Art: The Catacombs of Priscilla and Early Christianity

early christian art emerged a little late

Some of the earliest Christian artworks can be found in the Catacombs of Priscilla, a series of tunnels utilized for burial of the deceased, just to the north of Rome. Dated to about 250 CE, the wall paintings are considered the first Christian artwork (the one exception may be Dura-Europos, a temple in Syria, but the dating is still debatable). Before the 3rd Century CE, there is a strange lack of Christian art. This could perhaps be simply because none survived; perhaps it had to do with restriction on iconography in fear of violating the Second Commandment. Depictions of non-Christian subjects such as nature and Greek myths appear in an array of art forms– it seems as if Christian artists wanted to separate themselves from paganism by restricting their representations (illusions?) to strictly non-Christian subjects.

catacombs of priscilla

Dated to as far back as 300 CE, this is the earliest known representation of a now-common motif in Western art history, known as Madonna and Child. A woman holds her infant child while a man, on the left and holding a book, points towards the figures as stars shine hanging above them.

The earliest known Madonna and Child, 300 CE.

(Later representations)

Inscribed alongside the slots in the walls, which would have originally been walled in by plaster and held corpses swathed in cotton, are epitaphs for the individuals inside the grave. Here is where we find the earliest inscriptions of Christian symbols such as the anchor (an early symbol for salvation) and the fish (a reference to one of Christ’s many miracles). Written alongside these symbols of Greek and Latin are familiar sayings such as “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”

Priscilla Catacombs are more than just hallways, however; peppered throughout are small, more private rooms that would have held the sarcophagi of wealthy Christians. Many of these rooms are painted in the First Style of Roman painting, a style resembling faux marble. Estimated to be the oldest of these chambers is the Greek Chapel, which is a misnomer because it had nothing to do with Greece other than a small inscription that, unremarkably, was in Greek, and it also wasn’t a chapel. Painted across the walls of the Greek Chapel are murals of scenes depicted in the Old and New Testaments– divine intervention, salvation, damnation, the Raising of Lazarus, the Adoration of the Magi, the Sacrifice of Isaac.

The Greek Chapel

The scenes depicted are interesting because they shine light on what the earliest Christians believed and cared about. How they chose to represent scenes differs greatly than how later Christians would choose to represent the same subject matter. For instance, in the painting found from 300 CE in the Greek Chapel, Abraham is seen gathering wheat with his son, Isaac. The two seem content. In later representations of Abraham and his son, the boy is typically seen held down by his father who has a knife firmly in hand, stopped from the sacrifice only at the last minute by an intervening angel. Early Christians focus on the relationship between father and son, and how Abraham was willing to give up that relationship in a leap of faith for his all-knowing God, a parallel between God’s sacrifice of his son, Jesus. Later painters, such as during the Renaissance, like to capture the emotion of the moment at its climax.

Abraham gathers wheat.

Here, we see a scene that at first glance resembles da Vinci’s Last Supper. This painting is known as the Breaking of the Bread and is actually the first representation of the liturgy, a public gathering of Christians where they perform the Eucharist, a reenactment of the Last Supper where they eat bread which symbolizes the flesh of Christ. Seven figures can be seen consuming bread, with seven baskets of fish off to the side, another reference to Christ’s miracles. Advanced techniques are evident: look at the use of foreshortening with the dinner plates that make flat space appear to be an angled table.

The scenes that these early Christians chose to represent were repeated so often, over such a long period of time, that they became a form of Christian iconography– that is, a form of language which uses images to convey complex ideals.

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