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Early Christian Art

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For thousands of years, the major factors influencing a developing society are things like religion, government, and art. When people study history, art does not seem to play such an important role. However, art helps us understand how a society feels, thinks, and looks at the surroundings which in they live. Ecclesiastical art, commonly known as Christian art, dates back to the first and second centuries. The first influences of Christian art were believed to be Roman in nature. Many historians feel that the Christian art influence came from the east, particularly the Orient. The first known works of Christian art were found in the Roman catacombs. The works found there were dated to the first or second century. The problem with finding Christian art during the first and second centuries was due to the religion still being quite small. During this time it is believed to be more decoration then really art. Historians feel that the first glimpses of art are not pagan, but rather ornamentation.

There also seems to be no real pattern of items that can be considered Christian other than a noticeable recurrence of vines. Symbolism is seen more in the second century in public cemeteries. These works of art were rather different than the pagan art during this same time. Two examples of this would be the dove and the fish. Both of these symbols could be recognized by normal people, but were not used in pagan decoration, thus having to be brought about by some type of Christian influence. After the triumph of Constantine in around 313 A.D, came the main birth of Christian art. Examples would include art seen on the walls of Roman catacombs, also the believed figure of Christ changed from a beardless good shepherd to a bearded man. Christ also was depicted as standing or sitting with an attitude of authority.

During this time period, the Greek monogram of Christ was forged into Greek monuments and even into the coinage of the time. The crucifixion of Christ was not really used at this time or during the centuries leading up to the fifth century. However, the first representations of the crucifixion were merely a plain cross with the figure of a lamb. The known symbol of Christ hanging from a cross was seen somewhat in the fifth centuries on such things as carved on the doors of Sta. Sabina in Rome or in the British Museum Ivory. This again was still rarely found and was not in common in use until it started to appear in frescoes or mosaics after the time of Justinian. From the third to fifth century, the Christian church was still using a lot of decoration forms of art. Most of these designs are of glass, or mosaic in nature. Each of these glass structures had representations of Christ and the Apostles, as well as drawings in gold leaf which referred to the miracles that Christ performed. The mosaics and glass structures of the time were very beautiful. Between the fourth and tenth centuries, the use of color was introduced.

The first color mosaics appeared in the catacombs, but later spread to the churches, oratories and places of worship. The church also discovered that the use of mosaics possessed an overwhelming since of attention, which other methods of decoration lacked. The time in which it took to make a mosaic was long and tedious. After the original design was drawn by the artist, the other craftsmen would finish the job by placing the correct stone in the proper place. The artist was not needed for this part and was really free to go and pursue other works for other churches. The best example of making a mosaic is painting by numbers. Mosaics were also part of the structure in which they decorated. Mosaics did not fade in color nor were they affected by light or atmosphere. They truly seem to light up any part of a room in church. Examples of mosaics still around today can be found at Mount Athos, near Constantinople, and most importantly Ravenna, in Sicily, Rome. In Ravenna, there are many works that still exist today and are in their original condition. The most original and untouched mosaic exists in the baptistery, which dates back to the fourth century. In the baptistery, you can see a mosaic that depicts the baptism of Christ, who is surrounded by the twelve Apostles.

It is said that as you walk into the room the whole mosaic seems to swing and move around the room. But what is really remarkable, is that the mosaic in the baptistery has been completely untouched and is in the original condition from when it was made. Ravenna is also home of another part of early Christian art, the ivory chair of St. Maximianus. This chair has remained in the city for over a thousand years and is considered one the finest examples of ivory carving. The carving is thought to be the work of Oriental craftsmen who served the church. The chair also depicts illustrations of Christ and the story of Joseph.

During the sixth century, the desire to have Christian art spread from the church to the home. In most cases, homes had some type of art in every room of the house which the family occupied. Typically, the Christian art found in homes were the homes of wealthy people who could afford such things. As for poorer people, they still had something that was a representation of Christ. They would often have a simple carving outside the house or a cross that hung over the bed. Not much change occurred in ecclesiastical art till around the turn of the middle ages.

During the middle ages, Christianity had spread west and was becoming even more and more popular. Along with this new found popularity, came changes in the art seen in churches and in people’s homes. This period of time during the middle ages is when work in enamels took place. The enamel work done was mainly for the church, but in Britain the first uses came when it was applied to shields and helmets. Later, enamels were used for such things as cups, shrines, candlesticks, and plaques for book covers. The earliest example of enamel work is found on the Alfred Jewel, located today at Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. The Alfred Jewel was attached to an ivory staff and held by the deacon while reading the Book of Gospels. During the eleventh century, Byzantium appears to be the headquarters of the enamel use in the church. An example of this can be found on the pectoral cross found in the South Kensington Museum. By the time of the renaissance, the main location of art left Italy and moved west.

The renaissance also introduced a new way to use enamels. This new way of using enamels went from painting on things, to actually painting in enamels. This major change in the use of enamels took place in France, who was also a major producer of enamels. Shortly after or during the later part of the period of enamels, came the artistic nature of embroideries. During the time period between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, nothing was more important the embroidery. Some historians feel that bags, albs, stoles, and burses are to be seen as some of the greatest of all works of art. The greatest embroidery work came from England. All the way up to the sixteenth century there was a constant demand for skilled embroideresses. The work of these women was very time consuming and tedious, considering all of the work was done for the church.

There were two reasons why art after the sixteenth century became so significant. The wealthy at the time began to feel it unimportant to make the home beautiful, but rather put the artistic efforts of the time into the church. Making the church as beautiful as possible would carry out the instance of religious feeling and to please the people who ran the church. In other words, the rich people of the time felt it wise to spend their money on the church, making it an artistic master piece, so that their efforts might get be noticed by a higher power. But as time went on, the need to spend as much time or money on the church becomes old and tiresome.

Also the role of the church changed in people’s lives and in society as a whole. It was looked upon as the greater good for the people and not so much for dedication to the adornment of the church. The commercial element also came to be known, and artists realized that they can make more money selling their works to people than just working for a church. As for the end of ecclesiastical art, it had to come. Many people felt that the church had become corrupt and was no longer a place where excessive art was needed. Rather it was the church that inspired many different types of art from enamels and mosaics to embroidery and painting.

Christianity still inspires man to create art. Since the advent of printing, the sale of reproductions of pious works has been a major element of popular Christian culture. Artists such as Thomas Blackshear and Thomas Kinkade, continue to honor Christian art by creating popular modern paintings that end up on anything from calendars to computer screen savers. Christianity continues to be a powerful motivator for man to create art and will surely do so for centuries to come.


Cunningham, Reich, (2006). Culture & Values. Belmont, CA: Thompson Wadsworth.

“The Catholic Encyclopedia.” http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05248a.htm (12 Nov. 2007)”Christian Art Link and other Directories.” www.royspage.com/christian_links_and_directory_of.htm (19 Nov. 2007)”Symbols in Christian Art & Architecture.” www.fastlane.net/homepages/wegast/symbols/symbols.htm (19 Nov. 2007)”Christian Art.” www.fni.com/heritage/nov95/Horton.html (19 Nov. 2007)

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