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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Early Christian Art

Nearly every shade of religious belief today readily embraces the arts to some degree, if not on their walls, then in their publications, their worship services, and even around their necks.  Often, we've come to equate the physical beauty of such endeavors with the spiritual beauty they often inspire.  In many worship venues, it's come to be taken for granted.

Strangely, the earliest surviving Christian art was not gold crucifixes or silver chalices. Nor were they elegant triptych altarpieces. Painting being the quickest, and the most easily accomplished of the ancient art forms, it was natural that the early Christians should turn to it first to express their faith. These painted works of art were not wooden panels but fresco paintings, not on the ceilings of cathedrals but the humble arches and lunettes of Roman catacombs. Carved from a soft, porous stone, a virtual MAZE of these burial chambers hid beneath the seven legendary hills of the city of Rome. Within them were the remains of over six million former citizens of the city (only a few of them Christians, of course).

Often small chapels, some no more than thirty feet square, had been carved out within the catacombs for the worship of the dead in ancient times. Early Christians found these chapels convenient for their secret meeting places.  Over them, were executed some of the earliest crude, Christian paintings. Surprisingly, these earliest Christian images were not the crucifixions, or nativities, or martyrdoms we are now accustomed to associating with religious art. Instead, the image of the "Good Shepherd" or iconography involving fish and Biblical parables were the most common subject matter employed by these largely unskilled, early Christian painters.

The frescoes of the catacomb of Saints Pietro and Marcellino are strikingly beautiful and touching in their own primitive way, sharing a style that was realistic, and reminiscent of ancient Greek and Roman images. Most, however, were not as finished or as well done. Most dealt only with early (often secret) Christian symbols or icons. Most did not feature human or divine figures. It's quite likely their artists were somewhat uncomfortable working amongst the dead in such superstitious times, and equally as likely that they desired to spend no more time than absolutely necessary breathing in the fetid stench of all that decaying flesh. One would have to say Michelangelo was fortunate that by the 1500's, Christianity was no longer literally an "underground" religion.

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