The Beginnings of Christian Art

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The History of Christianity #74

Our History of Christianity Scripture verse today is Genesis 1:1 which reads: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”

Our History of Christianity quote today is from G. K. Chesterton. He said: “Art is born when the temporary touches the eternal.”

Today, in the History of Christianity, we are looking at “Christian Life” (Part 11) from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

The Beginnings of Christian Art

Since at first Christians gathered in private homes, it is not likely that there were in their meeting places many decorations or symbols alluding to the Christian faith. If there were any, they certainly have not survived. But as soon as Christians began having their own cemeteries – the catacombs – and their own churches – such as the one in Dura-Europos – Christian art began to develop. This early art is found mostly in simple frescoes – paintings on walls – in catacombs and churches, and in the carved sarcophagi – stone coffins – in which some of the wealthier Christians were buried.

Since communion was the central act of worship, scenes and symbols referring to it are most common. Sometimes what is depicted is the Lord’s Supper in the upper room. In other cases there is simply a basket containing fish and bread.

ichthys-fish-1aThe fish was one of the earliest Christian symbols and for that reason appears frequently in communion scenes as well as in other contexts. The significance of the fish, apart from its connection with the miraculous feeding of the multitudes, was that the Greek word for fish – ICHTHYS – could be used as an acrostic containing the initial letters of the phrase: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” For this reason the fish appears, not only in representational art, but also in some of the most ancient Christian epitaphs. Thus, for instance, the epitaph of Abercius, bishop of Hierapolis toward the end of the second century, says that faith nourished Abercius with “a fresh water fish, very large and pure, fished by an immaculate virgin” (Mary, or the church?). And other similar epitaphs speak of “the divine race of the heavenly fish,” and “the peace of the fish.”

Other scenes in primitive Christian art refer to various biblical episodes: Adam and Eve, Noah in the ark, water coming out of the rock in the desert, Daniel in the lions’ den, the three young men in the fiery furnace, Jesus and the Samaritan woman, the raising of Lazarus, and so forth. Generally, what one finds is very simple art, more allusive than realistic. For example, Noah is often depicted as standing in a box that is hardly large enough to keep him afloat.

In conclusion, the ancient Christian church was composed mostly of humble folk for whom the fact of having been adopted as heirs of the King of Kings was a source of great joy. This was expressed in their worship, in their art, in their life together, and in their valiant deaths. The daily life of most of these Christians took place in the drab routine in which the poor in all societies must live. But they rejoiced in the hope of a new light that would destroy the dark injustice and idolatry of their society.

Next time, we will look at The Great Persecution and the Final Victory.

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