Early Christian Art

Topic 1: Early Christian Art

  • In the early centuries of the common era, the Roman empire began to decline, beset by invasions from without and social and political turmoil within. In the early decades of the fourth century, the Roman Emperor Constantine made two crucial decisions: he made Christianity, formerly a persecuted sect, the official religion of the empire, and he divided the empire in two, founding a new capital for the eastern half at Constantinople (now Istanbul).

  • The first decision ensured that Roman institutions became identified with the Christian church. The Roman audience hall, known as a basilica, became the template for important places of worship. The early Christians who had buried their dead in the catacombs had adapted Roman art to the expression of Christian symbolism. Now Roman dress, learning, and law survived as elements of the church even as non-Roman invaders seized control much of the former empire.

  • The second decision ensured that the western, Latin half of the empire began to diverge culturally and politically from the eastern, Greek half (which became the Byzantine empire). As two halves of the empire drifted apart, and new Islamic powers came to dominate the southern Mediterranean, contacts between Rome and the new barbarian kingdoms of western Europe became more important. A key example is the coronation, on Christmas day in the year 800, of the Frankish ruler Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III.

  • As the new European kingdoms became Christian in religion, they did their best to become Roman in culture. Simplified, stylized Roman forms dominated much of their art. Christian manuscripts, especially gospels, played a key role in this transmission. As symbols of learning and piety, these manuscripts were often lavishly decorated, sometimes with gold. These societies did not possess the wealth or technology needed to recreate Roman art; surviving Roman treasures, from jewels to sarcophagi, were highly prized.

  • At the same time, the formerly migratory peoples of northern and western Europe held on to their own decorative traditions. Migratory art emphasized stylized, curvilinear forms, often making use of animal motifs similar to those found in western and central Asia. These could be adapted to new uses and new media, as in the pages of stylized decoration found in the Lindisfarne Gospel and the Book of Kells.

Related Links:
Early Christian, Byzantine, Islamic, Romanesque, and Gothic Quiz
Byzantine Art
AP Art History Quizzes
AP Art History Notes