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Images of Christ

Images of Christ

Author: Ian McConnell

Identify characteristics and examples of early works of art containing images of Christ.

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Looking at the depictions of Christ in early Christian art.

Video Transcription

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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 images of Christ. As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward or rewind as many times you feel is necessary. And as soon as you're ready, we can begin.

Today's objectives, or the things you're going to learn today, are listed below. By the end of the lesson today you'll be able to identify and define today's key terms, explain syncretism in the artistic connection between pagan religion and Christianity using examples from this lesson. Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson.

First key term is syncretism, attempt of the union between differing or opposing practices in religion or philosophy. And iconography, a type of visual symbolism. Christian iconography, for instance, might make references to the biblical story of the nativity. The big idea for today is that early Christian art was influenced by the religion and culture of the Roman Empire. And there is required artwork in this lesson. Page titles will be listed or colored in purple.

So let's begin by looking at the lifespan of Jesus Christ. Though the official birth we year is up to debate, his lifespan covers about 33 years. And the artwork that we're looking at today ranges from the second century AD to around 450 AD. Here's the Italian peninsula. We'll be looking at two cities, Rome, Italy and the city of Ravenna, Italy on the northeast coast of the Italian peninsula.

So why do we care about Christian art? Well, there are no existing images of Christ from his lifetime if there ever were. Images depicting Christ don't appear until sometime after his death. There's two important things I want to point out. First, it wasn't until after the adoption of Christianity as the Roman empire's official religion, thanks, in no small part, to the emperor Constantine, that Christian art really began to flourish. And the reason is that Christian art wasn't publicly produced until after Constantine for fear that Christians would be persecuted and killed. Which I think is a fair reason.

Secondly, early Christian art shows strong evidence of syncretism, or a union of sorts between elements of the pagan and Christian religions. And I'll show you some artistic examples in just a moment. But this cultural exchange between religions and philosophies isn't new, but it is interesting in how it affects traditional understandings of the Christian religion. So for example, let me use December 25 as an example. Now, this is the official date for celebrating the birth of Christ, but scholars agree-- almost unanimously-- that this is most likely not the true date of his birth.

There are two pools of thought for why December 25 was originally conceived. And the first is that it is a mathematical calculation based on his supposed death during the Jewish feast of Passover. But second is that it was adopted based on a pagan religious celebration associated with the solstice and the return of the sun that was celebrated on or around December 25. And if that's the case that that's true, it would be a very interesting example of syncretism.

Although the origins of December 25 is the birth of Christ are debatable, the syncretism that's suggested as evident in the works of art from this time is widely accepted by scholars. This example of Christ as good shepherd is from the catacomb of Priscilla located in Rome, Italy. Like other images of Christ from this time, he's shown as a youthful shepherd figure, an inspiration that likely stemmed from earlier Greco-Roman depictions of Apollo and Hermes as good shepherd's.

Now, this image also draws forth comparisons to an earlier example of Arcade Greek sculpture and its depiction of a calf bearer. Now, as opposed to the offering of an animal for sacrifice, the symbolism of a good shepherd is that of Christ returning one of his lost flock, which is the sheep on his shoulders, to the fold, which is the Christian religion, symbolically. Now, it's also an example of Christian iconography, or visual symbolism, that symbolizes the gospel narratives of Christ describing himself as the good shepherd in laying his life down for his flock, in the same way Christ would later sacrifice himself for the good of mankind according to scripture.

Now, syncretism is evident in this mosaic of Christ as sol invictus from a mausoleum beneath the Basilica of Saint Peter's in Rome. This is one of the earliest images we know of in which Christ appears to appear more regal. He's also thought to be depicted as the sun god sol invictus which was a later form of the sun deity in the Roman religion. Now, particular note are the rays of light emanating from his head. Aside from the cross like shape that's depicted, this is a type of imagery we see in almost all of the depictions of Christ that appear later on, that of a halo or ring of light surrounding the head of Christ or other important figures within the church. And again, another example of syncretism.

Now, this final image is another mosaic, this time for the mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy. And a mosaic is an image typically on the ceiling, wall or floor created out of colored ceramic or glass tiles. The mausoleum of Galla Placidia is literally covered in mosaics and is considered one of the best examples of mosaic artwork from this time period that exists today.

What's interesting about this image of Christ as good shepherd is in how he's changed in appearance from a youthful Apollo like version of a shepherd to a much more regal or imperial looking version of a shepherd. It's quite obvious, given the dates of these creations and the manner in which they are depicted, that these are not actual likenesses Christ but rather reflections of the people or cultures from that-- that created them. And this mosaic was created after Christianity became the state religion of Rome, and undoubtedly reflects the desire to make the image of Christ appear more grand and imperial given the use of the gold and purple robes which are colors of the emperor, the golden cross shaped staff and his head bathed in a golden aura. This imagery of Christ as King is another common depiction in the Christian art that was to come.

So that brings us to the end of this lesson. Let's take a look at our objectives to see if we met them. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms, can you explain syncretism in the artistic connection between pagan religion and Christianity using examples from this lesson? Once again, the big idea for today is that early Christian art was influenced by the religion and culture of the Roman Empire. And there you go. Thank you for joining me today. I'll see you next time.


Terms to Know

A type of visual symbolism. Christian iconography for instance, might make references to the biblical story of the nativity.


Attempt of union between differing or opposing practices in religion or philosophy.