Thursday, March 10, 2011

Late Antiquity: The Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus ( early christian art)

Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus c.359 CE Rome, Italy

Towards the end of the third century a new form of art started to emerge from the secretive places early Christians in Rome would gather to practice their so forbidden religion. In a time when Rome’s main religion involved polytheism and paganism early Christians were persecuted and exterminated, it is perhaps why much of the early Christians’ art has been found in tombs and catacombs. Under the control of Constantine, Christianity was legalized and the early Christians were allowed to build their own places of worship which many of them were build on tomb of existing catacombs as a way to express their sympathy and reverence for the early Christians who had been martyrs and had given up their lives for their religion. By the late 4th century, Christianity had become the main religion under the reign of Theodosius the great. Though Christian art borrowed some aspects of the art that had previously been created by the Greeks and Romans, it didnt not share the same emphasis on movement, realism and accuracy, rather it focused more in the context and the meaning behind the representation of the sculpture, relief or mosaic, which were among the preferred art mediums of early Christian art. Another significant thing to point out is that early Christian art doesn’t focus much on portraying Christ but on portraying histories from the Old Testament that somehow related to the life of Christ, an example of this can be seen on the “Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus” the idea of relief on sarcophagus wasn’t unique to the early Christians, it was a practiced used by Romans  but the Christians also embraced it. On this sarcophagus we can see several biblical stories portrayed, on the bottom left side of the sarcophagus we can see a relief of Adam and Eve, on right bottom side we also see Daniel in the den of lions. Early Christians considered important for them to create relief based on biblical stories because they served as a medium to educate others about these stories and also as a way for them to show reverence and respect to Christ. Truth is that in the book of Exodus, the worshiping of graven images is forbidden but these reliefs weren’t seen as idols but as mean of expression to early Christians. Iconography was also another big aspect of early Christian art, iconography involved the used of symbols to represent Christ and his divinity, among the most popular symbols that were used to represent Christ was the fish, the peacock and the shepherd, very often is Christ portrayed as a shepherd, the good shepherd who has come to save his people and will take care of them. Perhaps, and I don’t know this for a fact, maybe early use of iconography was probably a way to be able to represent their savior in a time in Rome when their religion was not tolerated.