Early Christian Sculpture
History, Characteristics of Roman, Byzantine & Medieval Works.

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The Gero Cross (965–70)
Cologne Cathedral. A rare example
of early Ottonian Christian sculpture.

Early Christian Sculpture (c.100-1050)


Christian Sculpture For Churches
Division of the Christian Roman Empire
Byzantine Art
The Crucifixion and Figurative Sculpture
The Use of Images in Christian Art
Ivory Carvings
Early Christian Sculpture in the West
The Great Romanesque Revival of Christian Sculpture

The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste
Ivory relief sculpture.
A masterpiece of medieval art
of the 10th century.
Bode Museum, Berlin.

For a list of the world's top works
by the best sculptors, see:
Greatest Sculptures Ever.

For the development of plastic art
see: History of Sculpture.

Marble Sculpture
Pentelic, Carrara, Parian marbles.
Wood Carving
Chip carving, relief carving of
softwoods and hardwoods.


Roman sculpture and architecture became known throughout the civilized world, from Britain and Gaul (France) in the west, to India in the east. But just when Roman power was at its height the event happened which, in time, brought about a complete change in the way in which countless numbers of people lived and thought. Jesus Christ was born in Palestine and was crucified only 30 years or so later. After his death his disciples travelled about the Roman Empire carrying their beliefs with them, and before long, little groups of Christians were to be found everywhere, along with the early Christian art that illustrated their beliefs. For almost three centuries the Romans tried to suppress the new faith, and the various types of Christian art it inspired. But at last, in 313, the Emperor Constantine decreed, in the Edict of Milan, that Christians might worship in their own way. Amazingly, less than 70 years later, Emperor Theodosius I declared that Christianity was the empire's sole authorized religion. See also: Christian-Roman Art.

Christian Sculpture For Churches

While Christianity was illegal, the vast majority of all plastic art had been funereal: notably tomb sculpture, such as reliefs on sarcophagi. After the Roman Empire became Christian, churches were needed everywhere. Pagan temples had been simply shrines built to shelter the statue of the god or goddess. But Christian churches had to be big enough to shelter a congregation of worshippers. The first churches in the Roman Empire, therefore, were built in imitation of the Roman "basilicas", which were long halls used as market or assembly halls and law courts. At first the new churches had no decorative art, especially not sculpture. The heathens had made sacrifices before the statues of their gods and had worshipped them, so the early Christians thought a statue was a pagan object. But although they all agreed in hating statues, some did not feel so strongly about pictures.

Towards the end of the sixth century Pope Gregory in Rome pointed out that a great many Christians could neither read nor write, and he felt that mural paintings on the walls of churches would help them to remember what they had been taught about Christ and the Christian religion. Ever since about 400, when Saint Jerome wrote a Latin version of the Bible (the Vulgate edition), priests had access to a standardized text, which facilitated the emergence of a wide range of Biblical art illustrating stories from both the Old and New Testaments.

At first no picture representing God or Jesus was allowed. The Christians used symbols, or signs, to represent Christ. One was the monogram which we call the chi-rho, which is made up of the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ. Another was a fish, because the Greek word for fish is made up of the first letters of the phrase "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour". A hand protruding from a cloud symbolized God the Father; a dove, the Holy Spirit; a vine, the Church; a mythical bird called a Phoenix, the Resurrection; and a peacock, the soul.

Sometimes symbols which the Romans had used to suggest honour and greatness came in time to be used in Christian religious art also. Romans, for instance, had sometimes put a circle, a halo as we call it, behind the heads of the emperors in pictures and statues. The Christians put such haloes behind the heads of sacred characters, the Holy Family and saints to suggest holiness.


Division of the Christian Roman Empire

In 330, the Emperor Constantine had made the city of Byzantium, which stood at the extreme south-east corner of Europe just where Europe and Asia meet, into a second capital for the vast Roman Empire, and re-named it Constantinople. For a hundred years or so after that, the Roman Empire had two emperors, one ruling the western or Latin-speaking half from Rome, and one ruling the eastern or Greek-speaking half from Constantinople. But as the eastern half flourished and grew richer, the western half declined under the attacks of the Goths and the Vandals and other barbarian tribes. Then in 455 Rome itself fell and was sacked, and there was no longer a Roman emperor ruling in the west.

Byzantine Art

During the centuries which followed, Constantinople became the centre of a great empire which we call the Byzantine Empire. The emperors in Constantinople became very wealthy and powerful indeed. Everywhere in the Byzantine Empire Christian churches were built and Christian Byzantine art appeared, albeit executed in an Eastern style. Thus instead of the walls being painted they were covered with mosaics - pictures made up of many thousands of tiny pieces of coloured or golden glass, which shined and glittered with a magnificent, shimmering effect. Typically, however, while dignified and majestic, the figures depicted in Byzantine mosaic art tend to be rather stiff. See also: Ravenna Mosaics (c.400-600).

Before very long artists represented Christ himself, in addition to using the symbols. At first they depicted him as a young, beardless man - much more like the Greek god Apollo than the figure we are familiar with today - for early Byzantine art carried on the traditions of Ancient Greece.

The Crucifixion and Figurative Sculpture

At first Christ was never shown actually on the Cross. To illustrate the Crucifixion, artists placed a Lamb at the spot where the two arms of the Cross meet. Then, in the sixth century, a Council at Constantinople decreed that in representations of the Crucifixion, Christ should be shown in human shape. Thus in later carved crucifixes, Jesus was generally represented clothed in a long robe, with a crown on his head and with both feet together, as though standing erect with arms outstretched in front of the Cross. We can see an example of a Crucifixion of this kind on an ancient relief which has survived at Langford in Oxfordshire. Unfortunately the head is missing.

In Byzantine churches there were never any statues in the round. Figure sculpture in relief, however, was used from quite early times on sarcophagi (stone coffins) and on such things as pulpits. Human figures, like those in mosaics, were represented standing or sitting quietly in dignified attitudes, and no attempt was made to produce lifelike portraits of individuals or to show strong emotions. The figures were symbols.

Although there was no emperor in Rome after 455, Rome still had very great influence. The Bishop of Rome, the Pope, was accepted by most Christians as being the head of the Church. Gradually the barbarians who had overrun the western half of the Roman Empire themselves became Christian, and looked to Rome for guidance in all matters connected with their religion.

The Use of Images in Christian Art

The Popes in Rome and the Byzantine emperors in Constantinople were often on very bad terms with each other. They quarrelled about many details of Christian belief and ceremonial, and were sometimes actually at war. One of the things they disagreed about was the question of images.

Constantinople was in close touch with eastern peoples, some of whom were not Christian, and their way of thinking about art, religion and life influenced the people of the Byzantine Empire in many ways.

Jews, for instance, had always been opposed to images, and Jewish law forbade the use of them in Jewish art. Then in the sixth century Mohammed was born in Mecca in Arabia, and before his followers swept over Syria, Palestine and Egypt, and the people of these and other countries became followers of Islam. Islamic art also forbade artists to represent human figures in pictures and carvings, and focused instead on non-objective art.

The early Christian dislike of images revived in the Byzantine Empire, and early in the eighth century the Emperor Leo III gave orders that all sculpture and all pictures in which figures appeared were to be removed from Christian churches, and plaster was to be spread over the mosaics. For over a century this rule was in force in the Byzantine Empire, and 'iconoclasts' (or image-breakers) smashed many carvings and destroyed many pictures. Finally the iconoclasts fell from power and the ban against the use of images was lifted. Mosaics and relief carvings appeared again.

But by this time, the ninth century, Church leaders had come to believe that images representing sacred figures or illustrating stories from the Bible were in themselves holy, and must be treated with great reverence. Artists must not be allowed to illustrate such characters and subjects just as they liked. A great Council was held at a place called Nicaea, at which the leaders of the Church stated quite firmly that "the composition of the figures is not the invention of the painters, but is governed by the law and tradition of the Christian Church."

The Byzantine Church went on to lay down down strict rules as to how each character or incident in a religious picture or relief sculpture was to be represented. Artists were not allowed to think out for themselves the best way of illustrating a scene, or depicting the character and appearance of a saint or prophet or other sacred person. As in Egyptian art, artists had to follow tradition and try to follow the approved precedents created by earlier artists. They were not encouraged to experiment for themselves. As a result, while Byzantine artists were often extremely skilful, and created some magnificent decorations, their figure painting tends to be stiff and conventional with little variety.

Ivory Carvings

There were still no statues in the round, but relief stone sculpture was allowed, and some examples have survived from Byzantine times. We know the work of Byzantine sculptors best, however, through their exquisite ivory carving, produced in several different places, such as Constantinople itself, Alexandria and Antioch. Some relief carvings are in the form of a diptych or triptych - that is, two or three-part panels, with religious scenes or figures carved on one side, hinged together so that they can be closed and fastened like a book.

Leaves from such diptychs or from the carved ivory covers of illuminated manuscripts and other devotional books can be seen in the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and in many other of the world's best art museums. The figures, like those in the mosaic pictures and stone reliefs, are tall, straight and dignified. The details, such as the patterns on the robes, are often beautifully carved. The figures stand, or sit, as a rule, apart from one another, sometimes separated by columns, and facing outwards towards the spectator. They seem remote from everyday life, thoughtful and earnest. Sometimes the name of the saint or religious character represented is written in beautiful Greek lettering on either side of the head. Sometimes a head and shoulders only are carved, enclosed in a circle.

Ivories sometimes commemorate the crowning in Constantinople of a certain emperor, and Christ is shown blessing the emperor or placing a crown on his head. The ivory can then, of course, be dated, as we know the date of the coronation. Unclothed figures never appear in Byzantine carvings, and the clothes in which such people as emperors and empresses are dressed are often covered with rich patterns and jewels.

The eastern Church in Constantinople and the western Church in Rome continued to disagree about many things and in 1054 they finally separated altogether. The Pope in Rome remained head of the Western or Roman Catholic Church; Constantinople continued to be the centre of the Eastern or Greek Orthodox Church until the city fell before the Turks in 1453.

Early Christian Sculpture in the West (c.750-1050)

Medieval Christian Art in the West developed on the Continent at the court of King Charlemagne, during the period c.750-900, and at the court of Emperors Otto I, II, III during the years c.900-1050. In Ireland, it emerged during the early 7th century, and continued until the late 12th century. For a detailed survey, see: Medieval Sculpture (c.300-1000).

Following the Byzantine tradition, Carolingian art at the court of King Charlemagne revived the art of ivory carving, typically in panels for illuminated manuscripts - like the front and rear covers of the Lorsch Gospels, which feature the triumph of Christ and the Virgin - as well as crozier heads and other small items. In addition, experts in goldsmithing produced a range of carved bindings and metal reliefs which became an important element in the making of illuminated manuscripts at Aachen, and elsewhere. Examples include the cover of the Codex Aureus of St. Emmeram (870), the cover of the Lindau Gospels (c.880), and the Arnulf Ciborium (c.890), all noted for their relief figures in repousse gold. Another unique example of the skill of Carolingian goldsmiths is the Golden Altar (824–859), now in the Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio in Milan. Another masterpiece is the Lothair Crystal (c.855-69, British Museum) (also known as the Susanna Crystal) is one the largest of a series of some 20 engraved pieces of rock crystal, made in western Germany. It depicts scenes from the biblical story of Susanna. For more works, see: German Medieval Art (800-1250).

In addition, monumental sculpture - including large-scale bronze sculpture - was revived during the early Medieval period of Carolingian and Ottonian culture, for a variety of works including freestanding statues in churches.

Ottonian art continued many of Charlemagne's cultural activities, including early Christian sculpture: among the finest Ottonian masterpieces are the Gero Cross or Crucifix (965–70, Cologne Cathedral), the oldest monumental sculpture of the crucified Christ north of the Alps; and the Golden Madonna of Essen (c.980, Essen Cathedral), the oldest known sculpture of the Madonna and the earliest surviving free-standing medieval sculpture north of the Alps. Similar examples of Ottonian early Christian sculpture include Mathilda of Essen (973, Essen Cathedral), the Cross of Bernward of Hildesheim (c.1000, Hildesheim Cathedral), and Gisela of Hungary (Regensberg, 1006, now Munich Residenz). Sadly very little other large sculpture has survived from the pre-1000 period.

In Ireland, early Christian sculpture is best represented by Celtic-style High Cross Sculpture created during the period 750-1150 (mostly in the ninth and tenth centuries). Typically erected on monastery land, throughout Ireland, these Celtic High Cross sculptures fall into two basic groups: crosses decorated with abstract patterns based on Celtic designs, and crosses carved with narrative scenes from the Bible. Whatever their purpose (which remains obscure), they constitute arguably the most important body of freestanding Christian sculpture between the fall of Rome and the Italian Renaissance.

The Great Romanesque Revival of Christian Sculpture

The Christian Church in Rome regained its confidence during the late 10th century, and initiated a program of church-building in a style which became known as Romanesque architecture, and which duly created a huge demand for Christian Romanesque sculpture - largely reliefs over doorways and column-statues. The great revival of ecclesiastical sculpture was beginning. See also: Romanesque art (1000-1200).


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