Early Christian and Byzantine Art - for the new God

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Greek Antiquity | Roman Antiquity | Byzantium | Middle Ages | Renaissance

From about the year 50 AD Christianity spread westwards, coming from Palestine, Syria and Asia Minor. The young religion however was not compatible with the Roman Empire as Christians did not agree with the cult-like worship of the emperor. Therefore even the rather open-minded Romans - who accepted quite a lot when it came to religious believes in their Empire - did not agree with Christianity. This resulted in Christians not being particularly welcome in the empire, but the spread of Christianity could still not be stopped.

At about 200 AD the first Christian communities developed in Rome. Christianity was still a forbidden religion, so they met in secret. This happened mostly in the Roman catacombs, burial places which were large systems of underground tunnels located outside of the city. The Christian parts of the catacombs were decorated with Christian murals. Arts for Christian clients that served the new religion was developed since the 2nd Century in Rome.

At first Christians were against the use of any pictures becuase they wished to set themselves apart from other religions or cults. But since the 2nd Century pictures were used to teach the folllowers of this new religion about different aspects of Christianity. Early churches were outfitted with marble floors, murals and mosaics depicting Bible scenes as well as decorations made from gold and silver. All walls were mainly carriers of pictures. These murals and mosaics were not completely new inventions but used older images like the shepherd or wine leaves, which were already used by Roman artists. They originally symbolized philantrophic characteristics of the deceased and the Roman god Bacchus, but were used in the Christian context to instead remind of the Bible. Only the context as well as the combination with crosses and other Christian symbols makes them noticably Christian. While mosaics were already used a lot in Roman Antiquity, the fashion to not only lay it on floors but cover entire rooms with them came up in the 4th Century. The mosaics were usually made of small rectangular pieces of glass but also stone, gems and metal.

The persecution of Christians was at its peak in the 3rd Century, but in 313 Emperor Constantine allowed everyone to freely practice their religion. In 373 Christianity even became the religion of state. From then on most emperors were Christians and so Jesus often was depicted in the fashion of a Roman emperor: sitting on a throne and wearing a toga, for instance. The classical Roman arts was not lost but used to serve the new religion. Many small reliefs depicting Christian ideas were made in the naturaistic fashion of those found in ancient Rome, while on the other hand less naturalistic artworks appeared at the same time. Very often naturalistic details were in contrast to a very non-classical composition. The composition of an artwork describes how elements are arranged in relation to each other. While on classical antique works often showed lively scenes, often with many persons in mid-movement in different layers behind each other. Early Christian artworks on the other hand often seem more stiff and instead of realistic proportions the size of people can vary with their importance in the depicted scene.

With Christianity becoming state religion a new canon of visual expressions had to be found. All forms of arts known in Roman antiquity were used for the purpose of the new religion. Naturalistic pictures as well as stylized images were used. The discussion about the ifs and hows of depicting God or Jesus themselves however should not end even until the 12th Century.

In 410 the Visigoths conquered Rome and in the late 5th Century the last emperor of the western Roman empire had to step down from the throne. Even with the coming of the northern tribes the classical Roman traditions did not find a sudden end but restoring and studying artworks of Roman antiquity was even encouraged. Especially the most important king of the Visigoths, Theoderic I, took care of the Roman monuments. The capital city of his kingdom was Ravenna in north-eastern Italy.


In 330 Constantinople was founded by Emperor Constantine at the place of the ancient Greek settlement Byzantion. After the devision of the Roman empire into eastern and western Rome in 395, Constantinople became the capital of the eastern Roman Empire, which developed to be the Byzantine Empire. While the western Roman empire fell into the hands of the Visigoths, Byzantium still flourished.

Many areas that once belonged to the western Roman empire were conquered by the eastern Roman empire in the 6th Century and the Byzantine Empire emerged. It spread from Asia Minor to encompass Greece and most parts of current Italy (including the areas formerly occupied by the Visigoths) but also northern Africa along the Mediterranean shores as well as Egyptian terretories and southern Spain.

The use of pictures in a religious context was very much debated in Byzantium for a long time. In the early 8th Century almost all uses of religious pictures were even forbidden by law. Some historians claim that even existing pictures were destroyed and mosaics as well as sculptures removed from churches. This time is called 'iconoclasm' 1. Churches from this time were decorated not with colorful mosaics but only simple pictures of the cross. The iconoclasm ended in the mid 9th Century.

Mosaics and paintings

Paintings and mosaics in Byzantium were mainly used to decorate walls. Various firgures from the Bible were framed with ornaments of leaves, often with blue or even golden backgrounds. Sometimes all of the surrounding walls were covered with gold.

Depending on the subject pictures could be quite naturalistic or very stilyzed, showing strong contours and stiff poses. They were not meant to depict reality but showed a higher truth. In Ravenna the arts of early Christian mosaics was at its peak: a mixture of naturalistic pictures and intricate ornaments cover walls and vaulted ceilings, visually dissolving the walls in shining pictures.

Historical records show that colored and painted glass was used in church windows from about the 4th Century onwards.

Illuminated Books

Books (codices) made of parchment were in use since about the 1st Century AD, before that only rolls of papyrus were used, but books were quickly adapted by the Christians because of their advantages in handling and durability. They were also better to paint on and paint was better preserved on flat parchment than on rolled papyrus, as some artists found out some time during the 5th Century in the Byzantine Empire. As the art of illuminating books developed, people in Byzanthium found a love for shining gold backgrounds and very fine parchment. Unfortunately the especially smooth parchment resulted in paint often not sticking to it properly.

Most illuminated books contained religious texts like parts of the Bible. Depending on the use and contents of the books their covers were made very elaborately out of ivory or metal, sometimes also decorated with enamel. The text could also be written in silver ink which turned black over the centuries. The codices were made by monasteries for their own use as well as by different ateliers for various customers.

The pictures in the books often reminded of images from late Antiquity, some showing portraits of prophets or other chraracters, other whole lively scenes. Ornamental frames were often painted around pages and pictures. Only very simple sketches were made before painting the pictures. Very often two pages of illustrations and texts belonged together and formed a greater picture in the opened book.


In Byzantium sculptures were continually used to decorate the interiors of buildings and also the surfaces of smaller objects . The genre of sculptures were reduced mainly to reliefs made of stone, metal and ivory. No statues were made, they were associated with earlier religions. More 3-dimensional works were mostly ornamental capitals of columns and never appeared on impressively decorated facades as they did in western Europe.

The downfall of Byzantium

Civil Wars as well as conflics with other countries led to the crumbling of the Byzantine Empire. In the late 14th Century only little was left of the once large empire and when Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453 the last empire of Antiquity came to an end.

Byzantine arts inspired artists of the European Middle ages. Artworks as well as artists were highly sought-after. The fall of the Byzantine Empire led many scholars – artists as well as scientists – to mograte to Italy, where they played a part in the genesis of the Renaissance. Byzantine arts also lay the foundation of otrthodox christian icon painting and greatly influenced other forms of orthodox arts.

1from Greek 'eikon' (picture) and 'klasma' (to break)

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