Early Christian Art Catacombs and Sarcophagi

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The Catacomb of St. Peters and Marcellinus -
200 CE Rome, Italy
Early Christian
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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 IsaacPeter Arrested for Preaching after Jesus's DeathChrist EnthronedChrist before Pontius PilateChrist before Pontius Pilate
Misery of JobFall of Man
(Adam and Eve)
Christ's Entry into JerusalemDaniel in the Lion's DenSt. 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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