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Early Christian Art: Styles, Materials, & Techniques

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  • 0:01 Purpose & Style of…
  • 1:55 Frescoes
  • 3:15 Sculpture
  • 5:10 Mosaics
  • 6:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

This lesson will provide an overview of the styles, materials, and techniques of early Christian art. We will focus especially on frescoes, sculptures, and mosaics.

Purpose & Style of Early Christian Art

Welcome! My name is Joseph, and I lived in the fourth century CE. In life, I was a Christian artist, and that's why I'm speaking with you today. I'm here to introduce you to the styles, materials, and techniques of early Christian art. Don't worry! I won't overwhelm you, but let's get started right away by talking a little about the purpose and style of the art that I, and other early Christian artists, created.

The first thing you need to know is that early Christian artists didn't create art for art's sake. Oh no! We used art to express and deepen our Christian faith: that was always its primary purpose. Our art, therefore, tended to be quite symbolic and stylized.

What do I mean by that? Well, artistic symbols are images that point to something else. They remind the viewer of deeper truths and meanings than the image itself would usually suggest. Take the symbol of grapes and wheat, for instance. To many people, those objects would just suggest good food. Not so for Christians! When we see grapes and wheat, we think about the sacrament of the Eucharist. That's what symbols do - draw the mind from a common thing to something more mysterious.

We early Christian artists also created work that was often stylized. In other words, we focused more on representing ideas through images (something called iconography) than on creating images that were realistic. For instance, sometimes our figures seem out of proportion. Jesus often stands out in larger scale than other figures around Him. This is our way of emphasizing the key importance of Jesus in our art. The spiritual is always more important than the natural in early Christian art, and we artists made sure that the themes of death and resurrection, hope, salvation, and prayer were prominent in our works, even if that meant downplaying more natural elements, like scale or background details.

Frescoes

Okay, now that you know a bit about the purpose and style of early Christian art, let's discuss some common materials and techniques that we early Christian artists used. Among the most popular pieces of art in our first three Christian centuries were frescoes, which are watercolor paintings done on wet plaster surfaces, usually ceilings or walls. The wet plaster actually absorbs the paint, setting the image deep into the surface and making the colors stand out in interesting ways.

We early Christian artists painted frescoes on the walls and ceilings of our house churches, which were private homes converted for Christian worship, and of catacombs, which were underground cemeteries carved out of the stone of the earth. We painted all kinds of Christian symbols, including images of Christ as the Good Shepherd, a praying figure called the orant, the Chi-Rho, which is a special type of cross made from the first two letters of Christ's name, grapes and wheat for the Eucharist, doves for peace, the fish, which stands for Jesus, and the anchor, which signifies stability and hope for eternity. We also painted scenes from the Old Testament and from Jesus's life. These frescoes always inspired us, helped us grow in our faith, and drew our minds up to spiritual realities.

Sculpture

Early Christian artists also carved sculptures. We usually specialized in relief sculptures, those that stand out from a background surface like 3D pictures. Most of our relief sculptures appeared on elaborately decorated coffins called sarcophagi. Wealthy Christians paid quite a lot of money to be buried in one of these fancy coffins, but we artists actually enjoyed carving them.

We packed them with ornamentation, too, combining images from the life of Jesus, like His baptism and His entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, scenes from the Old Testament, including the stories of Adam and Eve, Job, Daniel, and Jonah, and of course the ever present symbols of our faith. We generally covered every inch of those marble surfaces, usually dividing our carving surface into rows of arches and grouping our reliefs by theme. Examples of sarcophagi that still exist in your era are the Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus that was carved about 270 CE and the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus that was created in 359 CE.

We early Christians usually stuck to reliefs, but every once in a while we also created freestanding sculptures, although we were very careful to avoid turning those sculptures into idols. Our freestanding sculptures usually depict Christ as the Good Shepherd or as a Philosopher, and they tend to be quite small, just inches high. Most of them were made by converts to Christianity who carried their artistic traditions into their new faith.

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