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 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.
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 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.
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.
In Rome, important official sculpture workshops functioned which exported sculptures and sculptural styles to Spain. After the sack of Rome in 410 Ravenna becomes an important center for Early Christian sculpture due to the closure and disappearance of the Roman sculptural workshops. Ravenna sarcophagi were characterized by their semi-cylindrical caps and were adorned with plenty 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.
The most beautiful set of Early Christian industrial arts* is constituted by the 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 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.
Also very original was the art 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.
*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.