5. Christian-Roman Art (313 CE Onwards)
The first expressions of an art that can properly (Explicitly) be called Christian are usually not to be found earlier than the fourth century. Before that time the diffusion of the new religion in the Roman world took place gradually. In essence works of Christian origin differ greatly from those of the contemporary Pagan culture. We can only speak of Early Christian art after the advent of Constantine and the Edict of Milan (CE 313), which marked a decisive turning point in the course of Christianity.
Before Constantine there was hardly any Christian Roman architecture. In the Christian house at Dura-Europos (Syrian city of the Euphrates), the rooms were arranged in the interior of an ordinary private house without any specifically 'Christian' elements being discernible. This same 'architectonic neutrality' applied also to sacred buildings: unlike Roman temples or Jewish synagogues, the oldest Christian churches of Rome (called tituli) appear to have been nothing more than rooms inserted into private houses. This spirit of extreme simplicity appears also in the ancient Cathedral of Bishop Theodorus at Aquileia, which, although founded after the Edict of Milan, had not assumed any of the characteristics of the Constantine basilica.
The paintings of the catacombs and
the sculptured sarcophagi give us an impression of what Christian
art was like at its dawn. Like much Roman
art, the style of representation was entirely drawn from that favoured
by well-to-do Pagans (and the Christians, who adopted them, must have
certainly belonged to the wealthier classes). It is now well known that
the catacombs were not meeting places, nor refuges to escape from persecution,
but simple subterranean cemeteries similar to those used by the Pagans
and by the Jews. These cemeteries were often made up of several floors
one above the other and they had numerous corridors and ambulatories set
in the walls, from which graves or rectangular cavities were hewn out
to receive the bodies of the deceased. The graves that contained people
of importance were sometimes ornamented with an arch (arcolosium), or
with stuccos or panel paintings.
The body of a martyr was generally put in a small room called a crypt
or cubiculum, and the catacomb often took its name from the martyr.
The term catacomb is derived from the cemetery of San Sebastian on the
Appian Way, which was called catacumbas. The word is of doubtful etymology:
it possibly meant that the cemetery had been placed in a depression in
the ground, which was in fact the only kind of cemetery known and used
throughout the Middle Ages. Later the meaning of the word was extended
to include other forms.
Among the sarcophagi, perhaps the most famous from the pre-Constantine era (although the chronology of these sculptures is very uncertain) is No. 181 in the Lateran Museum. It is known as 'The Rams', because of the two rams that frame the composition. In this, and in other sarcophagi there was a return to the narrative style, realism and natural solemnity that from the days of the Ara Pacis Augustae have always represented the best qualities of ancient art from Rome.
Back to: 1. Early Roman Art.
Art (c.27 BCE - 200 CE)
For more about the evolution of
the visual arts, see: History of Art.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART