Paleochristian Art: What Is It And What Are Its Characteristics?


If you have seen the film Quo Vadis?, from 1951, you will remember that, in one of the scenes, the protagonist draws a fish in the sand. Later, another of the characters explains to us that it is a Christian symbol, and that they meet in secluded places to perform their rites. The fish, indeed, would be included among the various symbols that early Christian art collected to express their faith, but, of course, it is not the only one.

There are many topics surrounding early Christians. For example, they used the catacombs to practice their liturgy, with the aim of not being seen by the pagans. While it is true that there were occasions when the Christian community was persecuted, the legend of the massacres is absolutely exaggerated, since said persecution is restricted to specific episodes in history.

It is true, however, that these first Christians were not always well regarded and, therefore, they had to use communication codes that went unnoticed by the Roman authorities. In today’s article we take a tour of the art of the first Christians, the so-called “early Christian art.”

Is there really an early Christian art?

The question may seem absurd, but it is not so absurd. The historian Manuel Sotomayor (1922-2020) questions this nomenclature, since, after all, it is not a homogeneous art, but rather it constitutes a series of contributions that the different peoples who converted to Christianity (with completely diverse cultures of origin) made the new faith. Thus, Sotomayor proposes the use of “art with Christian content,” rather than “Christian art.”

But, let us start at the beginning. Where does the name “early Christian art” come from? The concept unites two words, the Greek palaiós (ancient) and Christian (reference to the followers of Christ). That is, the exact meaning would be “ancient Christian art.” As we can see, this concept is tremendously broad and, as Sotomayor maintains, impossible to confine to homogeneous characteristics.

The art of the first Christians. Between iconoclasm and iconodulia

It is false that early Christian art began to develop immediately after the death of Jesus and from the appearance of the first Christian communities. First, because in its beginnings Christianity was a mere split from Judaism, and Judaism strictly prohibits the representation of images. And, second, because it was not until Saint Paul, the true “creator” of Christianity, when faith fully entered the Greek and Roman world and drank from their representations, in which he found inspiration to capture his own concepts.

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Represent images?

Towards the 2nd century AD, with the first Christian communities already consolidated, the thorny problem of the representation of images arose. There were many who maintained that, if this were allowed within the new religion, the faithful would soon fall into idolatry and thus resemble pagans. So was it legal to represent images?

Towards the 3rd century AD, the first representations of early Christian art began to appear, driven by the permissiveness that the leaders of the various communities maintained towards plastic representation. These leaders maintained that an image meant something, that is, it acted as a bridge between the earthly and God, so it was perfectly legal to instruct the people with them. In other words, when the faithful went to the image, he did not commit idolatry, because he did not worship the image, but rather what it meant.

The conflict between iconoclasts (those who refused to accept the plastic representation of divine elements) and iconodules (followers of iconodulia and, therefore, supporters of graphically capturing the divine message) continued for many centuries. While in the West (protected, no doubt, by the long iconic tradition of pagan religions) iconodulia was consolidated, in the East theologians were reluctant, to the point that in the 8th and 9th centuries a real war broke out between some and others.

The triumph of the image

Thus, in the Western Empire, where people were more accustomed to seeing representations of gods, images triumphed, and an iconographic program soon began to develop which, without having a specific direction, found curious parallels in different places. In the next point we will see what this program was based on.


Symbolism in early Christian art

Early Christian art is very rich in symbology, although, unfortunately and too often, the representations are polysemous and even contradictory. This polysemy continued well into the medieval world, when an element could mean something related to good and, at the same time (and in another context) it could be linked to the devil.

The early Christians did not invent a new art, but rather they took up elements that they already knew as Roman citizens. Thus, many of the elements that had one reading in pagan Roman culture took on a very different one in these communities. Let us remember that, being frowned upon and even persecuted, these first Christians had to sharpen their imagination to express their beliefs without giving themselves away. Let’s look at some of these symbols, very present in the paintings that decorate the cubicula of the catacombs and in the sarcophagi.

1. The Good Shepherd

It is the figure of a young, beardless man, carrying a lamb on his shoulders. He is sometimes accompanied by other sheep, leaving evidence that he is the shepherd of the flock. We find a beautiful example in the paintings of the Velatio cubicle, in the catacombs of Priscilla, in Rome.

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The early Christians took the Good Shepherd from much older representations, dating back to archaic Greece. Take, for example, the Moscophorus of the Acropolis Museum in Athens, where we see a young man carrying on his shoulders a calf ready to be sacrificed. Another classic reference is the Hermes Cryoforo, preserved in the Barracco Museum of Ancient Sculpture, in Rome; A young man holds a ram and heads, like the Moscophorus, to the sacrifice.

The parallels with the symbology of the Christian Good Shepherd are evident. Christ not only stands as the shepherd of the “flock” of faithful who carries the lost sheep on his back, but he is predicting his own sacrifice as Agnus Dei (lamb of God). As a curiosity, we highlight that these first effigies of Christ did not have a beard; The bearded Christ will spread much later, after the fall of the Western Empire and the rise of Byzantium.

2. The peacock

Representations of the peacock have very ancient origins that can be traced back to Mesopotamia. In ancient Rome it was common to find two peacocks facing each other and, in the middle, profuse branches that were usually vines, often associated with Dionysus.

Christianity also picks up this tradition and transforms it; In early Christian art, the peacock pecking at the vine comes to symbolize Christ and the Eucharist and, therefore, the hope of the resurrection. As we move towards the Middle Ages, it is common to find a cross between both birds, a symbol that, by the way, will appear late in the Christian imagination.

3. The Chrismon

“With this sign you will win.” According to Christian tradition, this phrase accompanied a celestial Chrismon that appeared to Emperor Constantine on the eve of the battle of the Milvian Bridge, which was going to confront him against Maxentius, his rival. Despite the apotheosis of the legend, much of it is the result of later additions. One of the Christian authors who defended it was the Christian theologian Lactantius (c. 240-320), and the legend was inscribed in the annals of history.

Whether legend or not, the truth is that the Crismón became one of the most used emblems to refer to Christ and Christianity. These are the two initial letters of the word Khristós (in Greek, the anointed one), the ji (X) and the rho (P). In some later versions, a tau (T) also appears, which forms a cross, and the alpha (α) and the omega (ω), symbol of the beginning and the end incarnated by Christ. Chrismon spread rapidly and, during the Middle Ages, it achieved great popularity, and even new elements were added to it.

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4. The fish

Ichthys is fish in Greek, and it is also the word that is formed by joining the initials of the phrase Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior in the same language. The fish, therefore, became one of the symbols of Christian art.

Again, we find the enormous Pauline influence in the new doctrine. Saint Paul had been raised within the Hellenistic culture, and it was precisely through him that Christianity was soaked in classical references that, in addition, deeply penetrated the highly Hellenized Roman society. On the other hand, The fish was a symbol evidently related to water and, therefore, to baptism.


Early Christian architecture

We cannot finish this brief tour of early Christian art without mentioning its architecture. There are some basic typologies, namely:

1. The catacombs

It may be the best-known construction in the early Christian world. These are excavated corridors, in the walls of which the tombs of the deceased faithful, as well as the martyrs, were inserted. At the intersection of two corridors were the cubicula (Latin plural of cubiculus), which were usually decorated with frescoes where all the symbology described above was displayed. Some of the most famous catacombs are those of San Callisto and those of Domitilla, in Rome.

Contrary to what people usually think, only the deceased were buried in the catacombs, the liturgy was not performed (with the exception of some specific celebrations dedicated to martyrs buried there). The liturgy of the early Christians, although it may seem less romantic, was practiced in private homes, at least before the appearance of the first churches.

2. The basilicas

The first churches were built as basilicas. These buildings extracted their plan and configuration from the ancient Roman basilicas which, however, did not have religious use, but rather civil ones. After the Edict of Milan (313), which legalized Christianity in the Empire, Christians were able to build their own temples, for which they were inspired by these ancient Roman basilicas.

The basilicas of the first Christians were strongly hierarchical; After an entrance atrium, one reached a purification fountain and, behind it, the space reserved for catechumens opened, that is, those who had not yet been baptized. Beyond was the part intended for the liturgy, reserved for baptized Christians. A beautiful example of this type of building is the Basilica of Santa Sabina, in Rome, built in the 5th century.