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Chapter 8: Early Christian and Byzantine Art

Page history last edited by PBworks 17 years, 9 months ago

__A New Religion__



With the fall of the Roman Empire came the rise to a developing new religion, Christianity. Christianity was first adopted by urban lower and lower-middle classes who illegally met in catacombs on the outskirts of Rome; for example the Catacomb of Priscilla. Christianity remained an underground movement for nearly 300 years. During the second century many educated Romans and members of the upper class began to practice the new religion and finally in 313 it left its title of a minority religion when Emperor Constantine declared the Edict of Milan which granted tolerance to all religions especially Christianity.

Catacomb of Priscilla

Christ as the Good Shepherd


  • Found in the Catacomb of Priscilla (Fresco painting, Rome, 2nd-3rd century)
  • Depicts Christ carrying a goat with another goat and a sheep around him
  • The motif of the Good Shepherd was assimilated by Early Christian artists as a symbol of compassion
  • Good Shepherd was also used in Christian liturgy, with the priest being paralleled with Christ and the followers with the flock of animals
  • This is not the first time the image of a man carrying a goat has been used, it has been seen in Archaic sculpture. This shows the influence of past cultures and religions Christianity carried throughout its religion


Dura Europos


  • Small town, once at the edge of the Roman Empire (Now Syria), discovered and excavated in 1922
  • Reflects the multiplicity of religions practiced around the Mediterranean from the first to fourth century
  • Among the town was shrines dedicated to Persian deities, pagan Roman temples, a Jewish synagogue, a Christian baptistery, and a private house where Christians worshiped
  • The Picture below shows the west wall of the synagogue where there are scenes from the Old Testament (The name the Christians gave to the Jewish Bible)separated by three levels








Moses Giving Water to the Twelve Tribes in Israel


  • This detail of one narrative scene from the synagogue shows Moses giving water to the twelve tribes of Israel
  • Moses is portrayed as a mix of a patriarch and a Roman statesman, he wears a toga and there is a hint of contrapposto in his stance


Final Thought

It took hundreds of years to establish Christianity as the new official religion of Rome and with that came many hard times. As Chris trinity grew the empire began to diverge into Eastern and Western empires. With this separation the once overlapping cultures of Early Christian and Byzantine grew apart. The geographical and political separation was paralleled with a split in the Church. In the Western Empire the pop was the head of the Church, but in the Eastern Empire the Church was led by a patriarch whose power was bestowed on him by the Byzantine emperor. This huge event led to divisions of artistic styles. The West's artist worked with Hellenistic and Roman styles and ideas while the East was more influenced by Greece. With all of the different cultures influencing and absorbing throughout the two empires Greek and Roman myths were taken in by Christians and interpreted in a Christian light.


pages 279-282

Early Christian Art



*narthex- a porch or vestibule in early Christian churches.

*transept- a cross arm in a Christian church,placed at right angles to the nave.

*cruciform- shaped or arranged like a cross.




The marble sarcophagus is in Rome in the Church of Santa Maria Antiqua. This elaborate sarcophagus includes both Old and New Testament scenes, but also figures combing both Roman and Christian meaning. The Christians decorated their sarcophaguses with reliefs. This was similar to the Greeks, Romans, and Etruscans. The did not cremate the body however, because they believed in resurrection. Starting on the left is Jonah(Old Testament). He came out of the fish that swallowed him in this sarcophagus. A Greco-Roman poet and his muse sit beside Jonah. Other things such as tree branches are a reminder of the wooden cross. These trees were to become very important in Christian art, seeing as though they represented the wooden cross. Also the muse raises her arms in prayer.

A Good Shepherd with a sheep on his shoulders is next on the right side. John the Baptist is also present on this sarcophagus baptizing Christ. Baptism signifys rebirth to Christians. There is a link between pre-Christian era and new Christian era. It pairs good and evil and dark and light.



Up until the early fourth century Christians had to worship in homes. Things changed however, in A.D. 313 when Constantine issued the Edict of Milan. Christianity then became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Christian churches were designed differently than Greek and Roman temples. They were designed so that the people could gather together while worshiping. Many churches were build after in a short period of time in Constantinople.


III.Old St. Peter's

The early Christian basilicas did not last through the years. Old St. Peter's floor plan has actually been reconstructed. The design of these basilicas have the alter as the main focus. The alter was located on the eastern end and the narthex was at the western entrance. The alter being placed here was symbolic. The crucifix with Christ faced the congregation. It was tradition for the cross on the alter to face the western entrance of the church. The Roman basilicas used to contain apses containg statues of emperors, but Christian apses contained ones of Christ.

Reconstruction diagram of the nave of Old Saint Peter's basilica
Plan of Old Saint Peter's basilica, Rome, 333-390

A transept was added to the Old Saint Peter's basilica. This contained a canopy which marked Peter's grave. The building actually forms the shape of a cross. There are also huge arches, richly decorated with mosaics, marble columns, and frescoes inside. An excellent example of syncreyistic character of Early Christian iconography is the mosaic of Chistus-Sol. It was discovered in a pagan cemetary under old Saint Peter's. In this mosaic the vines of Dionysus become the True Vine of Christ. The latter symbolizes the Church body. Also the pagan sun god, Apollo, is merged with Christ as Sun. Also Christian resurrection is associated with this.

Christus-Sol, from the Christian Mausoleum of the Julii under Saint Peter's necropolis, Rome, mid-3rd century.

The restored interior of Saint Paul shows what Early Christian churches looked like. It is similar to Old Saint Peter's. It has a wide nave, aisles, clerestory windows, and apse of Roman basilica. The interior is gold and gives a beautiful effect.

Saint Paul outside the Walls, Rome, begun A.D. 385 and restored after fire in 1823



Centrally Planned Buildings



Centrally planned buildings were round/polygonal shaped. These buildings radiated from the central point and was surmounted by a dome, which was often attached to a larger structure.

These types of buildings were used as:



-baptisteries - for performing baptisms

-mausolea - large architectural tombs


  • These types of churches contained a central altar or tomb, with a cylinder shaped core and a clerestory with windows.
  • An ambulatory/circular barrel vaulted passage way ran between the central space and the exterior walls.


Santa Costanza


Interior of the Santa Costanza, Rome, c. 350 C.E.


  • This was a mausoleum for Constantine's daughter, Costanza.
  • Her sarcophagus/stone coffin was placed in the middle, for visitation purposes.
  • The exterior of the church is plain, while the interior is decored with mosaics.
  • The circular plan consists of colonades that seperate the central space from the ambulatory, and they give support to the round arches.
  • The columns have Ionic volutes and Corinthian acanthus leaves.
  • The ambulatory ceiling is decored with mosaics.


The ambulatory ceiling of Santa Costanza, Rome, c. 350, Mosaic


  • This mosaic ceiling shows the figures of Cupid and Psyche, who were seen as figures/characters in a symbolic story about the relationship between the body(Cupid) and the soul(Psyche).
  • Many people find it awkward that a Greek myth is being depicted on a Christian ceiling, which seems to cause conflict between the two.
  • This ceiling signifies faith, love, morality and forgiveness.


Galla Placidia



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Exterior of the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Revenna, c. 425-426


  • This mausoleum was built in the Adriatic coast of Italy.
  • It was dedicated to Galla Placidia, who was the daughter of Emperor Theodosius I.
  • The exterior of the mausoleum is plain brick, with blind niches, slight recesses/cut outs in the wall, that had round arches.
  • It is in the shape of a cross, with four pediments.
  • In side each arm of the building is a barrel vault, whose ceiling is decored with rich mosaics.


Interior of the mausoleum of Galla Placidia


  • This mosaic shows two apostles in togas. Again, there is an awkward mix between Greek and Christian culture.
  • By the feet of the apostles are two doves near a fountain. These doves symbolize Christian souls who drink the baptismal water of eternal life.
  • Below this mosaic is another on with St. Lawrence


The St. Lawrence mosaic c. 425-426


  • This mosaic depicts St. Lawrence approaching a gridiron over fiery coals, which is how he was martyred/killed.
  • The rich dark blue ceiling, covered with bright stars, and the barrel vaults represent the dome of heaven.
  • Both mosaics are very peaceful and straight forward on content. The messages being depicted in both mosaics are easy to identify.


Christ as the Good Shepard, the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, C. 425-426, Mosaic


  • The robe that Christ wears is purple and gold, which are the same colors that the emperors wear. This shows that Christ is being depicted as a superior being with the emperor's royal status, yet, he tends and cares for his people/sheep.
  • He is sitting in a contrapposto pose, since he is sitting in an "s" curved form/spiral effected posture.
  • There is an emphasis in depth/space, since the sheep are on different levels in the background.
  • He seems very relaxed and peaceful, while He tends to his sheep.




__Justinian and the Byzantine Style__



* Germanic tribes from Northern Europe overthrew the western part of the Roman Empire during the fifth century. The Italian port city of Ravenna was occupied by the Ostrogoths until it was recaptured in 540 A.D., during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Justinian. He reunited the Roman Empire.



__San Vitale__

* Ravenna’s most important church, San Vitale, was commissioned by the city’s bishop, Ecclesius. Construction by 547 A.D., and was then dedicated by the Archbishop, Maximian.



Figure 1 Exterior of San Vitale, Ravenna, 540-547.

Figure 2 Plan of San Vitale


* San Vitale’s exterior consists of plain unbroken brick, except in cases for buttresses and windows. The building is centrally planned, rather than having an east-west orientation, with the altar in the east, opposite the entrance. The round central space takes the place of naves of western churches. Eight pillars circle the central ring, and support eight arches. Past the arches are seven niches and the cross vault, containing the altar. Ambulatories (aisles surrounding the end of the choir) surround the niches on the lower level, and a gallery on the second floor. The galleries are assumed to have been solely for women, because women were segregated from men in worshipping. Arched windows are on every floor of San Vitale to let sunlight shine through. The three stories consist of the ground floor, the gallery, and the clerestory.



Figure 3 Interior of San Vitale looking east toward apse, Ravenna


* The interior of the structure is decorated lavishly with marble and mosaics. It emanates a holy glow of heavenly yellow light due to the abundance of gold in the mosaics. These Byzantine mosaics display the importance of light in Christian art. This is due to the symbolism of Christ as the “light of the world.”


Choir Ceiling Mosaic

Figure 4 Ceiling of the choir, San Vitale, Ravenna, c. 547. Mosaic.


* The arched overhead choir ceiling is ornately designed with animals and flowers, with a haloed lamb at the center, surrounded by four angels. This symbolizes Christ as the Lamb of God. There is a frontal view of Christ on the arched entrance to the choir, with a beard and dark hair (his traditional Byzantine representation). Apostles surround him, declaring his role as head of the church.



Figure 5 Detail of a capital, San Vitale, Ravenna, c. 540. Marble.


* The capitals (the top of the pillars) are repetitively geometric, and break out of the Greek and Roman orders. The lower capital is decoratively covered with vines, which ties into Christ’s metaphor that he is the vine, and the people are the branches. In the center of the vines, five yellow flowers arrange a Greek cross. Above this, two horses stand in front of trees, surrounding the Christian Cross. This accentuates the connection between the tree and the Cross.


Apse Mosaic

Figure 6 Apse mosaic, San Vitale, Ravenna, c. 547.


* In the apse of San Vitale, a large mosaic shows a younger Christ, with a halo containing an image of the Cross, and a royal purple robe. He is impossibly and illogically seated on a globe, which has four highly stylzed rivers gushing out to quench the earth. This mosaic is more conceptual than natural.


Justinian’s Court Mosaic


Figure 7 Court of Justinian, apse mosaic, San Vitale, Ravenna, c. 547.


* The two sidewalls of the apse show the court of Justinian, and Theodora, his empress. Justinian's mosaic is to the right of Christ, showing his higher importance over Theodora. In Justinian’s mosaic, the emporer wears a matching royal purple robe as Christ in the apse mosaic. The Archbishop, Maximian, is to the right of Justinian, holds a jeweled cross, and sports a gold cloak. Behind the large green shields are the military guards, who stand with the court officials to the left of Justinian. Justinian holds bread, representing Christian Communion. This mosaic’s purpose was to show Justinian as the successor to Constantine, and as Christ’s earthly representative. The gold background in the depiction makes it seem more spiritual to the viewer. This mosaic is even more important because Justinian had never visited Ravenna. The purpose of the picture was to remind citizens of his power and devotion to Christ.


Theodora’s Court Mosaic


Figure 8 Court of Theodora, apse mosaic, San Vitale, Ravenna, c. 547.


* Theodora’s mosaic depicts Theodora with her churchmen to the left of her. Her court ladies stay to the right. She also wears a royal purple robe, with three Magi offering gifts embroidered at the bottom. A halo encircles her head, suggesting her role as both an earthly and spiritual leader. Aspects of this mosaic show typical Byzantine inattention of perspective.


Throne of Maximian

Figure 9 The throne of Maximian, 545-553


* Along with the mosaics and other Byzantine art, artists produced Church furniture, small reliefs, and ivories. Archbishop Maximian’s ivory throne is the largest Early Christian ivory from Justinian’s reign. It is believed to have been a gift from Justinian. The polished ivory chair is large, with a high, semi-circular back. It is thought to have been carried in religious ceremonies, and at that time, held a jeweled cross or Gospel book. Ivory plaques carved in low relief are stretched across the base of the throne. Scenes from the childhood and miracles of Christ are carved into the back of the chair, and scenes from Joseph’s life are depicted on the armrests. These scenes connect the Old Testament with the New Testament. Four evangelists decorate the front of the base, with John the Baptist between them. They all stand in niches with columns and arches, and halo-inspired shell apses. Each has a raised right hand in the Roman signification of eloquence in public speaking, and holds a book with the Cross on the cover in the other. All wear Roman togas.



Hagia Sophia

* Two Greek mathematicians, Anthemius and Isidoros, were commissioned by Justinian to design Hagia Sophia. They were highly interested in circles and parabolas, which were incorporated into the structure.


Figure 11 Exterior of Hagia Sophia, Constantinople, completed 537.


* The building has a dome that rises above four arches. Four piers support the arches, and buttresses support the piers. The dome is placed on pendentives, and appears to be suspended.



Figure 12 Pendentives


Figure 13 Plan of Hagia Sophia


Figure 14 Plan of Hagia Sophia


Figure 15 Plan of Hagia Sophia


* The dome was made of one layer of brick, and lightened by the weight held by the pendentives. Due to the intensely large size of the dome, it needed buttressing. A buttress brilliantly surrounds each small window at the base, and ultimately shifts the domes weight downward.


Figure 16 Interior of Hagia Sophia


Figure 17 Interior of Hagia Sophia


* The north and south sides of the nave are able to have arcades and windows because of the four load-bearing piers. The intense amount of windows and arcades make the structure very open and well lit. Five arches, supported by decorated capitals, connect the side aisles with the nave at the ground level. Galleries contain seven arches at the second level. There are two rows of windows at the lunettes (the areas enframed by arches), five windows over seven windows. Smaller windows circle the lower edge of the dome. Because of the overwhelming amount of windows in the Hagia Sophia, the interior of the building seems to glow due to reflections.


Figure 18 Detail of arcade spandrels and capital, Hagia Sophia.


* This building was not a place of worship for the community, but rather a church made solely for the emperor and his court.











Pgs. 300-311


The Expansion of Justinian's Patronage

The Transfiguration:



  • Fig. 8.35, Church of St. Catherine's monastery, Mount Sinai, Egypt, c.550-565. Mosaic.
  • Located in one of Justinian's commissioned buildings
  • Description: No landscape; depicts a bearded Christ floating amidst a flat; golden plane; he is surrounded by a mandorla, which is an "almond-shaped" aureola; he is wearing white, which is said to be a "sign of his spiritual 'transfigured' state"; he is transmitting white light towards other figures depicted.
  • Christ is said to be represented as "the light of the world".
  • Three of Christs apostles (Peter, James, and John) appear to be falling back in awe which can be seen in their gestures.
  • Moses and Elijah stand on either side of Christ in what appears to be a calm, vertical pose.
  • The scene is mystical and goes beyond earth, time, and space.
  • It is said that in this location Moses had been "transfigured" by light after receiving the "Law from God" and this was also the moment that God acknowledged Christ as his son.
  • The figures in the medallions of the frame are prophets and apostles.


The Codex:(book with many folded skins)



  • picture above not in book
  • a manuscript of pages held together by stitching
  • the earliest form of book, replacing the scrolls and wax tablets of earlier times (Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans used scrolls)
  • more practical and easier to use
  • made of flat sheets of parchment or vellum
  • bound together on one side instead of rolled up like a scroll
  • easier to preserve
  • pages easier to illustrate


The Vienna Genesis:


  • one of the earliest codices to illustrate scenes from the bible


Joseph Interpreting Dreams in Prison:


  • Fig. 8.36 (top), from the Vienna Genesis, early 6th c., Nationalbibliothek, Vienna.Illuminated manuscript.
  • An event in the story of Joseph
  • Description: he is sitting in a prison; viewed from aboves; sketchy landscape outside of prison creating a setting; landscape creates "sense of place"; at right of prison, Potiphar's wife talks with gaurd; she is wearing modest clothing which is said to be "disguising her lust for Joseph"; pharoah and jailed butler and baker inside
  • Narratives are usually continuous without frames or dividers between scenes, like continuous spiral frieze on Trajan's Column
  • Fig. 8.37 (below 8.37); ''Joseph and Potiphar's wife'; infant is anonymous and hels facing mother in ordinary way; proportions are naturalistic; turned pose, occupying 3 dimensions of space


Image and Icon:

  • an icon is an image whose purpose is purely devotional
  • usually panel painting


Virgin mother and Child Enthroned with Saints Felix and Augustus:



  • Fig. 8.38; Fresco. 6th c.Commodilla catacomb, Rome.
  • Description: four saints and one widow on left side; Mary sits on throne and is "Queen of Heaven"; Christ is the "King of Heaven" and sits on his mother's lap
  • Unlike Vienna Genesis baby, Christ is frontal, clothed, and is a holy munculus, which means that he looks more like a little man rather than a child; he is only babylike in size
  • This type of Virgin and Child is a typical style of Byzantine art
  • This style "invites devotion and prayer through diret confrontation"
  • in narrative sequence


Saint Peter:


  • Fig. 8.39, Church of Saint Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sanai, Egypt, 6th or 7th c.


Later Byzantine Developments:

  • Iconclastic Controversy- virtues and dangers of religious imagery were debated
  • Iconclasts- meaning, "breakers of images"; they resided in Eastern Christiandom and followed "biblical injunction against worshiping graven images"; many destroyed works of art
  • Their belief was that people would worship the image rather than the meaning
  • They allowed religious art to depict designs, patterns, and animal or plant form-- not humans
  • Iconophile- were in favor of human images and thrived in the West
  • Edict against graven images: 730-843
  • Mosaics and paintings of human images allowed, but not sculpture because it was three dimensional

Comments (1)

Anonymous said

at 11:19 am on Oct 16, 2006

The "A New Religion" section is nice, though it didn't need to include the Dura Europos. The rest also ok; could have been more concise. We didn't cover much of the bottom portion of the page, so it was unnecessary.

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