This article was originally published in August 2012. It has been updated.—Ed.
Living in the Greco-Roman world, early Christians were able to draw from a set of rich artistic paradigms when they set out to depict their stories and beliefs in decorative contexts. This often led to the assimilation of well-established pagan artistic styles and images into early Christian art. The sculptors, fresco painters and mosaic artists who created Christian images did so by using the prolific examples of art and decoration that shaped their artistic landscape.
The earliest known Christian art can be found in the catacombs of Rome. This nascent and largely populist religion was viewed with varying degrees of hostility by the Roman authorities in the first few centuries after Jesus’ death, ranging from disdainful tolerance to outright persecution. Not surprisingly, early Christians were discreet in their worship, and their art was executed quite literally underground. With the issuance of Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan, which effectively legalized Christianity, Christian art became much more overt and widespread.And yet, although the dogma and belief systems were in many ways markedly different from pagan religion, many of the images early Christians generated were quite similar to those that adorned the walls and floors of buildings belonging to their pagan neighbors. Thus the pagan image of Endymion sleeping under the watchful eye of the goddess Selene became the prototype of Jonah asleep beneath the vine (Jonah 4). Likewise, the scenes of jovial dinners (symposia) that were often depicted in Greek funerary contexts (and later in Roman ones, with a slightly less exuberant tone) became models for the Christian funerary images of the rewards of heaven.*
This is not so strange; as emerging underdogs in a nation with a long and well-established artistic tradition, those same artisans and craftsman who were now creating art in a Christian context naturally turned to images and styles that were familiar to them. Thus the early images of Christ portray a young, beardless man who bears a strong resemblance to the god Apollo of the Greco-Roman world. This is not to say that Christians necessarily confused the two, but rather that they chose an image of a pre-established deity with noble associations to portray their own idea of the sacred.
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Helios, the Greek god of the sun (who was later often identified with Apollo, the god of light), is another ancient pagan figure whose image reverberated through monotheistic art; both Christians and Jews used the image of the Greek god of the sun in religious contexts. The Greek deity was most commonly depicted in a chariot drawn by four horses (the quadriga). The chariot represented the sun, and according to Greek mythology, the daily journey taken by the god across the sky was the source of sunlight. In a Christian funerary context, the image of Christ as Helios is commonly interpreted as being representative of the resurrection. In early Jewish depictions, it has been hypothesized that the image of Helios, or simply the sun as in the case of the mosaic at Sepphoris, represents God’s omnipotence.** In the context of ancient Jewish synagogues in Israel, the image of Helios is set within the context of zodiac symbols. For some, this reinforces the thesis that the early Jews saw Israel as being subject to planetary influence, and that early Judaism may have been characterized by a belief in minor deities in addition to Yahweh.***
The mythological figure of Orpheus, who enchanted all of nature with his poetry and music, is another example of a pagan artistic type that was used in both early Christian as well as Jewish iconography. For the early Jews, the association of music and poetry with Orpheus likely led to the same image being used to represent King David, who famously sang his praises to God. Indeed, instances of David depicted with Orpheus imagery are well and firmly documented.†
Equally well documented are images of Christ as Orpheus, particularly in the catacombs of Rome. One of the most famous aspects of the Orpheus myth from antiquity is the story of Orpheus’s determined descent into Hades to rescue his love Eurydice, who had been snatched from him by an untimely death. While he was ultimately not successful in recovering Eurydice, he himself emerged from the underworld alive. This particular aspect of the myth resonated with early Christians, who saw this as an allegorical reference to Christ’s descent into and return from the fiery depths of hell. Orpheus thus became a symbol of victory over death, and a symbol of eternal life.
Of course, the image of Orpheus with the accompanying cadre of beautiful plants and exquisitely detailed animals, both real and imagined, made for a beautiful ornamental design in any context. Sometimes, even during the Christian period, a decorative image of Orpheus was simply that: an image of Orpheus.‡ In the case of the famous sixth-century A.D. Jerusalem mosaic (now in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum), which depicts an exquisitely detailed image of Orpheus that was originally interpreted as a representation of Christ, it is likely that the figure is simply an artistic panel that recalls a quaint and harmless story from an older time.
Check out “Double Identity: Orpheus as David. Orpheus as Christ?” in the March/April 2009 issue of BAR for more information about pagan imagery.
An even more common motif featured in early Christian art that draws directly from pagan funerary art is that of the Good Shepherd. Commonly represented as a young, beardless man holding a sheep across his shoulders, we see this representation in pagan funerary contexts long before the advent of Christianity. Initially, this image seems to have an association with the pagan god Hermes, who was the patron deity of shepherds and who would accompany the souls of the deceased into Hades. Eventually, however, the image seems to have developed into a symbol of care and comfort in the afterlife. In antiquity, this widely disseminated image was an ideal candidate for artistic syncretism. The Gospels’ story of Christ as the Good Shepherd (John 10:1–9) and similar parables that make allegorical reference to the image of a benevolent and protective shepherd (Luke 15:3–7; Matthew 18:12–13) was an excellent fit for an image that was already known, used and associated with divine protectiveness. The use by the Christians of pagan sacred imagery is not necessarily confined solely to the Greco-Roman world. The cultural and religious syncretism that took place in Greek and Roman society with other, even older civilizations meant that many early Christians had a wealth of artistic examples that may have originated outside of their immediate cultural landscape. One example is an Egyptian artistic motif: Scholars have long hypothesized that the image of Mary nursing or holding the Christ child close to her breast is an iconographic image borrowed from the ancient Egyptian motif of the goddess Isis nursing the infant Horus.
The custom of borrowing images from the pagan world to represent the sacred ideal did not die out in antiquity. Renaissance art by very definition looked back toward the watershed achievements of ancient artists and recreated them in a Christian context. Pagan figures such as Orpheus, Apollo and Hercules were often firmly placed within a Christian context by the Renaissance period. One of the most notable examples is Michelangelo’s use of the noble face of the Apollo Belvedere as the face of Christ in the Last Judgment. Already in the Vatican collection at the time Michelangelo was painting his masterpiece, the artist likely had constant access to the statue that was one of the sources of his inspiration.
While Christian art certainly evolved, changed and developed countless works of art that demonstrate unique styles and images, artists did not shy away from creating new meaning from established artistic models. Indeed, many believe that this approach only serves to enrich and elevate beautiful and meaningful representations of faith—no matter what the religion.
Sarah K. Yeomans is an archaeologist, Director of Educational Programs at the Biblical Archaeology Society and a faculty member at West Virginia University. She spent six years living, teaching and researching in Italy, and is a certified archaeological speleologist with the city of Rome.
‡See Jas Elner, “Double Identity: Orpheus as David. Orpheus as Christ?” BAR, March/April 2009.