Late Roman and Early Christian Art: Constantine and After

Late Roman and Early Christian Art
Time Line
Ancient Greece 100 B.C.E.
Golden Age of Pericles- 500 B.C.E.
High Hellenistic Period- 350 B.C.- 100 B.C.E.
Beginning of Pagan Roman Empire- 200 B.C.E.
Roman Empire- 200 B.C.- 315 C.E.
Early Christian Era- 315 A.D. - 800 C.E.


Arch of Titus, Rome, Italy c 81 CE. 
Concrete and white marble
50' tall
Roman Empire
Form:  Using the technology of Roman arches and the advancements of Roman slow drying concrete the massive monument serves no real purpose.  The outer surface is adorned with a veneer of marble panels and a facade of functionless post and lintel engaged columns in the Corinthian style.  Above the barrel vaulted arch, on both sides of the monument, are inscriptions in Roman capital letters.  Inside the two sides of the arche's tunnel are two relief sculptures. Iconography:  The use of arches for a monument is an expression of Roman technology and therefore Roman genius.  The triumphal arch is a common symbol that is dedicated to the victories of particular emperors.  In this case the victory of Titus over the Jews.
Context:  Titus is the same emperor who completed the construction of the Colosseum.  Arches like this were all over Rome and served as honorific gateways over main roads in the city.  This particular arch was dedicated by Domitian to commemerate his predessesor's victories.  Originally there would have been a massive sculpture of four horse chariot and driver.  Stokstad (254) gives and excellent contemporary account of the reasons why and circumstances surrounding the creation of this arch.

relief in the passageway of the
Arch of Titus, Rome c 81 CE. 
Concrete and white marble
50' tall

Bottom image is a reconstruction 
of what this frieze looked like
Form:  This relief sculpture is very naturalistic and uses relief in order to create a sense of space and volume.  Notice the inclusion of the arch in the releif at the far right is depicted at an angle almost as if the sculptors were using linear perspective.  Space is also created through size scale relationships, by overlapping the figures and by making the figures and objects in the background lower relief than those in the foreground.  The figures are naturalistically depicted and in some instances the drapery almost looks like the wet drapery style that dominates Greek art. Iconography:  This is clearly a victory scene as is evidenced by the processional carrying the spoils as they enter a triumphal arch at the left.  The icon of Jewish victory and resistance, the menorah, meaning is changed by a its change of context.  The Roman soldiers who carry another peoples' cultural icon are demonstrating their own victory by stealing it and exhibiting as a trophy.
Context: Roman soldiers carrying off the Menorah, the even-branched candelabra, and other spoils from the Temple in Jerusalem. The Roman general Titus had the Temple destroyed (7O CE) and the Jewish population expelled. Jews began to settle throughout the Roman Empire, along the coast of North Africa, in Italy and Spain, along the river Rhine and in France.
quote from

The Arch of Constantine -312-315 CE
Rome, Italy, Late Roman Empire
Form:  The overall form of the monument is similar to the Arch of Titus however, there are two additional arches on either side of the main one and the ornamentation of the monument is stolen from other monuments throughout Rome.  Another aspect of the ornamentation that this shares with Titus's monument is the use of post and lintel architectural components strictly for ornamental reasons.  For eaxmple, the columns do not support an entablature and are placed on pedestals of there own as if to honor them like a sculpture. Iconography:  The increased size of this monument is a way of out doing Constantine's predessors.  The reapporopriation of the round panels above the side arches is also a way of expressing power, even over the past.  Professor Farber comments,
Significantly it was decided to include on the Arch of Constantine reliefs that were taken from monuments made for earlier Emperors. There is a relief in the passageway under the primary arch that is from the time of the Emperor Trajan, while the roundels or medallions were made for the Emperor Hadrian. The oblong reliefs in the attic come from the time of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Scholars used to argue that this use of "spolia" from earlier buildings was a good indication of artistic decline. More recently scholars have seen this inclusion of earlier monuments as a way of linking Constantine to the great emperors of the past.
Context: The arch was was erected in honor of the first Christian Emperor's victory over Maxentius at Soxa Rubra (the Milvian Bridge) in 312 AD, just north of Rome.  Constantine then established the city of Constantinople that is now the city of Istanbul in Turkey.  Constantine was first Christian emperor although he did not get baptized until he was on his deathbed and he is also the emperor who legalized Christianity with his Edict of Milan c 318 CE.


According to Professor Farber,
A monument documenting the shift in conception of Imperial power is represented by the Triumphal Arch built by the Senate to commemorate Constantine's defeat of his rival Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 A.D. It is hard to underestimate the importance of Constantine in the narrative of Medieval art. His patronage and ultimate conversion to Christianity were pivotal in the transformation of Christianity as a religion on the margins to Christianity as integral to imperial power. An important theme we will be developing in the first part of this course is the Christianization of Rome and the Romanization of Christianity. It is interesting to note that on the Arch that was constructed adajacent to the Colosseum, near the formal center of old Rome, there are no references to Christianity. There is not even a reference to the famous vision of the monogram of Christ that Constantine was believed to have seen before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. It is important to see how this monument justifies Constantine's power by linking him to the Roman Imperial past. In its form as a Triumphal Arch it links Constantine to the tradition of this form going back to monuments like the Arch of Titus constructed after 81 A.D.

detail Arch of Constantine 312-315 CE Rome,
The top Roundels depict Hadrian Hunting Boar 
and Sacrificing to Apollo sculpted c 130-130 CE
the bottom is of Constantine addressing the Senate
c 312-315   3' tall
Late Roman Empire
Form:  The relief sculptures on the exterior of the arch are rather dispaparite in style.  The circular medallions contain very naturalistic sculptures, some standing in contrapposto and wearing the wet drapery style.  The frieze beneath these medalions are of a completely different style.  The bodies are disproportionate.  The heads are too large and the drapery of their clothing does little to reveal the anatomy it covers.  The doll like figures lack contrapposto.  Unlike the relief from the arch of Titus, this relief does not make any real attempt to create space except fro the architectural elements which are rendered very unimaginatively.  Iconography:  Gardner suggests that the theft and recarving of the faces of the roundels was an attempt to associate Constantine with the "good" emperors of earlier periods.  For some art historians the lower frieze, which represents Constantine addressing the senate represents the decline of the Roman empire at least artistically.  The  lack of realism could represent the new political and theological climate of Rome.  The image is much more diagramatic and straightforward.  The viewer has all the iconography placed before them in one single unobstructed view. Constantine is placed in the center of the symmetrically designed composition which puts him in the most important position.  Perhaps this new digramatic style is related to the second commandment and its law against images.  It has also been suggested that the larger heads and reduction of naturalistic elements relates to the new Christian ideal of deemphasizing the physical world and reemphasizing the spiritual and mental.

According to Professor Farber,
Notice how Constantine has the same ad locutio gesture we observed in the comparison of the Augustus of Primaporta and the Colossus of Barletta. In the language of Roman Imperial art, this gesture clearly identifies the active subject of the image. The ritualized nature of the gesture also associates the bearer of the gesture to the tradition of Roman Imperial power. This connection to past power that we have already noted in the plan of the arch as a whole is further reitterated in specific details of this relief. It has been noted that the two seated figures at either end of the rostrum are representations of sculptural portraits of Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius. The three highest figures in the relief are, thus, Constantine (had his head survived) and the two second century predecessors. The five columns behind the rostrum make a reference to the link between Constantine and his immediate predecessor Diocletian. In 303 A.D. a monument commemorating the tenth year of Diocletian's rule was constructed at the rostrum. The monument was composed of five columns with the central one topped by an image of Jupiter, flanked by others topped by images of the four Tetrarchs. This relief thus places Constantine at the center of Rome both physically and historically.
Context:  These medallions are probably sculptures that were transplanted from a monument created in the first century AD.

The Parthenon 

Basilican plan for the original St. Peters
The components of the Basilican Style of Building
(please see Stokstad page 298 Elements of Architecture: Basilica-Plan and Central-Plan Churches) The basilican plan is initially a wide open space that was designed to accomodate large group of people.  It formed in a square or rectangular form that contains a large inner space.  At one end of the basilica is usually an apse which is a large half circle mebedded in the wall and usually contains a statue or altar.  Notice it's similarity to the plan of the Parthenon's plan.  For Christian or Catholic basilican plans, like the Parthenon, St. Peters is also oriented towards the east.  For liturgical purposes the apse always faces east.  The apse was also important because it housed the Christian relics and the altar was placed in the apse. 
"Basilica" is a Greek word meaning "honored" and it is possible that for this reason one of the most used architectural form is the basilican plan which was used in the design of Christian churches. 
The parts of the basilica are:
apse- the area where the relics are stored and where the altar stands.  The term literally means "half wheel."
nave- this is the center of the structure.  The word has its root in the Greek or Latin word meaning ship.
atrium- this is a courtyard/waiting area.  It serves as a type of buffer zone between the secular and spiritual world.  It is a carry over from Greek and Roman home architecture.

The Basilica of Constantine, Rome Italy
Begun by Maxentius in 306-310, 
and completed by Constantine in 312-337
Late Roman

Context:  This section is quoted from The Basilica of Constantine was begun by his predecessor, Maxentius, in 306 AD, directly at the start of his rule, but which again was not completed until after Constantine had seized power, so therefore it bears his name. Originally, the basilica opened up onto the Colosseum, but under Constantine, this was changed, and the entrance was placed facing the Sacra Via. Combining both Hadrianic and pre-Hadrianic architecture, the basilica retains the same basic plan as does the Basilica Julia, but with a series of barrel vaults on both sides, and two large apses, perpendicular to one another, for the seating of the judges.
Form:  This massive building is built in a typical baslican floor plan but departs from that schema in its use of barrel vaults over the sde aisles and intersecting groin vaults over the nave. This sdesign is in some ways closer to the design of the Baths of Caralla 216 CE. The raised nave allows light to fill the vaulted area and the use of the groin vaults creates a large open space.  This basilloica also departs from the basic basilican plan because it has two apses because the entrance was moved.  The interior surfaces of the walls were lavishly decorated with veneers of different colored marble and mosaics.
Iconography: The basilican form is a time honored form that derives its intitial inspiration from the Parthenon.  The the word basilica is Greek and means "honored."  Constantine's victory is symbolized by fact that this building was no longer in Maxentius's possesion.  His redocoration and altering of the structure is also a symbolic gesture made concrete by the structure itself..

Context: In 313 AD the Roman general, Constantine, possibly sensing the change in religious climate, had a miraculous dream and after his victory over Maxentius he adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire with his "edict of Milan."  After this happened, Roman Christians naturally adopted the traditional Roman art and architectural styles for use in the worship of Christianity. "Basilica" is a Greek word meaning "honored" and it is possible that for this reason one of the most used architectural form is the basilican plan which was used in the design of Christian churches.  According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Old St. Peter's Basilica was the 
first basilica of St. Peter's in Rome, a five-aisled basilican-plan church with apsed transept at the west end that was begun between 326 and 333 at the order of the Roman emperor Constantine and finished about 30 years later. The church was entered through an atrium called Paradise that enclosed a garden with fountains. From the atrium there were five doors into the body of the church. The nave was terminated by an arch with a mosaic of Constantine, accompanied by St. Peter, presenting a model of his church to Christ. On the clerestory walls, each pierced by 11 windows, were frescoes of the patriarchs, prophets, and Apostles and scenes from the Old and New Testaments. Old St. Peter's was torn down in the early 16th century and replaced by New St. Peter's 
Form:  Although the overall plan and rising windowed nave adhere to the standard Roman basilican plan, the main differences between St. Peters Basilica and Constantine's were the materials and the technology.  Old St. Peter's Basilica was not as lavish.  Initially it had a post and beam design made of timbers rather than the groin vault and stone and concrete arches used in Constantine's basilica

Parts of an Early Christian Basilica
(quoted directly from Dr. Farber's Website) 1) Propylaeum- the entrance building of a sacred precinct, whether church or imperial palace.
2) Atrium- in early Christian, Byzantine, and medieval architecture, the forecourt of a church; as a rule enveloped by four colonnaded porticoes.
3) Narthex- the entrance hall or porch proceding the nave of a church.
4) Nave- the great central space in a church. In longitudinal churches, it extends from the entrance to the apse (or only to the crossing if the church has one) and is usually flanked by side aisles.
5) Side Aisle- one of the corridors running parallel to the nave of a church and separated from it by an arcade or colonnade.
6) Crossing- the area in a church where the transept and the nave intersect.
7) Transept- in a cruciform church, the whole arm set at right angles to the nave. Note that the transept appears infrequently in Early Christian churches. Old St. Peter's is one of the few example of a basilica with a transept from this period. The transept would not become a standard component of the Christian church until the Carolingian period.
8) Apse- a recess, sometimes rectangular but usually semicircular, in the wall at the end of a Roman basilica or Christian church. The apse in the Roman basilica frequently contained an image of the Emperor and was where the magistrate dispensed laws. In the Early Christian basilica, the apses contained the "cathedra" or throne of the bishop and the altar.
9) Nave elevation- term which refers to the division of the nave wall into various levels. In the Early Christian basilica the nave elevation usually is composed of a nave colonnade or arcade and clerestory.
10) Clerestory- a clear story, i.e. a row of windows in the upper part of a wall. In churches, the clerestory windows above the roofs of the side aisles permit direct illumination of the nave.

The Catacomb of St. Peters and Marcellinus -
200 CE Rome, Italy
Early Christian
(go here for more detail views)
Form:  The catacombs were a series of underground tunnels dug into the soft volcanic rock beneath Rome.  Some of the tunnels were connected as an overall network system.  The small spaces were most often used as tombs in which the bodies were kept in crypts and in niches carved directly into the rock.  The cells or rooms for these tombs were often decorated with frescoes although in terms of the illusionistic and over all quality of the frescoes were not as fine as those found in Pompeii. This particular fresco is on the ceiling of one of the chambers.  It is a symmetrical design that fits the contours of the ceiling.  The over all shape is a medallion (circular form) which contains another circle.  Radiating from the inner circle is a cruciform (cross like) design that terminates in lunettes (small half circles).  Each of the empty spaces contained by the design hold a scene or a figure.  The figures all stand the orant pose but those inside the half circles and the central circle contain slightly different scenes.
The central circle contains a naturalistically rendered image of a figure standing in contrapposto pose.  His over all pose follows the schema of the sculpture of the Moscophoros.   The surrounding lunettes show scenes from the story of Jonah and the Whale. 
Iconography:  The imagery is neither wholly Roman, Jewish or Christian but instead a kind of composite of the best qualities of each.  The contrapposto pose and nude figures done in the Roman style demonstrate that the the ideas of kalos and beauty from the Greek classic periods have not completely faded.  The image of the youth carrying the lamb, is a borrowing from the Moscophoros image dealing with a sacrificial lamb but also refers to the Jewish and Christian ideas concerning King David from the Old Testament as a foreshadowing of the images of Christ as the "Good Shepherd."  The use of Old Testament themes to illustrate New Testament stories is referred to by Stokstad as typological exegesis.  (Go to Stokstad page 293 for more on Jonah)
Context:  Stokstad has an excellent description of the context that these frescoes would have been found in on page 293.

Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus c359 CE
4x8' marble, St. Peter's, Rome Italy
Early Christian Culture and Period
Form:  The overall form of the casket is almost like that of a symmetrical classical or Roman building.  There are Composite columns, arches, entablatures and pediments.  Each of the scenes is contained within its own architectural niche.  Each of the individual scenes is then also structured into a symmetrical or semi symmetrical composition.  The fairly high relief figures, although a bit more classical in their depiction of contrapposto and drapery are still proportioned very much like the figures on the Arch of Constantine.  Iconography: The use of classical orders and Roman arches is a link with the culture of Rome and a way of making the new Christian iconography "classic."  The scenes chosen are a selection of the stories of both the Old and New Testaments.  The purpose of placing these scenes together  is a typological exegesis.  Each of the Old Testament scenes is designed to link refer to the newer ideas expressed in the New Testament.  (See Stokstad The Iconography of Jesus pg 307 and the text on page 308-9.)
This is a diagram of the scenes.
Abraham and Isaac Peter Arrested for Preaching after Jesus's Death Christ Enthroned Christ before Pontius Pilate Christ before Pontius Pilate
Misery of Job Fall of Man
(Adam and Eve)
Christ's Entry into Jerusalem Daniel in the Lion's Den St. Paul Lead to His Martyrdom
Here's an example of one of these typologies from the Old Testament of the Jewish/Christian Bible that relates to a message or theme in the New Testament.   The story of "Daniel in the Lion's Den" is a story in which a Jew's faith was being challenged because he would not bow down to a Persian king.  He was thrown into a lion's den but because he put his faith in "god" he was not harmed.  His faith protected him and he was rewarded.  This is similar to how Jesus' faith was tested when he was before Pontius Pilate.
As in the frieze on the Arch of Constantine, these images are much more diagramatic and straightforward.  The viewer has all the iconography placed before them in one single unobstructed view. Jesus, in the center panel, is placed in the center of the symmetrically designed composition which puts him in the most important position.  Perhaps this new digramatic style is related to the second commandment and its law against images.  It has also been suggested that the larger heads and reduction of naturalistic elements relates to the new Christian ideal of deemphasizing the physical world and reemphasizing the spiritual and mental.
Context:  Junius Bassus was a city prefect (a minor official in the Roman government) who converted just before his death.  The practice of converting on one's death bed or shortly before one's death was a fairly common practice and a way of insuring that, just in case the Christian's were right, that the after life would be pleasant.
Some messy contextual notes on Catholicism/Christianity 300-1500 AD
  • Catholic: means “universal”
  • Monotheistic
  • Triad of Three cultures ideas: Roman, Greek, Jewish
  • Greeks and Romans gave it:
    • Plays for morality,
    • Symbols of dome and circle (iconography),
    • Saints, Bldgs.,
    • State religion w/ pope @ head, roads, technology, laws, language
  • Jews gave it:
    • monotheistic faith,
    • Bible (Old Testament),
    • rules,
    • 10 Commandments
  • Vulgate: common version of the Bible
  • Christ: means “annointed”, blessed one
  • Philosophical points: it’s all about love, be nice to one another, forgiveness, guilt
  • So popular b/c: afterlife is rewarding, Jesus and apostles from lower class so people relate, rulers are dictators, (antiwar, afterlife, forgiveness).
  • Edict of Milan: legalized Christianity
  • Nicene Creed: standard Catholic (universal) philosophy
    • Jesus was not a prophet but actually God on Earth
    • Holy Trinity is three beings all of same vehicle;
      1. God- creator,
      2. Jesus- incarnate flesh,
      3. Ghost- spirit
    • Heretics are people against church; “wrong believers”
  • Structure of Church’s Authority:
    • Jesus’s #1 Main Apostle- Peter (Petrus) (“rock”, 1st pope)
    • “On this rock I will build this church,” said Jesus.
    • Hierarchy:
      1. Pope
      2. Bishops
      3. Cardinals.
        1. Bishops become priests and cardinals are important bishops that elect pope.
  • Old Testament: prophetic book (typological exegesis) leads to life of Christ
    •   Psalms: songs
    •   Prophecy: coming of messiah
    •   Apocrypha: history added on, leads up to birth Christ, family tree
  • New Testament: Gospels (teachings & stories)
    •   Acts: apostles’ stories after life Christ
    •   Letters: lives of apostles
    •   Revelation: apocalypse

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