Christian Roman Art
Guide to Architecture, Painting & Sculpture of Christian Style During the Empire of Ancient Rome.

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5. Christian-Roman Art

Adam and Eve Fresco (c.320 CE)
Christian iconography found in the
catacombs of Saints Marcellinus
and Peter, Rome.


History of Christian-Roman Art
Funereal Christian Art: Catacombs and Sarcophagi

More Resources
For more articles about visual art in Ancient Rome, see:

Hellenistic-Roman Art (c.27 BCE - 200 CE)
Late Roman Imperial Art - Late Empire Period (c.200-400 CE)
Roman Empire Art: Celtic Style
Roman Sculpture (c.55 BCE onwards)
Relief Sculpture of Ancient Rome

History of Christan-Roman Art

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.

Funereal Christian Art: Catacombs and Sarcophagi

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.

Both in the decoration of sarcophagi and in the cemetery images, a new Christian iconography slowly formed in painting and sculpture: it drew widely on Pagan motifs and myths (Orpheus, Amor and Psyche) which were then adapted to the new Christian symbolism. However, the style always remained similar to that of the contemporary Pagan works, so much so that in those representations where the Christian subject was not visible, they could have been used just as easily to decorate any Pagan villa or cemetery. The specifically Christian repertoire - mostly Biblical art - was quite limited, and was used again and again, for example, in the paintings on sarcophagi. The subject matter turned almost continually around the concept of salvation; many themes alluded to this concept symbolically, for example the baptism of Christ, the story of Jonah and the whale (one of the most popular subjects), Daniel among the lions, the raising of Lazarus, and so on up to the representation of the good shepherd, which was an especially favoured theme at the dawn of Christian culture.

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.

• For more about the evolution of the visual arts, see: History of Art.
• For a detailed chronology, see: Timeline, History of Art.
• For more about Christian art in Ancient Rome, see: Homepage.

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