13.1 Early Christian Art

Early Christian, Byzantine, and
Islamic Art
Chapter 13.1
Early Christian, Byzantine, and Islamic
Do you know why early Christians used art to express
their religion? Have you ever seen a mosaic?
The Roman Empire began to decline in the latter part of
the second century.
The Christian Church gained power in the West. In the
East the Roman Empire became the Byzantine Empire.
Christians, Muslims, and Jews developed a rich culture in
which the arts flourished.
Early Christian, Byzantine, and Islamic
In the wake of the Roman Empire, a new source of power
was born – the Christian Church
The place of the Roman emperors was taken by popes:
the Church was to play the dominant role in the 500
years following the decline of the classical period.
The Church’s influence eventually spread to touch on
every aspect of life. Nowhere was this more evident than
in visual artwork.
Early Christian Art
For many years, the Christian religion was not
legal throughout the Roman Empire, resulting in
hardship and persecution from its many followers.
Finally in 313 AD, Christianity was made legal
when the emperor Constantine signed the Edict
of Milan.
Pictures with hidden Christian meaning were
being painted long before this time.
The Catacombs
Many of those earlier paintings
were made on the stone walls
of narrow underground
When persecuted by Roman
emperors, the Christians dug
catacombs, or underground
passageways, as places to hold
religious services and bury
their dead
In time, the catacombs grew
into a vast maze of tunnels.
Catacombs in Rome
Early Christians
The views of early Christians set them apart from those
who believed in the Roman religion.
The Christians believed Christ to be the savior of all
people; they hoped to join him in heaven after death as a
reward for following his teachings.
They had little interest in gaining fame and fortune in the
world. Instead they sought an eternal reward in the form
of life after death.
Characteristics of Early Christian Art
In their paintings of people, early Christian art showed
little interest in the beauty, grace, and strength of the
human body, which were so important to Greek and
Roman artists.
Christian art was intended to illustrate the power of
glory of Christ. It was also meant to tell, as clearly as
possible, the story of his life on earth.
Christ’s life story was important because it was the
model for people to follow as the surest way to attain
salvation in Heaven.
Symbolism in Early Christian Art
The early Christians’ view on life on earth as
preparation for the hereafter is reflected in the
artworks they produced.
These works may have appeared Roman, but the
beliefs and ideas they passed on to other Christians
were not Roman beliefs and ideas – they were
Christian artists used symbols as a kind of code.
Familiar figures or signs were sued to represent
Symbolism in Early Christian Art
Catacomb paintings were filled with images of animals, birds, ad
plants, which are also found in Roman art.
If there was a painting of a goldfinch a Roman just saw a bird
where as a Christian would have remembered that the
goldfinch ate thistles and thorns, plants that were on Christ’s
crown during his death.
The goldfinch came to symbolize Christ’s death to early
Over time, birds, animals, and plants came to symbolize
different Christian ideas. A dog = faithfulness
The artists main goal was to illustrate the Christian story as
clearly as possible to make it easy for others to comprehend.
Good Shepherd and the Story of Jonah
Artist Unknown
4th Century AD
More than 1,650 years
ago, an unknown
Christian artist
completed the a
painting on the rough
ceiling of a room in the
The artist who painted
this image borrowed
heavily from art forms
seen all over Rome, but
were given new
Christian meaning.
Good Shepherd and the Story of Jonah
Symbolism in the Good Shepherd
The great circle was painted to represent heaven. Within
this circle is a cross, the symbol of Christ’s death and
The shepherd in the center circle represents Christ.
The sheep around him symbolize his faithful followers.
The lamb on Christ’s shoulders symbolizes those people
who needed additional help on the difficult road to
The arms of the cross end in half circles in which the
biblical story of Jonah and the whale is told. The story
shows God’s power to protect the faithful.
Standing figures with their hands raised represent all the
members of the Church pleading for God’s assistance and
Not long after the catacombs painting
was completed, the status the
Christians began to improve.
Christianity had spread rapidly across
the Roman Empire, ad the emperor
Constantine finally granted Christians
the freedom to practice their faith
A new kind of building was need for the
Sant’ Apollinare. Ravenna Italy
large number of worshippers.
Again the Christians borrowed from the
Romans in the use of the Basilica as
their model.
Christian churches were intended as
retreats from the real world, and where
worshippers could take part in deeply
spiritual events.
Exteriors were relatively simple but
interiors were meant to be impact
highly dramatic.
When eyes strayed from the altar,
they rose to view the walls richly
decorated with mosaics.
A mosaic is a decoration made with
small pieces of glass and stone set in
Christian artists placed mosaics on
walls where light from windows and
candles caused them to flicker and
glow mysteriously.
From the few early Christian
churches that have survived, it is
clear that they served as a model for
church architecture in western
Growth of Byzantine Culture (West)
After the eastern capital was established in
Constantinople, the Roman Empire functioned as two
separate sections. East and West, both with their own
In the west the, the emperors slowly lost their influence
and prestige and after a long struggle fell to barbarian
invaders and marked the end of the Classical era.
As the emperors lost their power as the Church assumed
its place as the central authority in the West.
The Eastern part remained united and strong and came to
be known and the Byzantine Empire.
The Byzantine Empire
Growth of Byzantine Culture (East)
The Eastern part remained united and strong and came to
be known and the Byzantine Empire and continued to thrive
over 1,000 years.
The city of Constantinople soon surpassed Rome in both
size and wealth. It became the largest city in the medieval
world and a cultural center with grand public buildings.
In Constantinople, Roman, Greek, and Eastern influences
were blended to produce rich and brilliant art.
Above all this art glorified the Christian religion and served
the needs of the Church. It set the standard for artistic
excellence in Western Europe until the 12th century.
Byzantine Architecture and Mosaics
The best examples of the Byzantine style were
great churches.
Western architects favored the hall-like basilica
plan for their churches.
Eastern architects favored a central plan.
Hagia Sophia
Built in 6th century AD by the emperor Justinian
The greatest of the central plan churches.
Justinian hired two Greek math experts to design Hagia Sophia.
The finished church beautifully blends the engineering skills of
the Romans with a Greek sensitivity for carefully balanced
Most impressive feature is the huge dome which is almost 100ft
across and almost 31 feet higher than the dome in the Pantheon
Instead of thick walls the dome sits on 4 piers – massive vertical
This allowed them to use thinner walls and add more windows
for interior light and has the appearance of weighing less.
Hagia Sophia (Interior and Exterior)
Istanbul, Turkey
The Mosaics of Hagia Sophia
Inside the dim lighting and shimmering surfaces combine to
produce a dreamlike setting.
Walls of stone and marble are decorated gold, silver, ivory, and
Churches like Hagia Sophia required special decoration on the
Works of art had to be of bright colors and large enough to be
seen from a distance.
Mosaics meet these special needs and became the trademark art
style of the Byzantine church.
They were created to tell familiar stories from the Bible.
The Virgin and Child
Mosaic from Hagia Sophia
Istanbul, Turkey
In Hagia Sophia, one notable
mosaic shows the Virgin
(Christ’s Mother) and the
Christ child between two
Figure on the left is Justinian
and on the right is Constantine
both presenting a small church
and city.
Shows the emperors
proclaiming their loyalty of the
church and state to the Virgin
and Child.
Vocab and Quiz Review
Catacombs – underground passageways
Mosaic – decoration made with small pieces of glass and
stone set in cement
Piers –massive vertical pillars

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