The above maps suggest the struggles of the early Christian and Islamic nations. When the Roman Empire gave way to the much contested, highly divided Holy Roman Empire, various Christian sects were united under the Council of Nicaea. Christianity became the de facto official religion of the Roman Empire and ancient cults declined rapidly through the third and fourth centuries. While the stories and symbolism of early Christian imagery was beginning to form a foothold, the rise of Islam within a decade of the death of Muhammad in 632 strongly influenced European culture, forcing its influence up from the South.
Though these two religions stemmed from the same fundamental teachings of Judaism, they constantly clashed for territory throughout the early Middle Ages, which resulted in many wars including the Crusades. Despite these clashes, the Islamic faith became well rooted in the Middle East, North Africa, and most of Southern Spain and Portugal, while the Christians held most of Europe even as they fought with the Nordic cultures of Scandinavia.
It is the goal of this lesson to:
- Provide a contextual understanding of the early Medieval Europe and Western Asia including the beginnings of Christian and Islamic religions.
- Introduce a formal understanding of the various styles, media, and methods of artistic and architectural production.
- Foster understanding of various art historical themes present within these cultures.
The earliest Christian artifacts can be found in hidden centers of worship starting in around 192 CE. The artifacts are shaped by both Jewish and early Christian imagery found in Synagogues and catacombs. Because Christianity formed under the rule of the Roman Empire, many images and symbols were adopted from the Roman tradition, intertwining the two cultures. There were various differences between their traditions, such as the use of codex manuscripts for the Christian Bible and the burial of the dead as opposed to cremation. We find funerary murals, mosaics, and sculpture in catacombs, and Biblical stories often decorated walls within places of worship to aid in storytelling to an extremely illiterate population.
By 306 CE, the construction of the first churches in Rome, including the original St. Peter's Basilica, were undertaken following the Edict of Milan (which ended the persecution of early Christians). These early churches took the form of basilicas, which provided large congregation spaces that met the need of the growing flock. Temples had acted as houses for gods in the past closed to the public, but in the Christian faith, they welcomed anyone into the house of their one God to worship within his presence. Soon after the dedication of many churches in Rome, the capital of the western Roman Empire moved to Ravenna, in northern Italy. Here we find many early Christian artifacts and the tendency toward mosaic as an art form. For more on the history of early Christian culture, please review the following sources:
- Europe from 1 CE to 500 CE: Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History overview of the key events and artworks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection of the Early Christian world.
- Fordham University's Sourcebook on Early Christian Culture
- Smarthistory introduction to Christianity and Introduction to Early Christianity
It is important to understand the narratives of Christianity in order to fully understand the imagery found within artworks from this time period and beyond. The Christian faith has been a leading influence in artistic production from this period to today, and thus it becomes important to not only study artistic styles, but also understand the stories that are being described and how they relate to the context of their production. This connection is not unlike other cultures that we have already reviewed.
Islam is a religion that stems from the teachings of Muhammad (c. 570-632 CE), who was revered by Muslims as the Final Prophet in the line from Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. His tenants were outlined in the sacred book of Islam, the Koran. The religion spread quickly despite its decentralized power structure, and it broke down barriers between the devoted and God through direct worship and literacy. Within two hundred years, the religion had spread across northern Africa, into Spain, and northward through Turkey, and it eventually spread throughout the Byzantine empire under the influence of the Ottomans.
Islam is currently the second largest religion in the world, and it is important to understand some of the basics of the religion if one is to understand the artistic artifacts from this culture. Please refer to the following sources for more information on the beginnings of Islam:
- Fordham University's Sourcebook on Islamic culture and history
- Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: "The Birth of Islam"
- Khan Academy: Introduction to Islam
- The five pillars of Islam and the Kaaba: From Smarthistory.org
- ^Invalid YouTube URL provided
In this section, we will discuss more of the specific stylistic elements found in the artifacts from the various periods of the early Christian and Islamic civilizations.
Much of early Christian imagery is an amalgam of Roman stylistic traditions and religious narrative. As many early images were produced while Christians were still being persecuted by Romans, symbols and traditions were often adapted from Roman images and traditions. Also, the common image of Christ was that of shepherd, a welcoming image that demonstrates his support of his flock. This was important as the early religion was a welcoming alternative to the pagan cults common during the time. The image changes over the years as demonstrated in the following article by Allen Farber, "Santa Pudenziana, Rome." Also, as the majority of the population was illiterate, the religion required a priest and images to teach the stories of the Bible and to hold Mass to educate the growing Christian population.
Early Christian artifacts include murals in both fresco and mosaic, illuminated manuscripts, sculpture, and the architecture of early churches and other religious structures. Please refer to the below artifacts for some examples of early Christian artifacts:
- Standard Scenes from the life of Christ: A description of some of the basic narratives found depicting scenes of the life of Christ by Smarthistory.
- Early Christian Art and Early Christian art and architecture after Constantine: From Smarthistory
- Ravenna: UNESCO's listing for the Early Christian monuments at Ravenna.
- Santa Maria Antiqua sarcophagus: From Smarthistory.org
- Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus: From Smarthistory.org
- Santa Sabina: From Smarthistory.org
- Santa Maria Maggiore: From Smarthistory.org
- The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia: From Smarthistory.org
Islamic artifacts often demonstrate the tenants of Islam and take the commandments to heart, especially, "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image." As such, most Islamic design consists of calligraphy and what has become labelled as "Arabesque" design, often covering every inch of available surface. The grand architectural monuments, often mosques (the place of worship for worshippers of Islam) demonstrate the communal nature of this religion as these meeting halls make the connections clear between the individual and their prayers to God. These mosques often demonstrate intricate domed structures and towering minarets used to call worshippers to prayer. For more information on specific artistic traditions from early through later periods, please refer to the following links:
- Introduction to the Arts of the Islamic World: By Smarthistory.org. Please refer to the introductions and read through the different artifacts and periods described in the menu to the left. Look to the menu to the right for further reading.
- "Calligraphy in Islamic Art": From the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
- "The Nature of Islamic Art": From the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
- "Figural Representation in Islamic Art": From the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
- Dome of the Rock:Smarthistory.org and UNESCO
- The Great Mosque at Cordoba, Spain:Smarthistory.org and UNESCO Listing
- Ancient City of Damascus: UNESCO Listing
- The Friday Mosque, Isfahan, Iran: UNESCO Listing
- Selimiye Mosque and Social Complex: UNESCO Listing
- Sinan the Great: A website dedicated to the architect Sinan of the Ottoman Empire.