Christian Art

Early Christian art and architecture

Early Christian art and architecture, works of art exhibiting Christian themes and structures designed for Christian worship created relatively soon after the death of Jesus. Most date from the 4th to the 6th cent. AD See also Christian iconography under iconography.

Earliest Works

Little is known about Christian art in the first two centuries after the death of Jesus. Among the earliest manifestations extant are the early 3d-century paintings on the walls of the catacombs in Rome. Whereas the style resembles that of secular Roman wall painting, the subject matter consists mainly of biblical figures. Jonah, Daniel, and Susanna appear in scenes of miracles through divine intervention. Among the motifs that symbolized the hope of resurrection and immortality are the fish and the peacock. Following the official recognition of Christianity after the Edict of Toleration (313), the scope of Early Christian art was radically enlarged.

Mosaics and Manuscript Illumination

Elaborate mosaic narrative cycles covered the upper walls, triumphal arch, and apse of basilican churches (see basilica. Some are preserved in Santa Maria Maggiore and Santa Pudenziana in Rome and Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. The use of gold backgrounds heightens the effect of otherworldliness and transcendence. In contrast to paganism, the Christian faith was bound by the authority of sacred writings, and it placed increasing importance on the production of books and their illumination. Some fragments of the biblical text, written in silver and gold on purple vellum and sumptuously illuminated, are still preserved (see illumination). Foremost of these is the Vienna Genesis, a manuscript of the first half of the 6th cent.


The sculpture of the stone sarcophagus was extensively practiced in Roman art and was continued into the Christian era. In some cases subjects similar to those of the catacombs were used. In others, scenes of the life of Jesus or more ceremonious compositions were created, showing the enthroned Christ receiving the homage of the apostles. In addition, ivory carvers decorated book covers and reliquary caskets or larger objects, such as the throne of Maximianus in Ravenna, a work of the 6th cent.


Before the legal recognition of the new faith in the early 4th cent., Christian places of worship were of necessity inconspicuous and had no fixed architectural form. Afterward, however, imposing cult edifices were erected in many parts of the Roman Empire, especially in its major cities, Rome, Constantinople, Milan, Antioch, and Ravenna. Early Christian builders adapted structures that had long been used in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds. The basilican hall, consisting of a nave flanked by lower aisles and terminated by an apse, was adopted as the standard structure in Christian congregational worship. Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna and Santa Sabina in Rome still survive as largely unaltered examples of this type.

In Early Christian architecture a distinct emphasis was placed on the centralized plan, which was of round, polygonal, or cruciform shape. Baptisteries and memorial shrines (martyria) were based on the traditionally centralized Roman funerary monument. Martyria were erected on sites connected with certain events in the life of Jesus and other places held to be sanctified by the sacrifice of the martyrs. In such buildings as Saint Peter's in Rome and the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the martyrium structure and basilica were combined, creating a new formal synthesis of great significance for the religious architecture of the medieval period.

Eastern Traditions

A distinct type of Christian art and architecture was evolved in Egypt (see Coptic art). In the eastern part of the Roman Empire the development of the Early Christian tradition was continued under the auspices of the Byzantine emperors (see Byzantine art and architecture).


See R. Krautheimer, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture (1965); J. Beckwith, Early Christian and Byzantine Art (1970).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2015, The Columbia University Press.

Christian Art: Selected full-text books and articles

The Beginnings of Christian Art By D. Talbot Rice Abingdon Press, 1957
Christian Art By C. R. Morey Longmans, Green, 1935
Roman Sources of Christian Art By Emerson H. Swift Columbia University Press, 1951
Art in the Early Church By Walter Lowrie Pantheon books, 1947
The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians on Art By Paul Corby Finney Oxford University Press, 1994
The Early Christians By Michael Gough Frederick A. Praeger, 1961
Librarian’s tip: Chap. III "Christian Art before Constantine" and Chap. VII "The Art of a Christian Empire"
The Early Christian World By Philip F. Esler Routledge, vol.2, 2000
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Twenty-Eight "Art"
Medieval Art By Marilyn Stokstad Harper & Row, 1986
Librarian’s tip: Chap. II "The Art of the Triumphant Christian Church"
Christian Faith and the Contemporary Arts By Finley Eversole Abingdon Press, 1962
Survival of Early Christian Symbolism in Monastic Churches of New Spain and Visions of the Millennial Kingdom By Schuetz-Miller, Mardith K Journal of the Southwest, Vol. 42, No. 4, Winter 2000
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