Early Christian Art: History, Characteristics & Symbolism

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  • 0:08 Early Christian Art:…
  • 1:05 The Catacombs of Rome
  • 2:11 Sarcophagi
  • 3:28 Early Christian Mosaic
  • 4:43 Illuminating the Word of God
  • 6:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Max Pfingsten

Max has an MA in Classics, Religion, Philosophy, Behavioral Genetics, a Master of Education, and a BA in Classics, Religion, Philosophy, Evolutionary Psychology.

Expert Contributor
Sasha Blakeley

Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor's in English Literature from McGill University. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for six years.

This lesson covers the development of early Christian art. We begin in the catacombs of Rome, looking at early Christian frescoes. We then move to later sarcophagi. A brief survey of early Christian mosaics follows, and we close with the fine art of illuminated manuscripts.

Early Christian Art: An Underground Movement

The first few centuries after the death of Jesus afforded Christians few opportunities for artistic or architectural expression. Christianity was often oppressed by the Roman Empire. Christians might have their property seized or be burned alive. In such a hostile environment, Christian artwork would have proven a liability. The only distinctly Christian symbol of this early age was the Ichthys, or 'Jesus fish.' The Ichthys was a secret symbol, whose name formed an acrostic for the central concept of Christian faith.

English Spelling of Greek Letter Word Translation
Iota Iesous Jesus
Chi Christos Christ
Theta Theou God's
Ypsilon Uios Son
Sigma Soter Savior

Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior.

So the nature of Jesus could all be summed up with a simple fish, allowing Christians to identify their secret places of worship as well as the burial places of the faithful.

The Catacombs of Rome

A fresco created by early Christians
Early Christian Fresco

The burial of Christians was a secret affair as well. Unlike their pagan predecessors, Christians were not fans of cremation. Christians believed in a bodily resurrection. I suppose they thought Jesus wouldn't know what to do with an urn full of ashes.

So, instead of keeping the burnt remains of their loved ones on a shelf at home, Christians buried their dead. In overpopulated Rome, with its severe lack of space, this meant Christians had to find unique places to put their bodies. So Christians tunneled into the soft volcanic stone beneath the city, and there they built amazing catacombs. And it is in these catacombs that we begin to see the first traces of Christian art.

Early Christians decorated their catacombs with frescoes, or paintings on fresh plaster. These frescoes are very simple and allegorical; not refined at all.

This sort of primitive Christian painting copies the Pompeian style that was popular across the Roman Empire. They just reused an old style for new content.


After the Emperor Constantine fully legalized Christianity with the 313 Edict of Milan, Christians began moving their burials above ground, with grand sarcophagi, or stone caskets. These sarcophagi provide us with our first examples of Christian sculpture.

Yet with sculpture, Christians faced a new problem. The classical world was full of sculpture, from idols of gods to friezes to life-sized sculptures adorning buildings.

Early Christians used sculpture on sarcophagi
Junius Bassus Sarcophagus

The early Christians saw pagan sculptures of gods as what they were - graven images, which are strictly forbidden by the Bible as idolatry. For this reason, sculpture took a back seat during the early Christian years.

Though the early Christians did make use of sculpture on occasion, they took special care to make sure that the sculpture was clearly part of the decoration, rather than an object of adoration. Therefore, early Christian sculpture avoided the life-sized scale of their pagan predecessors, and almost completely avoided full statues or sculpture in the round. Instead, Christians used shallow relief sculpture and depicted biblical scenes and Christian allegory.

Early Christian Mosaic

Yet Constantine did more for Christianity than just protecting it from persecution. Constantine also actively sponsored the spread of Christianity through the building of churches throughout his empire. Though these churches were very plain on the outside, their interiors were bursting with colorful design in the form of mosaics.

The mosaic had been around since Sumerian times. The Romans and Greeks did some incredibly detailed mosaics using cubes of colored marble. Provided with these vast spaces, early Christians took the art form of mosaic from the floor and spread it onto the ceilings, the walls, everywhere.

Early Christians created mosaics of biblical narratives and symbolic awesomeness. And instead of natural stone, they used colored glass, allowing them to create vibrant colors. This glass also gives the mosaic a sort of glittery, semi-translucent quality that you really must see in person to appreciate. The figures seem to shimmer as you move about.

Colorful mosaics decorated the interior of churches
Church of Santapollinare

Though the Christians created some beautiful mosaics, the art of mosaic would reach its apex in the Byzantine art to follow.

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Additional Activities

Further Reading

Now you know about three major elements of early Christian art: mosaics, sculptures, and illuminated manuscripts. Here, you will find a selection of research projects for you to learn more about the areas of this lesson that interest you. Choose one of the prompts below and do your own research to find out more. Write up your findings in a paragraph, essay, or annotated timeline where appropriate. If possible, put your research into a PowerPoint presentation or poster and share your findings with classmates.

Tracing the Impact

Choose one of the three types of art listed in this lesson and research how it changed over time. What did Christian mosaics and church decorations, for example, look like when Christianity was first legalized? What about a hundred years later, or a thousand? How did the Great Schism and the Reformation impact Christian art in different denominations? How much of these kinds of art are still part of Christianity today?

Christian Art in Context

Early Christian art existed within the Roman Empire. What other, non-Christian art forms existed at the time? How were they different from Christian art, and how were they similar? How much art from that time period has been preserved? How was art, both Christian and non-Christian, perceived in the Roman Empire? What place did it have in the cultural conversation?

Religious Artwork

This lesson is about Christian artwork, but many other religions have ancient and diverse artistic traditions. What other religions were producing art at the time of the Roman Empire, either within the empire or in other parts of the world? We know that Christian doctrine forbids graven images. How do Christian taboos and restrictions around art compare to the restrictions found in other religious art traditions?

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