After the birth of Christ, religion became the primary catalyst for art throughout the Roman Empire. However, as the first several centuries were dominated by a pagan Roman government, the artistic activities of early Christians were necessarily clandestine. During this time, Christian art seems to have been limited in its applications, and reserved mainly to burial sites. But once Constantine, the Great Roman Emperor, instituted the Edict of Religious Tolerance in 313 A.D. (also known as the Peace of the Church), the Christians could come out of hiding without fear of persecution. A few years later, Constantine initiated a change of monumental importance. After being the political capital of the Mediterranean world and the epicenter of all artistic activities of the Empire, Rome ceded these roles to Constantinople. Artists flocked to the new capital, where monuments and buildings were being constructed—a blank canvas for creative interpretation. Constantine was the first emperor to patronize Christian art on such a large scale. The arts of Christendom benefited greatly by these favorable conditions, and throughout the fourth century gained ground throughout the converted Empire.
Constantine’s edicts opened up new fields of activity to Christian art, most notably, that of large-scale architecture. This included several types of edifice—all of which came from an earlier age, following the well-established Roman types. Churches were modeled after Roman assembly halls, the mausoleums of Roman cities served as prototypes for the tombs of prominent Christian, and iconographic paintings were placed on the walls. And over time, Roman State temples and theaters ceased to be built, and public staples like bath houses were rarely constructed.
The consequences of this new religious orientation were evident in Christian iconography. Exactly when iconography made its first appearance is vague, but there is ample evidence of its existence through church mosaics, tomb frescoes, sarcophagus sculptures, and ivory carvings. Before this point, imagery generally served a doctrinal purpose: images and themes served to exalt the reigning monarch of the time. Christian iconographers took over these formulas and readapted them to Christian uses. Artists used pictorial terms to convey religious truths. From the victory of Christ to the teachings of the disciples and apostles, artists sought to educate and instruct the masses. Pictures and icons were especially significant, as the majority were illiterate. Iconography connected the general public with the religious sect. Early Christian art was predominantly about the message, rather than technique or form. It is simply all about content, about what is being communicated.
Certain forms and procedures were uniquely Christian in spirit. Figures were often portrayed with their eyes wide open. Many historians and critics believe that the Christian artist’s objective was to reveal the innermost being of these holy personages. The figures themselves, through their attitudes and gestures, are unconcerned with material reality. They almost seem animated, and are often portrayed hovering slightly above the ground. The space surrounding the figures and objects lacks any sort of dimension or perspective. Everything is flattened and schematized. The artist’s approach to completely reject material reality is perhaps indicative of the Christian urging to be unconcerned with the physical world and to focus instead on the spiritual world.
The images and structures created by early Christian artists were very much conceptual creations. Artists concerned themselves with the essence of objects, instead of the analytic apprehension of the world. They abolished the use of space, perspective and even the horizon line. It was an art readily comprehensible for the masses. The inherent accessibility of Early Christian art helped popularize the style, ultimately allowing it to become the most widely diffused aesthetic the world has ever seen.