Early Western Christian Art during the IIIrd, IVth and Vth centuries: the paintings of the Catacombs

 

“Adam and Eve”, painting from the late third century (Cemetery of the Saints Peter and Marcellinus, Rome), already imposing the characteristics of this scene as it will always be represented by Christian art: the tree in the middle of the couple who cover their bodies with grape leaves.

To start the description of Christian art we must begin by studying the paintings found at the Catacombs of Rome. The first Christian communities lived and celebrated their worship in private buildings, which later will be known as the Roman tituli.

Religious persecution and the impossibility of building were the main causes of the lack of a Paleochristian architecture during the early years of Christian art but, on the contrary, funerary art experienced a completely different scenario. Families owned land outside the city walls where they had permission to bury their dead and was so that, by taking advantage of these lands, several multiple galleries were dug underground as if they were truly “underground hives” that are now known as Catacombs. Pagan families allowed the burial of Christians there and was on their walls and with a purely funerary purpose that the first examples of early Christian painting appeared.

The Virgin and Child (or maybe just a devotee with her son), mid IIIrd century (Cubicle of the “Velatio” in the Catacombs of Priscilla, Rome)
Susana accused by the old men, and praying before Daniel, mid IIIrd century (Cubicle of the “Velatio” in the Catacombs of Priscilla, Rome)

The largest number of Catacomb paintings made during the fourth century can be found in the cities of Rome, Naples and Sicily. The paintings of the Catacombs were also accompanied by the first attempts of early Christian funerary sculpture, most of them located on the front of sarcophagi.  So it was in painting and sculpture that the beginning of the early Christian iconography should be found and was in such iconography where the very own Christian symbolism developed along the III century and, especially, the IV century.

Veneranda and the martyr Petronilla, IV century (Catacombs of Domitilla, Rome). Representations related to the cult of martyrs were among the oldest themes developed for the Christian iconography.

Early Christian painting began at the end of the second century or, more accurately, in the early third century; while the boom of underground cemeteries or catacombs corresponds to the fourth century when the Church had fully developed the cult of martyrs.

The Good Shepherd (Cubicle of the “Velatio” in the Catacombs of Priscilla, Rome) from the third century. This image, so often depicted in early Christian art, refers to Christ as “Shepherd of Souls”. This allegory originated in the image of the “Moschophoros” from archaic Greek art.

The earliest examples of Christian painting are from the early third century and are exemplified by the Flavian hypogaea, in the Catacombs of Domitilla, the crypt of Ampliatus in the same catacombs, and the famous Capella Greca in the Catacomb of Priscilla. In these paintings, between lines framing walls and vaults, some symbolic figures appeared individually, including the Good Shepherd, the Prayer, and even images of Christ and devotees, thus initiating an iconography initially based on mythological themes as were the Christ-Orpheus, so prevalent in the third century, or the Christ-Sun, or just Apollo, riding on his solar chariot. In the Capella Greca we can see cherubs’ heads among foliage alongside scenes from the Old Testament, and for the first time we see a famous Eucharistic banquet or fractio panis. Sometimes, instead of figurative themes, there are ornamental elements similar to those found in certain pagan tombs, such as the paintings of the Isola Sacra at Ostia Antica, with birds, cherubs, representations of the seasons -a very prevalent theme in the pagan funerary iconography especially in sarcophagi-, etc. Thus the third century was rich in Catacomb paintings.

The Prayer, IIIrd century (Cubicle of the “Velatio” in the Catacombs of Priscilla, Rome).
One of the oldest Christian representations of the “Eucharistic banquet” (Eucharist) or “Fractio panis” from the “Capella Greca” in the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome, from the late second century. Note that in early Christian art only 7 participants were represented at the banquet.

At around mid-III century, art tended more toward classical forms as can be seen in the beautiful heads of the Apostles from the tomb of the Aurelii, showing fine modeling and dated around 240 after Christ. The same style and quality is found in the famous Prayer from the cubicle of the Velatio in the Catacomb of Priscilla represented as an spherical volume and painted between a figure of the Virgin and Child, and a “master”.

View of the Catacomb of Via Latina (Rome) from the second half of the fourth century with paintings belonging to the “fair style” that included pagan themes.

In the second half of the fourth century other art forms developed as the so-called stile bello (or “fair style”) “beautiful style”, especially represented in the paintings of the Catacombs of Via Latina. The narrative cycle had in these paintings a unique beauty, a particular characteristic theme of this half of the fourth century was the story of the “chosen people”.

“Cleopatra with the asp in a field of wheat and poppies”, second half of the fourth century (Catacomb of Via Latina, Rome).
Hercules killing the Hydra, second half of the fourth century (Catacomb of Via Latina, Rome)

In the late fourth century appeared the triumphal themes that will be later more frequent in large format paintings and monumental mosaics. The theme of the traditio legis (“handing over the law”), or Christ the lawgiver, a plastic manifestation of the divine root of the Church, was a frequently represented topic. The images of Christ among the Apostles were also extremely common.  Christ was represented enthroned, triumphant, accompanied by the Mystic Lamb. This iconic image later known as Christ in Majesty* (or Christ in Glory, Majestas Domini) became, even to present days, the very Western Christian image of Christ, seated on a throne as ruler of the world, always seen frontally in the center of the composition, and often flanked by other sacred figures.  The finest example of this composition coming from the early times of Christian art is found in a fresco from the catacombs of the Saints Peter and Marcellinus.

Christ between Saint Peter and Saint Paul, above four martyrs worshiping the Mystic Lamb, IV century (dome of the Catacombs of the Saints Peter and Marcellinus, Rome).

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*Christ in Majesty: Christ in Majesty or Christ in Glory is the Western Christian image of Christ seated on a throne as ruler of the world, always seen frontally in the centre of the composition, and often flanked by other sacred figures. The image develops from Early Christian art, which directly borrowed the formulae of depictions of the enthroned Roman Emperor.

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