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Paleochristian Art: between basilicas and mosaics

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Paleochristian art would never be born if it wasn’t for the famous edict of Emperor Constantine in 313. Yes because it is only thanks to this crucial event that Christianity became legit and it was no longer persecuted and which then paleochristian art slowly developed. This peculiar kind of art enjoyed its greatest popularity between IV and early VI century and it was born and developed in the imperial Rome period. How first churches were born? And those huge basilicas? Well,now let’s see it. First and foremost let’s consider that at the beginning the first supporters of Christianism belonged to poor classes or slaves but mostly to roman middle class. Howwever gradually even the richest families began to embrace the Christian faith and this led to organize the first meetings in the houses of such wealthy families. These so called Domus Ecclesiae were the precursors of those who then would become christian churches! Thus it was born churches which then little by little became bigger and bigger enough to become basilicas! We have to say also that early Christian architecture was not particularly innovative but in fact it adjusted to pre-existing models the requirements and symbolism of new religion. The first basilicas were built in Rome, in Holy Land and in Constantinople at the beginning on the model of civil basilicas. Constantine founded the first Roman basilicas amomg which stand out Saint Peter in the Vatican, Saint John Lateran ,Saint Paul Outside the Walls but later Bishop of Rome then called Pope,commissioned the building of places of worship. The very first basilica commissioned by Pope was Saint Mary Major and it was rebuilt and restore by Sixtus III, since according to tradition, it was built by Pope Liberious.

Inside the churches and basilicas swarmed with other art forms like painting and mosaic which proposing and adapted to new religion techniques and themes already used by pagan and other religions. We can clearly notice it in the iconography of the banquet used several times in ancient art mostly in funeral environment but yet proposed by paleochristian artists in order to represent Last Supper and therefore to symbolize Eucharist. With aniconism,which it would be the prohibition to depict God, they felt the need to create a religious symbology to allude to the divinity. It was used,for istance,the sun which was one of the most used symbol by ancient civilizations,as for example, Egyptian one; other important Christian symbols were lamb,symbol of martyrdom of Christ and fish whose greek name “ichthys”,was acronym of Jesus Christ Son of God the Savior. Even symbole-picture like Good Shepherd or praying Christ, symbol of wisdom, were adapted from a Christian perspective from previous conceptual iconographies,especially pagan.The image of shepherd who guides the faithful,for example, is taken from pastoral representations or from shepherd Hermes,while wise and philosopher Christ is derived from the figure of philosopher Epictetus seated. As time passes artists tend to create mosaics more and more stylized with figures flattened and more often than not frontally and an almost total loss of objective reality in order to focus on symbolic and spiritual value of the scenes which are created. Just think of representation of Christ in some mosaics(like those of Aquleia’s basilic) where he is depicted as a rooster which symbolize the morninig light since,as we know,rooster sings at dawn. Very common are also mosaics in which we can see a fight between rooster and turtle that at first glance it may sound no sense but that instead it wanted to represent the eternal battle between Good and evil since rooster represented Christ while turtle was linked to evil,but why? Well it can seems strange but is the etymology of the name to relegate poor turtle as inhabitant of the Tartarus( tartarukos) and therefore alined withe the forces of evil. Just at first Christ is depicted with symbols like Sun,Good Shepherd,Lamb,etc since there was a prohibition of depiction of the divine. Very common also Christ-Orpheus which descend into limbo as the mythical greek character Orpheus descend in the underworld.Things changed after the First Council of Nicaea in 325 a.C. since was acknowledged double nature of Christ both divine and earthly which then,having had human traits he could be depicted with such features. At the beggining Christ was depicted without beard as evidenced by frescoes of Catacombs of Domitilla and mosaic of church of Santa Costanza in Rome. Christ that has entered into our common imagination,that is Christ with beard, derives from the syriac tradition related to the figure of  Cynic philosopher. Later Christ was depicted even with royal insignia of emperor so much that identity between empire and roma cattolic church became ever closer indeed from the V century onwards Christianity was associated with civilized world opposite to the barbaric and pagan one.

Christ,symbol of paleochristian art


Christian sculpture developed just after gradual conversion to Christianity by the wealthy classes but even in this case artists took as a model funerary pagan symbolism.The vast majority of paleochristian sarcophagus known to us are dated from the 4th century and the most common symbols carved in them was peacock; it has always been considered as a symbol of immortality, spiritual rebirth and resurrection. This belief was due to the fact tha peacock loses the feathers in autumn and then regrow in spring but even its countless eyes were associeted to omniscience of God without taking into account that its meat were considered incorruptible. Among the most important sarcophagus we need to mention: Sarcophagus of Helena and Constantine(mother and daughter of Constantine I),Sarcophagus of Santa Maria Antiqua,Sarcophagus of Stilicho,Sarcophagus of Good Shepherd,Sarcopaghus with miracles of Christ,Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus and Sarcaphagus of Passion.

The wooden door of Saint Sabina is another example of paleochristian art miraculously come to our days considering the fact that it comes down to cypress wood even though obviously it has been restores many times. There ae carved scenes of Old and New Testament and judging by the different styles it seeems two different artists worked on it ,one inspired by classic-hellenistic and the other inspired by popular-ancient.    

The artistic centers shifted due to the birth of Easter Roman Empire to which needed a capital which was commissioned by emperor Constantine and it was called New Rome better known with its popular name Costantinople,which was founded from ruins of ancient city of Byzantium;later even the new capitals of Wester Roman Empire which were first Mediolanum(Milan) and then Ravenna became important artistic centers. 

When Milan was capital of empire from 286 to 402 b.C.were built several basilicas in honor of new idols to adore,namely Christian Saints. Particularly in the current Duomo square were built two paleochristian basilicas called basilica vetus and basilica nova that later were superseded by the famous Duomo of Milan. Other important basilicas were those of San Lorenzo and basilica of Sant’Ambrogio. In fact was Bishop Ambrogio who started a series of buildings of basilicas among which the most important were basilica for the prophets then devoted to San Dionigi,basilica of the Apostoles that became basilica of San Nazaro,the one for the martyrs that was dedicated to San Ambrogio and one of virgins which then became San Simpliciano.       

 On the other hand Ravenna was capital from 402 b.C. for more the seventy years and it developed a kind of art vibrant influenced both by Roman world and the Byzantine one indeed nowadays Ravenna is very famous for its mosaics which are among the best preserved of Europe and that revitalize and decorate already splendid basilicas. The age of Galla Placidia was important for Ravenna art since gave a great building impulse even though of that period survive just th church of San Giovanni Evangelista and the well-known mausoleum of Galla Placidia which was Roman empress.     


Paleochristian art was a kind of art  inevitably influenced by Christian religion  and by a growing number of worshippers of wealthy class who commissioned works like funerary sarcophagus or mosaics and which was also characterized by a strong symbolism as well as by a marked flattening of the figures that later will be repeated and reinvented by byzantine art…but this is another story.     

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