Christian Art before Constantine
PARTIALLY DUE TO an accident of survival, but also to the generally unsettled political conditions that prevailed during the first centuries of Christianity, the art of the period is nearly all funerary. Decorated churches there certainly were, but of these only the wall paintings of the Dura house-church so far survive to remind us of the surroundings in which the first Christians worshipped. For the rest, monuments to the dead, inscriptions, frescoes and sculptured sarcophagi form the main body of evidence for the art of Christianity before Constantine.
In a sense, this is as it should be, for the Christians of the period sometimes lived very near to death, not only as members of a sect liable to be proscribed without warning, but also because death, whether natural or by martyrdom, was the gateway to Heaven, the goal towards which the whole Christian life was directed. Life itself, in the sense of sharing in the activities of a largely pagan community, was largely irrelevant, though this does not mean that the average Christian, as opposed to a minority who actually courted death by martyrdom, was normally anything but circumspect. Even St Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, 'waited to be betrayed as also the Lord had done, that we too might become his imitators, not thinking of ourselves alone but also of our neighbours . . . For this reason, brethren, we do not commend those who surrender themselves, for the Gospel does not enjoin us so to do.' So it is that the individual men and women who stare at us from the central medallion of their sarcophagi are not avowedly or obviously Christian. It is only their association with the symbols of the Redemption or with scenes that illustrate Christ's promise of an eternal reward for the righteous that differentiates them from