Art History Lab

Unveiling the Masterpieces: The Evolution and Significance of Early Christian Art

Early Christian Art: Uncovering the Symbols and Stories of the First Believers

Christian art, as we know it today, has its roots in the early centuries of Christianity. However, finding early Christian art is no easy task.

The first Christians were persecuted and did not have the same institutional support that Christians have today. In this article, we will explore the difficulties that early Christians faced in creating art, the symbolism that they relied on, and examples of early Christian art.

Difficulties in Finding Early Christian Art

The Roman Empire ruled most of Europe, North Africa, and the Near East during the time of the first Christians. They persecuted Christians that did not accede to the authority of the Roman Emperor and the pagan gods.

This persecution extended to any art that had Christian themes, making it difficult to produce and preserve Christian art. Additionally, the lack of financial support from patrons made it challenging to create art.

Unlike the wealthy Romans who had access to the latest art and art materials, early Christians often did not have the resources to commission artists or buy luxury art supplies.

Symbolism in Early Christian Art

Due to the difficulties faced by early Christians when creating art, they relied heavily on symbols that conveyed their faith. These symbols were often pictogram-like, making them easy to create and understand.

The following are some of the most common symbols used by early Christians:

– Peacock: This bird is a symbol of immortality, resurrection, and the heavenly life. – Lamb: The lamb represents Jesus, as depicted in the Bible.

He is referred to as the “Lamb of God,” and early Christians used its symbolism to show their devotion to their faith. – Fish: The fish was another symbol that early Christian used frequently.

It represented Jesus’s miracles, as well as the Christian baptism. – Anchor: The anchor symbolized hope, stability, and security in a belief that Christians held in the face of adversity and persecution.

– Cross: The cross is the most recognizable symbol of Christianity. It is a representation of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and is still used today by many Christians from different denominations.

– Dove: The dove symbolizes peace, love, and the Holy Spirit. It appears when Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist and is still in use today to represent the Holy Spirit.

Factors Influencing the Lack of Early Christian Art

The early Christian period, which spans from the fourth century AD to the middle of the fifth century AD, had particular factors that influenced the creation and scarcity of Christian art. One of the significant factors was Roman occupation discrimination.

The Romans were not tolerant of any form of rebellion, and Christianity was seen as an attempt to undermine their authority. As a result, Christian artwork was considered seditious, and any emerging art form that showed Christian iconography faced destruction.

Christian art making was also influenced by the religious beliefs. Early Christianity did not advocate for the creation of images representing God, or persons of the Holy Trinity.

The only allowed paintings were that of saints, and even then, the saints were not to be painted in their human form, but through symbols that embodied their character.

Examples of Early Christian Art

Despite all the difficulties that early Christians had in producing art, some early Christian art has survived the test of time. One of the most remarkable examples is the frescoes found in the Roman catacombs.

The catacombs were underground cemeteries that early Christians used to bury their dead. The frescoes depicted biblical scenes and symbols related to the Christian faith.

Another example of early Christian art is found in the Dura-Europos church, which was abandoned for over 1800 years and rediscovered in 1920. The church’s walls were decorated with abbreviated scenes from the Bible, such as the

Adoration of the Magi and the Baptism of Christ.

In conclusion, Christian art has come a long way; from symbols scratched on the walls of catacombs to intricate carvings and breathtaking murals in cathedrals worldwide. Early Christian art is invaluable because it provides a glimpse of one of the earliest forms of art and the difficulties that Christians had in creating it.

Understanding the challenges faced by early Christian artists makes it easier to appreciate the treasures of Christian art today. Early Christian Art After 313 AD: The Transformation Under Emperor Constantine

With the Edict of Milan issued in 313 AD, Emperor Constantine declared religious tolerance from the Roman authorities towards Christianity.

This marked a turning point in the history of Christian art. The newfound freedom allowed Christian art to flourish, with artists adopting new styles and techniques that resulted in a distinct form of Christian art.

In this article, we will explore the transformation made in Christian art under Constantine and the influence of the Christian church in art.

Transformation of Christian Art under Emperor Constantine

The Edict of Milan allowed for the construction of Christian churches, basilicas and the free expression of Christian beliefs. Churches, therefore, required art to represent the biblical stories and themes of Christianity.

The patronage of Christian art gained importance, and new artistic practices began to emerge. With the construction of churches, there was a shift in architectural form with basilicas becoming a popular style.

While it was a secular building used for government and business, Constantine adopted it as the architectural form of the Christian church. The basilica layout consisted of an apse, a nave, and side-aisles giving the congregation a clear view of the artwork.

Early Christian art also underwent significant changes in themes and styles. Instead of relying heavily on symbols, Christian art began to incorporate narrative forms that included subjects like Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the apostles.

This transformation also saw frescoes and mosaics becoming significant forms of Christian art, thanks to the durability of the medium.

Influence of Christian Church on Art

The Christian church played a significant role in the development of Christian art. The Christian church was the primary patron of artists, and commissioned works of art were created to appeal to the faithful and to inspire devotion.

The Christian church also influenced the kind of art created and the expressions of faith. Sacred images were also significant in Christian art.

They could be found in churches, homes, and artworks on display for general devotional use. Sacred art helped the faithful to understand Christian stories and the lives of the saints.

Painters, sculptors, and architects often worked with clergy members to create artworks that aligned with Christian teachings. Frescoes and mosaics formed an integral part of Christian church architecture.

Early Christians decorated church interiors with frescoes of religious scenes such as the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and the Last Supper. Mosaics made from small, brightly colored, glass or stone chips, became popular from the late fifth century.

Christian artists used to create intricate compositions of religious figures and religious scenes with mosaics representing the glory of God. Religious Renaissance Art: Themes and Techniques

The religious Renaissance period is often attributed to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, a time of economic prosperity and cultural patronage in Europe.

During this period, religious themes returned to art with a new approach, realism. Instead of the Byzantine style of idealizing figures and creating an otherworldly look, Renaissance artists sought to portray human figures in a more naturalistic and true-to-life way.

Artists wanted to capture the beauty and grace of everyday life while still displaying Christian themes. Renaissance artists began to use linear perspective, a technique that allowed painters to create images that appeared like realistic three-dimensional space.

They also used chiaroscuro, a technique of contrasting light and dark to make figures appear more life-like. The themes in religious Renaissance art centered around the central beliefs of Christianity, including the Resurrection, Incarnation, and the Passion of Christ.

Biblical stories and events became popular subjects, with artists capturing moments of the Bible through their art.


In conclusion, early Christian art and Renaissance art are two essential periods that marked significant changes in the story and content of Christian art. The period under Constantine saw the emergence of basilicas as the dominant architectural form and the rise of narrative themes in Christian art.

Renaissance art, on the other hand, focused on capturing the true-to-life beauty of the world while still reflecting Christian themes, and it brought a new kind of art to Christian expression. Both periods resulted from different methods and techniques, giving us a glimpse into the unique ways that people have expressed their faith over time.

Notable Early Christian Artworks: Masterpieces and Significance

Throughout the history of Christianity, art has played a significant role in conveying the faith of its practitioners. Early Christian art, comprising of sculptures, frescoes, mosaics, and other forms, gave visual representation to divine stories and experiences and is now celebrated as significant works of art.

In this article, we will explore some notable early Christian artworks and the significance of these pieces.

Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus


Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus is a marble sarcophagus decorated with Christian sculptures. It was created in the fourth century for a wealthy Roman senator and later displayed in the St. Peter’s Basilica.

The biblical and evangelical subjects depicted on the sarcophagus include scenes from the New Testament, such as the arrest of Peter and Paul, the Annunciation, and Daniel in the Lion’s Den. The carving illustrates the narrated stories of the Bible as well as the elevated status of the commissioner.

Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo

The Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo is a basilica in Ravenna, Italy, constructed in the sixth century. The basilica is renowned for its exquisite mosaic art, which depicts themes from both Eastern and Western Christianity, embracing Byzantine, Greek, and Western styles.

Of the several highly significant mosaics, the depictions of Christ are perhaps the most striking, containing sharp lines that follow the contours of the facial features.

Moses Striking the Rock

Moses Striking the Rock is an oil painting by the Flemish painter, Pieter Paul Rubens, created in the early seventeenth century. The painting portrays the striking biblical story of Moses bringing water out of a rock for the Israelites.

The artwork is a rare example of Mannerism, characterized by strong, exaggerated movement and unharmonious compositions. The painting reflects the use of human consciousness shaped by the lenses of ethical and religious concepts.

The painting also exhibits a parallel between the transfiguration of Moses and Prince William of Orange’s heroic deeds.

Adoration of the Magi


Adoration of the Magi is an oil painting by Sandro Botticelli, which exhibits the symbolism and beauty of Renaissance art. The painting has a triangular composition, and the ruins and a gnarled palm tree in the foreground are symbols that signify the events to be of biblical values.

The artwork brilliantly summarizes the story of the Gospel, with the painting reflecting the monarchical power that spreads to the coming fourth century.



Transfiguration is a painting by Raphael, created in the early sixteenth century. The famous painting represents the divine and human nature of Christ – characterized by the dichotomy of Christ and mankind.

It is the final work of Raphael, and it can also be seen as an epitome of his artistic career. The painting presents how the heavens could open and the divinity come down to man.

Historical Significance of Christian Art

Evolution and Survival of Christian Art

Throughout history, Christian art has evolved and survived through numerous trials. From suppression during times of persecution to the flourishing of art under the patronage of Constantine, Christian art has undergone significant transformation.

The art of the subsequent centuries, including the Renaissance and Mannerism periods, further refined and transformed Christian art.

Impact and Influence of Christian Art

Christian art has played a significant role in fostering devotion to Christianity as a religion. Art touches the hearts of the faithful and helps them develop an emotional connection to the spiritual realm.

Christian artworks not only engage the viewers emotions but also provide them with tangible evidence of their beliefs, forming essential elements of their identity as Christians. Christian art has shaped public perception of leaders and symbols.

Christian artists also used their skills to depict influential historical events and early church architecture. As a result, Christian artists were often major contributors to producing influential political and religious propaganda.

In conclusion, Christian art has a rich history that is woven into the fabric of Christianity itself. It has survived multiple ups and downs, culminating in a plethora of notable Christian artworks.

These works range in different styles, techniques, and themes, imbuing each artwork with its significance. Christian art’s impact and influence are profound, fostering devotion, shaping public perception, and maintaining authority in both societal and religious power.

In conclusion, the exploration of notable early Christian artworks highlights the significance of art in conveying the messages and beliefs of the faith. From the

Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus to the

Transfiguration by Raphael, these masterpieces not only showcase the talent and creativity of the artists but also serve as important historical and religious artifacts.

Christian art, through its evolution and survival, has influenced devotion, shaped public perception, and played a vital role in the identity and power of the religion. This article reveals the enduring impact of Christian art and emphasizes the importance of preserving and appreciating these works as a testament to the enduring legacy of faith and creativity.

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