Art in the First Centuries of the Christian Era

The Middle Ages—exuberantly self-confident Renaissance scholars looked back on a thousand years of history as an interlude, and considered the centuries after the fall of Rome as a dark age, enlightened only by the presence of the Church—a middle age because the period fell between the Classical age of Greece and Rome and their own time. Today, with greater historical perspective, the "dark" Middle Ages appear as a brilliant period out of which emerged the modern world with its rival nations; its different philosophical, political, and economic systems, and its varied forms of art and architecture. The period extends over more than a thousand years: from the battle of the Milvian Bridge, when Constantine's troops conquered Rome bearing the monogram of Christ on their shields, to the Hundred Years War, which saw the end of feudal armies and battles fought by armored knights; from the writing of a universal Christian creed at the Council of Nicaea to the beginning of the Protestant Reformation; from the miracles of Christ and the apostles to the beginnings of modern science.

When did the ancient world end and the medieval world begin? Not with the birth of Christ, as the system of dating events B.C. (before Christ) or A.D. (anno Domini) suggests, for the Roman Empire reached the height of its power in the first centuries of the Christian era [1]. Do the Middle Ages begin, then, with Constantine's toleration of Christianity in 313 or his establishment of a new capital in Constantinople in 330? Or do such events as the Council of Nicaea in 325, or the last Olympic games in 394, or Emperor Theodosius' partition of the Empire in 395 mark the end of the ancient world? Historians do not agree. Certainly life, and art, had changed long before Rome fell to the Goths in 410.

For more than a thousand years the ideals and precepts of Christianity dominated European thought. Today, even in a secular age, when sacred texts are studied as history or literature, when church rites are seen as music or drama, when Christian beliefs are studied as only one philosophy among many seeking to explain the meaning of life, Medieval art and architecture maintain their hold on the imagination. Medieval art is essentially Christian art. Even in its secular manifestations its forms are dominated by the forms developed around Christian worship; therefore, we must begin a discussion of Medieval art first with the historical situation in which it evolved and then with the religion which was its motivating force.

Early Christian art can be seen as a phase of Late Roman art, distinguishable as Christian only by its subject matter. The study of imperial Roman and Late Antique art is fascinating in itself, but it cannot be treated here with the care and depth it deserves. The examination of a few examples of Roman sculpture must suffice to establish a context for the earliest Christian art.


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