Christianity and Art in the Roman Empire

In the Bible, there is an embrace of the arts by the people of God. But, at the dawn of the postmodern era, readers may see a need to somehow reconcile them. How did this separation occur? The long journey spanned centuries, but the seeds began in the Roman Empire.

Christianity and Art in the Early Roman Empire

The Bible ends with the early days of Christianity at the height of the Roman Empire. At this time, art flourished. In How Should We Then Live, Frances Schaeffer writes that Christians adapted the techniques of Rome and used them just as skillfully as any other Roman artist. The most long standing art in those days were the catacombs. Schaefer notes they were artistically superior for the time.

Later, mosaics like in the Arian Church in St. Lorenzo, Milan, portrayed real people, living in a real world that God had made. Schaefer attributes this to the emphasis of the church at the time. People were regarded as extremely important in life.

The Reign of Constantine

The emperor Constantine declared Christianity the state religion. He devoted the full power of government to see its visibility flourish. This led to the creation of numerous cathedrals throughout the empire, including St. Peter’s Basilica. Other notable church buildings included The Sta. Constanza in Rome, fashioned in honor of Constantine’s daughter; and the San Lorenzo Maggiore in Milan – one of the few Constantinian churches still standing.

In History of Art, art critic H.W. Janson writes that such magnificent buildings needed equally magnificent decorations. The great imperial masters of art were commissioned. Church decorations began with ornamental mosaic decorations in marble, plaster, stucco and even gold. Eventually, with paintings and mosaics, Rome’s best artists splashed the Biblical subjects throughout the cathedrals, from the nave walls, to the triumphal arch and apse.

He writes, “Early Christian mosaics also denied the flatness of the wall surface. Their goal was to achieve an ‘illusion of unreality,’ a luminous realm filled with celestial beings or symbols. In early Christian narrative scenes, we see the illusionist tradition of ancient painting being transformed by new content.”

The mosaic series in the Constantine basilicas showed the history of salvation. Janson writes, “They begin with Old Testament scenes along the nave, and end with the life of Jesus as the Messiah on the arch across the nave. The scheme is not only a historical cycle, but a symbolic program that presents a higher reality – the Word of God.”

The Hagia Sophia

Art in the Byzantine Empire took a classical turn by incorporating Greek and Oriental elements. The Eastern Orthodox Church took cues from the Roman basilica adding a more spacious feel.

The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, was originally built by the Eastern Orthodox Church. It rises to a height of 184 feet – 41 feet taller than the Pantheon. Its longitudinal axis and its domed tops became a basic feature of Byzantine architecture. It is most noted for its use of light. Janson writes, “The dome seems to ‘float like the radiant heavens,’ according to a contemporary description – because it rests upon a closely spaced row of windows. The nave walls are pierced with so many openings that they have the transparency of lace curtains. The golden glitter of mosaics must have completed this ‘illusion of unreality.’”

The purpose of the grandiose design was to point the worshipper toward God. Procepus, the court historian, wrote to the Emperor Justinian, “Whenever one enters this church to pray, he understands at once, that it is not by any human power or skill, but by the influence of God, that this work has been so finely turned. And so his mind is lifted up toward God and exalted, feeling that He cannot be far away, but must especially love to dwell in this place He has chosen.”

The Hagia Sophia was originally built in 360, but riots destroyed it in 404. It was rebuilt, and destroyed again by riots in 532, and then rebuilt not long after. In 1453, the Byzantines were conquered by the Turks. The Hagia Sophia became a mosque and the Christian paintings were whitewashed. Some of the mosaics, such as the Virgin and Child Enthroned, were uncovered in the 20th century.

Pope Leo III and the Iconoclasts

The dark side of the Byzantine Empire occurred in the eighth century. Drawing on the Second Commandment against graven images, Pope Leo III issued an edict prohibiting religious images. Acceptable religious art, according to these “iconoclasts,” as they became known, included abstract symbols and plant or animals forms. This began a power struggle between the Eastern emperor and the Pope, and raised fundamental questions about the interpretation of the Bible and divinity of Christ.

The iconoclasts destroyed much Byzantine art. Cities revolted and battles were fought. The power of art became an issue in both church and state. Meanwhile, in the 150 years this controversy stirred, art became secularized. In 843, the debate settled, and slowly, Eastern Orthodox churches regained their right to use art in worship.

It seems, that while the Bible clearly gave Christians freedom to use the arts, the organization of the Christian church made different decisions. The early Roman Christians used art freely, and Constantine demanded the visibility of the Christian faith. He mandated elaborate cathedral with magnificent artwork. However, Pope Leo III, in an effort to cleanse the church, threw the art out of the Eastern Church. They gradually regained their rights, but the damage had been done. The relationship of art and the church would never be the same.


Frances Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? (Crossway Books, 1976).
H.W. Janson and Anthony F. Janson, History of Art : The Western Tradition (Prentice Hall, 2004).

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