Early Western Christian Art during the IIIrd, IVth and Vth centuries: sculpture and industrial arts

Most of the Early Christian sculpture was intended to serve a funerary purpose. This Early Christian funerary art was born in the third century and developed parallel to the paintings of the catacombs, achieving its stylistic and technical maturity during the imperial period of the “Tetrarchs” and during the time of Constantine. The iconography of the Early Christian funerary sculpture began with images of The Good Shepherd, a classic funerary theme, and The Prayer (also known as Orans, Orant or Orante). These two frequent images were subsequently accompanied by scenes of Christ as a Master (a reflection of the ancient image of the classical philosopher), images of Salvation (such as the story of Jonah), and scenes inspired by the Old Testament.

Sarcophagus with the theme of the “Good Shepherd”, in which the Christian allusions are indirect: three images of the Good Shepherd (the central one on a pedestal with griffins and the tripod of Apollo) and a multitude of cupids harvesting grape vines, similar to those of the mosaics of St. Constanza (Vatican Museums).

From the initial stage of this Early Christian funerary sculpture we have three sarcophagi: that of Brignoles la Gayole (France), the Via Salaria sarcophagus (Letran, ca 121) and that of Santa Maria Antiqua. The sculptures of these sarcophagi present a “landscape distribution” of the themes, but from the time of Constantine, the themes were structured in a continuous frieze. In these friezes, juxtaposed in one or two strips, scenes from the Old Testament were mixed with scenes of the New Testament. Sometimes the portrait of the deceased was represented in the center, enclosed within a shell known as imago clipeata* (Latin for “framed portrait”). The style used in these sarcophagi defines an “impressionist” period very similar to the style used in the reliefs of the Arch of Constantine, a style that later evolved to the so-called “beautiful style” or “fair style” of the end of Constantine’s reign and the beginning of the second half of the fourth century. From this period we know beautiful pieces such as the sarcophagus of Adelfia in Syracuse, the one known as “Dogmatic” from the Lateran Museum, that of the Two Brothers, and the sarcophagus of the consul Junius Bassus, from the year 359, that introduced scenes from the Passion of Christ. The latter sarcophagus is the best conserved piece from this post-Constantinian style, where the division of scenes by using small columns is already observed, an architectural ordination characteristic of the last days of the reign of Constantine and from the time of Theodosius.

The Dogmatic sarcophagus (Vatican Museums), so called because of its theological subtlety that draws a parallel between scenes of the upper register (judgment of Solomon, Adam and Eve, the miracle of the wedding at Cana, the multiplication of the bread and fishes, and resurrection of Lazarus) and lower register (adoration of the Magi, healing the blind, Daniel between the lions, Peter and the rooster, Peter imprisoned, and Peter baptizing Cornelius).
Sarcophagus of the “Two Brothers” (Vatican Museums), so called because in the central shell symbolizing baptism there are two portraits of great resemblance: the oldest man, bald, bears the roll of the Scriptures while the young man leans on him trusting his doctrine.
Detail of the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus consul of Rome, who died in the year 359 (Museum of St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City). It belongs to the type of sarcophagi containing scenes between columns and low arches. This particular scene depicts Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, one of the oldest scenes of Christian art, and yet conveys the classical tradition and the Hellenistic taste for the environment (here represented by the tree), although the leaves are strongly carved with trepan indicating the arrival of the new technique that will be improved by the Byzantine art: the game between light and shadows.

Beginning in the second half of the fourth century, the iconography changed and the theme of the Passion of Christ became very important. A type of sculpture emerged that divided scenes using architectural elements, these scenes contain themes and symbols relating to the Passion. Often, the center of the sarcophagus was occupied by the triumphant Cross crowned with flowers, or by an image alluding to the Apostolic College -The 12 Apostles, The Church- receiving the law from the hands of Christ. From this period and style is the extraordinary sarcophagus of Milan from the late fourth century.

Sarcophagus with scenes of the Passion (Vatican Museums), this type of sarcophagus displays between columns scenes depicting Christ carrying the cross, the crowning with thorns, and Christ before Pilate who is washing his hands. In the center, the Cross with a crown of flowers and the Greek anagram of Christ. This type of sarcophagus, common in the second half of the fourth century, contrasts with the sarcophagus of the “Good Shepherd” shown above.

In Rome were located some important official sculpture workshops which exported sculptures and sculptural styles to Spain.  After the sack of Rome in 410 Ravenna becomes an important center for the Early Christian sculpture due to the closure and disappearance of the Roman sculptural workshops. The sarcophagi produced in Ravenna were characterized by their semi-cylindrical caps and were adorned with a multitude of symbols in front of the figures; they were widely distributed in the V and VI centuries. The closure of the Roman sculpture workshops promoted the appearance of several others throughout the empire. Between them some worth mention are the workshops at Arles in Provence, which were faithful to the style dictated by the Roman workshops and whose sarcophagi production was abundant and widely distributed. The Carthage and Tarraco studios were also important centers of sculpture production during the fifth century.

Ivory leaf from a Christian diptych (V century), depicting Adam in Paradise (Bargello National Museum, Florence).

The most beautiful set of Early Christian industrial arts* is constituted by ivories. The so called consular diptychs* from the late fourth century, with portraits and names of magistrates, are numerous and are one of the richest known sources of industrial arts from the late Imperial Roman times. Examples of these ivories are the pieces of the Roman plates of the Nicomachus and Simcus ivories. The three imperial centers of production of these ivories were Rome, Milan and Ravenna, joined by the Eastern centers of Alexandria, Syria and Constantinople. The diptych with Adam among the animals and the Preaching of St. Paul on the island of Malta (Bargello Museum, Florence) are one of the few surviving examples of ancient Christian themes. The workshops in Milan produced the best ivories with a neoclassical style, rotund volumes and perfect shapes, similar to the sarcophagi of the second half of the fourth century. This Milan studio produced the Brescia casket or “lipsanotheca Brescia” (between 330 and 360). This magnificent ivory contains scenes of both Testaments, combined with medallions with heads of the Apostles, and is considered one of the masterpieces of the Post-Constantinian “renaissance” similar in artistic quality to the aforementioned Junius Bassus sarcophagus in Rome.


Ivory sheet from the diptych of the Nicomachus and Simcos carved in 382 to commemorate the junction of these two families, the most powerful of Rome in the late fourth century (Cluny Museum, Paris).
Two details of the Lipsanotheca Brescia, an ivory box for relics made between 330 and 360. With a classical style, this box summarizes almost all the scenes found in the catacombs. In the upper picture: the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter’s denial, Christ before Caiaphas, Christ before Pilate washing his hands. Below: the Transfiguration, the punishment of Ananias and his wife by St. Peter, and in the upper border, the Prayer, Jonah lying under the gourd, and the snake of Moses; on the sides: to the left a bell tower and to the right hanged Judas (Museo di Santa Giulia in Brescia at San Salvatore, Italy).

Also very original was the art worked on glass, with figures and inscriptions in gold. They formed the bottoms of cups found in the catacombs. These cup bottoms included individual images of the Apostles and sometimes biblical scenes. Rome was not the only city that produced this type of golden bottoms but the Rhin workshops, including Cologne, produced decorated glasses of more complex iconography and better quality. From these glass works derived beautiful pieces from the V century such as the disc from the center of Desiderius cross, known as the “Brescia medallion”, with portraits that have been attributed to Galla Placidia and her sons. This piece was signed by a Greek named Bounneri Kerami.

Painted, gold-plated glass medallion from the IV century mounted onto the 7th Century “Cross of Desiderius” (Musei Civici, Brescia, Italy) believed to be a portrait of the Empress Galla Placidia with her two sons Honoria and Valentinian II.
Seated statue of Christ or the Teaching Christ (National Museum of Rome, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme) in which the Savior appears as a Master, teaching in the way of the ancient philosophers, with the roll of the law in his hands. This young beardless, long-haired Master is sitting in the “magistrate chair”, a symbol of authority during the Roman Empire, a symbol of His power to judge. This is a representation that will be repeated for a thousand years but using the bearded face of Syriac origin.


Dyptich: Any object with two flat plates attached at a hinge.




Imago clipeata: (Latin: “portrait on a round shield”) is a term in art usually used in reference to the images of ancestors, famous people or deceased on round shields. These shield portraits can be seen in architectural sculptural decorations, on sarcophagi and on standards of the Roman legions among many other types of representations in the Roman and Early Christian world. 




Industrial arts: Industrial Arts involves fabrication of objects in wood or metal using a variety of hand, power, or machine tools.