Early Christian Art

Definition

The Early Christian period of art corresponds roughly with the Late Empire phase of the Roman Empire (ca. 200-500). During the Early Christian period, Roman art forms were harnessed for Christian purposes. Early Christian visual art embodies a transition away from realism to stylization, given the focus of Christian artists on conveying spiritual ideas (namely biblical figures and events) rather than physical accuracy (see Realism vs. Stylization).1 Early Christian art thus served as the transitional phase from Roman art to medieval art, the latter of which is highly stylized.

The Early Christian Period as a Transitional Phase
Roman Art (realistic)
Roman Art
(realistic)
Early Christian Art (transitional)
Early Christian Art
(transitional)
Western Medieval Art (stylized)
Western Medieval Art
(stylized)
Byzantine Art (stylized)
Byzantine Art
(stylized)

Successor Styles

With the fall of Rome, the West became politically fragmented (into small kingdoms ruled by Germanic warlords), causing Western art to splinter into various regional styles (known as the "barbarian styles").2 (Stylistic unity in Western art was finally restored in the Romanesque period.) In the Eastern Roman Empire (which did not fracture), Early Christian art served as the transition to the Byzantine style.

1 - "Early Christian art", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
2 - "Western sculpture", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.