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Early Christian Art

ca. 100-313

The tree of life my soul hath seen, laden with fruit and always green.
The trees of nature fruitless be compared with Christ the apple tree.

Joshua Smith
The catacombs of Priscilla
Early Christian art is somewhat deceivingly hidden in history between the second century after the birth of Christ until the year 313, when Constantine came to power and stopped the persecutions of Christians in the Roman Empire. Catacombs are the name given to "subterranean galleries cut into the tufa beds outside of Rome," (Gough, p.24). They were rediscovered by the modern world during the nineteenth century and the few that have been excavated provide information about the world in 250 AD.  The catacombs contain most of what we know about Early Christian art in wall paintings called frescoes, (wall paintings made by mixing paints with wet plaster and creating a virtually indestructible work of art)  Contrary to some modern beliefs, these catacombs were not  a secret to anybody in Rome; indeed, the catacombs were used as Christian cemeteries not because they needed secrecy. In reality, the Roman law strictly protected tombs from violation. So why the mysterious atmosphere?

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Pagan practice in Rome was to cremate dead bodies before burying; however, early Christians did not believe in this practice and preferred to bury their dead, unburned, outside of the city. Catacombs were relatively inexpensive ways to bury Christians so that they were "physically united in death" with other Christians in order to be better prepared for the "Last Day," or day of judgment (Gough, p.24). The frescoes  in the catacombs exhibit that the "optimism of Christian faith, in its early years, had taken some of the sting out of death…"(Milburn p.22).

As Rome was predominantly a pagan society where unorthodox beliefs were persecuted, there was a need for discretion in the art of the catacombs. "The depiction of the cross was avoided" because it was an indisputable sign of the death of Jesus Christ. In some cases the differences between Roman mythology and Christian art in the frescoes lie beneath the murky waters of time.

The Good Shepherd
The Good Shepherd
In the summer of 1997 I visited the Catacombs of Priscilla outside of Rome while on an Art History/Chamber Singers tour of Italy under North Park University of Chicago. Professor Gregory Athnos who, for many years, has studied the catacombs and achieved expert knowledge of their intricacies, led the tour. To understand the beauty and significance of the catacombs we will look in detail at two frescoes found in the Catacombs of Priscilla just outside of Rome: the "Good Shepherd" and the "Virgin and Christ Child with Prophet."

This mid-3rd century catacomb painting shows one of the most recurrent themes in Early Christian art: the Shepherd carrying a sheep, (John 10:1-21;Luke 15:1-7 and 11-32). The Shepherd represents Jesus who will search lovingly for even one wandering Child of God and rejoice when it is found. In the Priscilla "Good Shepherd" the Shepherd holds the lost sheep upon his shoulders as two other sheep look on with rapt attention. What is left of the chipping plaster shows paints of an earthy green and brown. The figures are relatively small and are a part of a larger wall painting that includes praying figures and the Old Testament story of Jonah and the Whale, (Lowden p.26).

Virgin and Christ Child with Prophet
Virgin and Christ Child with Prophet
This fading fresco depicts the Virgin and Christ Child sitting underneath the outstretched branches of an apple tree. Sitting beside the Virgin and Child is a figure believed to be a prophet. Curiously, the prophet has a disproportionately large outstretched arm that points at one of the apples on the tree. According to Professor Athnos, the placement of the apples on the tree matches the placement of stars on sky charts recorded by Chinese astrologers around the same time as the birth of Christ. These same astrologers recorded the appearance of a new star in their charts right around the time of Christ’s birth. The apple that the Prophet points to is in the very position of this very star, known as the "Star of David," which led the wise men to the newly born Son of God in Bethlehem. Significantly, the new star disappeared from Chinese astrologers’ charts a short time later.

I’m weary with my former toil, here I will sit and rest awhile:
Under the shadow I will be, Of Jesus Christ the apple tree.
This fruit doth make my soul to thrive, It keeps my dying faith alive;
Which makes my soul in haste to be with Jesus Christ the apple tree.

Compiled by Joshua Smith

Words from Divine Hymns and Spiritual Songs


Athnos, Gregory. "Reflections at the Catacombs." Lecture Catacombs of Priscilla, Rome, Italy, May19-20, 1997.

Gough, Michael. The Origins of Christian Art London: Thames and Hudson,1973.

Grout, Donald Jay and Claude V. Palisca. A History of Western Music (5th ed.).New York: WW Norton and Company, 1996.

Lassus, Jean. The Early Christian and Byzantine World. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1967.

Lowden, John. Early Christian and Byzantine Art. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1997.

Milburn, Robert. Early Christian Art and Architecture. Berkeley: University of  California Press, 1988.

Venturi, Adolfo. Musaici Christiani in Roma. Rome: Casa Editrice, n.d.

Edited, Researched and Written by:
Sarah C. Lundberg
September 19, 1999

Text copyright 1996-2020 by ThenAgain. All rights reserved. 

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