Catacomb Paintings and Byzantine Mosaic
from subterranean depths to majestic heights
A history of Christian visual art starts not during Jesus' lifetime, nor even at the time of writing of the epistles to the churches or the gospels. Jesus was born, raised and executed as a Jew, and his followers - the first Christians - obeyed the laws of Judaism too. The second commandment given to Moses strictly forbade the production of imagery of any living thing (Exodus 20:5-5).
The first Christian visual art appears 250 years after Christ's death - in a place far removed from the laws and influences of Judaism - the catacombs of Rome.
Catacombs of San Callisto, Rome.
photo: AAR Studio/istockphoto
Despite the savagery of early Roman persecution of the Christians, Roman law concerning burial was "precise and compassionate" (Borchgrave, 1999, p10). The bodies, often dismembered by animals or charred by fire, of those early martyrs were returned to their families or friends for burial - which was legally required, for reasons of public sanitation, to take place outside the city. Rome's geology allowed for easy mining and a huge and complex network of burial chambers, or catacombs, developed over time. These resting places for the Christian dead became also the meeting places for those that lived in fear of persecution. The catacombs became a place where worship and teaching could be carried out in secret. Thus, the dark underground passages were in fact a place of hope - a place to wait in eager anticipation of all that Christ had promised (Macgregor, 2000, p24).
The early Christians' expectant hope is reflected in the primitive artwork which covers many of the catacomb walls. Images of "resurrection and God's triumphant intervention to save" (Macgregor, 2000, p24) were painted by the unskilled hand - "This was not art for art's sake, but art for inspiration and instruction" (Borchgrave, 1999, p10).
The catacombs were used well into the fourth century, until Constantine legalised Christianity. After this Christians no longer needed to meet in secret, and more relaxed burial laws (following Constantine's move east to Byzantium) left the catacombs redundant. Their primitive artworks were entombed until 1578 when a farmer "inadvertently forced a way through… [and] the innocent beauty of the early faith [was] exposed to the light" (Borchgrave, 1999, p12).
After Christianity had been liberated from the catacombs, being made acceptable and attractive to the new Roman empire, Christian artistic expression was freely exercised. Christians now met in purpose built churches, constructed to a design adapted from the Roman basilica.
Byzantine Mosaic in San Vitale Basilica, Ravenna, Italy.
photo: Nicola Muraro/istockphoto
The interiors of these churches, especially their domes, were decorated after the fashion of the day - mosaic. Constructed of tiny cubes of glass and marble, each cube being angled differently to its neighbour to diffract light, mosaics form a rich, vibrant, saturated and luminous picture. Perhaps no other visual art form succeeds so well in reflecting God's uncreated light, producing "a pure image of thought uncluttered by subtleties" (Borchgrave, 1999, p15). Mosaic art, experienced within its setting of magnificent classical architecture, encouraged the liberated Christian to praise God for creation whilst lifting the eye and mind higher - to the "unseen and eternal" (Borchgrave, 1999, p13).
deeper and higher still
The development of Christianity divided when the emperor Constantine moved his administrative centre from the Roman west to the Greek east in 330 AD, the "difference between the two churches is most immediately apparent in their art" (Proud, 2000, inside cover).
In Greece, Plato, Soctrates' disciple, taught that the body was mortal but the soul eternal - and that there was another plane, beyond our earthly reality - a heavenly, spiritual plane. Iconography developed to make this plane known to mortal man. Icons are not paintings in the ordinary sense, rather they are a method of prayer (Proud, 2000).
Icon of the Mother of God 'of three hands'
photo: Tom Loel/istockphoto
Icons "express in visual form the central doctrines of the faith and are therefore created as an act of loving religious devotion with prayer and spiritual preparation" (Richardson & Bowden, Eds., 1983, p275). Icon painters follow a specific tradition: being committed members "of the Orthodox Church, obedient to a spiritual father, and leading a disciplined moral life" (Proud, 2000, p4). Natural, earthy materials and pigments are used in icon production, adding to the symbolism of the meeting of the earthly and heaveny planes. The typical gold background of an icon represents the heavenly plane. Usually, the iconographer does not follow the conventions of perspective, their are no converging lines leading the viewer's eye into an imagined distance, instead the painter shows "things from all angles, as God sees them" (Proud, 2000, p10). By using layers of transparent 'washes' iconographers are able to create an inner luminosity to the picture, as light is bounced off the gold background and diffracted through the layers:
"This quiet luminosity suggests the Holy Spirit within the subject, constantly renewing and creating life out of chaos". (Proud, 2000, p12).
Created prayerfully to reflect a heavenly reality, icons are used as a focus in prayer during the veneration of the holy character whose image they bear. Unlike in much western art, an icon is not meant to stimulate the viewer. Rather, its aim is to relax, allowing the viewer to be free from worldly distraction, to step into the shadowless, all encompassing, uncreated light of God.
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Iconography, misunderstood and persecuted at times in its history, remains a valuable expression of faith and spirituality, and a much practised method of prayer.
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