At first glance, early Christian art appears to be a mere clone, or at best an identical twin, of its Greco-Roman counterpart, and there is indeed no denying the fact that early Christian art is based on the Greco-Roman artisan tradition and mindset. The ubiquity of Greco-Roman architecture emboldens us to categorise buildings such as Hagia Sophia in Constantinople or S. Vitale in Ravenna as 'classical' without giving the matter further thought. However, if we could take a time machine back to the sixth century, we would immediately be struck by the prevalent depopulation of ancient cities, where Christian edifices rose among ruined, empty and abandoned structures. Although the church had become a major property owner, it was unable to safeguard its holdings; this was all the more true of private property owners. The affluent were subject to a heavy tax burden, while foreign peoples were descending on the Roman empire from all sides. Faith in the economic and social viability of the Roman state was crumbling, a process that was hastened by the fact that in the fifth and sixth centuries the Church took over governmental functions such as building walls and roads, operating public baths and administering cities.55 The educational level of the general population had declined steeply. The Church was increasingly intolerant of the whimsical approach to Greco-Roman myths, whose weakened hold on the minds of the populace left a vacuum that could not be filled by the legends of Christian saints and miracles.

The term 'classical' cannot be applied indiscriminately to all of early Christian art and architecture, for beginning in the third and fourth centuries the co-ordinates of the classical world began to undergo a fundamental shift. This was partially attributable to Christianity itself, which since 313 had acquired semi-official stature as an institution. Although a genuine state religion was not established until the reign of Justinian, the numerous ties that bound the Christian governing class to the Roman state led to continuity, as well as a new era in the realm of architecture and the visual arts. The collapse of centralised Roman authority, which worked to the advantage of the church under Constantine and Theodosius I, spawned increasing numbers of unique local artistic and architectural styles. A pilgrim who, for example, departed on a pilgrimage that took him from his native province of Noricum through Italy, North Africa, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor and Greece would have encountered a different form of worship and ecclesiastical architecture every

55 See further ch. 14, above.

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