Why did images prevail in Christian art despite the idolatry prohibition? How did the image of Jesus Christ develop during the first four centuries of Christianity?
by Deyan Yanchev
The need to experience the divine was very characteristic for the Greco-Roman world. Therefore, in the absence of sacred texts, imagery representation of gods in sculptural and graphic form was everywhere. Images made Greek and Roman temples alive places where people would seek help from the gods by making votive offerings. To put it briefly, images were inseparable part of the Greco-Roman culture. As Christianity spread from a Jewish movement in the 1st century AD to a religion across the entire Roman Empire in the 4th century AD, new Christians, who had been brought up surrounded by images, wanted to continue this in their Christian experience. Thus, art emerged in the early church. According to Allen Farber, the beginnings of an identifiable Christian art can be dated to the end of the 2nd and the beginning of the 3rd century AD.
There are very few preserved archaeological records regarding the emergence of Paleo-Christian art. The reasons for this are mainly two. Firstly, early Christians, rejected images as they considered them as idolatry, an issue that will remain controversial for Christianity throughout all Late Antiquity. Secondly, early Christians had to hide their religious practices because of the threat of persecutions organized by the imperial authorities, the first of which was in 41 AD and the last and most severe was the Diocletian Persecution from 302 to 311.
Thus, one of the earliest preserved images of Jesus Christ today are from the Dura-Europos house church in Syria, which was a normal domestic house converted for worship by Hellenized Jews in the period between 233 and 256. The other great monument of the history of early Christian art is the Roman Catacombs. The Catacombs contain the majority of examples in fresco and sculpture from before 5th century AD. They also trace in time the shift that wealthy Romans underwent as they moved from pagan beliefs toward the religion of Christ in the 4th century AD. The earliest Christian symbols discovered in the Roman Catacombs are from the 2nd century AD, but the earliest iconography of Jesus Christ dates from the 3rd century AD. A short-haired, beardless Christ in a Roman toga, without a nimbus (halo) is very characteristic of the 3rd and the early 4th century AD.
Third century Christian art had basically one underling theme, that of the personal salvation. It was less imagery intense, Nativity scenes were very rare and the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ were completely absent. Below are some examples of 3rd and early 4th century AD Christian art from the Internet.
After the end of the Diocletian Persecution, Christian art marked rapid development. In my opinion, three events were the cornerstone of this transformation.
First, the battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312. There are many stories of what happened on that bridge, but the end result of all of them was one. Constantine the Great became Emperor of the Roman Empire and declared that he would rule it as a Christian. The Edict of Milan followed shortly. The agreement of 313 gave Christians religious tolerance to worship freely within the entire empire. This paved the way for the rapid spread of Christianity in the Greco-Roman world and its blossoming. The church began to organize in dioceses for administrative governing. The model of the Roman basilica, previously used for meetings, markets and courts of law, was adopted by Constantine’s architects to house the Christian church. The ample imperial sponsorship which followed produced an unprecedented boom of basilica constructions. The interior adornment of these early basilicas shows the transition from pagan traditions to the emergence of a specific Christian iconography in the later 4th century AD.
For example, the Imperial Mausoleum of Santa Costanza in Rome, one of the first basilicas build in the early 4th century AD, was decorated in a Dionysian tradition, with mosaics depicting the grape harvest. The mosaic of Christ in Majesty (Traditio Legis) is one of the earliest of its type and depicts Christ seated on a throne as ruler of the world. The image was borrowed directly from the formulae of depictions of the enthroned Roman Emperor. Thus the nimbus or halo appeared in the depictions of Christ. The first halos were blue, in the color of heaven.
The second event was the first ecumenical council of the Church in Nicaea in 325 AD. It resulted in the first uniform Christian doctrine – the doctrine of the Trinity. This marked the beginning of the politicization of Christianity, but most importantly it distinctively separated Christianity from the other religious cults. While in all other pagan theology, the emphasis was on maintaining customary traditions, in Christianity the emphasis was on following the orthodox doctrine. In other words, the Christian church centered on spreading the teachings or doctrines of a particular teacher – Jesus Christ. Thus, the portrayal of Christ started to change from the image of a young, beardless man to the appearance of an older and wiser teacher or a philosopher – so the long hair, the beard and the philosopher’s toga appeared.
Finally, the conversion to Christianity of Constantine the Great on his death bed in 337 was the final threshold Christian iconography crossed. According to the historian Paul Johnson (1976) all barriers to the use of Christ’s image were broken down after the Conversion.
By the end of the 4th century AD, the adornment of basilicas with images became a common practice. Thus the Greco-Roman custom of worshiping gods through images was syncretized into Christianity.
Farber, Allen. Early Christian Art. Khan Academy. [Online Resource]. 27.06.2017, [Available here]
Johnson, Paul. 1976. History of Christianity. United Kingdom. 102-103.