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Brief History of Early Christian Art


In the years immediately after Christ's Resurrection, believers were persecuted by the Jewish authorities, and for a few centuries thereafter, the Roman Emperors would seek to destroy the Catholic Church. The early Christians, therefore, were forced to worship in secret "house churches" and in the catacombs. Most of their sacred art was confined to the walls of their underground tombs, and usually consisted of pagan and secular symbols which were adapted and re-interpreted in Christian ways. For example, the image of a young and beautiful shepherd (pastor in Latin) clad in the short garments of the gods, was popular with the pagans of the Roman Empire. The Christians of the early 3rd century easily adapted this as an image of Christ, the God-Man who told His followers, "I am the Good Shepherd" {John 10:14}. The Phoenix serves as another example. This bird of Greek and Roman legend sacrificed itself in a fire on an altar, but arose alive out of the ashes after 3 days. For early Christians familiar with this pagan story, the Phoenix became a symbol of the Resurrection of Christ. Another clandestine symbol, which in recent times has regained its popularity as a Christian image, was derived from the ichthys, Greek for fish. The letters of this word were used as an acronym for Iesous Christos Theou Hyios Soter, meaning, "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior."

After his miraculous vision of the Holy Cross and subsequent victory over his foes in 312 A.D., the Emperor Constantine ended the Roman persecutions of the Catholic Church. Christianity, along with its art, emerged from the catacombs and other secret meeting places, and great houses of worship began to be erected for the celebration of the Eucharist. These early structures were built on the plan of the Roman basilica. Several centuries later, the Romanesque and Carolingian styles were developed. All these churches had one thing in common: the vault (that is, the roof and its trusses) sat upon load-bearing masonry walls. These walls were of necessity thick, with very few windows. The large amounts of interior wall space were then covered with frescoes, tapestries, mosaics, etc., which portrayed Christ, the Blessed Virgin, the Apostles, the prophets, and the saints and martyrs.

Catholic art flourished during these centuries, using many of the old adapted pagan symbols, as well as newer symbols based on Scripture, hagiography, and legend. Many martyrs, for example, were portrayed holding the weapon used to slay them The same subjects, scenes, and symbols used in the art of this early age would later find their way to a new medium, when these "homilies" in paint and sculpture became "homilies in glass."

Hand-carved wooden crosses and statutes and these symbols and paintings were the "literature" of long ago. Long before the industrial age, long before the printing press and the mass distribution of Bibles, when illiteracy was the order of the day, art and sculpture were the "visual aids" that priests, nuns and missionaries used to evangilize the world.

How does your art help you to spread the gospel? How does your choice of art reflect your love for God? Do the symbols and visual aids of your life tell your story, or are they nameless, meaningless "merchandizing" from a local "department store"? Let Sacred Art be the vehicle to let your true self emerge, as a butterfly emerges from a cocoon.


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