26 June 2011

Early Christian Art and Architecture

Early Christian art and architecture is the art produced by Christians or under Christian patronage from about the year 100 to about the year 500. Prior to 100 there is no surviving art that can be called Christian with absolute certainty. After about 500, all Christian art definitely shows the beginnings of Orthodox Byzantine artistic style.

 
Prior to 100 Christians may have been constrained by their position as a persecuted group from producing durable works of art. Since Christianity was largely a religion of the lower classes in this period, the lack of surviving art may reflect a lack of funds for patronage.
 
Early Christians used fresco, mosaics, sculpture, and manuscript illumination. Early Christian art not only used Roman forms, it also used Roman styles. Late classical style included a proportional portrayal of the human body and impressionistic presentation of space. Late classical style is seen in early Christian frescos, such as those in the catacombs of Rome.

 
Early Christians also developed their own iconography, for example, such symbols as the fish (ikhthus), were not borrowed from pagan iconography.

 
After about the year 200, Christian art is divided into two periods by scholars: before and after the First Council of Nicea in 325, before being the Ante-Nicene Period and after being the period of the First seven Ecumenical Councils.

 
During the persecution of Christians under the Roman Empire, Christian art was necessarily and deliberately furtive and ambiguous, using imagery that was shared with pagan culture but had a special meaning for Christians. The earliest surviving Christian art comes from the 2nd century on the walls of Christian tombs in the catacombs of Rome. From literary evidence, there may well have been panel icons which, like almost all classical painting, have disappeared. Initially Jesus was represented indirectly by pictogram symbols such as the Ichthys (fish), peacock, Lamb of God, or an anchor (the Labarum or Chi-Rho was a later development). Later personified symbols were used, including Jonah, whose three days in the belly of the whale pre-figured the interval between the death and resurrection of Jesus, Daniel in the lion's den, or Orpheus' charming the animals. The image of "The Good Shepherd", a beardless youth in pastoral scenes collecting sheep, was the commonest of these images, and was probably not understood as a portrait of the historical Jesus. The "almost total absence from Christian monuments of the period of persecutions of the plain, unadorned cross" except in the disguised form of the anchor, is notable. The Cross, symbolizing Jesus' crucifixion on a cross, was not represented explicitly for several centuries, possibly because crucifixion was a punishment meted out to common criminals, but also because literary sources noted that it was a symbol recognised as specifically Christian, as the sign of the cross was made by Christians from very early on.
  • The dove is a symbol of peace and purity. It can be found with a halo or celestial light. In one of the earliest known Trinitarian images, "the Throne of God as a Trinitarian image" (a marble relief carved c. 400 CE in the collection of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation), the dove represents the Spirit. It is flying above an empty throne representing God the Father, in the throne are a chlamys (cloak) and diadem representing the Son.
  • The fish is used as a symbol for Jesus Christ. It represents Jesus' last supper as well as the water used to baptize Christians. In Greek, the word "fish" provides the initials of the title "Jesus Christ Son of God Saviour" and is used as a rebus for Christ's name.
  • The lamb symbolizes Jesus' sacrifice or Christians when there are several.
  • The figure of the Good Shepherd resembles earlier shepherd figures in pagan Classical art that represent benevolence and philanthropy. Additional meaning would have been ascribed to the figure by early Christian viewers in the context of Christ's phrase "I am the shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep," and St John the Baptist's description of Christ as "the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world."
  • The Chi-Rho monogram, XP, possibly first used by Constantine I, consists of the first two characters of the name 'Christos' in Greek. It was popular in the period after Christianity emerged into the open.
In the 4th century, Christians were prepared to build larger and more handsome edifices for worship than the home chapels they had been using. Architectural formulas for temples were unsuitable, not simply for their pagan associations, but because pagan cult and sacrifices occurred outdoors under the open sky in the sight of the gods, with the temple, housing the cult figures and the treasury, as a backdrop. The usable model at hand, when Emperor Constantine I wanted to memorialize his imperial piety, was the familiar conventional architecture of the basilicas. These had a center nave with one aisle at each side and an apse at one end: on this raised platform sat the bishop and priests.

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