Christianity and art

The effect of Christianity upon art was not immediately revolutionary or startling, either negatively or positively. To be sure, under the influence of the faith the construction of pagan temples and the making of images of the gods ceased, and some temples were destroyed. However, it was not until after the first five centuries that distinctively Christian forms of art and architecture began to be prominent.

Long before the year 500 paintings inspired by the Christian faith had begun to appear, and a few surviving specimens can still be seen, notably in the catacombs. The catacombs themselves represented a modification in funeral customs. Christians disapproved of cremation, the form of disposing of the dead normally followed by pagans, and held that the body should be buried intact. In Rome until the fifth century Christian burial was prevailingly in niches in the subterranean passages in the volcanic material which underlay the city, passages whose prototypes were the galleries left by excavators of building materials. In these catacombs and upon some of the Christian sarcophagi Christian scenes were often depicted, among them the nativity, and Jesus as the Good Shepherd.

However, the catacomb as a burial place was not a Christian invention, for the Jews also employed it. Moreover, the Christian scenes normally used non-Christian art forms. Thus at least some of the portrayals of the Good Shepherd are clearly modelled after pagan pictures in which Orpheus was the central figure; with some modifications a representation of Jesus was substituted for that of Orpheus. Beginning with the age of Constantine and the full toleration of Christianity, large church edifices were erected, but these generally adopted existing architectural traditions, modifying them to meet the purposes of Christian worship. It was not until the sixth century that revolutionary forms of church architecture began to appear.

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