Make your own free website on

Late Antique Synopsis:

Early Christian Art

Early Christian art, used to educate followers, combined Greek, Roman and Near Eastern styles. The earliest examples postdate the Roman emporer Constantine, who permitted Christianity with the Edict of Milan in 313 CE. Painted walls and ceilings from catacombs, such as Good Shepherd, Orants and Story of Jonah, are some of the first manifestations of this new art. Constantine ordered the construction of a new basilica in Rome at the site of the burial of Saint Peter (Old Saint Peter's), which became the standard for later Christian basilica-plan churches (narthex, nave with side aisles, transept and clerestory). The Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, followed a similar plan and was adorned with mosaics of Old Testament stories such as Parting of Lot and Abraham.

The capital of the Western Roman Empire moved from Rome to Milan and finally Ravenna at the beginning of the fifth century. The richly decorated Mausoleum of Galla Placidia is one of the most famous Christian structures from Ravenna. Floral designs covering the arches are surmounted by lunettes depicting apostles and the Good Shepherd, an image showing Christ as a young adult wearing imperial robes and crowned by a halo. Heavenly figures are sepa rated from earthly viewers by a "rocky band." The tendency to differentiate between these two realms continued in Christian art.


The Art of Late Antiquity

Early Christian 29 - 527


Edict of Milan 313 - declaration of Roman Imperial religious tolerance
Catacombs - subterranean burial chambers
The Good Shepherd
Orants - figures with arms raised in attitudes of prayer
Narthex - colonnaded space at right angles to entrance of nave
Transept - space at right angles to end of nave
Central-plan - rounded, domed tholos-type structures principally constructed as mausoleums, baptistries, or chapels
Ambulatory - perimeter colonnade surrounding a central-plan structure corresponding to a rectangular basilica's aisles
Loculi - shelf-like openings to receive the bodies of the dead in the catacomb's galleries
Cubicula - small rooms constructed in the gallery walls to serve as morturary chapels
Dura-Europas - small garrison town on the west bank of the Euphrates in Mesopotamia
Anastasis (Greek: Resurrection)
Spoila - reused building materials, such as columns, etc.
Ambo - a large pulpit and reding desk, in early Christian churches
Bema - in Eastern churches, that part containing the altar combining the bishop's throne and the clergy's stalls


Late Empire A. D. 192- 337

Arch of Constantine, Rome, c. A.D. 312 - 315 - commemorates Constantine's victory over Maxentius in AD 312; arch uses references from past with shift in motivation behind works, which now uses scales, proportion, and placement to identify individuals

Portrait of Constantine, from the Basilica Nova, Rome, Marble, approx. 8’6” ca. A.D. 315 - 330 - grand scale, bsed on models of Jupiter/Zeus - Constantine shows himself as eternally young in an idealized image

Basilica Nova, (Basilica of Constantine), Rome, C. AD. 306-312

Early Christian A. D. 29 - 527

The Good Shepherd,
ceiling of a cubiculum in the Catacomb of Saint Peter & Marcellinus, Rome early 4th cent.

Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, Marble, 3’ 101/2” x 8’ Rome, ca. 359

Restored view of Old Saint Peter’s, Rome, begun Ca. 320

Interior of Sta. Costanza, Rome ca. 337 - 351

The parting of Lot and Abraham, mosaic, nave of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, 432 -440

Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy, Ca. 425: - early successful fusion of two basic early church plans, longitudinal and central introduces basilica plan with domed crossing


Priestess celebrating the rites of Bacchus, right leaf of the Diptych of the Nicomachi & the Symmachi, Ivory, 11 3/4” x 5 1/2” ca. 400


The Christian Catacombs of Rome

"A Visual Tour through Late Antiquity
With an emphasis on Gaul and the time of Gregory of Tours"


DJB Quick Notes:

~ Christian artwork: symbolic references, metaphors, intent behind art

~ after Edict of Milan, Christ is presented as 'ruler', previously shown as 'Good Shepard'
~ rectilinear plan - basilica; central plan - mauseoleum
~ peacock - symbol of eternal life; vegetation - paradise
~ fruiting vines - representing the redeeming blood of Christ

DJB In-Depth Notes:

~ Note that there is also a significant difference between the function of the Pagan temple and a Christian context. In Pagan practices the sacrifices and ceremonies generally occurred on the exterior. The temple served as the house of the cult. The cult statue and treasury could be housed there. The temple was a backdrop for the sacrifices. This exterior orientation of the Pagan temple reflects the openness and inclusive nature of Pagan religious practices. But Christianity was by definition a mystery religion, and thus needed to have a clear separation between the faithful and the nonfaithful. This would lead to a significant reorientation of religious architecture from an architecture of the exterior to an architecture of the interior.

Parts of an Early Christian Basilica

1) Propylaeum- the entrance building of a sacred precinct, whether church or imperial palace.

2) Atrium- in early Christian, Byzantine, and medieval architecture, the forecourt of a church; as a rule enveloped by four colonnaded porticoes.

3) Narthex- the entrance hall or porch proceding the nave of a church.

4) Nave- the great central space in a church. In longitudinal churches, it extends from the entrance to the apse (or only to the crossing if the church has one) and is usually flanked by side aisles.

5) Side Aisle- one of the corridors running parallel to the nave of a church and separated from it by an arcade or colonnade.

6) Crossing- the area in a church where the transept and the nave intersect.

7) Transept- in a cruciform church, the whole arm set at right angles to the nave. Note that the transept appears infrequently in Early Christian churches. Old St. Peter's is one of the few example of a basilica with a transept from this period. The transept would not become a standard component of the Christian church until the Carolingian period.

8) Apse- a recess, sometimes rectangular but usually semicircular, in the wall at the end of a Roman basilica or Christian church. The apse in the Roman basilica frequently contained an image of the Emperor and was where the magistrate dispensed laws. In the Early Christian basilica, the apses contained the "cathedra" or throne of the bishop and the altar.

9) Nave elevation- term which refers to the division of the nave wall into various levels. In the Early Christian basilica the nave elevation usually is composed of a nave colonnade or arcade and clerestory.

10) Clerestory- a clear story, i.e. a row of windows in the upper part of a wall. In churches, the clerestory windows above the roofs of the side aisles permit direct illumination of the nave.

- Source: "The Romanization of Christianity and the Christianization of Rome: the Early Christian Basilica," Art History Courses (SUNY - Oneonta)

~ As Christian dogma developed, (this) form of symbolic interpretation of reality became more favored - a flat, decorative abstract style..."Byzantine" transition complete by 6th century (G9-272)