Part I Biblical Scroll links to Bible 1. Part II Electronic Bible links to Part 2.
The Bible: The Book That Bridges the Millennia

Early Christian Art: 30--313

Christian Symbols of the fish and anchor

Graven Images

During the first three centuries Christians, like their Jewish counterparts, were ambivalent about expressing their faith with images. The norm was to consider art to be against the second commandment (Exodus 20:4). Some of the earliest Christians known to have used art were a group of Gnostics who were followers of Carpocrates. These Gnostics made images of Christ in the second century.

Another element that affected Christian art, particularly in the third century up until the Edict of Milan in 313, had to do with the persecution and/or outlawing of Christianity. Christian art therefore often used images already in secular society.

Good Shepherd, Chi Rho, Latin Words - 4388 Bytes

Other art literally went underground, such as that in the catacombs of Rome. The drawing above is a sketch of the type of art found in the catacombs.

Neutral Art

The first Christian art was derived from "neutral images" which could be accepted by Christians or pagans.

Good Shepherd, Romanized - 9472 Bytes

These images included:

   Here is a young man, no beard, hair arranged in the Roman style, wearing a short tunic. Some believe this 4th century statue is the earliest known Christian sculpture of the Good Shepherd; others believe it to be a Roman one symbolizing humanitarian concern.

Christians re-interpreted these images so that they had meaning for their beliefs.

The Catacombs

ichthus fish symbol - 3100 Bytes

Since they could not show their faith openly, Christians made use of symbols such as those described above. These symbols appear on the walls of the catacombs and on the marble-slabs which sealed the tombs that are in the catacombs.

In addition to symbols, the catacombs also have frescoes. A fresco (from the Italian word meaning "fresh") is a type of mural painting. Frescoes in the catacombs depict biblical scenes of the Old and the New Testament.

These paintings are not simply illustrations of stories from the Bible; however, but rather they are interpretations of the Bible. They often use typology, just like some Christian written interpretative material from the same time period. Old Testament stories such as Moses Striking the Rock, Noah and the Flood, and Daniel in the Lions' Den are shown to pre-figure or anticipate Christ and his salvation. Other frescoes in the catacombs include Jesus and the Woman at the Well, Jesus and the Samaritan Woman, and Jesus Raising Lazarus.

Take the Highway

Journey Through Time

Let's go from Early Christianity to the next era, The Christian Empire: The status of Christianity changed considerably in the fourth century because of one person, Emperor Constantine the Great, who officially permitted and promoted Christianity in the Roman Empire.

Choose a Byway

1. Visit other web sites that have examples of and information about Early Christian art.

2. Take a quick quiz on Christian symbols from the catacombs.

Chi Rho: Monogram for Christ.

3. Go to the The Christian Catacombs in Rome

This web site has photographs from the catacombs that show and explain the Good Shepherd, Orante (praying figure), monogram of Christ (left), fish, Alpha and Omega, phoenix, and dove. Although the Orante that is shown is male, most of the praying figures (orans) in the catacombs are female. (See Orans, Catholic Encyclopedia)

The Christian Catacombs in Rome is a multilingual site, offered in ten different languages, including Spanish and Korean.

See also: Roman Catacombs from the Catholic Encyclopedia

This substantial article describes in detail: Inscriptions, Paintings, Sarcophagi, Small Objects Found in the Catacombs, and Catacombs outside Rome.

Return: Interpretation and the Bible: 30-313

Next Page: The Christian Empire: 313-476

Notes and Credits

   Sources: Beat Brenk, "Early Christian Art," The Interpreter's Dictionary to the Bible, Supplementary Volume, edited by Keith Krim (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1976), pp. 62-64; John Tinsley, "Art and the Bible," The Oxford Companion to the Bible, edited by Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 56-57. Henry Chadwick, The Early Christian Church (New York: Penguin Books, 1967), pp. 277-280.

   Disclaimer: Some links jump to outside sites for further information on the Bible, interpretations, the canon, translations, manuscripts, resources, and other perspectives. Links do not constitute an endorsement by the Women's Division of the information on other web sites. External web sites offer us diverse perspectives; afford us an opportunity to compare them to United Methodist positions; and, encourage us to critically analyze the issues raised by The Bible: the Book that Bridges the Millennia web pages.