Study Of Art – Sculpture And Painting During The Middle Ages.

The fact that Christianity was first accepted by the humblest class of society necessarily limited the character and quality of any artistic production which the early Christians might have attempted. By the time that Constantine made Christianity the state religion Roman art was in full decline. We often have, however, the interesting juxtaposition of secular subjects done with the excellence of long-time experience, and the new ideals clumsily expressed through mystic symbol or legend understood only by the initiated. For centuries there was the greatest reluctance to represent Christ naturalistically, partly for reasons of safety, but more, undoubtedly, because of sentiment. The Jewish origin of Christianity also exerted its influence against pictorial representation. The eighth century witnessed the fierce struggle within the church over the use or the destruction of images, after which there remained the long task of learning again the necessary craftsmanship, and of building up the traditions and intellectual conceptions of the new faith suitable for representation.

Images of the Virgin came into common use after the Council of Ephesus in 431, when Mary was given the title, ” Mother of God.” The Crucifixion was never rep-resented until the fifth century, and then but seldom.


Cutts, eh. 10-14. Kugler, I, 1-11; 30-43. W. and W., I, 154-164; 194-196; 222-243.


The Catacombs of Rome. Lowrie, 23—47; 185—247. The Iconoclastic Controversy. Milman, ch. 7—9.

The Mt. Athos Handbook. Didron, II., 119—191; 256-399.


Nos. 41 and 42. Catacomb Paintings.

These reproductions are taken from copies of frescos gathered from the Catacombs of Rome, many of them now nearly, if not quite, destroyed. Most of them were from the Catacombs of St. Calixtus. All were probably executed before the time of Diocletian, 284 A.D., and, slight as they are, furnish us almost our only information concerning the strictly Christian art of this early period. The familiar stories of Jonah, Moses striking the Rock, and the Good Shepherd are easily recognized. The figures with hands upraised are ” orantes ” — praying ones — and represent the deceased. The gravedigger with his pick was often represented. The funeral feast is sometimes mistaken for the Last Supper. Of this the fish bearing the basket of bread is perhaps a symbol.

The medallion with the figure of the Good Shepherd probably occupied the center of the slight dome of a mortuary chapel. There is, however, little suggestion of any consistent design.

No. 43. Fresco.

Crypt, SS. Giovanni e Paolo, Rome.

This church is built above the extensive apartments of the private houses occupied, according to tradition, by John and Paul, two court officials who suffered martyrdom under Julian (360 A. D.). The church, erected in 400, was destroyed in 1024, and in the rebuilding the lower rooms were completely lost sight of. They were discovered and excavated in 1887. Classic and Christian wall decorations may here be studied side by side. This illustration is from the earliest of the decorations, probably of the second or third century. Even this fragment gives clearly the plan of decoration of the room. Except for possible symbolism in the birds there is here nothing distinctively Christian. Compare with the wall paintings from Pompeii, noting the greater refinement of this work, done for court officials in the capital. Compare also the mosaics, 17, 18.

Early Christian Sarcophagi. Lateran Museum, Rome.

No. 371. Good Shepherds and Vintage Scenes.

Found in the Catacombs of St. Prætextus, probably late second or early third century.

No. 372. History of Jonah.

Found in the burial place of the Vatican, the scene of Nero’s persecutions. Fourth or fifth century. The small scenes above are Raising of Lazarus, Moses striking the Rock, Daniel (?).

No. 373. Agape and Crescenziano.

Late period. The scenes are, perhaps, Offering of fields and herds (Cain and Abel?), Adam and Eve, the deceased (Madonna?), Miracles of Christ.

A comparison of these reliefs with the classic sarcophagus of Phædra and Hippolytus, B 388, and with each other, shows the declining ability in stonecutting as well as the lack of skill in decorative composition. The undercutting so noticeable in 371 connotes the invention of mechanical devices which led the marble workers far away from the classic principles of either high or low relief. It was later used more effectively in the basket capitals of Byzantine buildings.

The theme of the Good Shepherd, symbolizing Christ, was often repeated. Cf. 41. Compare the Calfbearer, A 19, for the antiquity of the motive. Note the distinctively Roman character of head and of dress. Vintage scenes were frequent in Roman art. Any Christian reference here is somewhat remote. Cf. B 17, 18.

Despite the crowding of irrelevant episodes and the breaking of the line of the corner, there is still some feeling for decorative effect in 372, the ” whale ” being quite obviously modified for that purpose. There is some-thing of classic feeling in Jonah asleep under the gourd. For position compare the ” Nile,” A 278, and Ariadne, A 295. The story of Jonah was used constantly to symbolize the doctrine of the resurrection. Cf. B 42.

The clumsiness of workmanship and crowded field in 373 are very characteristic of the work of the fourth century. Cf. the lower reliefs from the Arch of Constantine, A 347. In the arrangement of the figures with the heads on the same line, and in the character of the draperies there is, however, a distinct echo of the Augustan period. Cf. reliefs from the Ara Pacis, A 331, 332.

No. 44. Crucifixion.

S. Maria Antiqua, Rome.

During the excavations of 1900–1902 in the Roman Forum there were found in the extensive remains of the Library connected with the Temple of Augustus, just under the steep cliff of the Palatine and close to the present entrance to the Forum, a series of frescos of great interest. That there must have been a place of worship here as early as the sixth century is proved by the dated tombstones found in the pavement. The name S. Maria Antiqua may have been given to the great basilica built on the site by Pope John VII in 705–708 to distinguish it from S. Maria Nuova on the other side of the Forum. The date of these frescos, of which the Crucifixion is a portion, is determined by the figure of Pope Zacharias (741–752) who is represented with a square nimbus, showing him to be alive at the time. They were perhaps the work of Greek artists driven from the East by the Iconoclasts.

Note the representation of the Christ as living and clothed, the character of the draperies of John and Mary, and their dignity as contrasted with the attempted naturalism of Longinus. The halo is that of the risen Christ. Ref., Huelsen, The Roman Forum, 161–177. Burton-Brown, Excavations in the Forum, ch. XIII. Lowrie, 276–279.

No. 45. Madonna and Child. Crucifixion.

No. 46. St. Mary Magdalen. Academy, Florence.

No. 47. Byzantine Madonna. S. Maria Maggiore, Florence.

No. 48. Altarpiece, by Margaritone.

National Gallery, London.

These are typical paintings of the period immediately preceding Cimabue, the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. They are the work of provincial Italian artists, and show the hardening into set forms and the unmeaning attitudes and expression resulting from generations of copying the pictures of the monks, whose painting was prescribed by rule as to subject, color, and arrangement. See ” Mount Athos Handbook.”

The background is gold, the colors originally rich. All available space is filled with figures of saints or correlated scenes. These were the books of the period for the many who could not read. It is both interesting and instructive to study the scenes and interpret them to ourselves, so dependent now upon the printed page for all our information.

Note especially the manner in which the child is held in 47 and 48, and the feeling for strict symmetry. The decorative quality of such work as the altarpiece by Margaritone when seen at a distance should not be over-looked. In these early representations of the Madonna theme she appears as the instrument through whom the Child is presented to the world. Their remoteness from human life emphasizes the dogma they present.

No. 374. The Virgin as Orante (the praying one).

S. Marco, Venice.

Byzantine relief of the eleventh century. This representation of the Madonna is often found on Byzantine coins of the eleventh century, and is several times repeated in the sculptures built into the walls of San Marco. This example is found in the Capella Nova in the north transept. Like most of the sculptures in the church, it was brought from elsewhere.

The attitude is that of prayer, familiar to both Jews and Gentiles, and adopted as symbolic by the early Christians. Cf. B 42. There is real feeling for form and for the principles governing low relief as well as for its beauty. Ref. Lowrie, 201-204.

No. 375. Adoration of the Magi.

S. Stefano, Bologna.

Painted terra cotta, fourteenth century. Shown in the Exposition of Sacred Art in 1900, now in a chapel of that part of the interesting seven-fold church of San Stefano known as Chiesa della Trinità. The figures are movable and have been differently arranged.

Compare facial types with earlier and later work. Note the simplicity of the draperies, the emphasis on long straight lines, the absence of the fragility of clay, and the suggestion of a metal technique. There is here an interesting reminder of early French work. Crowns were seldom used in early representations of this scene.

No. 376. Bronze Doors.

Cathedral, Pisa.

Made by Bonanus of Pisa in 1180, now in the south transept of the cathedral, the only one of the old doors remaining. Six years later the same artist made a similar pair of doors for the cathedral of Monreale. The panels contain scenes from the life of Christ. These doors are of especial interest as the point of departure for the later doors by Andrea Pisano and the perfected work of Ghiberti.

Study the construction of the door, the reason for the ornamental bosses, the heavy cord motive. With a glass study the scenes, beginning at the left below. The doors which superseded the old ones of this period are given in C 487, 488.

No. 377. Christ between the Symbols of the Evangelists.

King David (above).

Campo Santo, Pisa.

This tomb relief from the middle of the twelfth century bears the quaint inscription, ” This work which you see Bonamico made; pray for him.” This is believed to be the only example in Italy of a subject strictly Byzantine in its origin, but often used in French art of the twelfth century, as in the tympanum of the main portal of Chartres Cathedral.

The figure above, King David playing upon his harp, is by the same artist, but was not intended for this tomb.

Note the extremely flat treatment. All the surfaces are raised a comparatively even distance from the background, the modeling being suggested by a multitude of fine lines. The animals are like those found on Byzantine capitals, and also in early Norman work. Compare the lines of the drapery with 375.

No. 378. Pulpit by Guido da Como. S. Bartolommeo in Pantano, Pistoja.

Made in 1250. It illustrates the sculptural art of northern Italy before the Pisani. The reliefs are scenes from the life of Christ. Note the arrangement of figures in the two central panels. Cf. 373. The figures on the corners have much of beauty. Columns supported on the backs of animals are often found in mediæval porches. They are of ancient, possibly Eastern, origin and though picturesque lack architectural stability. A comparison of the upper right-hand panel with B 36 shows the stereotyped manner of treating the Bible scenes.

Review these examples of the art of a thousand years, noting the character of the workmanship, influence of classic art, development of themes. Compare also with mosaics of the same period.