Early Christian And Byzantine Sculpture

GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS. The most characteristic fact about the development of art from the rise of Christianity to the Renaissance in the fifteenth century was the supremacy of architecture. The aesthetic qualities involved in love of beauty, orderly symmetry, and artistic form, in poetic conceptions and exuberance of imagination, all have their outlet in architecture. In painting, not external beauty but internal significance, was required. Sculpture, on the other hand, was not used either as a medium for teaching, as painting was, or, like architecture, as an aesthetic vehicle. It therefore played a very secondary part, and not until the close of the twelfth century did it begin to resume its old part as an important factor in the development of art. The Gothic cathedral paved the way for the Renaissance.

The vicissitudes of sculpture during the fourteen centuries before the Renaissance may be described under three heads:

I. EARLY CHRISTIAN—third to sixth centuries.

II. BYZANTINE—sixth and seventh centuries.

III. MEDIEVAL—eighth to fifteenth centuries.

Early Christian sculpture began at the time when the technique of the art was on the high road to decay. The first two centuries of the Christian era were barren of any Christian monuments. In the third century a few works show that technical decadence was not yet complete, but, this being the period of greatest persecution, no development was possible. No workshops for the free treatment of themes of Christian sculpture could be established when it was a capital offence to be known as a Christian. Many examples of carved sarcophagi found in the catacombs of Rome show that the Christians did not hesitate to order and purchase, for their more illustrious deceased, sarcophagi carved by pagan workmen in pagan workshops, whenever the ornamentation or the figures did not convey a pagan religious significance, or when such subjects had been adopted, as in the case of the group of Cupid and Psyche, into the cycle of Christian subjects and were thus common to both. Only with the reign of Constantine, early in the fourth century, did sculpture of a strictly Christian character make a forward movement, and that at a time when the art had reached the lowest technical decadence. The multiplication of works which ensued is, therefore, interesting mainly from the point of view of iconography; that is, the development of Christian ideas and subjects in art. Sculpture at this time brings us face to face with the ideas of early Christians about death and future life, and shows us the form of their faith as sharply and as clearly as do the works of the Church Fathers. And it does this in a way to bring us closer, perhaps, to the inner heart of the people. The early Christians followed the ex-ample of the Etruscans and Romans in covering their sarcophagi with subjects that had no special connection with the particular deceased, but were related to conceptions of death and the future life. The subjects selected were often taken from the primitive liturgy that was recited at the bedside of the dying, and, as in the words of the litany the soul about to take its flight calls upon Christ to deliver it from eternal death as in the times of the past He delivered the three children from the fiery furnace, Daniel from the lions, and brought the Hebrews across the Red Sea, so sculptors represented these prayers upon the sarcophagi hy carving the very scenes from the Old Testament.

Non-religious sculpture for some time varied but little in its technique and themes from that of the pagan period. Art continued its earlier traditions, and the Byzantine emperors followed in the footsteps of the emperors at Rome. Triumphal arches and columns and statues were decorated and erected in a style that shows a continuous decadence. Such were the arch of Constantine at Rome and the columns of Theodosius and Arcadius at Constantinople. Numerous statues of emperors and empresses, and of families of great person-ages, continued to be executed with diminishing frequency and skill. Great use was made for decorative purposes of earlier works. Even in imperial images painting gradually superseded sculpture, so that, finally, in the seventh or eighth century, sculpture had ceased entirely to be employed for these purposes. During this period, marble came to be used less and less as the favorite material, while metal increased its vogue. The last of the fine imperial statues appears to have been the great equestrian bronze figure of Justinian, which he erected after his victory over the Persians in 543. After his reign, other statues were erected of Justin the second, Mauritius, Justinian the second, Phokas, Philippicus, and, even at the close of the Iconoclastic period, of the Empress Irene and her son. All these have perished; and Italy appears to possess the only remaining example of these late imperial statues. It is a standing figure of bronze, thought to represent Heraclius, the conqueror of the Persians. It was washed ashore on the shipwrecked vessel that was probably bearing the statue from Constantinople to be set up in Rome or Ravenna.

MATERIALS AND SOURCES. Great varieties of materials were employed. Marble served mainly for the sepulchral monuments and for the carved sarcophagi in the catacombs, and in the cemeteries above ground. In a few cases marble was also used for statues, as in the statue of St. Hippolytus, and a number of statuettes of the Good Shepherd. Marble reliefs were also used to decorate the church pulpits, as in the am-hones of Ravenna and Salonica. Internally, stucco work was employed very successfully to decorate walls or ceilings. Examples of this rare kind of work are in the vault of a chapel in the catacomb of Calixtus at Rome, dating from the third century; on the walls of the baptistery at Ravenna, and forming the dado of the inner walls of the cathedral at Ravenna, of the fifth century. However, as the divorce between architecture and sculpture had been pronounced at the very beginning of Christian art, it is natural that the sculptors should turn themselves more and more to the employment of metals, especially gold, silver, and bronze. There was also some religious sentiment that led to the preference of precious material in the making of the figures that formed the object of religious cult. This tendency, which became more pronounced in the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries, is the main reason for the destruction of the majority of the works of this period and for our consequent imperfect acquaintance with its sculptural development. The decoration was usually centred around the high altar and the confessional beneath it. Here were often figures or reliefs of Christ and the apostles, and scenes from the life of Christ and from the Old Testament. The objects used in the services, and which were kept in the treasury of each church, although belonging to the category of smaller sculpture, become more and more our main reliance for tracing the history of the art. Such are the pyxes, the diptychs, and the book covers of carved ivory, the patens, the ampullas and other vases of gold and silver, the eucharistic doves, altar fronts, and altar canopies.

SUBJECTS. Symbolism played such an important part in the art, as well as in the literature, of the early Christian period that it is not surprising to find that it permeates sculpture so thoroughly. Inanimate symbols were employed, such as the vine, the Constantinian monogram, the Alpha and Omega as symbols of Christ, the palm emhlematic of martyrdom, the ship of the church, and the four rivers of the four Gospels. Other symbols were animate ; for example, the dove as a symbol of the soul, the sheep or lambs representing the disciples, the peacock as a symbol of immortality. Figured compositions also had usually a symbolic meaning. Sometimes they were borrowed directly from pagan art, even in detail. Such was the case with Cupid and Psyche, and Orpheus. Sometimes there was only an’ external and fortuitous resemblance, as in the case of the similarity of the Good Shepherd to the Hermes bearing the Ram. Very often subjects were taken from the Old Testament, which was always close to the hearts of the early Christians, and in this case those were selected that were either closely connected in the Christian mind with providential care and the future life, or were types that could be used as symbolic or allegorical of the new dispensation. Examples of the first category are those illustrating the liturgy for the dying already referred to, such as Daniel with the lions ; examples of the second are Moses striking the rock, the temptation by the serpent, and the translation of Elijah. More popular than all, however, were instances of miracles in the life of Christ. Finally, there were scenes from daily life, portraits, and decorative designs similar to those of pagan art. The latest sarcophagi, with their scenes of Christ triumphant and as teacher, are intimately connected with the contemporary monumental decoration of the basilicas of the fourth century, especially with the wall-mosaics.

MONUMENTS AND HISTORY. The sarcophagi, which form the great bulk of the monuments upon which these scenes were carved, were of a size suited to contain one or two bodies, and were carved usually on all four sides. On a small number there was a single continuous relief covering the entire front, especially in the subject of the Crossing of the Red Sea. The reliefs were usually arranged in one or two stories, each consisting of a number of compositions. Very often these compositions were separated by columns bearing an architrave, a gable, an arch, or a shell-like top, but even more often the subjects were placed side by side without any separation. At times, only a few separate figures were carved, in the centre and at the angles, the rest of the surface being strigillated. The covers of the sarcophagi were also often carved, both at the corners and along the edges, with a narrow band of reliefs. In the centre of the front there was frequently a circle or a shell, and within it portrait busts of the deceased. The positions were usually quite simple, the figures were few and arranged upon a single plane. They were carved in high-relief, and have little or no background or decorative setting. In this characteristic, in which they present so strong a contrast with the picturesque compositions of Roman historic sculpture, they show a return to Greek simplicity. The most interesting collections of sarcophagi are in the Lateran Museum at Rome and in the museum at Arles.

The most noted single sarcophagus is that of the prefect of Rome, Junius Bassus. This sarcophagus, which dates from the year 359, is a good instance of the more elaborately carved works, and an enumeration of its subjects will give a good idea of the usual grouping of subjects in early Christian sculpture. Beginning from the left-hand side of the upper zone we have : (1) The Sacrifice of Isaac; (2) the Denial of Peter; (3) Christ enthroned teaching; (4) the Arrest of Christ; and (5) Pilate washing his Hands. On the lower zone we have : (6) Job on the Dung-hill ; (7) the Temptation of Adam and Eve ; (8) Christ entering Jerusalem; (9) Daniel between the Lions; and (10) the Arrest of Peter. It is very seldom that an entire sarcophagus is devoted to a single subject. This is done only in such cases as the History of Jonah, the Crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites, and the subject of Christ and the Apostles or Christ teaching. Only a few of the sarcophagi carved with figures date from the third century; the great majority belong to the fourth and early fifth centuries.

Rome appears to have been the centre of early Christian sculpture in the reigns of Constantine and his successor during the fourth century. This was quite natural, for the greater part of the important works of art executed throughout the empire were by order of the emperors. The political centralization which was the keynote of Roman polity extended to the fine arts, which were practised by large guilds whose members had but little independence. Hence there was great uniformity of style. The south of France, especially the city of Arles, appears to have followed very closely in the footsteps of the Roman school, with some interesting variations, and, as a source of information, it is of great value in point of numbers and interest. When, in the fifth century, the imperial capital was transferred to Ravenna, that city became the successor of Rome in sculpture as well as in other branches of the fine arts, changing the Roman style for one with stronger Oriental elements. This school flourished until the close of the early Christian period but, coming as it did at a time when marble sculpture was declining in favor, its productions were less numerous and less representative of the art of the age.

There are a number of monuments of sculpture dating from the fifth century which form a connecting link hetween the early Christian and Byzantine styles. Chief among these are an ivory lipsanoteca now at the Museum of Brescia, and the carved wooden door of S. Sabina in Rome. These two monuments are superior to the bulk of earlier sculpture, in having more grace and more perfect technique, a greater refinement of type, and a more spiritual conception of the subjects of Christian art. They represent the first wave of Greek influence in Italy. The gate of S. Sabina probably dates from the time of Pope Celestin I. (424). It originally included twenty-eight panels in relief—twelve large and sixteen small ones—arranged in rows of four. In this work the artist sought to establish, as was so often done in the sculptures of the sarcophagi, an analogy between Old and New Testament subjects. Ten panels have disappeared. Among those that remain, three large compositions belong to the Life of Moses, one to the History of Daniel, and one to that of Elijah. In the series from the New Testament the most important are those from the Passion of Christ, for they are among the earliest attempts to represent this part of the life of Christ, which was repugnant to the early artists. In fact, on this door there is probably the earliest known representation of the Crucifixion. In the largest of these compositions we find a wealth and picturesqueness of detail, a skill in the juxtaposition of episodes, and a freedom of handling far surpassing the work of the sarcophagi. The last and most poetic of the compositions represents the youthful Christ between A and .0 in a laurel circle, holding an open scroll with the letters of his symbolic name. This work stands for the symbolism of Byzantine art in contrast with the purely historical tendencies of the Roman school. It is imaginative and dramatic. At the same time, it stands half-way between monumental sculpture and the smaller works in ivory and the miniatures which form the bulk of the remaining figured monuments of succeeding centuries.

The ivory box at Brescia is earlier than the door of S. Sabina, and although it contains five subjects from the cycle of the Passion, it stops short of the last painful episodes which appear on the door. Contemporary with the developed style of the sarcophagi, it has a poetry, delicacy, and dramatic power far superior, and yet it shows that Italian art had not yet felt the influence of Constantinople. This is but one of a number of works which show that we must regard the majority of carved sarcophagi as the work of artisans, for the sculptors who produced the great majority of ivory carvings of the same period have a style that is far more correct, more artistic, and representative of the highest development of the period.

BYZANTINE SCULPTURE. The earliest monuments of Byzantine sculpture are those in which we notice that the Christian art of the East had begun to throw off some of its Roman characteristics and to show itself a descendant of Greek art. This style announces itself early in the fifth century in such works as the ivory reliefs of Galla Placidia and Valentinian, and it ceases with the reign of Justinian, in the middle of the sixth century, which marks the beginning of a rapid decay. The works of this period in the Orient show a decided superiority over contemporaneous sculpture in the Vest. There was greater refinement, elevation of type, purity of form, and perfection of technique. In consequence of the loss of the greater part of the works then produced, largely through their destruction by the Iconoclasts, we are obliged to judge of their style from portable works of sculpture carried by commerce or conquest to the West and thus preserved. The most important of these are the carved ivories both secular and religious, ecclesiastical diptychs, book-covers, and church vessels. The new style of decorative sculpture which arose at this time and spread from the East through the greater part of Italy is well illustrated in the capitals and carved screens at Ravenna, Constantinople, and Venice.

The downfall of sculpture was facilitated in the East by the persecution of the Iconoclasts, while in the West it had already fallen into decay in consequence of the invasion of the Barbarians and the complete break in artistic tradition which they caused. The history of Byzantine sculpture is almost a blank to us during the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries. Shortly before the year 900, the great artistic revival’ under the Macedonian dynasty enabled sculpture to come to feeble life once more. It never was, however, a favorite branch of art in the Christian East. The Oriental love of color was so strong that it alone was selected as a medium both for figured and ornamental decoration. The Iconoclastic movement, although defeated, had left a deep mark, and it was directed even more against sculpture than against painting, be more closely connected with pagan worship, and could more clearly produce the illusion of life the bete noire of the Iconoclasts. The new school of Byzantine sculpture may be studied in works extending for about three centuries, ending with the capture of Constantinople in 1204. Its remaining works are more numerous in Italy than in the East itself. Venice, Sicily, and Southern Italy enable us to follow its different phases with considerable accuracy.

EXTANT MONUMENTS. The finest collection of sarcophagi is that of the Lateran Museum, Rome. Next in importance are the groups of sarcophagi at Arles and Ravenna. Numbers are scattered through the south of France, Rhenish Germany, Spain, and throughout Italy. Early ivories of importance are found in the Louvre, British Museum, Berlin Museum, the Vatican, St. Petersburg. The Museum of Constantinople contains a few interesting fragments of early Byzantine stone sculpture, and some still remain in the churches of that city. The reliefs with which the exterior of ‘S. Marco, Venice, is studded are the best examples of later Byzantine sculpture. The ivory carvings are scattered in many museums. Of especial interest, however, are the collections at St. Petersburg and Florence.