Relationship Between Roman & Early Christian Art & Architecture

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  • 0:01 Roman Influences
  • 0:46 Roman Forms & Motifs
  • 2:47 Borrowed Roman Buildings
  • 4:31 New Christian Meanings
  • 5:45 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.

In this lesson, we will explore the similarities and differences between Roman and early Christian art. We will pay special attention to how Christians used Roman forms, motifs, and architecture to communicate new meanings.

Roman Influences

Christianity began in the Jewish community, but it didn't stay there. As the first century CE progressed, Christianity attracted converts from all over the Greco-Roman world. These new Christians brought their own ideas, traditions, and practices along with them and adapted them to their adopted faith. This is true of art, too. Christians who had once been pagans of the Roman Empire didn't give up their artistic heritage when they became believers in Jesus. In fact, they made good use of Roman artistic forms and motifs, as well as Roman architecture, to express and deepen their new faith. In this lesson, we'll see how the world of Roman art influenced the developing art of the early Christians.

Roman Forms and Motifs

First off, early Christians followed the Romans in placing great value on the use of art for personal and cultural expression. They believed that artistic forms and motifs could help them communicate and intensify their Christian faith, and they borrowed many of these forms and motifs from the Roman art that surrounded them.

In terms of artistic forms, early Christian artists joined their Roman counterparts in creating frescoes, which are watercolor paintings done on plaster, carving elaborate relief sculptures, which stand out from a background like 3D pictures, designing stunning mosaics, which are images formed from hundreds of small pieces of stone or glass, and producing decorative marble tombs called sarcophagi.

Early Christians also made use of numerous artistic motifs borrowed from the Romans.

  • The shepherd figure, usually a beardless young man with a sheep on his shoulders, was common to Roman landscape art and dates back all the way to the Greek art of the sixth century BCE. Christians, also employing Biblical imagery, adopted the shepherd figure to portray Christ.
  • The philosopher figure is usually depicted as an authoritative teacher wearing a toga and holding a scroll. Christians used the philosopher motif in their artistic representations of both Christ and His apostles.
  • The law giver figure is found in Roman art to emphasize the supremacy of Roman rulers. Christians showed Christ as their supreme law giver.
  • The reclining figure is common in Roman art and used to elegantly depict sleepers. Christians adopted the motif to help illustrate Bible stories, like that of Jonah.
  • The festive meal motif was used by the Romans to indicate celebrations. Christians also employed the theme, but they used it to refer to the Eucharist.
  • The triumphant entry motif communicated the victories of a ruler for the Romans. Christians borrowed it to show Jesus' entry into Jerusalem before His crucifixion.

Borrowed Roman Buildings

Early Christians also borrowed from the Romans in their architectural endeavors. In the first two centuries of Christianity, Christians worshiped in house churches, which were private homes of the Roman style adapted to accommodate the celebration of Christian sacraments. These house churches usually followed the Roman style with several rooms grouped around a central open courtyard.

Christians modified these Roman buildings by turning one room into a baptistry where new Christians were baptized, or sacramentally immersed in water, as part of their initiation into Christianity. They also usually removed the wall dividing two rooms in the back of the house to form one large meeting hall where the whole community gathered to celebrate the Eucharist. By worshiping in private spaces, Christians, who practiced an illegal religion and were subject to persecution, could blend in with their surroundings and minimize raids from the Roman authorities.

After Christianity became legal in 313 CE, Christians could begin building public church buildings. They chose to adopt and adapt the basilica, which was a Roman structure often used for judicial proceedings. The Christians appreciated the basilica's large gathering area, called the nave, which could accommodate their growing numbers. They also made good use of the basilica's apse: a semicircular area beyond the nave. Romans used the apse as the judge's seat. Christians placed an altar, the bishop's chair, seating for priests, and sometimes even the tombs of saints in the apse. The basilica, which was once a sign of Roman authority, quickly became a symbol of worship after the Christians modified this common architectural form.

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