The rapid growth of Christian architecture on a large scale had an
almost revolutionary effect on the development of Early Christian
painting. All of a sudden, huge wall surfaces had to be covered with
images worthy of their monumental frame-work. Who was equal to this
challenge? Certainly not the humble artists who had decorated the
catacombs with their limited stock of types and subjects. They were
superseded by masters of greater ability, recruited, we may suppose,
under Imperial auspices, as were the architects of the new basilicas.
Unfortunately, so little has survived of the decoration of
fourth-century churches that its history cannot be traced in detail.
Out of this process emerged a great new art form, the Early Christian
wall mosaic, which to a large extent replaced the older and cheaper
medium of mural painting. Mosaics—designs composed of small pieces of
colored material set in plaster—had been used by the Sumerians as early
as the third millennium B.C. to embellish architectural surfaces. The
Hellenistic Greeks and the Romans, employing small cubes of marble
called tesserae, had refined the technique to the point that it could
reproduce paintings, as in The Battle of Jssus (see fig. 220).
But these were mostly floor mosaics, and the color scale, although rich
in gradations, lacked brilliance, since it was limited to the various
kinds of colored marble found in nature. The Romans would also produce
wall mosaics occasionally, but only for special purposes and on a
The extensive and intricate wall mosaics of Early Christian art thus are
essentially without precedent. The same is true of their material, for
they consist of cubes, or tesserae, made of colored glass. These, too,
were not entirely unknown to the Romans, yet their special virtues had
never been exploited before. They offered colors, including gold, of far
greater range and intensity than marble tesserae, but lacked the tine
gradations in tone necessary for imitating painted pictures. Moreover,
the shiny (and slightly irregular) faces of glass tesserae act as tiny
reflectors, so that the overall effect is that of a glittering,
immaterial screen rather than of a solid, continuous surface. All these
qualities made glass mosaic the ideal complement of the new
architectural aesthetic that confronts us in Early Christian basilicas.
The guiding principle of Graeco-Roman architecture, we recall, had been
to express a balance of opposing forces, rather like the balance within
the contrapposto of a classical statue. The result was a muscular,
physical display of active and passive, supporting and supported
members, whether these were structurally real or merely superimposed on
a concrete core. Viewed in such terms, Early Christian architecture is
strangely inexpressive, even antimonumental. The tangible, material
structure has become subservient to the creation and definition of
immaterial space. Walls and vaults have the quality of weightless
shells, their actual thickness and solidity hidden rather than
emphasized as before. The brilliant color, the light-filled brightness
of gold, the severe geometric order of the images in a mosaic complex
such as that of S. Apollinare in Classe (fig. 305) fit the spirit
of these interiors to perfection. One might say, in fact, that Early
Christian and Byzantine churches demand mosaics the way Greek temples
demand architectural sculpture.
Apparently, great pictorial cycles were spread over the nave walls, the
triumphal arch, and the apse from the very start, first in painting,
then in mosaic. These cycles must have drawn upon a great variety of
earlier sources, reflecting the whole range of Graeco-Roman painting.
The heritage of the past, however, was not only absorbed but transformed
so as to make it fit its new physical and spiritual environment. A
characteristic example is the Good Shepherd mosaic in the mausoleum of
Galla Placidia, Ravenna (fig. 309).
309. Good Sbepberd.
Mosaic. Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna
The figure seated in a landscape is now given a more elaborate and more
formal treatment than the central subject of our catacomb painting (fig.
299). In accordance with the preference of the time, Christ is
depicted as a young man in the familiar pose of a philosopher. (We shall
meet Him again as a youthful philosopher in the Sarcophagus of junius
Bassus; see fig. 314.) The rest of his attributes, however, have
been adapted from Imperial art, which provided a ready supply of motifs
that was mined heavily in the early fifth century, when Christian
imagery underwent intensive development. The halo was taken from
representations of the emperor as sun-king. Even the cross had been an
Imperial device. It was used as a Roman military standard, called a
labarum, that became Christianized through the addition of the Chi-Rho
insignia within a wreath. (Just such a labarum was held by the colossal
statue of Constantine, of which only the head and a few other fragments
remain; see fig. 284.)
CONTRASTS WITH GRAECO-ROMAN PAINTING.
Roman mural painting had developed elaborate illusionistic devices in
order to suggest a reality beyond the surface of the wall. In Early
Christian mosaics the flatness of the wall surface is also denied, but
for the purpose of achieving an "illusion of unreality," a luminous
realm populated by celestial beings or symbols. The difference in intent
becomes particularly striking whenever these mosaics make use of the old
formulas of spatial illusionism. Figure 310 shows a section of
the magnificent dome mosaics from the church of St. George at Salonica,
done at the end of the fourth century.
310. Dome mosaic
(detail). Late 4th centurv A.D. St. George, Salonica, Greece
Two saints, their hands raised in prayer, stand against a background
that clearly betrays its descent from the perspective vistas of "stage
architecture" in Pompeian painting (see figs. 288 and 289).
The foreshortening, to be sure, seems somewhat askew, but a surprising
amount of it survives intact. Even so, the structure no longer seems
real, for it lacks all physical substance. Its body consists of the same
gold as the background, so that the entire building becomes translucent.
(Other colors, mainly purple, blue, and green, are used only in the
shaded portions and the ornament.) This is not a stage set but a piece
of symbolic, otherworldly architecture meant to evoke such concepts as
the Heavenly Jerusalem, the City of God.
STA. MARIA MAGGIORE, ROME.
In narrative scenes, too, we see the illusionistic tradition of ancient
painting being transformed by new content. Long sequences of scenes,
selected from the Old and New Testaments, adorned the nave walls of
Early Christian basilicas. The Parting of Lot and Abraham (fig. 311)
is taken from the oldest surviving cycle of this kind, executed about
430 in the church of Sta. Maria Maggiore in Rome. Abraham, his son
Isaac, and the rest of his family occupy the left half of the
composition; Lot and his clan, including his two small daughters, turn
toward the city of Sodom on the right.
311. The Parting of
Lot and Abraham, ñ.
Mosaic. Sta. Maria Maggiore, Rome
The task of the artist who designed our panel is comparable to that
faced by the sculptors of the Column of Trajan (see fig. 277):
how to condense complex actions into a visual form that would permit
them to be read at a distance. In fact, many of the same "shorthand"
devices are employed, such as the abbreviative formulas for house, tree,
and city, or the trick of showing a crowd of people as a "grape-cluster
of heads" behind the foreground figures. But in the Trajanic reliefs,
these devices could be used only to the extent that they were compatible
with the realistic aim of the scenes, which re-create actual historical
events. "Look, this is what happened in the Dacian wars." we are told.
The mosaics in Sta. Maria Maggiore. on the other hand, depict the
history of salvation. The reality they illustrate is the living word of
the Scriptures (in this instance, Genesis 13), which is a present
reality shared by artist and beholder alike, rather than something that
happened only once in the space-and-time context of the external world.
Our panel does not tell us, "This is what happened in Genesis 13" (we
are expected to know that already), but "Behold the working of the
Lord's will." Hence the artist need not clothe the scene with the
concrete details of historic narrative. Glances and gestures are
becoming more important to him than dramatic movement or
three-dimensional form. The symmetrical composition, with its cleavage
in the center, makes clear the symbolic significance of this parting:
the way of Abraham, which is that of righteousness and the Covenant, as
against the way of Lot, destined for divine vengeance. The contrasting
fate of the two groups is further emphasized by the juxtaposition of
Isaac and the daughters of Lot, whose future roles are thus called to
Roll, Book, and Illustration
From what source did the designers of narrative mosaic cycles such as
that of Sta. Maria Maggiore derive their compositions? Were they the
first to illustrate scenes from the Bible in extensive fashion? For
certain subjects, they could have found models among the catacomb
murals, but their most important prototypes may have come from
illustrated manuscripts, in particular those of the Old Testament. As a
scriptural religion, founded on the Word of God as revealed in Holy
Writ, the early Christian Church must have sponsored the duplicating of
the sacred text on a large scale. Every copy of it was handled with a
reverence quite unlike the treatment of any book in Graeco-Roman
civilization. But when did these copies become works of pictorial art as
well? And what did the earliest Bible illustrations look like?
Books, unfortunately, are frail things. Thus their history in the
ancient world is known to us largely from indirect evidence. It begins
in Egypt (we do not know exactly when) with the discovery of a suitable
material, paper like but rather more brittle, made from the papyrus
plant. Books of papyrus were made in the form of rolls throughout
antiquity. Not until late Hellenistic times did a better substance
become available: parchment, or vellum (thin, bleached animal hide),
which is far more durable than papyrus. It was strong enough to be
creased without breaking, and thus made possible the kind of bound book
we know today, technically called a codex.
Between the first and the fourth century A.D., the vellum codex
gradually replaced the roll, whether vellum or papyrus. This change must
have had an important effect on the growth of book illustration. As long
as the roll form prevailed, illustrations seem to have been mostly line
drawings, since layers of pigment would soon have cracked and come off
in the process of rolling and unrolling. Only the vellum codex permitted
the use of rich colors, including gold, that was to make book
illustration—or, as we usually say, manuscript illumination—the
small-scale counterpart of murals, mosaics, and panel pictures. There
are still unsettled problems: when, where, and at what pace the
development of pictorial book illumination took place; whether biblical
or classical subjects were primarily depicted; how much of a carry-over
there might have been from roll to codex.
There can be little question, however, that the earliest illuminations,
whether Christian, Jewish, or pagan, were done in a style strongly
influenced by the illu-sionism of Hellenistic-Roman painting of the sort
we met at Pompeii. One of the oldest illustrated manuscript books known,
the Vatican Vergil, which was probably made in Italy about the time of
the Sta. Maria Maggiore mosaics, reflects this tradition, although the
quality of the miniatures is far from inspired (fig. 312). The
picture, separated from the rest of the page by a heavy frame, has the
effect of a window, and in the landscape we find remnants of deep space,
perspective, and the play of light and shade.
The oldest illustrated Bible manuscripts discovered thus tar apparently
belong to the early sixth century (except for one fragment of five
leaves that seems related to the Vatican Vergil). They, too, contain
echoes of the Hellenistic-Roman style, in various stages of adaptation
to religious narrative and often with a Near Eastern flavor that at
times recalls the Dura-Europos murals (see fig. 298). The most
important example, the Vienna Genesis, is a far more striking work than
the Vatican Vergil. Written in silver (now turned black) on purple
vellum and adorned with brilliantly colored miniatures, it achieves a
sumptuous effect not unlike that of the mosaics we have seen. Figure
313 shows a number of scenes from the story of Jacob. (In the
foreground, for example, we see him wrestling with the angel, then
receiving the angels benediction.) The picture thus does not show a
single event but a whole sequence, strung out along a single U-shaped
path, so that progression in space becomes progression in time. This
method, known as continuous narration, has a complex and much debated
history going back as far as ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Its
appearance in miniatures such as ours may well reflect earlier
illustrations made for books in roll form: our picture certainly looks
like a frieze turned back upon itself.
For manuscript illustration, the continuous method offers the advantage
of spatial economy. It permits the painter to pack a maximum of
narrative content into the area at his disposal. Our artist evidently
thought of his picture as a running account to be read like lines of
text, rather than as a window demanding a frame. The painted forms are
placed directly on the purple background that holds the letters,
emphasizing the importance of the page as a unified field.