Painting naturally took a rank altogether superior to that of sculpture in the appreciation and uses of Christianity. Intrinsically the former is better adapted to the representation of Christian ideals than the latter, being at once warmer and richer in the power of expression. Moreover, sculpture had been more thoroughly monopolized by heathen art, and was more strongly associated with idolatry. Scantily used in the Greek Church before the iconoclastic controversy, it suffered proscription in that Church for religious uses after the close of that great strife. In the West the aversion to sculpture was not so marked. Still the art was given but narrow scope; for a long time it was in entire subordination to architecture, and about the only office it was called to fulfill was that of ornamenting the churches. It was first in the fourteenth century that the genius of Nicolo Pisano lifted it to a higher plane of appreciation. In the next century, fostered by such masters as Donatello, Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, and Michael Angelo, sculpture proved its right to be something more than the handmaid of architecture, and advanced to a position of independent worth. Even then, however, it did not become fairly a rival of painting.
Whatever jealousy may have existed among the early Christians toward art, it was neither universal nor unqualified. There were at least some in the primitive days of Christianity who were ready to exercise their skill in pictorial representations of religious facts and truths, so far as this could be done without directly countenancing idolatrous associations.
The first Christian pictures included little else than symbolism. This was due in part to the feeling that the sacred things of religion ought not to be directly portrayed. But other motives also had weight, especially the desire to avoid unnecessarily provoking heathen scorn and mockery. It may be, too, that the religious mind at a certain stage is naturally attracted by the mystic element in symbolism. The same temper among the early Christians which found so much delight in allegorical interpretations of the Bible would, it may be supposed, spontaneously incline toward allegorical and symbolical forms in its artistic efforts.
Since the catacombs were the chief depositories of early Christian art, in treating of them we have already indicated the symbols which were most frequently employed. Some of these were suggested specifically by the truths of Christianity. Some were borrowed from the Hebrew Scriptures, in accordance with the belief that the events of the old dispensation were typical of the great facts of the new. Some were appropriated from the common fund of symbolism to which the nations generally have been heirs. In individual instances the classic mythology was not eschewed, and scenes having a capital aptitude for the expression of religious truth, like that of Orpheus enchanting the beasts with his music, or of Ulysses encountering the wiles of the Sirens, were utilized for Christian purposes. From whatever source derived these symbolic representations have the same characteristic. Their tone is in general that of a blithe serenity. While they are attachments of the sepulcher, "they are as cheerful as if they had been designed for living households." 1 Woltmann and Wörmann, History of Painting, English translation.
The form of Orpheus easily suggested to the Christian mind the office of Christ as the unrivalled charmer of souls. But other ways of representing the Redeemer were much more current. The lamb was a chosen symbol. Very frequently also Christ was represented as a shepherd pasturing His sheep or tenderly bearing upon His shoulder the straying member of the flock. It might be imagined that this form of portrayal was not altogether symbolic. Yet it must be counted such, for while the human form was assigned to Christ there was no pretence of giving His exact features. Indeed, the figure in which He commonly appeared, that of a beardless youth, was obviously designed to be nothing else than an ideal, no real copy of the historical Christ.
Gradually, as the Church became assured of her possession of this world, symbolic began to give place to realistic representations. Attempts were made to give the features of Christ, or what might pass for a probable likeness. The earliest of these portrait-like representations are supposed to have appeared near the end of the fourth century. As Augustine indicates, there was no authentic record at this date of Christ's personal appearance. 1 De Trin., viii. 4. But a specific type became current, and not unnaturally less critical minds were inclined 60 plead for its historical authority. So we have the story that Christ imprinted His countenance upon a cloth which was presented to Abgarus, king of Edessa, whom Eusebius mentions as having corresponded with the Saviour. 2 Hist. Eccl. i. 13. A fictitious letter also claimed credence in later times, purporting to be a communication from Publius Lentulus, a pseudo-predecessor of Pilate, to the Roman senate. The letter represents Christ as "a man of lofty stature, of serious and imposing countenance, inspiring love as well as fear in those who behold Him. His hair is the color of wine, straight and without lustre as low as the ears, but thence glossy and curly, flowing upon the shoulders, and divided down the centre of the head. The forehead is smooth and serene, the face without blemish, of a pleasant slightly ruddy color; the expression noble and engaging; nose and mouth of perfect form; the beard abundant and of the same color as the hair; the eyes blue and brilliant." 3
3 Rugler, History of Painting. --In contrast with the serene majesty which is here portrayed a representation of Christ as the thorn-crowned man of sorrows had place. This, according to the engaging legend, was impressed upon the veil of Saint Veronica. The veil, having been handed to Christ on His way to crucifixion in order that He might wipe the sweat from His face, was returned with the sacred image. Aside from these stories, we have the facts that some of the Gnostics in the second century used images of Christ, which they assumed to be authentic likenesses (Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., i. 25, 6.); and that Eusebius saw in his day at Caesarea Philippi a bronze image of a kneeling woman and of a man with outstretched hand, which was interpreted to refer to Christ's healing of the woman with the issue of blood (Hist. Eccl. vii. 18.) Such an interpretation rightly provokes question. The image probably had originally as little reference to Christ as the bronze statue in St. Peter's had to the apostle. It is to be noticed, moreover, that Eusebius, in his letter to Constantia, sister of Constantine the Great, decidedly challenged the propriety of attempting to represent the Saviour by any image (Opera, Tom. ii., Epist. ii, Migne.)
By the close of the fourth century the custom of surrounding the head of Christ with a nimbus or glory was initiated. This was not an original expedient. Classic art had used it in honor of divinities and also of human dignitaries. As the saints came to be represented with the nimbus, that of Christ was distinguished by drawing upon it the form of the cross. 1 Woltmann and Wörmann.
In style of execution the products of early Christian art show no special divergence from the models of the time. Originality did not extend beyond the subjects portrayed. The better specimens exhibit a fair degree of skill. There was little tendency, however, to improvement; on the contrary, it is commonly conceded that Christian art in the first centuries reflects the deterioration which befell art generally in the Roman Empire, and that consequently we are to look for the best execution in the earlier attempts.
In the fifth century painting proper yielded the field in a considerable measure to mosaic work. This species of decorative art flourished in Italy generally till the ninth century and in Venice to a later date. In the Byzantine Empire, it was cultivated with great zeal and tenacity, being well suited to the half-oriental taste of the eastern region, to which majesty and splendor were of more account than delicacy of delineation. The general type which mosaic work assumed naturally passed over into painting. The term Byzantine, therefore, describes with approximate accuracy the art development of the sixth century and of the three or four centuries immediately following. "The fundamental idea of Byzantine art," says Lübke, "is the utmost development of splendor within the strictly circumscribed limits fixed by the Church." 1 History of Art, vol. I. The representatives of this regime worked according to rule. Conventionality usurped the place of the free impulses of genius. Occasionally there was some approach to ideal beauty; but the prevailing cast was that of formality and stiffness. Sainthood was bodied forth by a lean and angular figure robed in court attire.
In the West the Byzantine style was influential from the age of Justinian. However, it did not occupy the whole field. While it supplied the model for the larger and more pretentious works, in the humbler order, such as miniatures, a thoroughly contrasted style sometimes found place,--a style verging upon barbaric rudeness, but yet having the merit of energy and freedom. These features were especially prominent in Lombard and Irish art. The interaction of these contrasted styles served as the ground for a new development. But the consideration of this must be postponed, as we have already passed beyond the bounds of the early Church.