Early Christian art and architecture

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Early Christian art and architecture,

works of art exhibiting Christian themes and structures designed for Christian worship created relatively soon after the death of Jesus. Most date from the 4th to the 6th cent. A.D. See also Christian iconography under iconographyiconography
[Gr.,=image-drawing] or iconology
[Gr.,=image-study], in art history, the study and interpretation of figural representations, either individual or symbolic, religious or secular; more broadly, the art of representation by pictures or images, which may or
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Earliest Works

Little is known about Christian art in the first two centuries after the death of Jesus. Among the earliest manifestations extant are the early 3d-century paintings on the walls of the catacombs in Rome. Whereas the style resembles that of secular Roman wall painting, the subject matter consists mainly of biblical figures. Jonah, Daniel, and Susanna appear in scenes of miracles through divine intervention. Among the motifs that symbolized the hope of resurrection and immortality are the fish and the peacock. Following the official recognition of Christianity after the Edict of Toleration (313), the scope of Early Christian art was radically enlarged.

Mosaics and Manuscript Illumination

Elaborate mosaic narrative cycles covered the upper walls, triumphal arch, and apse of basilican churches (see basilicabasilica
, large building erected by the Romans for transacting business and disposing of legal matters. Rectangular in form with a roofed hall, the building usually contained an interior colonnade, with an apse at one end or at each end.
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. Some are preserved in Santa Maria Maggiore and Santa Pudenziana in Rome and Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. The use of gold backgrounds heightens the effect of otherworldliness and transcendence. In contrast to paganism, the Christian faith was bound by the authority of sacred writings, and it placed increasing importance on the production of books and their illumination. Some fragments of the biblical text, written in silver and gold on purple vellum and sumptuously illuminated, are still preserved (see illuminationillumination,
in art, decoration of manuscripts and books with colored, gilded pictures, often referred to as miniatures (see miniature painting); historiated and decorated initials; and ornamental border designs.
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). Foremost of these is the Vienna Genesis, a manuscript of the first half of the 6th cent.


The sculpture of the stone sarcophagussarcophagus
[Gr.,=flesh-eater], name given by the Greeks to a special marble found in Asia Minor, near the territory of ancient Troy, and used in caskets. It was believed to have the property of destroying the entire body, except for the teeth, within a few weeks.
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 was extensively practiced in Roman art and was continued into the Christian era. In some cases subjects similar to those of the catacombs were used. In others, scenes of the life of Jesus or more ceremonious compositions were created, showing the enthroned Christ receiving the homage of the apostles. In addition, ivory carvers decorated book covers and reliquary caskets or larger objects, such as the throne of Maximianus in Ravenna, a work of the 6th cent.


Before the legal recognition of the new faith in the early 4th cent., Christian places of worship were of necessity inconspicuous and had no fixed architectural form. Afterward, however, imposing cult edifices were erected in many parts of the Roman Empire, especially in its major cities, Rome, Constantinople, Milan, Antioch, and Ravenna. Early Christian builders adapted structures that had long been used in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds. The basilican hall, consisting of a nave flanked by lower aisles and terminated by an apse, was adopted as the standard structure in Christian congregational worship. Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna and Santa Sabina in Rome still survive as largely unaltered examples of this type.

In Early Christian architecture a distinct emphasis was placed on the centralized plan, which was of round, polygonal, or cruciform shape. Baptisteries and memorial shrines (martyria) were based on the traditionally centralized Roman funerary monument. Martyria were erected on sites connected with certain events in the life of Jesus and other places held to be sanctified by the sacrifice of the martyrs. In such buildings as Saint Peter's in Rome and the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the martyrium structure and basilica were combined, creating a new formal synthesis of great significance for the religious architecture of the medieval period.

Eastern Traditions

A distinct type of Christian art and architecture was evolved in Egypt (see Coptic artCoptic art,
Christian art in the upper Nile valley of Egypt. Reaching its mature phase in the late 5th and 6th cent., the development of Coptic art was interrupted by the Arab conquest of Egypt between 640 and 642.
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). In the eastern part of the Roman Empire the development of the Early Christian tradition was continued under the auspices of the Byzantine emperors (see Byzantine art and architectureByzantine art and architecture,
works of art and structures works produced in the city of Byzantium after Constantine made it the capital of the Roman Empire (A.D. 330) and the work done under Byzantine influence, as in Venice, Ravenna, Norman Sicily, as well as in Syria,
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See R. Krautheimer, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture (1965); J. Beckwith, Early Christian and Byzantine Art (1970).

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