Transition from Minor to Luxury Arts in Christian Art

Transition from Minor to Luxury Arts in Christian Art
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  • 0:00 Minor VS. Luxury Art
  • 2:16 Minor Early Christian Art
  • 3:46 Luxury Early Christian Art
  • 5:49 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're going to discuss the transition from minor to luxury arts in early Christian art. We will define those terms and look at some examples to illustrate this point.

Minor vs. Luxury Art

Picture this: You're standing in a narrow, dim corridor, but as you look around, you notice that the walls and ceiling are covered with paintings. You squint, studying them closely. There are images of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, some of biblical scenes, and a few Christian symbols. They are quite rough in execution but still effective in communicating the messages of Christianity. You are in an early Christian catacomb, far below the city of Rome, and you are viewing some of the earliest Christian art.

Now picture this: You're standing in the middle of huge building with soaring arches, grand columns, and bright windows. As you look up, you can't help but gawk. The upper parts of the walls are covered in mosaics. Colorful, detailed, and complex, these images of Jesus, the saints, biblical stories, and Christian symbols practically jump off the walls in their brilliance. You stand in awe, hardly able to believe that these exquisite works of art are made of thousands of little pieces of stone and glass. You are in an early Christian basilica, or church building, and you are viewing another form of early Christian art.

The difference between the catacomb paintings and the basilica mosaics illustrates the difference between minor and luxury forms of early Christian art. We'll look at more examples in a moment, but first let's define our terms:

Minor art in the early Christian world made use of relatively simple materials and forms that were often found in daily life, and it was designed to meet people where they were and draw them up to the ideals of beauty, truth, and goodness.

The luxury art of the early Christian world, on the other hand, was much more elegant and refined. It used finer, richer, less-common materials and more delicate and detailed forms, and it was designed to make people look in wonder and awe. Its goal was still to draw people up to the ideals of beauty, truth, and goodness, but it did so by pulling them up into a realm above their normal range of experience.

Minor Early Christian Art

Christianity was an illegal religion in the Roman Empire for over 200 years. Christians worshiped in private and tried to keep to themselves as much as possible to avoid persecution, which often troubled them anyway. Even in these difficult times, Christians knew the value of art for expressing and deepening their faith, and they used materials close at hand to create mostly minor art.

For instance, they painted frescoes (watercolor paintings done on wet plaster) to decorate the walls and ceilings of their house churches and catacombs. They used fairly simple images portraying Jesus as the Good Shepherd, illustrating Bible stories from the Old Testament, painting images from Jesus' life, and interspersing Christian symbols like the fish, the dove, and the anchor. The primary purpose of these frescoes was to teach and express the Christian faith.

Wealthier Christians could sometimes afford to commission slightly fancier art that still fell into the minor category. For instance, Christians who could put out the money were sometimes buried in sarcophagi (large coffins) covered in relief sculptures that stand out from a background like 3D pictures. These sarcophagi are usually made of marble or another stone, and they feature images, stories, and symbols from the Old Testament, the Gospels, and early Christian life. While the reliefs could get fairly elaborate, these sarcophagi can still be considered minor art because they are everyday objects made of common materials.

Luxury Early Christian Art

After Christianity finally became legal in 313 CE, Christian artists got their chance to shine. They still practiced the minor arts, but they could expand their repertoire by decorating the public churches that were soon built by Christian communities. These artists were excited to make people look up at their creations in wonder and awe.

Mosaics were formed from thousands of pieces of colored stone or glass
Mosaic in Santa Pudenziana

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