Christianity flourished over the world from its roots during the initial years of the Roman Empire, becoming the world’s primary religion, moral framework, and progressive agenda for several centuries. It was founded by Jesus Christ and the Apostles and eventually gave life to its centralized structure, the Christian Church, which grew to be the largest and most influential patron of the arts over time. Likewise, the Christian Church has always employed a variety of creative forms to establish a sense of self-identity, boost its influence, and thus recruit followers.
During the initial period, Christian artwork created its own identity and developed various features, heavily relying on sculptures, paintings, architecture, artwork, and manuscripts. Christian art was a reason for protests since the church spent a lot of money and resources on Christian artwork, which even played its role in dividing the Church into Protestant and Roman Catholic. The history of Christian art is fascinating as it progressed through several phases to become what it is today. Discover more about Christian art, how it became so popular, and its features.
Christian Art: History
After nearly three centuries of perilous survival with an art heritage confined to jewelry, stamps, and a few artworks in the tombs, Christianity was ultimately allowed to flourish in 313. The Edict of Milan, issued by the Roman Emperors Licinius and Constantine, sanctioned Christian practice. Then, in 380 AD, the last Roman Emperor to preside over the entire empire, Theodosius I, decided that Christianity would be the empire’s exclusive approved religion from then on.
As mentioned above, the origins of recognizable Christian artwork can be found between the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries. Given the restrictions against images in the Old Testament, it’s vital to assess why Christian art evolved in the first place. In the early days of the Christian religion, the employment of pictures was a recurring theme. The importance of images in Greek and Roman tradition is the best explanation for the development of Christian art in the early church.
As Christianity grew in popularity, young Christians desired to retain the importance of imagery that they had learned in their prior cultural experiences in their Christian lives. For instance, in the Roman civilization, there was a shift away from cremation and toward inhumation. Tombs were built into the dirt beyond the city walls of the Roman Empire, near main highways, to dig graves. To bury their relatives, families dug tombs called cubicula. Sarcophagi would be constructed for wealthy Romans to be buried in.
The new people that converted to Christianity had the same desires. Sarcophagi featuring Christian images were popular among the wealthier Christians, and Christian tombs were regularly dug next to non-Christian people.
Christian Art: Emergence of Sarcophagi
After the legalization of Christianity religion in 313 by Constantine, Christians started to migrate their funerals above ground, using large sarcophagi or caskets made of stone or marble. This is one of the earliest depictions of Christian sculptures and artwork from the early Christian days. More so, Christians confronted a fresh challenge with sculpture. Sculpture abounds in the classical tradition, from idols of God and Jesus to friezes to life-size sculptures adorning structures.
Early Christians recognized ancient pagan deity statues and carvings for what they signified: consecrated idols, which the Bible forbade as idolatry. As a result, sculptures were relegated to the background during the initial Christian era.
Even though initial Christians did utilize sculptures infrequently, they made sure that it was part of the décor rather than a focus of veneration. As a result, sculptures from early Christianity ignored the life-size scale used by their pagan forefathers and entire statues and artwork each round. Instead, Christians recreated biblical images and Christian allegory using thin relief sculptures.
Christian Art: Catacombs
During early times, Christians’ burials were also a well-kept secret. Christians, contrary to their pagan forefathers, didn’t support cremation. Christians believed in the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ. They probably assumed Jesus would be stumped by a vase full of ashes. Rather than storing their relatives’ or loved ones’ charred remains on their shelves in homes for years, Christians buried them. They had to find innovative spaces to bury their dead in overcrowded Rome due to a severe lack of room.
As a result, Christians dug tunnels below the city’s fragile volcanic stone and erected incredible catacombs. Here in these tombs or catacombs, the first evidence of Christian art can be found.
Initially, Christians used paintings, or artwork on fresh marble, to decorate their catacombs. These paintings are pretty basic and symbolic; they aren’t perfected in the least. This type of early Christian art is based on the popular Pompeian style of the Roman Empire. They just repurposed an existing design for fresh content.
Characteristics of Early Christian Art
- Christians didn’t have many opportunities for Christian art after the death of Jesus.
- Catacombs of Rome are the earliest form of Christian artwork and sculptures.
- Christian artwork progressed after the legalization of Christianity as a religion by Constantine.
- Sarcophagi also emerged after Christianity was made an official religion.
- Early Christians used to create mosaics of biblical narratives.
- Christian and biblical manuscripts also emerged when the church was considered the most powerful authority.
- Christian architecture had significant importance during the times of the church.
Our Final Thoughts
Christian art has evolved a lot. From when people weren’t allowed to worship their religion to when Christianity flourished and progressed worldwide—and people started using Christian artwork not only for burial but also as artwork—Christian art has progressed tremendously.
We have fewer pieces of evidence from the early Christian period since most people that followed Christianity were poor and didn’t have enough resources to draw or do the artwork. But as it evolved, we have some of the best images from the Renaissance and later periods. Christian art has an interesting history, and Christians interested in arts should learn about all the struggles, characters, and history of Christian art to learn more about our religion.