Early on, Christians began to develop distinctive works of art for worship, tombs, and other practices. They necessarily drew on the grammar and conventions of the art of the surrounding culture but also reassessed these in the light of the Gospel. Similarly, they grappled with question with how the invisible God should be represented in art. We continue to grapple with similar questions. What is Christian art for? What place should it have in our worship, prayer, catechesis, societies, and homes? What canons should it follow? The answers that the early Christians gave in their art may still be instructive for us today.

To introduce us to the field. Prof. Robin M. Jensen will take us through her pick of five books on early Christian art.

Robin Jensen is the Patrick O’Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, a Fellow of the Medieval Institute and the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, and a concurrent faculty member in the Department of Art, Art History, and Design. She specializes in the history of Christian and Jewish art and architecture, primarily from the third through ninth centuries. She is past president of the North American Patristics Society and the Society for the Arts in Religious and Theological education. She is the author of The Cross: History, Art, and Controversy (2017), Understanding Early Christian Art (2000, 2nd edition 2023); The Substance of Things Seen: Art, Faith, and the Christian Community (2004); Face to Face: The Portrait of the Divine in Early Christianity (2005); Living Water: The Art and Architecture of Early Christian Baptism (2011); Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity (2012); and From Idols to Icons: The Emergence of Christian Devotional Images in Late Antiquity (2022). She was co-author of Christianity in Roman Africa (with J. Patout Burns; 2014) and co-editor of The Art of Empire: Christian Art in its Imperial Contexts (2015). She serves as co-editor of the Routledge Companion to Early Christian Art and The Cambridge Handbook of Late Antique Archaeology (both forthcoming).

  1. Understanding Early Christian Art
    by Robin M. Jensen
  2. The Clash of Gods: A Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art
    by Thomas F. Mathews
  3. The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians on Art
    by Paul Corby Finney
  4. Likeness and Presence: A History of Art before the Era of Art
    by Hans Belting, trans. E. Jephcott
  5. The Dawn of Christian Art: In Panel Paintings and Icons
    by Thomas F. Matthews and Norman E. Muller
    ...and a bonus recommendation...
  6. Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph: The Art of the Roman Empire AD 100-450
    by Jaś Elsner
Five Books for Catholics may receive a commission from qualifyng purchases made using the affliate links in this post.

When does the period of early Christian art end? What are the main phases of the early Christian art’s development?
This is an interesting problem. What do we mean by early? Most scholars accept that there is not anything we could identify as Christian art until about the beginning of the third century. That is an issue unto itself. Mainly, we think of Christian late antiquity and early Christian art as being contemporaneous. So, when I use that language, I mean anything from around 200 to the middle of the sixth century or the beginning of the seventh.

You could push it a bit later. I think of that as early Byzantine or early medieval and I am not ready to take on the iconoclastic controversy as such.

So, early Christian art belongs to the period before the iconoclastic controversy and the Second Council of Nicaea. Others might choose a different timeline, but this is the one I use.

The stages are interesting. Most of what we have from the earliest period comes from the Rome area.

We have a few examples from the East and the Western part of the Roman Empire, but our early Christian material is concentrated in Rome and its environs. There are catacomb paintings. There are the carvings on early Christian monumental sarcophagi or burial boxes (made out of marble but sometimes limestone). That is a wonderful collection that we have in Rome and some other places, such as Naples and Arles,

The earliest iconography—I say iconography rather than art—starts with simple symbols: the simplest forms of birds, praying figures, shepherds, and sheep.

However, early on, what distinguishes Christian art and makes it more identifiable are its unique biblical scenes.

These are some of the earliest images we have. They come predominantly from the Hebrew Scriptures, the Christian Old Testament.

These are not generic Roman images, but specifically Christian ones. We have images of Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Isaac, Daniel in the lion’s den, Moses striking the rock (depictions of Moses receiving the law come a little later), the three young men in the furnace, Susanna.

Fairly early on, we have some of the earliest New Testament images: the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist; Jesus raising Lazarus; Jesus changing the water to wine; or the multiplication of loaves and fish.

Biblical narrative art is the major early stage. It is narrative iconography.

With the legalization of Christianity and the passage into the Christian era under Emperor Constantine, everything changes a little.

We start to see more New Testament images from the beginning of the fourth century.

Among the earliest ones is the adoration of the Magi. This may even precede the time of Constantine.

Then there are many images of Jesus entering Jerusalem; the arrest and murder of Peter and Paul.

By the middle of the fourth century, there are images of Jesus giving the law to Peter and Paul. This is sometimes called the traditio legis or Dominus legem dat.

What we do not see clearly is the crucifixion. There are some references to the Passion story. Sometimes we see Jesus before Pilate or Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross, but, with some rare exceptions, we do not have an image of the crucifixion before the fifth century.

This is surprising for people who think of the crucifixion as the predominant Christian icon, especially for Western Catholics.

What happens at the end of the fourth century? I discuss this in my last book.

There is a transition away from symbolic images. The Good Shepherd and such like gradually disappear. Biblical images begin to recede in prominence and there is a development of what I call portrait images. There are ever more images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints without any narrative context.

By the end of the fourth century and throughout the fifth, there are representations of Christ or the Virgin Mary with the saints in the big decorations of the major basilicas that are being built.

Sometimes, you still see cycles of biblical narrative on the side walls of churches.

It is an interesting transition. Up to then, we did not have a portrait of the saint. This is what I call the emergence of an icon. That is a little controversial. Not all my colleagues in art history agree with that terminology. 

"Early on, what distinguishes Christian art and makes it more identifiable are its unique biblical scenes"

You have written The Cross: History, Art, and Controversy? Why did the picture of the cross emerge so late in early Christian art? 
I do not have a perfect answer.

Sometimes people would say that the cross and the crucifixion are not as important to early Christians as it is to later Christians.

I disagree. The cross is very prevalent in the writings and prayers of early Christians. You cannot avoid it in Scripture or the epistles of Paul.

In the Christian apologists—for example, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, or Minucius Felix—there are many references to images of the cross that are not the cross itself. They say that you see the cross everywhere in the world. You see it in a ship's mast. You see it in the farmer’s plough. You might see it in the trophy that the soldier has set up in the field. You see it everywhere, without seeing the cross as such.

That is interesting. You have crypto-crosses or allusions to the cross. We do not have the cross in art as such until a few simple ones appear in third-century catacombs. However, an image of the crucifixion is really late. I do not know why. It was not that the cross was not central to Christian imagination or faith. Maybe it had to do with the idea that there was no precedent for this image and that the cross was too holy to depict.

It is not surprising for me that we finally see it around the same time as the development of pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Constantine has found the site of the empty tomb of Christ and established the Holy Sepulcher there. By the end of the fourth century, the veneration of relics of the cross has taken off. That may have stimulated the iconography of the crucifixion. However, I still do not have a good answer for why there were no depictions of it earlier. I wish that I did.

Did portraits of Christ and the saints emerge with the building of churches after the legalization of Christianity? These images of Christ, Mary, and the saints are centered on their eschatological presence in the liturgy. 
That is right.

One of the things that may have inhibited the painting of portrait images earlier is that there was a big discussion over whether Christians be in favour of iconic images and against pictorial ones.

Some still argue that—and I still see this in history books, mainly ones written by Protestants—that the early Christians were reticent about any pictorial art because the second commandment prohibits graven images. I do not accept that argument because Christians made images from the third century on and there was no prohibition of Christian narrative images.

What Christians avoided was anything like a pagan cult’s images of a god. They were probably reticent about any three-dimensional statues (in some places they still are) because it could look a bit like a pagan cult’s statue and about anything that would prompt direct prayer to the image itself. A narrative image, such as that of Abraham offering Isaac for sacrifice, or Noah and his ark, are not as likely to prompt prayer. These are didactic, edifying images.

The portrait, on the other hand, emerges around the end of the fourth century, when pagan cultic practices have either gone, are on the way out, or are no longer a threat to Christians. So, they start to develop an idea that you could focus on an image as a way to offer prayer to the one it depicts. For me, this is clearly happening at the end of the fourth century and into the fifth.

This change of practices has a lot to do with the liturgy and devotional practices of the time. It may have may emerged and developed because Christians are no longer worried about falling into what I would mistakenly venerating the wrong kind or thing wrong image of God. 

Is this the subject you cover in your last book, From Idols to Icons
Yes, that is exactly right. 

What led you to become a scholar of early Christian art?
That is a good question.

I started as an undergraduate, as an art student. I was a studio art student and then I taught art for a while in the US. Then, I went to seminary and then back to art school.

So, I have been integrating the practice of art and theological education in my own theology for a long time.

In my doctoral studies, the history of Christianity fascinated me and, of course, I am a historian. I was looking for ways of integrating both the visual arts that I had studied and practiced so much with my interest in the history of Christianity. However, I realized that there were not many people were working on this integration and looking at what we can learn about the history of Christianity, not just from the surviving texts, but also from the material evidence: the architecture, images, and iconography. This is a way of enriching the study of the history of Christianity and filling it out. If we ignore that material culture, we lose a lot. Without it, we do not have any access to the ways that ordinary people would have encountered, experienced, and practiced their religious faith. 

What has been the focus of your research?
Most of my research has been a study of early Christian art, mostly that of the West.

I have also very been very interested in architecture. My first works were on the development and design of baptisteries—these baptismal fonts and chambers— in early Christianity.

I research the ways in which we can know more about the life, faith, and practice of early Christianity through the environments in which this took place and the decoration of those settings.

I try to make it a complete study. Though I am not an archaeologist, I study archaeology and the works of archaeologists as well. Moreover, I have just finished teaching a class on the history of Christian architecture.

So, I keep pulling all these things together and hope that I open up some new ways of thinking about the history of our faith. 

"Liturgy is the way most people shape and express their faith."

Historical scholarship has its own value, but can the study of Christian art help the average Christian enrich their prayer and worship?
One of the things that I love to do with Christians is help them see how the environments in which they worship shape the ways they think about who Christ is, who the Virgin Mary is, and who God is.

As we know, liturgy is the way most people shape and express their faith.

Most Christians do not start with a three-year, formal study of theology. What we experience first and foremost in our Christian lives is the liturgy, and that liturgy takes place in spaces that are decorated.

A scholar at Duke University, Mark Chaves, rightly said that the way most people encounter art is at church: in its music, artwork, literacy, gestures, and movements. These are forms in which we experience our faith and learn about it.

So, I like to help people to see how the space in which they worship enriches their worship. I want them to be more conscious of that and to pay attention to it. What is that crucifix telling us? What kind of crucifix am I growing up with or looking at? What is on the windows and walls? What is the shape of my space? How does that change my encounter with the people of God and what we are doing during that time?

It would like people to become more attentive to this because we are all impacted by the places in which we worship, maybe less consciously than we could be. Guidance and training can help people see and understand works of art in ways that they might not have done otherwise.

Sometimes I like to say that my students are extremely literate about music, popular music at least. They are listening to music all the time. However, they do not realise that they are also seeing images all the time and are not quite as literate about them. They are not as visually educated as they could be. I like to help people to know more about what they are looking at and see better. 

"Artists have the freedom to express something. They are not trying to tell you that his is what something really is. They are trying to help you to understand it better."

Much of the literature written by early Christians has not survived and a good deal was heterodox. Think of some of the apocryphal gospels or Gnostic writings. Is the same true of early Christian art? Is some of it a bit dodgy, doctrinally speaking?
I do not think so but it is interesting.

We do not have a lot of Gnostic art, possibly because they were gnostics. They were against material, corporeal things.

One of the things that I like to help people see is that art is theological. It does theology, and sometimes that theology can be dodgy.

For example, early on there are images of the Holy Trinity creating Adam and Eve. The Trinity is depicted as three anthropomorphic figures: three men. One of them is seated on the throne, and two of them are standing. That could be dodgy. Can we make an image of God? God is invisible and incorporeal. However, the artist needs to depict something.

One could argue with that, but there is a freedom in art. Artists are never trying to be literal. Maybe we misunderstand that.  Often, I am asked about how we should depict Jesus. Why do we depict him as a Caucasian man rather than a Palestinian? However, artists have the freedom to express something. They are not trying to tell you that his is what something really is. They are trying to help you to understand it better.

The Virgin Mary, therefore, can be depicted sitting in a Dutch dining room wearing a velvet dress. We know that she did not. However, the artist is trying to say something about her beauty and who she was. An artist is not mistaken in doing so.

Sometimes, art can be doctrinally dodgy. Here is an example I sometimes use.

One church in Ravenna has contrasting images on each side.

On one side of the church, there is a cycle of small mosaics that show Jesus during his earthly life, working miracles, teaching, healing people, and calling his disciples. He is youthful and does not have a beard.

The mosaics on the other side of the church start with the Last Supper and go all the way through the Garden of Gethsemani, the arrest of Jesus, his trial before Herod and Pilate, the empty tomb, and his post-Resurrection appearances. Here, he has a beard.

Why are these two cycles so different? Some say that they were produced by different workshops. My answer is that there is a theology to this, maybe a heterodox one. On the side where Jesus is beardless, the artist might be saying that Jesus has not yet come into his glory. During the Passion, suddenly he grows a beard. Maybe the artist, the commissioner, or the person in charge of determining this cycle is saying this is the moment in which Jesus changes. This could be an Arian or heterodox Christology. It is not a Johannine Christology. It is not saying that Jesus was divine from the outset but becomes so gradually or suddenly.

So, there can be moments where we can look at art and say that there is something wrong with it. It is not showing an orthodoxy Christology or Trinitarian theology. This can happen, but artists are not always trying to be dogmatic in that same way. 


The first book is the forthcoming second edition of your Understanding Early Christian Art. If I have understood correctly, you aim in this book to show that early Christian artists were reflecting on the substance of the Gospel in much the same way as the Church Fathers were in their writings. Early Christian art and patristic writings are on an equal footing and we need to study both together. Like the latter, early Christian art—in its exegetical, symbolic, liturgical, and iconic functions—communicates theological ideas and meditates upon them. Is that an accurate description of your book?
That is a good description. I appreciate that. 

What are the main ideas you were trying to get across?
That was the first book I wrote. I wrote it twenty-five years ago. I started it when I was finishing graduate school, and completed it when I was just out of graduate school. It was a very audacious thing to do at that stage of my life.

Over the years, the press has come back to me and asked if I could write a second edition. I have always known that I should.

Twenty-five years on, there are many things I think about differently now. I have learned a lot from my colleagues and the huge amount of literature that has been written since. I have e been able to incorporate those a little bit into this new book, along with some more ideas I have, and some more argumentative passages.

It is probably less of a primer and more of an overall argument.

There is one way in which I may sometimes get into some hot water with my colleagues, who are art historians. I believe that we need to study the texts and the art together. This is not to say that we should subject the art to the text and interpret it through the text. Both are witnesses to one another. To better understand the art you really do need to attend to the writings of the Early Church. Obviously, we do not have them all but maybe only a tenth of them. But they are a window into how one could interpret these stories and we see them. juxtaposed in such a way in Early Christian art that often tracks closely with what the early Church Fathers are writing about, especially in their biblical commentaries, sermons, and catechetical lessons. The one illuminates the other for me, and I could never work without both.


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