Early Christian Art & Architecture

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: Heirs of Rome: The Church and the Byzantines

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:01 Secret Christians
  • 1:05 Christian Art
  • 2:05 Iconography
  • 2:55 Christian Architecture
  • 4:15 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed Audio mode
Lesson Transcript
Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Expert Contributor
Jenna Clayton

Jenna received her BA in English from Iowa State University in 2015, and she has taught at the secondary level for three years.

In this lesson, you will explore the early styles of art and architecture of the young Christian religion. Then, test your understanding about art, history, and the development of Christian symbols with a brief quiz.

Secret Christians

Did you ever have a secret clubhouse as a kid? I feel like mine always had these super complex handshakes and passwords, codes, and symbols. It was fun to feel like you had to meet in secret. Of course, many groups throughout history did have to meet in secret. Their lives depended on it.

One of these groups was the early Christians. In the first centuries of the religion, Christianity was illegal in the Roman Empire, and Christians were killed for their beliefs. This meant that for the early Christians, their world was full of secrets and symbols. In order to hide their true intentions, many of their actions and symbols were designed to look like normal things in Roman culture. Only Christians understood their secret meaning.

This changed after 313, when the Roman emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, making Christianity legal and forbidding the persecution of Christians. Art and architecture changed after this, but for the first 300 years of the religion, Christianity developed secret symbols and styles that would form the foundation of Christian art.

Christian Art

The earliest Christian art was meant to look like other art forms of the area, most notably Roman art. The intention was to create art that could blend in so that they could worship without being persecuted; don't forget that Christianity was still illegal for a while. Murals, paintings, and mosaics were all popular forms of Christian art, whenever the generally poor Christians could afford to make them. Many of these could be found in unlikely places, where Christians met to worship in secret, such as the catacombs underneath Rome.

As Christianity grew, the central figures developed more consistent appearances in art. Jesus Christ, for example, was more often shown as a tall, thin figure with a beard. Before, he appeared in Christian art as a short, beardless man, in the style of a Roman shepherd. Catacombs and churches were the primary locations for Christian art, which was becoming more elaborate as the church developed the funds to sponsor better-trained artists.


Early Christian artists developed unique sets of iconography, or images that represented an idea. By using the same iconography, these artists were able to communicate Christian ideas at a time when being a Christian was illegal, even often dangerous. After the Church became widespread enough that Christianity was no longer persecuted, these images remained strong symbols for Christianity. Examples include the cross, the fish symbol, or the lamb, all of which could represent Christ.

Many symbols that the early Christians used in their iconography were images that had been used by the Romans. By reusing old symbols, the Christians were able to hide the real meaning of their art and avoid persecution. Anchors, shepherds, and grape vines were all images that were used by the Romans, but the early Christians changed their meanings to symbolize their religion.

Christian Architecture

There really is no Christian architecture before roughly 313, because the Christians met in secret. By the 4th century however, Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire. The Roman Emperor Constantine even converted to Christianity in 312. Now that Christians could meet in public, they needed a place to do so.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Additional Activities

Early Christian Art & Architecture Writing Activity

Discussion Questions

For this activity, respond to the following discussion questions about early Christian art and architecture. For each question, write at least 2-3 complete sentences. You will notice that some of the questions have multiple components, so make sure that you answer all parts of each question. Keep in mind that you may need to conduct further research to adequately respond to these questions.

  1. Early Christians often used anchors, shepherds, pelicans, and grapevines as symbols for their religion. What did these symbols represent specifically? Explain.
  2. What caused Constantine to convert to Christianity? How did his decision to convert to Christianity impact the world? Explain with specific details.
  3. Besides large windows, what are other common architectural features that are often found in Christian churches and cathedrals? Describe a few of these features in detail.
  4. Research the history of Old St. Peter's Basilica. What interesting or surprising information did you find about the construction and history of this important church?

A Possible Response to Question #3:

Common architectural features found in Christian churches include steeples, church bells, and stained glass. Steeples are tall towers that usually include a belfry, lantern, and spire. Inside the steeple, one can usually find church bells. These bells were used to call in worshippers for mass. A final feature typically found in both early Christian architecture and modern Christian architecture is stained glass. This beautiful colored material was often used for aesthetic purposes. However, most stained glass designs contain important Christian images and symbols as well.

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com

Become a Study.com member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about Study.com
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? Study.com has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account