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Early Christian Art

A presentation for a conference on
"Art and Religion"

At Hamadan University,


     Catacomb : Underground part of early Christian cemetery which survived the over the centuriesOur story begins one fine day in 1849 when in a vineyard south of Rome a young man by the name of Giovanni Battista De Rossi found a fragment of an inscription which he rightly interpreted as coming from the tomb of Pope Cornelius who died in 252 AD.  From his study of the early written sources De Rossi knew that Pope Cornelius had been buried in one of the great cemeteries of the early church. He realized that this cemetery must be in the vicinity. 

      De Rossi soon succeeded in having the site excavated and gained access to the passageways of the underground cemeteries with their rich collection of early Christian painting.  Some of these paintings had been known through the earlier explorations and publications of such pioneers as Antonio Bosio in the 17th century.  Now however, following on from De Rossi’s systematic study of ancient sources, the paintings could be dated and the story of the emergence of Christian art be better understood.

        In these first discoveries there was a tendency (which is still with us) to date these catacombs back to the 1st century in the desire to see them as a witness to the life of the Church of the Apostles.  We now know that apart from some precious central nuclei of some cemeteries, the greater part and most of their paintings and sculpture, in fact date to the 4th and 5th centuries.  De Rossi’s discoveries began a study which has gradually cleared much of the confusion and built up a picture of how early Christian art developed. 

        The scenes we find in the catacomb are very often scenes from the Bible, Old and New Testament.   However it is evident that they are not simply illustration but have a symbolic significance.  They are scenes which convey a religious belief that tribulation and ultimately death would be overcome through faith in God as taught by Jesus Christ.  In this way we can understand the recent statement about Christian art by Pope Benedict “All sacred images are, without exception, in a certain sense images of the Resurrection, history read in light of the Resurrection. Early Christian faith was anchored in Christ’s Resurrection”.

          Symbol of Christ and the Eucharist. Early 3rd cent. Catacomb S.Callisto, RomeSome of the very oldest fresco painting of the vast repertoire of the catacombs is to be found in the area first explored by De Rossi.  The crypt in which Pope Cornelius was buried after his death in 252 AD was already an old Christian burial place.  So painting in one part of this crypt dates to before 252 AD and is usually dated to around 200 AD.  Here we have the symbol of the fish, which is Acronym for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.” Over the fish are the bread and wine symbolizing Christ’s presence in the Eucharistic bread and wine of the Christian assembly. 



      Balaam before Mary and the Child Jesus, early 3rd cent. Catacomb of Priscilla, RomePaintings of the same early period, that is around 200 AD, are to be found just north of Rome in the underground cemetery known as the catacomb of Prisicilla.  Here we have the earliest known painting of Mary and the child Jesus, a scene which was afterwards to dominate the world of Christian art.  This remarkable painting has something of the quality of the later icons leading us to encounter the mystery of Jesus in the presence and through Mary. The prophet on the left indicates the star over Mary’s head. She looks down at the Child who looks out at us, drawing us into the mystery of the painting. 


     The Magi, Greek Chapel, Catacomb of Prisicilla, RomeNearby in another part of the same cemetery there is another crypt also dated to about 200 AD.  On the arch there is another scene of Mary and Jesus.  This time it illustrates the moment after the birth of Jesus when Magi came from Persia to pay him homage.  It is another scene which was to have a long history in the world of early Christian art.   In the story of the Persian magi, the Roman artist saw something highly significant as it proclaimed the universal nature of the Christian religion. It was not a religion exclusive to people of Jewish race but was open to everyone from any culture or nation.


              Pagan tomb with geometric decoration

        During the 3rd century many of the paintings of the cemeteries were laid out in the manner in which Roman buildings were decorated. The architectural perspectives and panoramic vistas which covered the interiors of houses in the 1st century had given way to geometrical patterns in which the individual scenes hang on a white background within the spaces created by the geometrical pattern.  Like the houses, the interior of Roman tombs are decorated in the same manner.  In the Christian tombs most of the vignettes are now scenes from the Bible which had particular resonance for early Christians.

Christian crypt decoration

       Such is the vignette where the Persian costume appears again in what was to become a frequent subject matter of early Christian painting. It is the event from the Book of Daniel when three young men are thrown into a fire because they refuse to worship false gods. Their faith in God enables them to survive the flames unharmed.

 Daniel in the lions' den 

      From the same Book of Daniel we have the scene of Daniel in the lions’ den. It shows that his faith in God saved him from being torn apart by the lions.  It is a story of salvation from persecution which had particular significance for the early persecuted Christians.




 Noah praying in the arkNoah in the ark is yet another scene of deliverance.  The ark is very summarily sketched while Noah also has his hands raised in the characteristic manner of early Christian prayer.  

 Jonah thrown into the sea  

         A recurrent image of early Christian art is the scene of Jonah being thrown from the ship and about to be swallowed by the whale.  It’s clear that the artist had never seen a whale and painted a sea monster as imagined in roman art! The story of Jonah was particularly apt for a cemetery as the image of being swallowed by a whale and escaping after three days was the image used by Jesus himself in foretelling his own resurrection. It speaks of life after death.

 Jonah escapes from the whale

          Christian-Art-13-webAnother frequent scene is the gospel story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.  In a cemetery it reminded one that with the coming of Jesus, death no longer has the last word and he wants us to rise again and live.


            The Good Shepherd is one of the most well known images of the catacombs.  It is a composition with a long history in the pre-Christian classical world.  By the late Roman period the image came to represent rural or pastoral repose in the afterlife.  In the Old Testament, God is a Shepherd of his people and of the individual person whom He leads through danger to a place of repose.  Jesus described himself as the Good Shepherd willing to lay down his life for his sheep.  The old classical image was used by Christians to represent Jesus in one of the best loved images of early Christian art.  In the early 3rd century examples, unless there is a clear Christian context, it is often difficult to say if this image is intended to represent Jesus or is simple meant to express the pastoral repose of the Roman afterlife.

                      The Shepherd

     Jesus heals the paralytic. 3rd cent. fresco in the House Church of Dura EuropasThese precious remnants of early Christian art survived the ravages of time because they were painted in underground cemeteries which were later filled-in and forgotten.  But what of religious art outside the cemeteries?  Did Christians also paint such scenes in their house churches in the 3rd century?  The Good Shepherd. 3rd cent. fresco in the House Church of Dura EuropasWe have a confirmation that they did in fact do so, from the evidence of the ruins of a House Church of the Roman Fortress town of Dura Europas in Syria (near modern-day Qal’at es Salihiye). These paintings are securely dated to the early 3rd century as the city was overrun and abandoned about 256 AD.  Archaeological excavation discovered the church, which has among its painted wall frescos, scenes of the Good Shepherd, Jesus healing a paralytic and the three women visiting the tomb of Jesus to discover he has risen.


 The women at the tomb of Christ - Baptistry of Dura Europas 


       It may indeed seem strange to have such a rich flowering of Christian art in the early church considering that Christianity came from a Jewish background which prohibited the painting of images.   Christians in the Roman world were influenced by the rich artistic culture which surrounded them.  It is interesting that in the Jewish catacombs of Rome and especially in the synagogue discovered in Dura Europos we also find the presence of painted fresco.  Praxis seems to have come before theory.  As happens in these situations, great dispute arose over the making of images among Christians, not only in the iconoclastic period but repeatedly throughout Christian history right up to the present objection to images in some protestant churches in our own day.

      For Christians the basis for continuing the ancient tradition of using images lies in the belief in the Incarnation; that God has assumed human nature and form in Jesus Christ.  In him we see the image of the unseen God and his saving work is revealed to us.  The decree asserting the validly of this ancient tradition of using images was promulgated in the second  Council of Nicea in 787 AD.


      Christian-Art-19-webThe great persecution of Christians in the Roman world came to an end in the 4th century and emperors now became generous patrons of the church.  In the doors of the Roman Basilica of Santa Sabina which date to beginning of the 5th century we see that while the traditional scenes familiar from the cemeteries are still present there are also new more sophisticated panels of a striking beauty inspired by the revival of the early classical art which makes its appearance in the declining years of Roman power.  Elijah leaves his cloak to Elisha. 5th cent. door panel of Santa Sabina, Rome
5th St Apse mosaic of Santa Pudenzian, Rome

      Now churches were being built with imperial patronage.  No longer the small assembly hall of the community, these churches were kingly halls or basilicas. Their size and beauty was intended to communicate something of the majesty of God whose life we share when we participate in the life of the church.

        In keeping with the contemporary trend in architecture, the buildings were simple on the outside but breathtaking in the grandeur and beauty of their interiors.    For such a setting, new images were required.  The artists now turned to the world of the imperial palace and employed the kind of images which were used to express imperial majesty.

Now Jesus is portrayed in sovereign majesty surrounded by his apostles who appear as court officials.  This is the scene we see in the mosaic of the 4th century church of Santa Pudenziana in Rome.

4th c.. sarcophagus - with scene of "Tradito Legis"


4 cent. Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, Rome


       One of the images which is frequently encountered at this period is the scene depicting Jesus bestowing his authority on St Peter.  During the 4th century the scene is to be found repeated on sarcophagi, painting and mosaic.  Why did it become so popular at this time?  There are indications that what we have here is the subject matter of the original mosaic for the old St Peter’s church in the Vatican.  The origin of the scene in the world of imperial iconography can be seen in surviving examples of images in which the Emperor Theodosius framed in an arcade, flanked by his two co-emperors, Valentinian II and his own son Arcadius, gives a decree to a senior official.   This scene, known as the “traditio legis,” was used in the church to illustrate the great moment when Christ surrounded by “his officials”, the apostles, gave his authority to St Peter.  Often sheep are shown beneath the scene coming from the cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, representing the one flock of Christians who come from different origins and who are being put in Peter’s care.

Elements of this scene were to reappear throughout the history of church mosaics for the next thousand years.

                                 Missiorum of Theodosious 1



      Another Basilica in which early Christian mosaics survive is the 5th century church of Santa Maria Maggiore.  In the nave of the church, a series of mosaics depict events of the Old Testament where the central characters such as Abraham, Isaac, Moses and Joshua are portrayed like Roman heroes. The mosaics narrate the epic history of God’s people as found in the bible, just as the stories of Virgil told the epic story of the Roman people.  Indeed in miniatures of contemporary 5th century manuscripts of Virgil’s history, we find images parallel to these Christian mosaics.   Such scenes as Aeneas supervising the building of the city of Carthage are closely paralleled in the mosaics of the nave of St Mary Major’s Basilica as they illustrate the story of the heroes of the Bible.


5th cent. Nave Mosaics of S. Maria Maggiore, Rome 5th cent mss of Virgil

      In the mosaics of the nave we have what Christians saw as the narrative of the early history of God’s people.  They lead up to the 5th century mosaic of the triumphal arch of the basilica which proclaims the fulfillment of that history in the story of Jesus who is now revealed as Lord in Divine majesty.

 5th cent apse mosaic of S Maria Maggiore, Rome
 Base of the pillar of Arcadius, Constantinople

     The layout of this mosaic on the arch at first seems somewhat puzzling.  A key to understanding is to be found in such imperial monuments as the base of the pillar of Arcadius in Constantinople. 


         Here were represented symbols of imperial authority, the family of the emperor, his allies and finally the confusion of the enemy.   Transferring this arrangement to St Mary Major’s mosaic we can understand it as a composition which communicates the imperial majesty of Jesus.   At the apex is the symbol of divine glory; it is surrounded by wonderful events in the family life of Jesus, below are his allies and finally the defeat of his enemy represented by King Herod.  So here again we have the kind of representation used in imperial roman art being used to express the divine majesty of God made known to us in Jesus.

 5th cent. Apsidal Arch of S Maria Maggiore, Rome 

         An interesting feature of this mosaic is the way in which the Divinity is represented by the empty throne with the cross. The image of the empty throne to represent the Divine presence was itself an element also taken from the world of imperial iconography.  The empty throne represented the emperor.  Here it is a symbol of the divinity and looks forward to his coming in glory at the end of time.  It is one of the many features which were to continue to be used, as can be seen in the mosaic of the 9th century church of Santa Prassede close to the 5th century church of St Mary Major. 

                    9th cent. S. Prassade Mosaic


 7th cent apse mosaic of S Agnese fuori le mura, Rome 

    A great change in mosaic making occurs in the 7th century. This change is visible in the mosaic of the church of the martyr St Agnes in Rome. It was a period when the city came under Byzantine rule and the influence is clear.  Here narration is reduced to a minimum. The martyrdom of St Agnes is indicated by the fire and sword at her feet.  What the artist wants to convey is presence.  Standing against a background of gold; pale and dressed in priestly vestments, she is outside of time and place.  It is an icon-like mosaic bringing one who contemplates it, into the presence of the saint.

                      7th cent. apse mosaic of S Agnese fuori le mura, Rome

 S. Susanna being falsely condemned by elders
     From the beginning, symbolic representation was an important element in Christina art. Here we see that Susanna is represented as a lamb and the elders who threaten her are shown as wolves. We can only understand it because Susanna’s name is written above the head of the lamb. 

Susanna depicted as a lamb among wolves (the elders)


 Symbolic representation of the resurrection
       These different elements of early Christian art - narrative, symbol, imperial iconography and the power of the icon were to combine and reappear throughout the middle ages, giving rise to the art of the 9th and 12th centuries and indeed they continue to communicate the message of the power and beauty of Jesus to our own day. 


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