Iconography is the study of symbolic subject matter in art.  It is a complex field, especially for religious art, where the imagery gains layers of meaning over time.  This activity is intended as an introduction to iconography as it appears in Early Christian art and borrows from the earlier Jewish and pagan ideas.  You will explore examples of Early Christian art and architecture that borrow from previous imagery and forms.

All visual art evolved from what came before.  Early Christian imagery developed within Roman culture, so it is natural that many of the symbols were older pagan images simply cast with new meaning.  Christian imagery also included earlier Jewish narrative.

Iconography is the study of symbolic subject matter in art.  It is a complex field, especially for religious art, where the imagery gains layers of meaning over time.  This activity is intended as an introduction to iconography as it appears in Early Christian art and borrows from the earlier Jewish and pagan ideas.  You will explore examples of Early Christian art and architecture that borrow from previous imagery and forms.

To prepare for this activity, do the following:

Search online or search the textbook section on Early Christian art, pages 215-231, for examples of storytelling art, symbols of the new faith, or architecture.   Appropriate artworks for this discussion should be dated from the 1st through 5th centuries.  Research your chosen piece.  Keep in mind the following questions:

  • Are the sources of your research pertinent and scholarly?  Be sure the information you find on symbols is based on Early Christian examples, theology and the time period, the 1st through 5th centuries.  (Christian iconography gained far greater complexity in the centuries that came after.)
  • Subjects often involved stories of tested faith and of redemption.  Why were these useful to the new religion?
  • Does the imagery borrow from earlier pagan art?  Has the pagan symbolism changed within a new Christian context?  It may help to find an older Greco-Roman work that includes the symbol, for comparison.  For example, a pagan image of Juno’s peacock can be compared to the peacock symbol of immortality on a Christian sarcophagus.
  • If your artwork includes an image of Jesus Christ, how was he pictured early on?  What are the borrowings?  How was Christ represented symbolically?

When writing your initial post, consider the following:

  • Introduce your work by title, year, present and original location (if known.)
  • If it is an artwork, explain the meaning of its subject or tell the story pictured.  Did the subject have an earlier life before Christianity? Explain. What has been borrowed from Jewish scripture or Greco-Roman imagery?  Did the imagery take on a new significance for its Christian audience? Explain.
  • If you choose an example of church architecture, think about the layout and the architectural shapes.  Describe the borrowings you see from previous Roman architecture. What forms did the early Christian churches take?  What adjustments were made to the buildings to accommodate Christian ceremony?

As always, provide images or links that illustrate your example(s) for your classmates to view.

After reading others’ posts, respond to two. You may be able to offer other examples of each classmates’ subject to show its prevalence. Or comment, this time, on the style differences between the Early Christian subject and its predecessor. For instance, how did naturalism change from earlier Roman art to the Early Christian images?

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