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In this lesson, you will explore the early styles of art and architecture of the young Christian religion. Then, test your understanding about art, history, and the development of Christian symbols with a brief quiz.

Secret Christians

Did you ever have a secret clubhouse as a kid? I feel like mine always had these super complex handshakes and passwords, codes, and symbols. It was fun to feel like you had to meet in secret. Of course, many groups throughout history did have to meet in secret. Their lives depended on it.

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One of these groups was the early Christians. In the first centuries of the religion, Christianity was illegal in the Roman Empire, and Christians were killed for their beliefs. This meant that for the early Christians, their world was full of secrets and symbols. In order to hide their true intentions, many of their actions and symbols were designed to look like normal things in Roman culture. Only Christians understood their secret meaning.This changed after 313, when the Roman emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, making Christianity legal and forbidding the persecution of Christians. Art and architecture changed after this, but for the first 300 years of the religion, Christianity developed secret symbols and styles that would form the foundation of Christian art.

Christian Art

The earliest Christian art was meant to look like other art forms of the area, most notably Roman art. The intention was to create art that could blend in so that they could worship without being persecuted; don’t forget that Christianity was still illegal for a while. Murals, paintings, and mosaics were all popular forms of Christian art, whenever the generally poor Christians could afford to make them. Many of these could be found in unlikely places, where Christians met to worship in secret, such as the catacombs underneath Rome.

As Christianity grew, the central figures developed more consistent appearances in art. Jesus Christ, for example, was more often shown as a tall, thin figure with a beard. Before, he appeared in Christian art as a short, beardless man, in the style of a Roman shepherd.

Catacombs and churches were the primary locations for Christian art, which was becoming more elaborate as the church developed the funds to sponsor better-trained artists.

Iconography

Early Christian artists developed unique sets of iconography, or images that represented an idea. By using the same iconography, these artists were able to communicate Christian ideas at a time when being a Christian was illegal, even often dangerous. After the Church became widespread enough that Christianity was no longer persecuted, these images remained strong symbols for Christianity. Examples include the cross, the fish symbol, or the lamb, all of which could represent Christ.Many symbols that the early Christians used in their iconography were images that had been used by the Romans.

By reusing old symbols, the Christians were able to hide the real meaning of their art and avoid persecution. Anchors, shepherds, and grape vines were all images that were used by the Romans, but the early Christians changed their meanings to symbolize their religion.

Christian Architecture

There really is no Christian architecture before roughly 313, because the Christians met in secret. By the 4th century however, Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire. The Roman Emperor Constantine even converted to Christianity in 312. Now that Christians could meet in public, they needed a place to do so.In the Roman world, one of the respected public meeting spaces was called the basilica.

Roman basilicas were a long, narrow building with a platform on the end, where there was generally a statue of a Roman god. When the Christians were able to build their own churches, they kept this basic layout, but made some changes. They added a perpendicular hallway, called the transept, to make the building look like a cross. They also replaced the statue of the Roman god with a cross or image of Christ.

As Christians developed their churches, they developed several architectural features. Roman temples to their gods tended to be dark and windowless. Christian churches almost always had large windows, and plenty of them, to ensure lots of natural lighting. This was for both practical reasons and to symbolize the light of God. Much later, the need to maintain natural lighting was a driving force in European architecture as engineers found new ways to create large windows that did not compromise the strength of the building.

Lesson Summary

In 313, the Roman Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, legalizing the Christian religion in the Roman Empire.

This changed everything for the Christians, who had been meeting in secret for the last 300 years.This meant that for the first few centuries, Christian art was composed of symbols designed to hide their true meaning. Thus, the early church developed a unique set of iconography, or symbols. Some were brand new, like the outline of a fish or a cross that represented Christ. Other symbols were images commonly found in Roman culture, used so that nobody would be suspicious of them, but given new meaning.

Anchors, shepherds, and grape vines came to represent the holy trinity, Christ, and the crucifixion.Early Christian art was most commonly found in the obscure places where Christians met in secret to worship, like the catacombs beneath Rome. Christian architecture was not truly possible until after 313, but then quickly took the form of the Roman meeting hall called the basilica. The Christians took this style of building and added changes, such as a perpendicular hallway to make the shape of a cross, and windows for natural lighting. Many of the traditions developed by the early Christians are still important parts of the church today.

Christianity is no longer in hiding, but its art and architecture will always reflect that heritage.

Learning Outcomes

After watching this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Explain why Christians had to disguise their iconography in Roman culture
  • Describe early Christian art and architecture

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