The Debt of Christian Art and Architecture to Classical Forms

In the prior post, we had explored theological ideas in Christianity that appeared in prior pagan traditions.  Whether Christianity recognizes those prior pagan sources as contributory to Christian ideology, mere coincidence or as some Christian Fathers claimed, the work of the Devil to confuse feeble minds, ultimately, it is a matter of personal choice and faith.  In the world of art and architecture, on the other hand, experts are in agreement that early Christian art was greatly influenced by classical forms (which were associated with pagan and Jewish sources), and that, in fact, Christian art adapted those forms to its own purposes.  We have no examples of Christian art until after 100 a.d.  With the construction of the catacombs, which were initially and substantially for full body burial (anticipating bodily resurrection of the Faithful in a Roman society that preferred cremation) we have our first extant Christian art.
Only later were the catacombs used for secret Christian meetings, and then use was quite limited.  As we can expect, the first arts to be adapted to Christian use were painting and sculpture.  Until Christianity was adopted as a State religion by Constantine there was little architectural imitation other than to model small meeting houses after domestic architectural forms.  See  It was after Constantine that classical forms were used in the construction of larger and more visible structures such as the basilica.  We will examine that later as we explore various churches, cathedrals and basilicas.

That artistic debt to classical forms is acknowledged and demonstrated in  From that source, consider:

The beginnings of Christian art can be dated to the end of the second century or the early years of the third century A.D. The appearance of a comparatively large body of material from this period is a good testament to the dramatic growth of Christianity in this period. The newly won converts to Christianity were products of the classical culture of the Ancient world. Rather than reject their cultural heritage, the new Christians assimilated the classical culture into Christianity. Christian theology, literature, and art of this period bears the unmistakable imprint of this mixing of Christian and classical. For example, the Christian writer Clement of Alexandria, writing at the end of the second and the beginning of the third century, infuses his texts with a strong knowledge of classical literature, mythology, and philosophy. This is well illustrated by an excerpt from a text entitled The Protreptikos. Here we find references to Homer and Plato along side Biblical citations. The image of Christ the Word as the logos and teacher is derived from Greek philosophy. Christ and the Christian as a philosopher are important themes in Early Christian art. For example, in a catacomb painting, Christ as the philosopher is flanked by his disciples much like a representation of Socrates surrounded by his students:


Notice here how Christ is given authority by being represented with the gesture of authority while holding onto a scroll. Even his dress, a toga, is the dress associated with authority. A fourth century painting of St. Paul already has his characteristic pointed beard and dark hair with receding hairline:

Paul’s dress, the scroll in his hands, and the container with more scrolls at his feet, all identify Paul as a philosopher. A third century sarcophagus or tomb now in the church of Sta. Maria Antiqua has at its center a representation of a seated man holding a scroll and a standing woman:

This is clearly based on the Classical formula of the philosopher and his muse. A sixth manuscript made in Constantinople known as the Vienna Dioscorides includes miniatures showing Dioscorides, a first century Greek physician and compiler of this medical encylopedia, accompanied by muses: describes this early Christian art as owing a great debt to Roman art forms and providing transition from that to Medieval art:

The Early Christian period of Western art corresponds roughly with the Late Empire period of the Roman Empire (ca. 180-476). During the Early Christian period, Roman art forms were harnessed for Christian expression. Early Christian visual art embodies a transition away from realism to stylization, as artists focused on conveying spiritual power rather than physical accuracy (see realism vs stylization).1 Early Christian art thus served as the transitional phase from Roman art to medieval art, the latter of which is highly stylized.

With the fall of Rome, the West became politically fragmented, and Western art splintered into various regional styles (known as the “barbarian styles”).2 Unity in Western art was restored in the Romanesque period. In the Eastern Empire (which did not fracture), Early Christian art served as the transition to the Byzantine style.

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