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Early Christian Painting

( Originally Published 1955 )



Painting of the first centuries of the Christian Church has come to us in rather fragmentary state, but sufficient to reveal its basic orientations. We depend variously upon wall paintings, mosaics and manuscripts for our present information. For instance, we must rely largely on the frescoes in the catacombs to bridge the gap between the Roman wall decorations of Pompeii and the appearance of church mosaics in the fourth century. Catacomb art, however, was exclusively sepulchral in nature, was narrowly limited in subject before the fourth century and presents very little clue to the nature of monumental painted effigy and narration of the early period. After the Peace of the Church the Christian iconography increased in richness; after catacomb burials ceased in 410 there occurred large pictorial compositions, butthese latter represent the monumental church style brought under the ground. The imagery of the catacombs consisted of cryptic, if not hermetic, symbols of the salvation of the soul: orans figures, parable incidents, Old Testament parallels such as Noah in the Ark. The style was sketchy, often expressionist in detail and with a fine sense of color values. Wall panels were painted in an open, gay, decorative spirit that is best described as rococo. This non-corporeal style has been called paradisiacal and transcendental; however, it is often indistinguishable from the style of pagan catacombs and in fact pagan house decoration.

Isolated but important monuments of early mural decoration were found in the provincial town of Dura Europos on the Euphrates. Here are a pagan temple of the first century A.D, with flat provincial Roman images of priests and a Jewish synagogue of the third century A.D. with a large cycle of Old Testament narration. Our earliest Church mosaic of clearly Christian content, S. Pudenziana in Rome (c.400) retains a more volumetric quality than provincial Dura, although it is composed in strongly symbolic patterns. The tendency in imperial centers from this time on was toward increasing schematization of figures. Although largely lost today, vast expanses of the church interiors were apparently "papered" with textile-like patterns in paint or mosaic which obscured the architectonic parts and moldings that had meant so much to ancient taste. Our best evidence for this is the tiny Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna (420-50). We are fortunate in having in Ravenna a series of churches of the Ostrogoths and the Exarchate (late fifth to seventh centuries) which must have marked the zenith in Christian mosaic painting before the Iconoclastic controversy of the eight to ninth centuries.

Fresco and mosaic of the seventh and eighth centuries, where we have evidence in the West, tended to become flatter, more angular, more isolated, e.g., San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome (c.680). Therefore it is with some difficulty that we reconcile with our sparse historical data the surprising classical feeling to be found in the paintings of S. Maria Antiqua, Rome, and in the frescoes of Castelseprio near Milan. The latter series, recently discovered, has caused a sensation in archaeological circles because of its clear comprehension of antique space, form and motion. Painted manuscripts which remain from the Early Christian period present much more varied styles than do the monumental murals. For instance, copies of classical scientific treatises, such as the Dioscorides Codex (Vienna) preserve as late as 512 A.D. a sense of the classical style which their models must have possessed. However, a contemporary imperial biblical manuscript, the Vienna Genesis, shows a variety of hands, from flat to plastic, but none as classical as the Dioscorides illustrator. A contemporary liturgical manuscript on royal purple vellum, the Codex Rossanensis, comes closest, appropriately enough, to the style and composition of the Ravennate mosaics.



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