In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section 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
  • Architecture
  • Catacomb Paintings
  • Catacomb Sites
  • Sarcophagus Reliefs
  • Manuscript Illuminations
  • Mosaics, Ivories, Textiles, Ceramics, Metalwork, Glass

Biblical Studies Early Christian Art
Robin Jensen, Lee Jefferson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 May 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0126


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 Hebrew Bible, 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 and Cormack 2018. 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, Williamson 2004, and Temple 1990. For a collection of thematic essays, see Jensen and Ellison 2018.

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

    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.

  • Cormack, Robin. Byzantine Art. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

    A strong survey now in its second edition, the author treats Roman antecedents of Byzantine art and devotes a chapter to 4th- and 5th-century Christian art that specialists will appreciate. This volume includes a strong treatment of Hagia Sophia, and features a chapter on late Byzantine art. The appendix to the second edition also includes details of museums and website databases, as well as updated color plates.

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

    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.

    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.

    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.

  • Jensen, Robin M., and Mark Ellison. The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art. London: Routledge, 2018.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315718835

    This volume includes essays on specific media in Christian art including mosaic tile, textiles, gold/glass, and catacomb paintings. And it also includes thematic essays that provide a more critical and analytic approach to the genre. A very valuable resource due to the large number of contributors and topics covered.

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

    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.

    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.

    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.

  • Williamson, Beth. Christian Art: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780192803283.001.0001

    Part of OUP’s “Very Short Introduction” series, this volume is worthy of note since many general readers and survey courses consult it. The author takes a more thematic approach toward Late Antiquity and the medieval era, focusing on images of Mary and the saints. The author then treats Christian art following the Reformation from a more chronological and historical perspective. Given its brevity, there are large gaps, but it is useful as an introduction to the genre.

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