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Introduction to Paleochristian Art

(Article written by Simona Lommi) Early Christian art represents the whole of the artistic production chronologically  traced in the first centuries of the Christian era. The contemporary iconographers agree in identifying as the chronological start of an expressly and explicitly Christian art the 30s of the 3rd century for the entire Mediterranean basin and the Ancient Near East.

However it is important to understand that Christian art did not suddenly arrive like a bolt from the blue, but moved gently and with small steps into a land that promptly welcomed and metabolized it. We must bear in mind that from the beginning the importance and the potential of images and symbolism represent the core of the first artistic representations.

For the most ancient centuries we have to “content ourselves” with the testimonies left, for the most part in Rome, by the inestimable funeral art documentation. The first early Christian necropolis found in Rome, in North Africa, in Naples and Syracuse, were used (since the II century AD) to celebrate the first rites secretly, due to persecutions.

These necropolis contain the first forms of Christian art:  wall decorations performed on fresco and depicting everyday moments of the life of the deceased, his work, personality and hopes after death. These founts encourage to observe that Christianity did not immediately invent an art expressly proper, but relied on canons, compositional schemes, techniques and above all pagan iconographic themes adapted and translated into a Christian key.

Admittedly we have to remember that the artisans, not yet recently converted, came from a pagan artistic formation so that the first representations concerned shepherds or musicians, according to the canons of the new religion. Remaining in the funerary field, from the III century onwards we witness a progressive evolution of Christian art which begins to assert its own personality.

Good Shepherd (Fresco, III CE – Catacombs of s. Priscilla – Rome)

Moscophoros (Marble VI BCE – Acropolis Museum – Athens)

There is a constant transformation of symbols. One of many, the figure of Moscophoros, the shepherd carrying a calf on his shoulders, already present in Greek and Roman art, becomes the Good Christian Shepherd. For the classical-pagan world the Moscophoros represented the afterlife as a kingdom of serenity and peace. Christianity transformed it into the Good Shepherd by replacing the calf with a lamb, symbol of the “flock” of the faithful and emblem of the sacrifice of Christ. 

Bearded Christ (IV-V CE)

This operation of reinterpretation and transformation of the pagan repertoire in Christian represents a central moment, since it acts as a ground for a clear and defined use, starting from the III century, of purely Christian themes and Biblical matrix. After 313, the year of the promulgation of the Edict of Constantine, we witness a real turning point in early Christian artistic expressions, until then confined in the catacombs, with an expansion and enrichment of the iconographic repertoire: the Christ, depicted before sitting on a rock and dressed in a white robe, he turns into a figure with a beard and purple robe seated on a decorated golden throne.

From this moment on Christian art will build its own and unequivocal personality that will find an official expression in the basilical decorations with object episodes from the Holy Scriptures, hagiographic images with a never seen care and rigor in the chromatic and compositional choice.

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Simone Venturini

Writer and Researcher at Vatican Secret Archives, Professor of Bible at Pontifical University of the Holy Cross od Rome

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