Early Christian Art in Syria and Palestine

Just as the liturgy and Christian doctrine that evolved in the East came to Rome, so it was that from Asia and Egypt also came to Rome some of the themes and artists who decorated the catacombs and that contributed in the development of the Western early Christian art. Even, the East also contributed later to the formation of the great Christian art of the imperial court of Byzantium.

Floor plan of the Christian house-church of Dura Europos.
“The Good Shepherd”, fresco in the baptistery of Dura Europos.
“The paralytic carrying the bed on his back”, fresco in the baptistery of Dura Europos.

The theory of the oriental origin of the early Christian art is supported by the discovery of a church decorated with frescoes in the city of Dura Europos (Syria) on the Euphrates, and later destroyed by the Persians in 256. The frescoes that decorated this Christian chapel’s baptistery predate most of those present in the Roman catacombs and were painted more than half century before the Peace of the Church, thus they are probably the most ancient Christian paintings known to date and include the earliest depictions of Jesus Christ. This church of Dura Europos had representations of the Good Shepherd, the paralytic carrying a bed on his back, and other scenes of undeniable evangelical character. The very frequent subject, typical of the Christian art, of angels holding a shield or medallion with the portrait of the Redeemer is also of Oriental origin and, in addition to Dura Europos, this theme has been found in the frescoes of the catacombs of Palmyra which were painted long before those found in the Latin West. In these frescoes of Palmyra some Victories, with the androgynous type with which the angels will later be represented, hold medallions carrying portraits of the deceased instead of the image of Jesus in Glory.

Frescoes representing Winged Victories holding medallions with portraits of the deceased at the Tomb of the Three Brothers in Palmyra (Syria).
Detail from a Winged Victory and a medallion, Tomb of the Three Brothers, Palmyra (Syria).

Also of Oriental origin were some codices* illustrated with miniatures* and containing fragments of the Gospels, such as that kept at the Cathedral of Rossano in Calabria. This manuscript was thought to be eastern as in some of its painted scenes are long tailed and horned goats found only in Syria. In this same codex or evangeliary was the figure of Christ wearing a mantle, a figure that was not present in the Roman catacombs. In the cover pages of each Gospel from the Rossano codex are the figures of the Evangelists sitting and writing, as they were later represented in the Byzantine art and in the Western Carolingian art. Although of Eastern origin, this evangeliary of Rossano as well as the evangeliary of Sinope and the Genesis of Vienna, contained the biblical text in Greek, which was the official language of the Christian Church in Rome and in the East.

A page from the Codex Purpureus Rossanensis in the cathedral of Rossano (Italy), an illuminated manuscript from the 6th century. In this illustration, Christ and Barabbas are presented before Pilate. Christ is wearing the “pallium”, as the ancient philosophers did, has a beard, and the typical cruciferous nimbus (or halo) on his head, a feature that will be adopted later throughout the Western Christian art.
Another page from the Codex Purpureus Rossanensis in which an Evangelist is sitting while writing the Gospels.
Page from the Codex Purpureus Rossanensis, so called because its parchment is stained in purple. This illustration depicts the Last Supper. The Syriac figure of Christ, bearded, is the traditional representation of Christ that will be adopted by all Christian art, and clearly differs from the initial representation of the Hellenistic beardless Christ we have seen before. The Supper takes place in a “triclinium” in which the guests eat while lying according to the custom of the time.
A page from the Vienna Genesis, an illuminated manuscript, probably produced in Syria in the Vth Century. It is considered the oldest well-preserved, surviving, illustrated biblical codex. This Genesis is a purple dyed parchment in which the Greek text was written in lighter silver ink. This illustration is a typical example of the continuous narrative style. The scene depicts Rebecca as she walks from a walled city to a fountain along a path adorned with columns. At the fountain is a Hellenistic representation of the creek portrayed by a naked nymph reclining on a rock and pouring water from a pitcher. Once at the fountain, Rebecca gives water to Eliezer and the camels (Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna).

There are also some codices written in Syrian text with similar miniatures to those found in the codices written in Greek. One of them, written in Syrian language and illustrated by the monk Rabula in 586 (now stored in the Laurentian Library in Florence) has an illustration in which at the top, on the upper part of a roof, there is a fountain with the cross where a bird drinks water, a subject that will be frequently used in miniatures of the Byzantine art. There are also two turkeys, a figure that was later used to fill spaces in Byzantine miniatures, and in other illustrations appeared the Crucifixion and the Ascension long before these issues were used in Byzantium and Rome.

Page from the Rabbula Gospels, a 6th century illuminated Syriac Gospel. The illustration shows the earliest known crucifixion in an illuminated manuscript (Biblioteca Mediceo Laurenziana, Florence).
Another page from the Rabbula Gospels showing the Ascension of Christ.

The illustration of codices was a way to propagate the subjects of the new Eastern Christian art to the West; but in addition, the topics used in eastern monumental painting also emigrated to the West. In the frescoes of Dura Europos for example, there are portraits of ‘pagan’ devotees with a clear resemblance to those found in the early Christian catacombs. These portraits predate those of The Prayers from the Roman catacombs.

The sculpture experienced the same Oriental influence. The figure of Christ with the cruciferous nimbus used throughout the Middle Ages, first appeared in a series of sarcophagi still decorated with ‘pagan’ motifs, and richly adorned with friezes of thorny acanthus leaves. Some of these sarcophagi were decorated with allegorical figures within arches or niches, these figures included the Muses and the two Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux; but others had in the center the figure of Jesus, still beardless, with the cruciferous nimbus aforementioned. The most beautiful of these sarcophagi is the Sidamara sarcophagus kept in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. The first question that arises is whether these sarcophagi came from Rome and Rome in turn sent them to the East; or if they were Oriental, and from there they were sent to Rome bringing for the first time this innovation of the cross in the crown or halo of Christ. This issue has been resolved in favor of the East: the marble in which these sarcophagi were carved is not Italian, they were large blocks of Greek marble that were used in Syria, their petrographic analysis leaves no doubt.

Above, two details of the Sarcophagus of Sidamara (Archaeological Museum, Istanbul). Its decorative elements include columns, entablatures and pediments which subjected the human figures to be ordered in space, pointing to each one a particular place within the composition. This features, so different from the ancient classical conception of freedom of the figures within a frieze, will be a landmark of the coming medieval art, in which the desire for maximum mental accuracy will turn sculpture into an integrative and functional element of the architecture.
The ivory throne of the Bishop Maximianus of Ravenna, carved in the mid-sixth century. Its ornamental friezes are decorated with vines, deer and peacocks, with a typically Syriac style (Episcopal Museum, Ravenna).

Likewise are also Oriental in origin the scenes adorning the wooden doors of the Roman basilica of St. Sabina, and are also Oriental many ivory objects sent to Rome and other places of the Latin West during the first Christian centuries. Perhaps the most beautiful object in ivory of the Christian West, the chair of the bishop Maximian in Ravenna (also known as the Throne of Maximian), could also be of oriental origin and possibly made in Antioch in the fourth century.

Another example of oriental origin of an object for a long time considered as Latin or Roman is the carved ivory from the Prince Trivulzio Collection in Milan. This ivory is admired for its exquisite beauty and monumental dimensions. Represents the visit of the Holy Women to the Holy Sepulcher, with the angel and the Roman soldiers asleep after the Resurrection. The scene takes place in the courtyard of the temple of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem: in front we see the basilica’s door, and behind, the circular building of the Holy Sepulcher. At the top are the symbols of the Evangelists with four wings, a motif that was later prevalent in the West. The same Oriental origin has been proven for major known goldsmith objects of the early Christian art mainly coming from Syria.

Front panel of the throne of Maximianus, with figures of John the Baptist and the four Evangelists, between columns, arches and pendentives similar to those found in the Sarcophagus of Sidamara.
The Trivulzio Ivory (Castello Sforzesco, Milan), one of the most beautiful carved ivories known to date.

The predominant role of the churches of Asia and Egypt in forming the Christian art was documented by early ecclesiastical writers. Their theological activity forced them to celebrate great ecumenical councils in these churches. Antioch the Beautiful, then the third city in the world, was the home place of St. John Chrysostom, a V century church and hospice that housed widows and orphans. Also the Antioch cathedral, called the “Golden Sky”-or just the Golden- perhaps because it was covered with mosaics on a golden background, had polygonal floor plan and a dome in the center. Located next to the Imperial Palace on an island in the river Orontes in the center of the city, this cathedral was built by Constantine in 327 and completed in 341. It was dedicated to the Divine Harmony, or the power that binds Universe, Church, and Empire. It was a great building without parallel in the West, and served as a model for other major churches of the Christendom, both Byzantine and Latin. The octagon of “the Golden” at Antioch anticipated in 200 years those of the churches of the Saints Sergius and Bacchus in Constantinople, and St. Vitale in Ravenna, and was decades older than St. Lorenzo of Milan. Today there are very few remains of this famous cathedral in Antioch.

All these oriental religious buildings were built in limestone mainly coming from Syrian quarries, and as wood was scarce and had to be imported from great distances, it became common the use of the vault to cover buildings. Many of the buildings in Syria had octagonal floor plans to hold a dome; but when the floor plan was square, the way to cover these spaces with a spherical dome consisted in moving from the room’s square plan to the dome’s circular section with the help of some intermediate curved surfaces called squinches* and pendentives*  (see illustration below). The invention of the angle squinches seems to have its origins in Persia, in Syria was more frequent the use of pendentives.

Illustration showing the structure of a Pendentive vs. a Squinch.  Although both structures are a constructive device permitting the placing of a dome over a square or a rectangular room, they differ in that a Pendentive (left) is a triangular segment of a sphere in which the taper points at the bottom and spread at the top in order to establish the continuous circular base needed for the dome; while a Squinch (right) is a small arch built out from the angles of the square or rectangular room and placed diagonally across its corners.
A squinch in the Sassanid Palace of Ardeshir at Firouzabad (Fars Province, Iran).
Pendentives in the Byzantine basilica of Hagia Sophia (Istanbul, Turkey).
Reconstruction of the monastery of St. Simeon Stylites.

In addition to churches for the secular community’s worship, Syria keeps vast ruins of monasteries which housed hundreds of monks. The most important of all the Syrian monasteries, St. Simeon Stylites, is still a thundering mass of ruins in the middle of the desert. The Arabs call it el Qal’at Simaan or Simeon’s Castle.

View of the central octagon of St. Simeon Stylites from one of its adjacent churches, with the remains of the pillar topped by a boulder and located at the center (Mount Simeon, Aleppo Governorate, Syria).

The disciples of St. Simeon, who prayed for several years at the top of a column, built after his death (near 470 AD) a grand monastery with four spacious churches with three naves each, whose facades faced a central octagon where the precious column was placed as a holy relic. This building has great importance for its architectural decorative elements: blind arches, embedded columns*, corbels, and other elements later used as ornamental by the Romanesque and Byzantine architectures. In the same region of northern Syria where this monastery was located, were the basilicas of Turmanin and Qalb Luzeh that would later influence the Western Romanesque art. In Turmanin (V century), the great nave is preceded by a portico over which extended a gallery flanked by two rectangular towers that seem to prefigure the facades framed by bell towers of the European Romanesque.

Reconstruction of the Basilica of Turmanin (V century).

The perpetual battle field of the Roman Empire was the Euphrates, an area that became the meeting place of three artistic influences over the course of many centuries: the Christians of Syria, extending to the edge of the desert, the Roman legions’ camps, who defended them, and the Parthian castles, which fought against Romans. These three groups shared their artistic forms and construction procedures. It is not surprising then that the structure of Persian domes have come to Syria and from there moved to Byzantium, and that Christian reliefs and decoration styles were influenced by Eastern decorative styles.

Thus, the Roman East, from the banks of the Ponto to the Euphrates rivers and from the plateaus of Asia Minor to Egypt, was an artistic focus in the early centuries of the Christian Era. Works of art and artists came profusely to Rome, but the Eastern artistic centers were the cities of Ephesus, Seleucia, Antioch, Jerusalem, Bosra, and Palmyra in the desert.

The holy city of Jerusalem initially had an elliptical trace and was surrounded by walls with towers. It was crossed from one end to the other (a Decumanus Maximus in Roman times) by a wide and colonnaded street called the Via Recta which began at the door that is still called the Damascus Gate. Another avenue that formed an angle with the Via Recta but that only had one portico was the Via Dolorosa (or Way of Grief).

The Damascus gate at Jerusalem.
A view of the Via Dolorosa at the Ecce Homo arch in Jerusalem.

By order of Constantine and under the personal supervision of his mother St. Helena, several buildings were built in Jerusalem. One of these buildings is the temple of the Holy Sepulcher that was inside a rectangular enclosure surrounded by porticoes and inns. At its center had two connected buildings: one of Latin or basilical floor plan named Martyrium because it was supposed to be built upon the rock of Calvary, and another with a circular floor plan built above the place of the Sepulcher, that was imagined next to the Golgotha’s rock over which an enclosed colonnaded atrium (the Triportico) was built in one corner annex to the Martyrium. The circular building, called Anastasis or Resurrection was of clearly oriental style. The tomb was in a cave at the center, under a dome supported by 12 columns. The temple of the Holy Sepulcher was destroyed by fire and successive restorations, and now has become into an absurd church with chapels for all Christian sects though the structure of the circular temple and the basilica can still be distinguished.

External view of the complex of the church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem
Diagram of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher showing the traditional location of Calvary and the Tomb of Jesus.
Altar of the Crucifixion at the church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.
The “Aedicule” guarding the tomb of Jesus at the church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

On top of the Mount of Olives, Constantine and St. Helena also built a large church in the traditional place of the Ascension. It was a polygonal building, very similar to the golden cathedral of Antioch. The monuments of Jerusalem, so admired by pilgrims, were described in their travel journals, which led to imitations built with poor materials in several nations of the Latin West.

The Chapel of the Ascension, a shrine located on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. The Chapel houses a slab of stone traditionally believed to contain one of Jesus’ footprints.


*Codex: A codex (from the Latin caudex for “trunk of a tree” or block of woodbook; plural codices) is a book constructed of a number of sheets of paper, vellum, papyrus, or similar materials, with hand-written contents. The book is usually bound by stacking the pages and fixing one edge, and using a cover thicker than the sheets. Some codices are continuously folded like a concertina. The Romans developed the form from wooden writing tablets. The spread of the codex is often associated with the rise of Christianity.

*Embedded column: A column embedded in a wall and partly projecting from the surface of the wall, sometimes defined as semi or three-quarter detached.

*Miniature: A picture in an ancient or medieval illuminated manuscript. The generally small scale of the medieval pictures has led secondly to an etymological confusion of the term with minuteness and to its application to small paintings especially portrait miniatures, which did however grow from the same tradition and at least initially use similar techniques.

*Pendentive: A constructive device permitting the placing of a circular dome over a square room or an elliptical dome over a rectangular room. The pendentives, which are triangular segments of a sphere, taper to points at the bottom and spread at the top to establish the continuous circular or elliptical base needed for the dome. In masonry the pendentives thus receive the weight of the dome, concentrating it at the four corners where it can be received by the piers beneath.

*Squinche: A construction filling in the upper angles of a square room so as to form a base to receive an octagonal or spherical dome.

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