Christians, the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, lived under Roman rule from the first through the fourth
centuries CE. Sometimes they were tolerated as just another cult, but under some emperors they were
severely persecuted. Until the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century,
Christians practiced their faith without the approval of the general culture, and consequently, without the
resources to build large churches. Religious services were simple and centered on baptism (a practice in
which new members are accepted into the church and ritually purified with water) and communion, also
called the Eucharist (the sharing of a simple meal recreating Jesus’ last meal before his crucifixion). These
services took place in ordinary houses, which were sometimes slightly modified to create a baptistery or a
larger dining hall. During the reign of Constantine in the early fourth century, Christians were officially
recognized and allowed to practice their faith openly; they began a phase of building enormous churches
to serve their growing congregations.
The earliest followers of Christianity were raised within the culture of the Roman Empire, and not
surprisingly, the art they created used Roman forms, although they reshaped the forms to suit Christian
purposes. In the following centuries, roughly the fifth through eighth centuries, the city of Rome fell into
ruins and became depopulated, although the leader of the western Christians was still the bishop of Rome,
the pope. But the pope’s power was weak, and much of the church’s authority was in the hands of local
bishops and the monastic orders.
The Christians believed in burial of the dead rather than cremation, which was the more common practice
in ancient Rome. As a result, catacombs were dug underground on the outskirts of Rome. Bodies were set
in shallow shelf-like openings along the narrow passageways. There were also larger open areas where
family members or others could meet for prayer. It is in these open areas that most catacomb paintings
are found. These are very direct paintings, obviously made by artists with little training. They show some
of the illusionistic techniques seen in Roman art, like contrapposto or modelling, but these are carried out
in a simplified way.
Catacomb paintings are most interesting for the way they develop a new Christian iconography. Some of
these iconographic types have precedents in Greek or Roman art. The shepherd carrying a lamb to sacrifice
is seen in Greek art, for example, but the Christians took this image and used it to represent Christ saving a
member of his flock, as described in the Gospel of John. The young and beardless Good Shepherd,
representing love and forgiveness, is the most common way that Jesus is depicted in early Christian art. In
the catacombs there are also simple images of many of the themes encountered in Christian art for
centuries afterward; for example, Jesus and his followers seated at a table became the traditional theme of
the Last Supper.
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