Medieval Europe + Byzantium

Early Christian art

Once thought to have indicated a "decline" in artistic skill, early Christian art is now understood to represent a major shift in the way that artists and patrons visualized their beliefs and their world.

c. 200 - 500 C.E.

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Classicism and the Early Middle Ages
Classicism and the Early Middle Ages

What decline? Far from breaking with earlier styles, these objects blend classical idioms with Christian symbols.

The <em>Vienna Genesis</em>
The Vienna Genesis

Silver ink on purple parchment—what luxury! This is the oldest surviving illustrated biblical text.

Santa Maria Antiqua
Santa Maria Antiqua

An earthquake buried this early Roman church. Recent excavations exposed layers of wall painting.

Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome
Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome

Below Rome’s streets lie shelves of tombs. Buried among the dead are early examples of Christian art.

<em>The Story of Jacob</em> from the Vienna Genesis
The Story of Jacob from the Vienna Genesis

A family outing begins with a river crossing and ends with Jacob wrestling an angel. This story twists and turns.

The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

An unassuming brick exterior belies the luminous mosaics within. In one, a young, beardless Christ tends his flock.

Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome
Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

A colonnade draws our eye to the altar—or is that the emperor? The church mimics earlier imperial buildings.

Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well, <em>Vienna Genesis</em>
Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well, Vienna Genesis

One image, two episodes—and three cultures. This narrative of Rebecca contains multitudes.

Basilica of Santa Sabina, Rome
Basilica of Santa Sabina, Rome

This impressive church borrowed its plan and its columns from ancient pagan buildings.

Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus
Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus

Made for a member of the Roman elite, this early tomb features Old and New Testament scenes in a classical style.

Santa Pudenziana
Santa Pudenziana

A mosaic proclaims Christ’s rule over the Heavenly Jerusalem. Gesture, toga, and book signal imperial authority.

Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus
Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus

The images on this stone coffin mingle Old and New Testament scenes—among the oldest examples of Christian art.

Selected Contributors | Early Christian art