Reflections of Culture in Early Christian Art

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  • 0:01 Surrounded by Culture
  • 0:51 Borrowed Images
  • 2:59 Borrowed Forms
  • 4:54 Borrowed Buildings
  • 5:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
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.

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.

In this lesson, we're going to explore how early Christian art reflected its cultural milieu and adapted the images, forms and buildings of its culture to Christian purposes and meanings. Then, test what you learned with a quick quiz.

Surrounded by Culture

For most early Christians, becoming Christian didn't mean giving up their culture. In fact, early Christian art often embraced and reflected cultural influences, but it also raised them up to new levels and adapted them to express Christian purposes and values.

The early Christian community was made up of people from various cultures. Some Christians had been Jews, and others were pagans who had been immersed in the Greco-Roman world. They all brought pieces of their cultures into their art, adopting images, forms and even buildings but also adapting them to their own use and giving them new meanings that were specifically Christian.

In this lesson, we're going to look at examples of this cultural adoption and adaption to see how early Christian art both reflected and enhanced its cultural world.

Borrowed Images

Early Christian artists borrowed images from their cultural milieus, both Jewish and Greco-Roman. For instance, the image of the good shepherd frequently appears in early Christian art, but it was first used by the Jews as an image of God's loving care for His people. Interestingly, the figure of the good shepherd is also found in the Greco-Roman heritage in the form of the moschophoros, or calf-bearer. Christians, of course, used the image to portray Jesus's saving love and protective concern.

Most Jewish images that appear in early Christian art come from the Old Testament scriptures. These include depictions of the stories of Moses, Jonah, Daniel, Adam and Eve, and Abraham and Isaac, but all of these figures were now viewed through the lens of Christianity. Early Christian artists employed them to illustrate the themes of salvation (Daniel in the lions' den, for instance), death and resurrection (Jonah being swallowed and spit out by the big fish) and sacrifice (Abraham's near sacrifice of Isaac). Christians believed that the stories of the Old Testament foreshadowed and, therefore, helped to explain the meaning of the deeds of Jesus.

Early Christian artists didn't hesitate to embrace and adapt images from the Greco-Roman world either. They found meaning in the figure of the philosopher (applying it to Jesus and the apostles), the image of the festive meal (which to Christians indicated the Eucharist), the figure of the law giver (again for Jesus) and the motif of the triumphant entry (now used for Jesus's entry into Jerusalem).

Even some of the most common early Christian symbols had their origins in the cultural milieus. The fish and the anchor, for instance, were common images in the Jewish and Greco-Roman worlds, which were greatly influenced by the sea. For Christians, these symbols came to represent Jesus Christ Himself (the fish) and the stability and eternal hope of Christianity (the anchor). The dove, too, which had been a Jewish symbol of peace, retained that meaning for Christians but also symbolized the Holy Spirit.

Borrowed Forms

Early Christian artists typically didn't develop their own artistic forms. Instead, they borrowed from the cultures around them but, as with images, used these forms for their own purposes and meanings.

Frescoes, which are watercolor paintings done on wet plaster, have been around for centuries and perhaps even millennia, and they were often used for decoration in the Greco-Roman world, especially on the walls and ceilings of homes and other buildings. Christians also created frescoes to decorate the walls of their house churches (private homes where they worshiped in the early years) and the catacombs (underground cemeteries where they buried their dead), but their frescoes expressed their faith and its themes in a simpler and more symbolic manner than typical Roman paintings.

Early Christian artists also borrowed sculptural forms from the cultural world around them. Imitating the Romans, Christians created elaborate sarcophagi (large marble or stone coffins) that were covered in relief sculptures (the kind that stand out from a background like 3D pictures). They even copied the positions of their sculptural subjects from Roman models (for instance, the reclining figure), showing that early Christian artists had the same ideas as their Roman counterparts about what was artistically beautiful when it came to the forms and poses of the human body.

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Additional Activities

The Interplay of Culture and Religion

In this lesson, we saw the ways that early Christians borrowed images from the cultures that surrounded them in order to create the architecture and art of the early Church. This interplay between culture and religion is ongoing. Choose one of the prompts below and research it on your own to learn more about how religions and the cultures that surround them feed and enrich each other.

Christian Art in Context

You have seen how early Christians in the Roman Empire took inspiration from the cultures around them. Christianity is now a worldwide religion. How are modern Christian aesthetics, art, and architectural styles influenced by the cultures that surround them? Look at the variation between Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Seventh Day Adventist, and Mexican Catholic churches.

When Religions Collide

This lesson talked about images shared between early Christianity, Greco-Roman religions, and Judaism. What other examples can you find of overlap between religious art, architecture, and cultures? Try looking at the interplay between Christianity and Islam, for instance. How do different religions borrow from each other, both in the modern day and throughout history?

Ethical Dilemmas

Think about the ways that cultures and religions borrow from each other. Do you think that kind of borrowing is a good thing? Are there any circumstances where it becomes a bad thing? Can you think of any specific examples from history or from the present to support your argument?

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