The Early Christian Period

The origins of the Eastern Orthodox Christian traditions of art and architecture are not clearly documented. Within the oral and later literary traditions of the Orthodox Church, earliest Christian art dates back to Christ's lifetime and to the foundation of the Roman Empire under Augustus. The Church taught that: 'the tradition of making images . . . existed even at the time of the preaching of Christianity by the Apostles' (Seventh Ecumenical Council, 787). In later literary sources there are also references to paintings made of the Virgin Mary from life by the Evangelist Luke and to miraculous images of Christ created by the Saviour himself. However the earliest surviving archaeological evidence is from the second and third centuries and is characterized by an enormous diversity in the representations of Christ and the Apostles, suggesting that there was no single dominant image for their portrayal dating from a very early period, as was the case, for example, in imperial portraiture. Much of the earliest Christian art survives in the form of third-century house churches, such as that at Dura Europos on the Euphrates in Syria, and in the funerary catacombs, including those of Domitilla, S. Callisto and Priscilla in Rome, and consists of painted wall decorations, carvings, as well as small votive souvenirs.

After the Edict of Milan (313) and the legalization of the Christian faith, the basilica, both as found in Roman secular architecture and in synagogue basilicas, was widely adapted for Christian use for churches that were required to house huge congregations. As an architectural form, the basilica in its simplest plan could consist of a single longitudinal nave, but in more complex manifestations could incorporate five or more aisles separated by colonnades. The longitudinal aisles were frequently crossed by a horizontal transept and surmounted by a clerestory or a second-storey gallery level. Basilicas almost inevitably had a protruding semicircular apse at the east end and sometimes an entrance vestibule (a narthex), and a courtyard (an atrium), at the west end. Other architectural forms of the time included the centrally planned funerary martyria and baptisteries, which also became widespread and attained a degree of standardization. Emperor Constantine and his mother St Helena were in part responsible for a major campaign of building churches in the main cities of the empire and in the holy sites of Palestine. These included St Peter's and St Giovanni in the Lateran in Rome and large churches in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, none of which has survived in its original state.

Although some pagan structures were adapted for Christian use, for example, in Thessaloniki the mausoleum of Emperor Galerius (d. 311) was converted into a church possibly in the fourth century and is now known as Hagios Georgios, by the fourth and fifth centuries function-built large-scale Christian buildings appeared in considerable numbers throughout the Roman Empire. In figurative imagery, in the third, fourth and fifth centuries, we encounter a great stylistic and iconographic diversity, reflecting the many different visual traditions on which the early Christians drew as sources. The imperial Roman tradition undoubtedly played a role (Grabar 1968), as did other conventions in Roman imagery (Mathews 1993), as well as Jewish and eastern art forms. There are instances where King David may have been derived from a pagan image of Orpheus, an image of Christ may have been based on the sun god Helios and the beardless handsome Good Shepherd may have originated in pagan bucolic pastoral imagery. In contrast to early literary sources which attest to the existence of extensive figurative imagery both in painting and free-standing sculpture, the actual survival of earliest Christian art is limited and geographically restricted. It is difficult to determine the impact of the Mosaic ban on graven images (Exod. 20: 4), or for that matter, the interdependence of Roman and Judaic traditions, but in its earliest manifestations as found on painted arcosolia in catacombs and on carved sarcophagi, there are frequent symbolic, emblematic and allegorical images of salvation such as anchors, fish, peacocks and simple figurative compositions of the Good Shepherd, Jonah and the whale and Daniel in the lions' den.

From the fourth and fifth centuries there survive a number of extensive monumental cycles of New and Old Testament imagery, such as the mosaics in Sta Maria Maggiore in Rome 432-40, as well as complex interwoven pagan and Christian imagery as in the partially preserved mosaic decorations of the mausoleum of Emperor Constantine's daughter, Constantinia (d. 353), the church of Sta Constanza in Rome. Generally in such monuments as the so-called mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, 450, and the apsidal decorations of Hosios David in Thessaloniki, c.425-50, the mosaics exhibit a great diversity in imagery and of adopted artistic strategies. Evidence from numerous churches, including St John Studios in Constantinople and Theotokos Acheiropoietos in Thessaloniki, both from the mid-fifth century, suggests that the larger churches had low stone carved sanctuary screens, an ambon (pulpit) and quite elaborately decorated altars. Little of this early figurative carving has survived, nor has the precious metal-work or church plate which is mentioned in the literary sources.

In the fourth and fifth centuries there developed different traditions of Eastern Christian monasticism. Pilgrimage both to the Holy Land - the sites made sacred by the life of Christ on earth - and to the tombs of Christian martyrs and to sites associated with holy men also became increasingly popular. An early saint who gained a reputation throughout Christendom was St Symeon the Stylite (d. 459) who spent 36 years standing on a 16-metre high pillar. This form of aerial penance did not go unnoticed and large numbers of worshippers flocked to his pillar to hear his teachings and to witness his miracles. A huge monastery in the form of a four-arm basilica was built around his pillar at Oal'at Sim'an in Syria, 75 km north-east of Antioch (see plate 18.1). Pilgrims brought back from such sacred sites, as well as from the Holy Land, small souvenirs in the form of tokens in precious or base metals, terracotta or metal ampullae which contained sacred oils and ointments, as well as carved ivories and painted images. These reliquary souvenirs frequently reproduced the main image from the site and hence disseminated this iconography throughout the Christian empire.

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