Early Western Christian Art during the IIIrd, IVth and Vth centuries: the provinces of Hispania and Africa

The provinces of Africa and Hispania (Spain) were the second large geographic areas where the art of the Christian West developed. These two provinces experienced different artistic styles particularly beginning in the fifth century, with more Eastern than Italian influences.

The embedded Sarcophagus in the facade of the Cathedral of Tarragona (Spain). In the center shows the healing of the paralytic, first on the bed and above it the paralytic carrying the bed on his back. At both extremes is the healing of the hemorrhage on the left and the entry of Christ into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to the right.
Two details from the Sarcophagus of Leocadio representing the giving of the “traditio legis*” to Moses (left) and the sacrifice of Abraham (right), in both reliefs the hand of God comes from beneath the clouds, giving the law and stopping the dagger, respectively (Museum of the Early Christian Necropolis, Tarragona, Spain).

Africa was occupied by the Vandals in 427 AD and it became a Byzantine province from 534 to 647. Therefore, the African provinces were isolated from the Roman influence beginning in the second quarter of the 5th century while maintaining Eastern contacts well until the Arab invasion. From the fourth century, the Christian architecture in Africa was exemplified by basilicas with one to five naves and wooden roofs, always located in Episcopal urban centers that experienced great development. All these Christian churches from the African provinces were decorated with mosaics. In fact, the African schools of mosaic were very prolific during the fourth to sixth centuries. These mosaics were accompanied by the emergence and development of funerary mosaics. The early Christian sculpture from the provinces of Africa experienced a strong Roman influence.

Floor plan of the Mausoleum of Centcelles (Tarragona, Spain).
Detail of the mosaics decorating the dome of the Mausoleum of Centcelles (Tarragona, Spain), representing a deer hunt in which the hunters use horses and traps. Pictured here is the face of a hunter with a whip.
Detail of a painting from the Mausoleum of Centcelles depicting a lady, 4th century.

The early Christian art from the provinces of Hispania was not as artistically independent as it happened in the art of the African provinces. During the fourth century, the Hispanic Christian art reflected strong Roman and Mediterranean influences, and it is now mainly known by funerary pieces. The V and VI centuries showed a clear Eastern and African influences. The post-Constantinian mausoleum of Centcelles reflects influences from the style used for the construction of St. Costanza in Rome. This mausoleum is renowned for its remarkable mosaics and painted ornamentation. Buildings like Centcelles, with a main central structure, were typical throughout the fourth century in the Hispania. In time of Constantine, sarcophagi decorated with continuous friezes of clearly Roman manufacture were imported to Spain, among which are the sarcophagus of St. Felix of Girona and the Cordoba sarcophagus whose manufacture was heavily influence by the style of the Dogmatic sarcophagus mentioned in a previous essay. Other examples from Toledo are the Layos sarcophagi. During the second half of the fourth century, the import of Roman sarcophagi decreased.

Detail of the mosaics from the Mausoleum of Centcelles showing a young man wearing a Phrygian cap, which is part of a group representing three young men in the furnace of Babylon.

Beginning in the V century, at the Northeastern Iberian Peninsula arrived architectural styles used in the design of the church of St. Ambrose of Milan, particularly those related to the baptismal architecture, as seen in the churches of Santa María of Terrassa and in the Barcelona Cathedral. Within the Hispanic sculpture ateliers were important those of Bureba, in the province of Burgos, which developed themes of the Christian iconography typical of the art of the African provinces, and that of Tarragona with classic themes exemplified by the so-called sarcophagus of The Prayers.

Whole relief and detail from one of the sarcophagi from Constantinian times -between 315 and 330- embedded in the presbytery of the church of St. Félix (Gerona, Spain) representing different episodes of the story of Susanna that develop (see photo above) from the right -Susanna in the garden between the elders-, through the center -imprisonment of Susanna and judgement of Daniel-, to the left -judgment of the forgers-.
Sarcophagus from Layos (Toledo, Spain), with Adam and Eve in the center, and the adoration of the Magi who dress like Persians, on the far right (Mares Museum, Barcelona).
The Prayer, detail from the “Sarcophagus of the Prayers”, ca. late 4th century (Museum of the Early Christian Necropolis, Tarragona, Spain).

From the second half of the V century and throughout the VI century, the mosaics were particularly important for the development of the Hispanic early Christian art. Particularly beautiful are the mosaics of the Balearic basilicas from the first half of the sixth century. Funeral mosaics appeared also throughout the Spanish Levant and South of the Peninsula. Noted for its beauty are those mosaics dedicated to Optimus and Ampelius in Tarragona, these mosaics reflect the style of the African mosaics. All these African influences were becoming gradually Hispaniziced which finally lead to the artistic production typical from the times of the Visigoth kingdom during the seventh century.

Detail of the funerary mosaics dedicated to Ampelius showing symbols from the Salvation (Museum of the Early Christian Necropolis, Tarragona, Spain).
Fragment from the funerary mosaic of Optimus (Museum of the Early Christian Necropolis, Tarragona, Spain).


Traditio Legis: (from Latin, meaning “handing over the law”). A subject of the Christian Iconography repertoire. It represents Christ handing a scroll to St. Peter on his right hand, imitating the gesture often made by Emperors handing an Imperial decree or letter of appointment to an official (like in the ivory consular diptychs or in the Arch of Constantine). This particular scene is known as the Traditio legis Thus, in the Traditio Legis iconographic type, an enthroned Christ hands symbols of authority to Saints Peter and Paul, who stand at his side.