The beginning of Christian Art is slated to the end of the second century or the early third century AD. The Early Christian Period, ranging from the year 100 to 500, witnessed spectacular growth in the development & growth of Christianity. During this phase, almost all Christian Artworks were ‘Symbolic,’ used mostly to educate & instruct the masses. They also served as religious mediums, spreading the words of God. Religion was one of the key forces, influencing most art forms, created after the birth of Christ.
Until the year 200, in Rome, religion was a practice of low class and the strong & mighty did not support it. Therefore, the Early Christian Art was restricted to the decoration of hidden places, like Roman catacombs, where Gods were worshipped secretly. ‘Pagan Iconography’ and ‘Roman Art’ style were in a way the foundation of the Early Christian Art, such as the Catacomb Artwork, “The Good Shepherd.” These cryptic places were fashioned to respect the memory of the dead. Constantine, the great Roman emperor, however, issued his ‘Edict of Milan’ in 313 AD for religious tolerance, and declared Christianity as the Roman Empire’s state religion. Now, the Christians could fearlessly come out from the hiding, without the risk of being persecuted.
Post 313 AD, in the 4th century AD; Constantine built several huge, well-built churches and shrines. Usually five-aisled basilicas, these buildings had a nave in the center, with an aisle on both the sides, while an apse acquired one end of the structure. Together they formed an elevated platform for bishops and priests to sit on. Basilica buildings, concentrating on a round or polygonal shrine, like “Church of the Nativity” in Bethlehem, “St John Lateran,” Rome; “St. Mary Major,” Rome; and “Old St. Peter’s Basilica,” Rome; are some key complexes of this era.
The Early Christian Art employed ‘Symbolism,’ for example the fish, represented Christ; lamb, Jesus’ sacrifice; lambs, Christian sacrifice; cross; Jesus’ crucifixion; anchor, hope & steadfastness; garden, paradise; bird, soul; dove, peace & purity; and so on. The art forms practiced were graffiti, paintings, or carvings, using the same artistic media as that of the ‘Pagans,’ such as frescos, mosaics, sculptures, and manuscript illumination. A carved marble relief, “The Throne of God as a Trinitarian Image,” (c. 400 CE) is an ideal example of this ‘Early Christian Symbolism.’ Later however, the ‘Pictorial Symbolism’ graduated to the ‘Personified’ one, such Jonah in the whale’s abdomen, Orpheus with animals, and Daniel in the lion’s den.
The Christian Art after 313 AD consisted of messages glorifying God, the words of God, the Gospels, and the Acts of the Apostles. The art was not so much about ‘Realism’ or technique, as much it was about the content, conveyed through the mosaics, which embellished the interiors of the early Christian basilicas, like the “Church of St. Maria Maggiore” in Rome. The paintings also carried the messages from liturgical books and other manuscripts, such as Vienna Genesis, Rossano Gospels, & Cotton Genesis. In addition, the art was even advertised with the help of ornate sarcophagi, elaborated with religious symbols, biblical figures, and narratives, such as “Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus” and “Dogmatic Sarcophagus.”
As the Early Christian Art transitioned to Romanesque and to the great gothic cathedrals, it subtly departed from ‘Naturalism,’ getting more sophisticated until the ‘Renaissance Period.’ During this time, humanity and Christianity came together, bridging the early Christian Gothic sensibilities and the Renaissance, reflecting an interesting perspective about the Early Christians.