1.2.1 Early Christian and Anglo Saxon Art

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Roman catacombs’ artworks
Sarcophagus Santa Maria Antiqua
Sarcophagus Junius Bassus
Brescia ivory casket
Gold glass plate
Christ and the Apostles mosaic
Santa Sabina crucifixion
Ravenna mosaic – Good Shepherd
Ravenna mosaic Christ treading
Ravenna mosaic – Dome
Heuresis and Dioscurides
ANGLO-SAXON (300-1066):
Migration Period
Pietroasele Treasure
Sutton Hoo shoulder-clasps
Sutton Hoo-purse lid
Anglo Saxon
Gold sword Hilt
Lindisfarne Gospels
Franks Casket
Stockholm Codex Aureus
Bewcastle Cross
Ardagh Hoard and Chalice
Book of Kells
Fuller Brooch
Walrus ivory cross reliquary
Bayeux Tapestry


Before 100 CE, Christians were persecuted and so any durable art was perhaps too revealing, too incriminating, therefore the earliest extant examples of early Christian artworks are from underground Roman catacombs, or those safely applied to tombs after death. It was a religion of the under classes and so patronage of their art was less likely. As a result early Christian art is from the middle of the second century onwards. After 550 CE the art is usually classified as a regional style, as for example Byzantine.

This surviving early Christian art adopted the same artistic media as the surrounding culture, including fresco, mosaic, sculpture, and manuscript illumination. Inevitably early Christian art used Roman forms and styles.


The Roman catacombs proved to be a rich source of early Christian art.

Christians did not agree with the pagan custom of burning the bodies of their dead. These subterranean passageways were therefore used as their place of burial between the 2nd and 5th centuries. The facility was also used by Jews and pagans.

The first image here comes from the Catacomb of Marcus and Marcellianus, and depicts the Magi meeting Mary and Christ.

The second is from the Catcomb of Priscilla, dated to 225, its subject is the Good Shepherd.

The third is from the Marcellinus Peter Catacomb and shows Jesus healing a bleeding woman.

The last illustrates that these were not just New Testament themed, this fresco shows Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego placed in a fiery furnace.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: khanacademy.org

Found beneath Santa Maria Antiqua in Rome was this sarcophagus dating from 275. It was intended for an affluent Christian, though some of the images are unashamdely borrowed from pagan art.
Wealthy Romans would also have sarcophagi or marble tombs carved for their burial. The Christian converts wanted the same things. Junius Bassus, a Roman praefectus urbi or high ranking government administrator, died in 359 C.E. Scholars believe that he converted to Christianity shortly before his death accounting for the inclusion of Christ and scenes from the Bible. This plaster cast of the original is similar to the Santa Maria Antiqua sarcophagus from 80 years earlier.
Image source: khanacademy.org

Image source: Wikimedia commons

This 4th c ivory box is called the Brescia Casket. The lower image shows how it was previously displayed in an ‘exploded’ two-dimensional manner. It has thirty-six imges that reflect Christian Art of that period. For example the lid is Christ’s arrest and trial. Again, the images are a mix of Old and New Testament.
It is on show at the Museo di Santa Giulia at San Salvatore in Brescia, Italy. Its date and provenance is however unknown.
This gold glass plate was found in the catacombs and dates to the 4th c. It has a Christian theme with (left to right) St Peter, Virgin Mary in orant pose and St Paul. It is on display at the Landesmuseum Württemberg, Germany.
Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons

The 4th c basilica of Santa Pudenziana in Rome, is dedicated to the sister of St Praxedes and daughter of St Pudens. The image shows an apse mosaic that depicts Christ enthroned among the Apostles. It is considered to have been commissioned in either the pontificate of Pope Siricius (384–399) or of Pope Innocent I (401–417).
Santa Sabina (Rome), 422-432, was originally a Roman administration building, and later became a church. This was to mark Sabina who had been stoned to death for converting to Christianity. The image shows one panel of a wooden door that bears Biblical scenes. The one featured is credited with being possibly the first ever Crucifixion scene. In general images of the Crucifixion did not appear in churches until the tenth century.
Image source: sites.google.com

Image source: uuworld.org

This fifth-century mosaic in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy, shows Jesus as the Good Shepherd
Christ treading on the beasts is found as a Late Antique and Early Medieval subject, though was never common. In this 6th c mosaic at the Chapel of St Andres, aka the Archbishop’s Chapel in Ravenna, he treads on a lion and an asp.
Here he is holding a cross-staff which may have a spear-head at the end of its shaft, or a staff or spear with a cross-motif on a pennon.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: christianiconography.info

The Apse Mosaic at Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna. This 6th c mosaic depicts St. Apollinaris, dressed in Mass vestments – a white alb and gold chasuble. The white band on his shoulders, a pallium, reveal his status as a ‘metropolitan’ or archbishop with authority over a number of dioceses.
This framed portrait is one of a series at the front of a 512 CE manuscript of De materia medica. It was a presentation copy for Juliana Anicia, daughter of emperor Flavius Anicius Olybrius, by the citizens of the city of Honoratiae in gratitude for her donation of a church in their town.
The original manuscript was written by Dioscurides of Anazarbos and lists the medicinal properties of hundreds of plants. It later became a Byzantine standard. This portrait shows Heuresis, the personification of discovery, holding a mandrake for Dioscurides, while she gestures toward a wounded dog, the animal that extracted the plant.

Image source: thebyzantinelegacy.com

Image source: www.louvre.fr
This 8th c icon is painted on wood and comes from the monastery of Bawit in Middle Egypt. It shows Abbot Mena, the superior at that time, and Christ, Christ has a cross in his halo and the Abbot holds a manuscript surmised as the rules of his monastery. It is on show at the Louvre and is considered the very first Coptic icon.

ANGLO SAXON 300-1066:

Anglo-Saxon covers two distinct strands, the Migration Period and Anglo-Saxon post-migration.

The Migration Period (300-900) was as the continental Germanic tribes moved into the British Isles, their art included both a polychromatic style and an animal style.

The polychromatic style can be seen in Visigoth and Merovingian art. Animal style had a distinctive early style 1 (400-900) and style 2 (after c 550).

The post-migration had two high artistic achievement periods, first in the 7th and 8th centuries with metalwork and jewellery (Sutton Hoo) and a series of magnificent illuminated manuscripts. The second period (c950) was part of a revival of English culture after the Viking invasions had ended.


In the mid-nineteenth century, at Pietroasele, Romania, they discovered a late fourth-century hoard of treasure. It consisted of twenty-two gold objects, among these were the most famous examples of the polychrome style of Migration Period art. The image here is of an eagle-shaped fibula or brooch. It is being conserved at the National Museum of Romanian History.
Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Migration Period shoulder-clasps, 7th c, found at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk UK. Excavations in one cemetery uncovered an undisturbed ship burial containing a wealth of Anglo-Saxon artefacts. It is close to the River Deben estuary. It summons up comparisons with the Old English poem, Beowulf. It is believed, however, that Rædwald of East Anglia is the most likely person involved here. The items are at the British Museum.
This Migration Period purse lid comes from Sutton Hoo, it uses the Animal 2 style. It is dated to the 7th c and on show at the Brisith Museum
Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons

The 2009 Staffordshire Hoard is the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork yet found. It revealed 3,500 items, 5.1 kg (11 lb) of gold, 1.4 kg of silver.
The image shows a gold sword hilt fitting with cloisonné garnet inlay. It is shown here uncleaned by conservators, still having traces of soil.
The Lindisfarne Gospels is an illuminated manuscript gospel book from the monastery at Lindisfarne, Northumberland and dated to 715-720.

The manuscript is one of the finest works in the unique style of Hiberno-Saxon or Insular art, combining Mediterranean, Anglo-Saxon and Celtic elements. It is believed to be the work of a monk named Eadfrith, who was Bishop of Lindisfarne from 698, died in 721.

Shown is the folio at the start of the gospel of Matthew. It uses the chi-rho symbol, one of the earliest forms of christogram using the first two letters of the of the Greek word ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ (Christos), chi (X) and rho (Ρ). The vertical stroke of the rho cuts the centre of the chi as in the second image.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons

This early 8th c small Anglo-Saxon casket (23 x 19 x 11cm) is made from whalebone. It is inscribed with runes and a range of scenes. Believed to be from Northumberland, it is of unique importance for the insight to scholars, it helps in identifying the images and interpreting the runic inscriptions. Its one Christian image is the Adoration of the Magi, but it also includes Roman myths and individuals, a German folk legend, a Homeric legend and the founding of England by Hengist and Horsa; legendary brothers who led the Angles, Saxons and Jutes to invade Britain.
This Codex Aureus of Canterbury is a mid-8th c Gospel book produced at Southumbria, probably in Canterbury. Its decoration has both Insular and Italian elements. Southumbria produced a number of important illuminated manuscripts. During the eighth and early ninth centuries, Southumbria produced this Codex Aureus, the Vespasian Psalter, three Mercian prayer books. the Tiberius Bede and the British Library’s Royal Bible.
Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons

The 7th c Bewcastle Cross is an Anglo-Saxon cross, still standing in the churchyard of St Cuthbert’s church at Bewcastle, Cumbria. It bears reliefs and inscriptions in the runic alphabet, though the head of the cross is missing. The crosses of Bewcastle and Ruthwell are hailed as ‘the greatest achievement of their [Anglo Saxon] date in the whole of Europe’.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

The Ardagh Hoard is a store of metalwork from the 8th and 9th centuries. Probably deposited around 900 CE, it was found in 1868 by two local boys digging in a potato field. It is now on display in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. The hoard consists of a chalice (pictured), a plainer stemmed cup in copper-alloy, and four brooches, that appear to have been worn by monastic clergy to fasten vestments. The chalice ranks with the Book of Kells (below) as one of the finest known works of Insular art, indeed of Celtic art in general.
The Book of Kells, aka Book of Columba, is an illuminated manuscript Gospel book in Latin. It has the four Gospels of the New Testament and was produced in c800. It was created in a Columban monastery in England, or Ireland or Scotland, or a mix of them all.
This folio and its highly decorated material introduces the Gospel of John.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons

This Anglo Saxon brooch is known as the Fuller Brooch. Fabricated in silver and niello it dates to the late 9th century. Its depiction of the Five Senses, makes it one of the most highly regarded pieces of Anglo-Saxon art. It is on show at the British Museum,
This 11th c walrus ivory cross was used as a reliquary or fereter. It is on show at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.
Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons
The term Opus anglicanum, implies that Anglo-Saxons were skilled in embroidery and tapestry. But there are only a few extant examples. Of course, at the end of this period, the 68m long Bayeux Tapestry is renowned. This image shows Bishop Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux, rallying Duke William’s troops during the Battle of Hastings.

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