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Early Christian Art and Architecture

Early Christian Art and Architecture

Author: Ian McConnell
This lesson will present an introduction to early Christian art and architecture.
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Exploring Christian art and architecture.

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Hello. I'd like to welcome you to this episode of Exploring Art History with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell. And today's lesson is about early Christian art and architecture. As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as often as you feel is necessary. And as soon as you're ready, we can begin.

Today's objectives are listed below. By the end of the lesson today, you'll be able to identify and define today's key terms; explain the relationship between Christianity, Judaism, and the Roman Empire; identify types of early Christian architecture and art; and explain the meaning associated with early Christian works of art and the design of the architecture.

Key terms are listed in yellow. First key term, catacombs, an underground cemetery with tunnels and rooms with burial chambers. Synagogue, a Jewish house of worship. Cubicula, burial chambers in a catacomb. And orant figures are image of a person in the early Christian position of prayer with arms outstretched.

The big idea for today is that early Christian art reflects its close ties to Judaism, and its architecture reflects the need for secrecy. And this lesson does have required artwork. The page titles will be listed in purple.

I'm going to begin by showing you two important periods of time. The first is the historical lifespan of Jesus Christ. What may seem strange are the dates I'm showing. Zero AD is commonly associated with the birth of Christ. But it's actually a bit more complicated than that.

The time of zero AD marks a single moment in time and was either a best estimate or a miscalculation. Depending on the Gospel in the Bible, the birth of Christ actually falls within a range from 4 BC, which corresponds to the death of Herod the Great, to 6 AD, which corresponds to the census of Quirinius, who was the Roman head of Syria. Now the reason the census comes into play is the census is often attributed to the reason that Joseph and Mary, who are the parents of Jesus, were traveling to Joseph's homeland of Bethlehem from their present home of Nazareth. And I'll show you these places in just a moment.

The second time period is referred to as early Christianity. And it ranges from sometime after Jesus' historical death to the First Council of Nicea in 325 AD, when Christian leaders got together under the Emperor Constantine and made the first group effort to organize Christianity into a formal religion.

And the origins of Christianity are in the Middle East, in and around the modern day borders of Israel, which is shown in red. Now, this region is considered extremely important, religiously and historically, to the three Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. And as a result, it's been fought over since antiquity and the borders have changed countless times.

Modern-day Israel is shown in red here. To the east is the modern-day country of Jordan. And this little section in blue is called the West Bank and is the present-day home to the largest population of Palestinian Arabs.

Now, it contains the ancient and biblical cities of Jericho, which is not pictured, as well as Bethlehem, the city of Jesus' birth and ancestral home to his father Joseph. And Nazareth in northern Israel is where Jesus was thought to have grown up. Jerusalem is very important in the history of all three Abrahamic religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. For Christians, Jerusalem is of particular importance because of its association with the crucifixion of Jesus.

Now, the Christian movement begins with the teaching and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Christian means relating to Christ. As influential as the figure of Christ is historically and religiously, it's really amazing to me to think that his ministry only lasted around three years, according to the Gospels, which are the Scriptural accounts of his life. And they comprise part of the New Testament in the Christian Bible.

He was eventually executed by the Romans. And he was thought to be at the age of 33 at that time. Christianity really began as a movement after his death. Jesus himself wasn't a Christian. He was Jewish.

The spread of Christianity wasn't only due to one individual, however, but largely credited to one of his apostles, the apostle Paul. The Christian movement spread outside of the Middle East. It took hold within many places within the Roman Empire, including Rome itself.

Remember, Christianity at this time wasn't a formal religion. In fact, there were many Christian sects. And it was considered more of a Jewish cult in this time. Eventually, the government takes notice. And the Roman persecution begins during the first century AD and doesn't end officially until the fourth century AD. However, tolerance for Christians was beginning to show as early as the second century AD.

Christianity has close ties to ancient Rome and Judaism, and is outlined here. Of note is that the Christian religion eventually became the official religion of Rome during the fourth century AD, thanks in large part to the Emperor Constantine. However, until this time, being a Christian was a risky proposition. And the early Christian architecture that predates the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire sort of reflects this need for secrecy.

Catacombs are essentially subterranean cemeteries. The use of catacombs to bury the dead isn't unique to Christians. The catacombs of Rome were constructed in large part as a means of necessity. Land within the city was in short supply. However, the secrecy of the location served the early Christians as a place to worship safely, as catacombs were sacred ground and the Romans usually refrained from persecuting Christians there.

Now this first image that I popped up there is just to give you a sense of what I mean by subterranean cemetery, literally under the city. This next simple diagram is intended to be a top-down view of a possible catacomb layout. The rooms, or cubicula, were set off of the major hallways. The bodies of the dead were placed within these rooms. This next image is an artist's depiction of what the catacombs look like.

Now, the Christian catacombs in Rome originated in the second century AD. Because they weren't buried in the traditional sense of the word, exposed human remains were not uncommon. Now, here's a picture of the catacombs as they actually are, lit up there with a floodlight. Again, second century AD.

And human remains exposed. Like I said, they weren't buried in the traditional sense, so this wasn't uncommon. This last image shows the use of wall space as a place to create important religious imagery, typically imagery from stories from the sacred texts associated with Christianity.

As I mentioned before, there wasn't an official split from Judaism until the fourth century. And even though the rift between Christianity and Judaism was widening, early Christians still borrowed traditions and religious history from Judaism. The city of Duras-Europos was a Roman city located in modern-day Syria. What's interesting is how the city was apparently rather tolerant of practicing Christians and Jews, given that there are above-ground examples of an early synagogue, which is pictured here, as well as the earliest known example of a Christian house-church, which is not pictured. Now, they weren't connected, but they are positioned rather close to each other in the city.

And the images of the walls of the synagogue are notable for their similarity to the Christian imagery that can be found on the catacombs under the city of Rome. Both sets of imagery depict important scenes or stories from the Tanakh, or Jewish Bible. The first image from the synagogue pictured here is of the baby Moses being picked out of the river in Egypt. Second image is of Moses leading the Israelites across the Red Sea to escape the army of the Pharaoh Ramses II. And that army is pictured on the left. It's the group with the shields.

So this image of Noah, which looks like he's popping out of a boxing saying "surprise," is not a required work of art. I'm using it to explain one of our key terms, which is orant figure. And the orant figure is a figure of a person that is gesticulating in a particular way. It's the traditional gesture of prayer, where the elbows are close to the body and the arms are sort of outstretched. Hopefully that helps to explain that.

Let's take a look at our lesson objectives, see how we did. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms? Can you explain the relationships between Christianity, Judaism, and the Roman Empire?

Can you identify types of early Christian architecture and art? And can you explain the meaning associated with early Christian works of art and the design of the architecture? And once again, the big idea for today is that early Christian art reflects its close ties to Judaism and its architecture reflects the need for secrecy.

And there you go. Thank you very much for joining me today. I'll see you next time.

Notes on "Early Christian Art and Architecture"

Key Terms


An underground cemetery with tunnels and rooms with burial chambers.


A Jewish house of worship. 


Burial chambers in a catacomb.

Orant Figures

Image of a person in the early Christian position of prayer, with arms outstretched.


Image of Israel Map Creative Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:LocationIsrael.svg; Image of Christ Creative Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:**********************************************.jpg; Image of Catacomb Procession Public Domain http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:A-Procession-in-the-Catacomb-of-Callistus.jpg; Image of Catacombs S. Sebastiano, Rome, Photo by Patrick Denker, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Catacombs_S._Sebastiano_Rome2.jpg; Image of Catacomb; Creative Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Paris_catacombes.jpg Doura Europos Synagogue Courtyard, Creative Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Doura_Europos_synagogue_courtyard.jpg Dura Europos Fresco, Public Domain: http://he.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D7%A7%D7%95%D7%91%D7%A5:Dura_Europos_fresco_Moses_from_river.jpg Dura Europos Fresco, Public Domain: http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fichier:Dura_Europos_fresco_Jews_cross_Red_Sea.jpg Image of Catacomb of Saints Peter and Marcellinus, Rome, Public Domain, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wilpert_060.jpg