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27 Jul

Early Christian Art and Architecture

The Early Christian art developed before the fall of Rome in 476 and marked the period from the 3rd to the 6th century. Early Christians were a persecuted sect and met in secret before the Edict of Milan which proclaimed religious toleration in the Roman Empire in 313. The safest place for their meetings were the catacombs, a network of underground burial places which represent the beginning of the Early Christian art. The walls and ceilings of catacombs were decorated with frescoes which did not depict sad or dark motifs as may be expected. The walls were divided with thick lines on circular or triangular parts, while the lines were usually ornamented with tendrils. The remain area was decorated with Early Christian symbols: flowers, fishes or birds. Thus the Early Christian art in the underground catacombs greatly resembled the Roman wall paintings which can be seen in Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The motifs of the Early Christian art greatly resemble the Roman motifs but they symbolize biblical themes. For example:

  • curly shepherd with a sheep on his shoulder, a popular Greek-Roman motive symbolizes Jesus as the good shepherd who sacrificed his life for his followers
  • peacock with an open tail represents the eternal life and immortality
  • Amor, the naked god of love and Orpheus with lyre symbolize the salvation of the soul

Other Early Christian motifs include Noah who saved his family and all animals in groups of two from God’s Deluge, Jonah coming from the whale’s stomach, young Daniel with lions and the resurrected Lazarus but the true meaning of the images borrowed from the Roman motifs and symbols was known only to the Christians. The artistic value of the Christian frescoes in catacombs was inferior to the wall paintings in Greek and Roman buildings which is not a surprise. The Roman buildings were ornamented by the best artists, while the catacombs were decorated by ordinary craftsmen. However, the images of unknown artists in catacombs became the basis of a new period which was dominated by Christian motifs.

Depiction of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, Catacombs of Rome

Depiction of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, Catacombs of Rome

Legitimization of Christianity and growing number of its adherents required appropriate sacral objects. The most suitable for religious services was the Roman basilica, a colonnaded hall used for legal matters and public business which could receive a larger number of people. The spacious rectangular interior of the basilica was divided into a central nave which was added a circular apse for the altar and several side naves or aisles.

In contrary to plain exterior, the interior of the Early Christian basilica was very richly decorated. The walls were covered with marble and coated with gold, while the basilicas were also decorated with splendid mosaics and were full of treasures like golden chalices and crosses with jewels. Unfortunately, much of the Early Christian architecture was destroyed after the end of the 5th century.

Interior of the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls built in 4th century

Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, Rome, 4th century

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