Praeger Picture Encyclopedia of Art: A Comprehensive Survey of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture and Crafts, Their Methods, Styles and Technical Terms, from the Earliest Times to the Present Day

By Frederick A Praeger | Go to book overview

Medieval Art
138. 'Ecclesia' in Strassburg Cathedral (c. 1230)

EARLY CHRISTIAN PERIOD

THE PREVAILING MOOD towards the end of Classical Antiquity was one of pessimism. As belief in the old gods waned, the idea that man must determine his own fate caused widespread anxiety about life on Earth and uncertainty concerning the after-life. Men began to have profound doubts about the salvation of their souls and this meant that they no longer had much interest in the classical idea of physical perfection. In time, this turning away from Nature and its presentation in the round led to a schism between the human body and the soul. The artistic manifestations of this change in attitude are evident in a preference for relief sculpture, a new interest in the spiritual element shown by greater emphasis on the eyes in the portraits of this period, the gradual disappearance of three-dimensional space in painting, and the contrast between sober, functional exteriors and elaborate interiors in architecture (Pantheon, ill. 129).

Spiritual uncertainty, which was by no means confined to the Hellenist world alone, produced a number of religions featuring redemption. Among these, Christianity came to occupy first place. In less than three centuries it had spread across the entire Roman Empire. The Edict of Milan in the year 313, under the Emperors Constantine and Licinius, granted Christians freedom of religious worship and the Edict of Theodosius I in 380 established a united Western Church.

The Early Christian attitude towards art was not always a sympathetic one. Strict dogmatists were able to defend their hostility by citing St John the Evangelist who had said that God should be worshipped in spirit and truth only. In spite of this, the beginning of the 2nd century saw the development of a Christian art which had its origins in Roman native tradition. It is true that the art of Greece had been taken over by Rome and its provinces, but the spirit of classical art was never fully understood by more than a small cultured minority. A native art which used Greek idioms to express Roman ideas had, however, always co-existed with it. This can be seen in many of the Pompeian frescoes and in the narrative relief bands round Trajan's column (ill. 134). After the beginning of the 2nd century this art found its way into the increasingly 'barbarianized' Imperial Court and the new-rich aristocracy. Being a product of the Late Classical era, Early Christian art welcomed the simplification and stylisation of the Roman native tradition, its emphasis on meaning rather than on form and its anti-classical attitude, as revealed by rejection of the physical element and an increased emphasis on spiritual expression.

The Early Christians met for worship in each other's homes. In Dura-Europos, Mesopotamia, there is a shrine dating from the 3rd century which consists of two chambers, one for Communion, the other for Baptism. This shrine cannot be called a temple as it did not contain an image. The Christian com

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