Early Christian Art and Architecture

Christ among His Apostles, Catacomb of Domitilla, early fourth century.

Christ and the Apostles in the Heavenly Jerusalem, apse mosaic, early fifth century, Rome, Santa Pudenziana.


Two important moments played a critical role in the development of early Christianity. The first was the decision of the Apostle Paul to spread Christianity beyond the Jewish communities of Palestine into the Greco-Roman world, and the second was the moment when the Emperor Constantine at the beginning of the fourth century accepted Christianity and became its patron. The creation and nature of Christian art were directly impacted by these moments.

As implicit in the names of his Epistles, Paul spread Christianity to the Greek and Roman cities of the ancient Mediterranean world. In cities like Ephesus, Corinth, Thessalonica, and Rome, Paul encountered the religious and cultural experience of the Greco Roman world. This encounter played a major role in the formation of Christianity. Christianity in its first three centuries was one of a large number of mystery religions that flourished in the Roman world. Religion in the Roman world was divided between the public, inclusive cults of civic religions and the secretive, exclusive mystery cults. The emphasis in the civic cults was on the customary practices especially of sacrifices. Since the early history of the polis or city state in Greek culture, the public cults played an important role in defining civic identity. Rome as it expanded and assimilated more peoples continued to use the public religious experience to define the identity of being a citizen in the Roman world. The polytheism of the Romans allowed it to assimilate the Gods of the people it conquered. Thus for the Emperor Hadrian when he created the Pantheon in the early second century, the building's dedication to all the gods signified the Roman ambition of bringing cosmos or order to the gods just as the peoples are brought into political order through the spread of Roman imperial authority. The order of Roman authority on earth is a reflection of the divine cosmos.

For most adherents of mystery cults there was no contradiction in participating in both the public cults and a mystery cult. The different religious experiences appealed to different aspects of life. In contrast to the civic identity which was at the focus of the public cults, the mystery religions appealed to the participant's concerns for personal salvation. The mystery cults focused on a central mystery that would only be known by those who had become initiated into the teachings of the cult. These are characteristics Christianity shares with numerous other mystery cults. In early Christianity emphasis is placed on Baptism which marked the initiation of the convert into the secrets or mysteries of the faith. The Christian emphasis on the belief in salvation and an after life is consistent with the other mystery cults. The monotheism of Christianity, though, was a crucial difference from the other cults. The refusal of the early Christians to participate in the civic cults due to their monotheistic beliefs lead to their persecution. Christians were seen as anti-social.

The beginnings of an identifiable Christian art can be traced to the end of the second century and the beginning of the third century. Considering the Old Testament prohibitions against graven images, it is important to consider why Christian art developed in the first place. The use of images will be a continuing issue in the history of Christianity. The best explanation for the emergence of Christian art in the early church is due to the important role images played in Greco-Roman culture. As Christianity gained converts, these new Christians had been brought up on the value of images in their previous cultural experience and they wanted to continue this in their Christian experience. For example, there was a change in burial practices in the Roman world away from cremation to inhumation. Outside the city walls of Rome, adjacent to major roads, catacombs were dug into the ground to bury the dead. Families would have chambers or cubicula dug to bury their members. Wealthy Romans would also have sarcophagi or marble tombs carved for their burial. The Christian converts wanted the same things. Christian catacombs were dug frequently adjacent to non-Christian ones, and sarcophagi with Christian imagery were apparently popular with the richer Christians.

Jonah Vomited from the Whale, Third century, Rome, Catacomb of Sts. Marcellinus and Peter.

Daniel in the Lions Den

Three Hebrews in the Furnace, mid-third century, Rome, Catacomb of Priscilla.

Moses Striking the Rock in the Desert and the Curing of the Paralytic.

A striking aspect of the Christian art of the third century is the absence of the imagery that will dominate later Christian art. We do not find in this early period images of the Nativity, Crucifixion, or Resurrection of Christ for example. This absence of direct images of the life of Christ is best explained by the status of Christianity as a mystery religion. The story of the Crucifixion and Resurrection would be part of the secrets of the cult. While not directly representing these central Christian images, the theme of death and resurrection was represented through a series of images many of which were derived from the Old Testament that echoed the themes. For example the story of Jonah being swallowed by a great fish and then after spending three days and three nights in the belly of the beast is vomitted out on dry ground was seen by early Christians as an anticipation or prefiguration of the story of Christ's own death and resurrection. Images of Jonah along with those of Daniel in the Lion's Den, the Three Hebrews in the Firey Furnace, Moses Striking the Rock, among others are widely popular in the Christian art of the third century both in paintings and on sarcophagi. All of them can be seen to allegorically allude to the principal narratives of the life of Christ. The common subject of salvation echoes the major emphasis in the mystery religions on personal salvation. The appearance of these subjects frequently adjacent to each other in the catacombs and sarcophagi can be read as a visual litany: save me Lord as you have saved Jonah from the belly of the great fish, save me Lord as you have saved the Hebrews in the desert, save me Lord as you have saved Daniel in the Lion's den, etc. One can imagine how early Christians who were rallying around the nascent religious authority of the Church against the regular threats of persecution by imperial authority would find meaning in the story of Moses of striking the rock to provide water for the Israelites fleeing the authority of the Pharaoh on their exodus to the Promissed Land.

One of the major differences between Christianity and the public cults was the central role faith plays in Christianity and the importance orthodox beliefs. The history of the early Church is marked by the struggle to establish a canonical set of texts and the establishment of orthodox doctrine. Questions about the nature of the Trinity and Christ would continue to challenge religious authority. Within the civic cults there were no central texts and there were no orthodox doctrinal positions. The emphasis was on maintaining customary traditions. One accepted the existence of the gods, but there was no emphasis on belief in the gods. The Christian emphasis on orthodox doctrine has its closest parallels in the Greek and Roman world to the role of philosophy. Schools of philosophy centered around the teachings or doctrines of a particular teacher. The schools of philosophy proposed specific conceptions of reality. Ancient philosophy was influential in the formation of Christian theology. For example the opening of the Gospel of John, which begins "In the beginning was the word and the word was with God...," is unmistakeably based on the idea of the "logos"going back to the philosophy of Heraclitus (ca. 535-475 BCE). Christian apologists like Justin Martyr writing in the second century understood Christ as the Logos or the Word of God who served as an intermediary between God and the World.

Christ among His Apostles, Catacomb of Domitilla, early fourth century.

An early representation of Christ found in the Catacomb of Domitilla shows the figure of Christ flanked by a group of his disciples or students. Those experienced with later Christian imagery might mistake this for an image of the Last Supper, but instead this image does not tell any story. It conveys rather the idea that Christ is the true teacher. Christ draped in classical garb holds a scroll in his left hand while his right hand is outstretched in the so-called ad locutio gesture, or the gesture of the orator. The dress, scroll, and gesture all establish the authority of Christ placed in the center of his disciples. Christ is thus treated like the philosopher surrounded by his students or disciples.


Comparably an early representation of the apostle Paul, identifiable with his characteristic pointed beard and high forehead, is based on the convention of the philosopher as exemplified by a Roman copy of a late fourth century BCE portrait of the fifth century BCE playwrite Sophocles.

Sarcophagus, c. 270, Rome, Santa Maria Antiqua.

A third century sarcophagus in the Roman church of Santa Maria Antiqua was undoubtedly made to serve as the tomb of relative prosperous third century Christian. At the center appears a seated, bearded male figure holding a scroll and a standing female figure. The male philosopher type is easily identifiable with the same type in another third century sarcophagus, but in this case a non-Christian one:

Asiatic Sarcophagus from Sidamara, c. 250 A.D., Istanbul Archaelogical Museum.

The female figure who holds her arms outstretched combines two different conventions. The outstretched hands in Early Christian art represent the so-called "orant" or praying figure. This is the same gesture found in the catacomb paintings of Jonah being vomited from the great fish, the Hebrews in the Furnace, and Daniel in the Lions den. While the juxtaposition of this female figure with the philosopher figure associates her with the convention of the muse or source of inspiration for the philosopher as illustrated in an early sixth century miniature showing the figure of Dioscurides, an ancient Greek physician, pharmacologist, and botanist:

Orans and Philosopher, center part of the Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus.

Heuresis and Dioscurides, from Dioscurides, De materia medica, before 512, Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, co. med. gr. 1, fol. 4v,

A curious detail about the male and female figures at the center of the Santa Maria Antiqua sarcophagus is that their faces are unfinished. This suggests the possibility that this tomb was not made with a specific patron in mind, but rather it was made on a speculative basis with the expectation that a patron would buy the sarcophagus and have his and presumably his wife's likenesses added. If this is true, it says a lot about the nature of the art industry and the status of Christianity at this period. To produce a sarcophagus like this meant a serious commitment on the part of the maker. The expense of the stone and the time taken to carve it were considerable. A craftsman would not have made a commitment like this without a sense of certainty that someone would purchase it.

Jonah under the vine, left side of the Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus.

Sarcophagus with myth of Endymion, second century, New York, Metropolitan Museum.

On the left hand side is represented Jonah sleeping under the ivy after being vomited from the great fish shown on the left. The pose of the reclining Jonah with his arm over his head is based on the figure of the sleeping figure conventional in Greek and Roman art. A popular subject of non-Christian sarcophagi was the sleeping figure of Endymion being approached by Selene. Endymion's wish to sleep for ever and thus ageless and immortal explains the popularity of this subject on non Christian sarcophagi. A third century sarcophagus in the Metropolitan Museum of Art shows Endymion in the same pose as Jonah on the Santa Maria Antiqua sarcophagus.


Good Shepherd and Baptism of Christ, right side of the Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus.

On the right hand side of the Santa Maria Antiqua sarcophagus appears another popular Early Christian image, the Good Shepherd. While echoing the New Testament parable of the Good Shepherd and the Psalms of David, the motif had clear parallels in Greek and Roman art, going back at least to Archaic Greek art as exemplified by the so-called Moschophoros, or calf-bearer, from the early sixth century BCE.

On the very right appears an image of the Baptism of Christ. This relatively rare representation of Christ is included probably to refer to the importance of the sacrament of Baptism which signified death and rebirth into a new Christian life.

By the beginning of the fourth century Christianity was a growing mystery religion in the cities of the Roman world. It was attracting converts from different social levels. Christian theology and art was enriched through the cultural interaction with the Greco-Roman world. But Christianity would be radically transformed through the actions of a single man. In 312, the Emperor Constantine defeated his principal rival Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Accounts of the battle, describe how Constantine had seen a sign in the heavens portending his victory. Eusebius, Constantine's principal biographer, describes the sign as the Chi Rho, the first two letters in the Greek spelling of the name Christos. After that victory Constantine became the principal patron of Christianity. In 313 he issued the Edict of Milan which granted religious toleration. Although Christianity would not become the official religion of Rome until the end of the fourth century, Constantine's imperial sanction of Christianity transformed its status and nature. Neither imperial Rome or Christianity would be the same after this moment. Rome would become Christian, and Christianity would take on the aura of imperial Rome.

The transformation of Christianity is dramatically evident in a comparison between the architecture of the pre-Constantinian church and that of the Constantinian and post-Constantinian church. During the pre-Constantinian period, there was not much that distinguished the Christian churches from typical domestic architecture. A striking example of this is presented by a Christian community house, from the Syrian town of Dura-Europos. Here a typical has been adapted to the needs of the congregation. A wall was taken down to combine two rooms. This was undoubtedly the room for services. It is significant that the most elaborate aspect of the house is the room designed as a baptistry. This reflects the importance of the sacrament of Baptism to initiate new members into the mysteries of the faith. Otherwise this building would not stand out from the other houses. This domestic architecture obviously would not meet the needs of Constantine's architects.

Emperors for centuries had been responsible for the construction of temples throughout the Roman Empire. We have already observed the role of the public cults in defining one's civic identity, and Emperors understood the construction of temples as testament to their pietas, or respect for the customary religious practices and traditions. So it was natural for Constantine to want to construct edifices in honor of Christianity. He built churches in Rome including the Church of St. Peter; he built churches in the Holy Land, most notably the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem; and he built churches in his newly constructed capital of Constantinople.

In creating these churches, Constantine and his architects confronted a major challenge: what should be the physical form of the church? Clearly the traditional form of the Roman temple would be inappropriate both from associations with pagan cults but also from the difference in function. Temples served as treasuries and dwellings for the cult; sacrifices occurred on outdoor altars with the temple as a backdrop. This meant that Roman temple architecture was largely an architecture of the exterior. Since Christianity was a mystery religion that demanded initiation to participate in religious practices, Christian architecture put greater emphasis on the interior. The Christian churches needed large interior spaces to house the growing congregations and to mark the clear separation of the faithful from the unfaithful. At the same time, the new Christian churches needed to be visually meaningful. The buildings needed to convey the new authority of Christianity. These factors were instrumental in the formulation during the Constantinian period of an architectural form that would become the core of Christian architecture to our own time: the Christian Basilica.

The basilica was not a new architectural form. The Romans had been building basilicas in their cities and as part of palace complexes for centuries. A particularly lavish one was the so-called Basilica Ulpia constructed as part of the Forum of the Emperor Trajan in the early second century, but most Roman cities would have one. Basilicas had diverse functions but essentially they served as formal public meeting places. One of the major functions of the basilicas was as a site for law courts. These were housed in an architectural form known as the apse. In the Basilica Ulpia, these semi-circular forms project from either end of the building, but in some cases, the apses would project off of the length of the building. The magistrate who served as the representative of the authority of the Emperor would sit in a formal throne in the apse and issue his judgments. This function gave to the basilicas an aura of political authority.

Interior of the Palace Basilica, ca. 305-310, Trier.

Basilicas also served as audience halls as a part of imperial palaces. A well-preserved example is found in the northern German town of Trier. Constantine built a basilica as part of a palace complex in Trier which served as his northern capital. Although a fairly simple architectural form and now stripped of its original interior decoration, the basilica must have been an imposing stage for the emperor. Imagine the emperor dressed in imperial regalia marching up the central axis as he makes his dramatic adventus or entrance along with other members of his court. This space would have humbled an emissary who approached the enthroned emperor seated in the apse.

Interior of the Church of Santa Sabina, fifth century, Rome.

It is this category of building that Constantine's architects adapted to serve as the basis for the new churches. The original Constantinian buildings are now known only in plan, but an examination of a still extant early fifth century Roman basilica, the Church of Santa Sabina, helps us to understand the essential characteristics of the early Christian basilica. Like the Trier basilica, the Church of Santa Sabina has a dominant central axis that leads from the entrance to the apse, the site of the altar. This central space is known as the nave, and is flanked on either side by side aisles. The architecture is relatively simple with a wooden, truss roof. The wall of the nave is broken by clerestory windows that provide direct lighting in the nave. The wall does not contain the traditional classical orders articulated by columns and entablatures. Now plain, the walls apparently originally were decorated with mosaics. This interior would have had a dramatically different effect than the classical building. As exemplified by the interior of the Pantheon constructed in the second century by the Emperor Hadrian, the wall in the classical building was broken up into different levels by the horizontals of the entablatures. The columns and pilasters form verticals that tie together the different levels. Although this decor does not physically support the load of the building, the effect is to visualize the weight of the building. The thickness of the classical decor adds solidity to the building. In marked contrast, the nave wall of Santa Sabina has little sense of weight. The architect was particularly aware of the light effects in an interior space like this. The glass tiles of the mosaics would create a shimmering effect and the walls would appear to float. Light would have been understood as a symbol of divinity. Light was a symbol for Christ. The emphasis in this architecture is on the spiritual effect and not the physical. The opulent effect of the interior of the original Constantinian basilicas is brought out in a Spanish pilgrims description of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem:

The decorations are too marvelous for words. All you can see is gold, jewels and silk...You simply cannot imagine the number and sheer weight of the candles, tapers, lamps and everything else they use for the services...They are beyond description, and so is the magnificent building itself. It was built by Constantine and...was decorated with gold, mosaic, and precious marble, as much as his empire could provide.

Exterior of the Church of Santa Sabina, fifth century, Rome.

Another striking contrast to the traditional classical building is evident in looking at the exterior of Santa Sabina. The classical temple going back to Greek architecture had been an architecture of the exterior articulated by the classical orders, while the exterior of the church of Santa Sabina is a simple, unarticulated, brick wall. This reflects the shift to an architecture of the interior.

Christ and the Apostles in the Heavenly Jerusalem, apse mosaic, early fifth century, Rome, Santa Pudenziana.

Missorium of Theodosius, 388, Madrid, Academia de la Historia.

The opulent interior of the Constantinian basilicas would have created an effective space for increasingly elaborate rituals. Influenced by splendor of the rituals associated with the emperor, the liturgy placed emphasis on the dramatic entrances and the stages of the rituals. The introit or entrance of the priest into the church was influenced by the adventus or arrival of the emperor. The culmination of the entrance and the focal point of the architecture was the apse. It was here that the sacraments would be performed, and it would be here that the priest would proclaim the word. In Roman civic and imperial basilicas, the apse had been the seat of authority. In the civic basilicas this is where the magistrate would sit adjacent to an imperial image and dispense judgment. In the imperial basilicas, the emperor would be enthroned. These associations with authority made the apse a suitable stage for the Christian rituals. The priest would be like the magistrate proclaiming the word of a higher authority. A late fourth century mosaic in the apse of the Roman church of Santa Pudenziana visualizes this. We see in this image a dramatic transformation in the conception of Christ from the pre-Constantinian period. In the Santa Pudenziana mosaic, Christ is shown in the center seated on a jewel encrusted throne. He wears a gold toga with purple trim, both colors associated with imperial authority. His right hand is extended in the ad locutio gesture conventional in imperial representations. Holding a book in his right hand, Christ is shown proclaiming the word. This is dependent on another convention of Roman imperial art of the so-called traditio legis, or the handing down of the law. A silver plate made for the Emperor Theodosius in 388 to mark the tenth anniversary of his accession to power shows the Emperor in the center handing down the scroll of the law. Notably the Emperor Theodosius is shown with a halo much like the figure of Christ. While the halo would become a standard convention in Christian art to demarcate sacred figures, the origins of this convention can be found in imperial representations like the image of Theodosius. Behind the figure of Christ appears an elaborate city. In the center appears a hill surmounted by a jewel encrusted Cross. This identifies the city as Jerusalem and the hill as Golgotha, but this is not the earthly city but rather the heavenly Jerusalem. This is made clear by the four figures seen hovering in the sky around the cross. These are identifiable as the four beasts that are described as accompanying the lamb in the Book of Revelation. The winged man, the winged lion, the winged ox, and the eagle became in Christian art symbols for the Four Evangelists, but in the context of the Santa Pudenziana mosaic, they define the realm as outside earthly time and space or as the heavenly realm. Christ is thus represented as the ruler of the heavenly city. The cross has become a sign the triumph of Christ. This mosaic finds a clear echo in the following excerpt from the writings of the early Christian theologian, St. John Chrysostom:

You will see the king, seated on the throne of that unutterable glory, together with the angels and archangels standing beside him, as well as the countless legions of the ranks of the saints. This is how the Holy City appears....In this city is towering the wonderful and glorious sign of victory, the cross, the victory booty of Christ, the first fruit of our human kind, the spoils of war of our king.

The language of this passage shows the unmistakable influence of the Roman emphasis on triumph. The Cross is characterized as a trophy or victory monument. Christ is conceived of as a warrior king. The order of the heavenly realm is characterized as like the Roman army divided up into legions. Both the text and mosaic reflect the transformation in the conception of Christ. These document the merging of Christianity with Roman imperial authority.

It is this aura of imperial authority that distinguishes the Santa Pudenziana mosaic from the painting of Christ and his disciples from the Catacomb of Domitilla, Christ in the catacomb painting is simply a teacher, while in the mosaic Christ has been transformed into the ruler of heaven. Even his long flowing beard and hair construct Christ as being like Zeus or Jupiter. The mosaic makes clear that all authority comes from Christ. He delegates that authority to his flanking apostles. It is significant that in the Santa Pudenziana mosaic the figure of Christ is flanked by the figure of St. Paul on the left and the figure of St. Peter on the right. These are the principal apostles. By the fourth century, it was already established that the Bishop of Rome, or the Pope, was the successor of St. Peter, the founder of the Church of Rome. Just as power descends from Christ through the apostles, so at the end of time that power will be returned to Christ. The standing female figures can be identified as personifications of the major division of Christianity between church of the Jews and that of the Gentiles. They can be seen as offering up their crowns to Christ like the 24 Elders are described as returning their crowns in the Book of Revelation. The meaning is clear that all authority comes from Christ just as in the Missorium of Theodosius which shows the transmission of authority from the Emperor to his co-emperors. This emphasis on authority should be understood in the context of the religious debates of the period. When Constantine accepted Christianity, there was not one Christianity but a wide diversity of different versions. A central concern for Constantine was the establishment of Christian orthodoxy in order to unify the church. In 325, Constantine called the First Council of Nicaea. The Christian Bishops were charged with coming up with a consensus as to the nature of Christian doctrine. This ecumenical, or worldwide, council promulgated the so-called

Christianity underwent a fundamental transformation with its acceptance by Constantine. The imagery of Christian art before Constantine appealed to the believer's desires for personal salvation, while the dominant themes of Christian art after Constantine emphasized the authority of Christ and His church in the world. Just as Rome became Christian, Christianity and Christ took on the aura of Imperial Rome. A dramatic example of this is presented by a mosaic of Christ in the Archepiscopal palace in Ravenna. Here Christ is shown wearing the cuirass, or the breastplate, regularly depicted in images of Roman Emperors and generals. The staff of imperial authority has been transformed into the cross.

Augustus of Primaporta, 13 BCE to 15 AD,


Christ Treading on the Lion and Asp, mosaic from the Archepiscopal Palace in Ravenna, late fifth century.


Useful Websites: The episode entitled The Legitimization of Christianity that is part of the Frontline series From Jesus to Christ gives a very valuable introduction to the religious context of Early Christianity.

For more information about religion in the ancient world, see in this same series Marianne Bonz's Religion in the Roman World and the excerpts from different scholars entitled The Empire's Religions.