In This Article Early Christian Art

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Surveys
  • Reference Works
  • Databases
  • Essays
  • Exhibition Catalogues
  • Collections
  • Iconography Surveys
  • Iconographic Theory and Theology of Images
  • Monographs on Focused Iconographic Themes
  • Monographs on Specific Objects or Kinds of Objects
  • Catacomb Paintings
  • Catacomb Sites
  • Sarcophagus Reliefs
  • Manuscript Illuminations
  • Mosaics, Ivories, Textiles, Ceramics, Metalwork, Glass

Biblical Studies Early Christian Art
by
Robin Jensen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0126

Introduction

Most scholars agree that Christian art first appeared around the end of the 2nd century or the beginning of the 3rd century. Among these earliest examples are the wall paintings and epitaphs found in the Roman catacombs. At first the iconography was primarily simple and symbolic (e.g., doves, anchors, boats, and praying figures). More complex images included the Good Shepherd with his sheep and representations from the Old Testament, including Jonah, Noah, Daniel, and the Three Youths in the fiery furnace. By the end of the 3rd century, Christians had begun commissioning sarcophagi with relief carvings that depicted narrative episodes from the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. Following the legalization of Christianity and the imperial support that following the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, Christian art was dramatically transformed in style, technique, context, and motifs. From the mid-4th through the end of the 6th centuries, Christians built and decorated churches and baptisteries; designed and made liturgical vessels; produced private devotional objects in gemstones, pottery, glass, ivory, fabric, and precious metals; painted panel portraits of their holy men and women; and began to illustrate their sacred texts. Older types and motifs, such as the Good Shepherd and Jonah, were gradually replaced by new iconography that emphasized the glory and triumph of Christianity over the traditional Roman gods. Along with the iconographic changes, new media emerged, in particular polychrome glass mosaic for walls, apses, and domes of church buildings.

General Overviews

Many surveys and handbooks of early Christian art and architecture have been written since the mid-20th century and many are still in print. This section covers brief handbooks and very introductory works. Many of these are dated, e.g., Beckwith 1979, Gough 1973, and Hutter 1971, and all of them are, by nature, lacking in depth and detail, e.g., Deckers 2007, or cover the history of early Christian art in only the first chapters, e.g., Lowden 1997. They also tend to avoid extended discussion of theory or differences in perspectives. Yet, most would be good for beginning students, are well illustrated, and provide helpful bibliographies that support more advanced study. For more introductory writings, see Koch 1996 and Temple 1990.

  • Beckwith, John. Early Christian and Byzantine Art. 2d ed. New York: Penguin, 1979.

    E-mail Citation »

    An excellent, if dated, handbook. A broad and detailed overview of early Christian art from the beginnings through the Middle Ages, both East and West. Well illustrated with b/w images only.

  • Deckers, Johannes G. Die frühchristliche und Byzantinische Kunst. Munich: Beck, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    Brief and small-sized (7 × 5 inch) handbook to early Christian art; only about 125 pages in length.

  • Gough, Michael. The Origins of Christian Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 1973.

    E-mail Citation »

    Brief introduction to the subject arranged in four chapters, starting with Christian art before Constantine (chapter 1) and ending with art from the age of Justinian and the art of the British Isles (chapter 4). Well illustrated but now very dated.

  • Hutter, Irmgard. Early Christian and Byzantine Art. Foreword by Otto Demus and translated by Alistair Laing. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1971.

    E-mail Citation »

    Broad overview of the subject. Very little on Christian art prior to Justinian, however, and otherwise somewhat superficial. Well illustrated; many b/w and color figures.

  • Koch, Guntram. Early Christian Art and Architecture: An Introduction. Translated by John Bowden. London: SCM Press, 1996.

    E-mail Citation »

    Introductory and brief. Begins with sacred architecture (e.g., basilicas, baptisteries, monasteries), but continues with an unusual section on secular architecture, including urban design. The Christian art section includes paintings, mosaics, and minor arts. Good bibliographies as well as a helpful section on museums and collections with early Christian art.

  • Lowden, John. Early Christian and Byzantine Art. London: Phaidon, 1997.

    E-mail Citation »

    Excellent handbook. Only the first three chapters (of ten) on Christian art before the 8th century, however. Little discussion of historical or theological context. Well illustrated with many color figures.

  • Temple, Richard, ed. Early Christian and Byzantine Art. Shaftesbury, UK: Element, 1990.

    E-mail Citation »

    A quirky, large-format introduction with many color plates. Some unusual selections of objects, as well as interesting short essays and tables, make this a surprisingly useful volume.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.

Article

Up

Down