews. To artistically depict their faith in narrative or non-narrative art was a logical desire since it was visibly apparent in urban areas of the Empire. What seems clear in the Acts of John is the adaptation early Christians employed in creating their visual culture. Roman religious art, imperial monuments, domestic iconography, and Jewish synagogue art all had a great influence on the “birth” of Christian material culture.

The “birth” of Christian material culture cannot be pinpointed to a specific moment in time, and at different moments its creation was purposefully restrained due to perceived non-Christian influences as evidenced by the Acts of Johnx. The second-century bishop Clement of Alexandria, like other early church authors, discovered in his fellow Christians a pervasive desire to create images, and this desire forced him to police the practice. In a text instructing his flock, Clement urged his audience to utilize certain types of symbols but some subject matter was to be avoided. Clement granted the use of peaceful symbols such as doves, but images of weapons were forbidden. For Clement, if early Christians were going to create imagery, they should be cautious, and the nascent church should have some element of control over the practice.

From the start Christians found value in creating material culture. Early Christians were interested in visualizing their faith without the endorsement of the clergy, and, debatably, an insistence on patriarchy. Early Christians understood how the visual medium could convey deeper theological truths concerning their religion.

Females in Funerary Art in the Early to Mid-Third Century

The earliest recovered evidence of Christian art is from the third century C.E. That is not to say that early Christians were not creating art prior to the third century, since our texts indicate they likely were. But in this century early Christians were more organized and programmatic in the development of their visual language.

The visual lexicon that exists reveals that early Christian art is funerary art. Early Christians were active in creating art and material culture in a funerary environment, art where the dead are buried. The catacombs outside Rome and Naples feature niches where the dead were inhumed, and also include ornate wall paintings. Also, many carvings on sarcophagi frontals have been preserved, many of which now reside in the Vatican Museum.

The fact that early Christians developed their artistic ability in a funerary environment is not surprising given the historical context of the Empire in late antiquity and the influences early Christians would no doubt have in a polytheistic environment. The practice of decorating tombs and tumuli was well established by the Etruscans and later the Romans. The Roman practice of “dining with the dead,” sharing meals on special occasions in the tomb undoubtedly influenced early Christians and the meal practices that took place in funerary environments. Naturally, early Christians would decorate these spaces, or commission carvings upon the sarcophagus of the inhumed.

Christians would employ narrative art from scripture and some non-narrative art in the form of symbols as they created their visual culture. At the earliest recovered house church in Dura-Europos, Syria that dates from the mid-third century, scenes from scripture such as the healing of the paralytic are featured, as well as scenes of women. Now housed in the Yale Art Gallery, one wall depicts a procession of women possibly insinuating a marriage procession emphasizing a spiritual marriage with Christ. On another wall painting, the scene from scripture of the Samaritan woman drawing water from a well is depicted; however recent scholars argue whether this particular image could be the earliest image of Mary. Images of Mary are exceedingly rare in early Christian art. Mary and Marian devotion did not progress until after the Council of Ephesus in 431 that declared Mary the theotokos (god-bearer). Following this council the first church dedicated to Mary and featuring her in mosaic art appeared in Rome, named Santa Maria Maggiore. Whether Mary is depicted at Dura or not, the evidence at Dura-Europos reveals the natural proclivity to feature women in an early Christian visual language, and shows that it was not gender exclusive.

As most of the development of early Christian art took place in a funerary atmosphere, women are depicted in catacomb art and on funerary sarcophagi. On several occasions, Susanna, the character from the additional chapter to Daniel, appears. In a funerary setting, Susanna’s rescue coincides with a general theme of resurrection as early Christians likely read her story as a type of Christ. Moreover, Susanna’s depiction in these early scenes is with both hands upraised nearly above her head. Other examples of art from this era depict female and male characters with their hands in this position. This character is known as the orant, and the hands indicate the character is in the act of prayer. There are precedents for this mode of depiction in Roman art; however in a Christian funerary setting, the image takes on the additional emphasis of resurrection. Pre-Christian martyrs such as the three youths in the fiery furnace are depicted as orant, and at the catacomb of Priscilla in Rome, a central female figure is depicted as an orant. Early Christian authors would compare the lifting of the orants’ hands to the ascendancy of the spirit in death. What is striking in the recovered evidence is the inclusion of female figures, perhaps mirroring a more egalitarian audience.

Females in Funerary Art in the Late Third to Fifth Centuries

As the third century progressed, one theme becomes predominant: the miracles and healings of Jesus. Scenes of Jesus performing healings and miracles were the foremost motif in Christian art from the third into the fifth century. Examples of this in early Christian art included the healing of the blind, the healing of the woman with the issue of blood, and the raising of the dead in multiple instances, sometimes on the same sarcophagus frontal as on the sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus in Rome (Figure 1). Images of Jesus performing miracles of nature, such as the division of loaves or the wedding at Cana, are also portrayed in early Christian art.

Material Culture, Early Church

Image 1 Sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus, 330–340 C.E., Rome, Museo Nazionale Romano

(Photo: Lee M. Jefferson)

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There are three prominent reasons to explain the consistent appearance of miracle scenes in the visual record. First, the healing miracles of Jesus speak to the sincere desire to portray and advocate Jesus as the supreme healer. Not only would portraying Jesus as a healer have a strong resonance among Christians where health in a late antique imperial context is of utmost importance, and the healing Jesus provides is greater than any worldly doctor. But such an ardent effort to portray Jesus as the supreme healer may speak to competition with Roman physicians and with religious healing, namely healing cults such as the cult of Asclepius.

Second, the scenes of Jesus raising the dead obviously emphasize the suitable theme of resurrection in a funerary context, and their appearance also suggests a rivalry with competing gods like Asclepius. In the catacomb wall paintings and on sarcophagi frontals, Jesus is often depicted raising the dead to life (Figure 1). These scenes include examples from scripture such as the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the raising of the widow’s son at Nain, and the raising of Lazarus. The image of Jesus raising the dead exemplifies him as a greater healer than any rival including Asclepius since Jesus needs no authority from Zeus or God to perform the miracle. Jesus raising the dead successfully shows Jesus as a greater healer and miracle worker than any competitor in late antiquity. Moreover, an image of Jesus raising the dead in a funerary context would certainly signal life everlasting for the dead and for survivors of the dead who are visiting the tomb.

Finally, the appearance of Jesus performing healings and miracles in early Christian art shows him as a healer of both men and women. Jesus heals the paralytic and the women with the issue of blood alike. The scene of the woman with the issue of blood stands out in that in text and art it is the woman who touches Jesus rather then Jesus touching the patient. The woman takes agency over her health, and Jesus provides a miracle on the basis of her faith. This choice of image possibly speaks to the desire to have both sexes involved as a recipient of the healing power of Jesus. Further, on the sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus, the orant appears in the center of the carved images with hands upraised, and on the far right end the raising of Lazarus is depicted. While Jesus touches the burial house of Lazarus with his staff, a woman kneels before Jesus’ feet. This woman could be either Mary or Martha, the sisters of Lazarus; it is impossible to determine a definitive identification. But an identification of Martha is compelling, as in the Johannine text Martha is the one who realizes Jesus’ special nature after Jesus tells her he is the “resurrection and the life” (John 11:27). Including Martha in this scene is apt, as the female character is the one who acknowledges the true power Jesus holds over life and death.

Females in Christian Art after the Fifth Century

Following the fifth century, the emphasis on portraying Jesus as a miracle worker in Christian material culture began to decline. With this decline came dissipation in featuring female characters in early Christian art. The appearance of the female orant fades as well as Susanna, Martha, and the woman at the well. They do not disappear but rather are replaced by the rising prominence of images of Mary. This decline and shift also coincides with Constantine’s church-building campaign in the fourth century.

Art and imagery was moved primarily from a funerary atmosphere to an ecclesial atmosphere. As a result, church architecture became more integral in Christian material culture featuring illuminated stained glass windows, apse paintings and mosaics, and ornate altarpieces. The decline in female characters other than Mary after the fourth and fifth centuries also reflects the institutional nature of the hierarchical church. With Christian dominance mostly secure, art and imagery became programmatic and more controlled. The female figures such as the orant that arguably reflect an egalitarian viewing audience are thus replaced with images to create and maintain church discipline. Material culture and ecclesial art in Christianity would focus more on depicting a suffering, crucified Jesus to remind the populace of the atoning sacrifice on the cross, and church imagery would portray a Jesus in judgment to remind the viewers of the wages of sin. The focus on miracles in Christian material culture drew the faithful into the church in early Christianity; medieval Christian art featuring themes of suffering and judgment would attempt to keep them there as church history moves onward.

[See also Reception History].


  • Brown, Peter. The Cult of the Saints. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
  • Deichmann, F. W., G. Bovini, and H. Brandenburg. Repertorium der christlich-antiken Sarkophage, vols. 1–3 Wiesbaden, Germany: F. Steiner, 1967.
  • Jefferson, Lee M. Christ the Miracle Worker in Early Christian Art. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.
  • Jefferson, Lee M., and Robin M. Jensen, eds. The Art of Empire: Christian Art in Its Imperial Context. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015.
  • Jensen, Robin M. Understanding Early Christian Art. New York: Routledge, 2000.
  • Mathews, Thomas. The Clash of Gods. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.
  • Peppard, Michael. The World’s Oldest Church: Bible, Art, and Ritual at Dura-Europos, Syria. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2016.
  • Schneemelcher, Wilhelm, ed. www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0664218792/peterkirby. Translated by R. McL. Wilson. Louisville, Ky.: John Knox Press, 1992.
  • Snyder, Graydon F. Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life before Constantine. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2003.
  • Spier, Jeffrey, ed. Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007.
  • Tkacz, Catherine Brown. The Key to the Brescia Casket: Typology and the Early Christian Imagination. Paris: University of Notre Dame Press; Institut d’Etudes Augustiennes, 2001.
  • Wilpert, Josef. Die Malereien der Katakomben Roms. Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany: Herdersche Verlagshandlung, 1903.
  • Wilpert, Josef. I Sarcophagi cristiani antichi. Rome: Pontifico Ist. di Archeologica Cristiana, 1929.

Lee M. Jefferson

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