Roman Painting

Introduction

Table Summary

Summary of Roman Painting
Roman Empire
ca. 0-500
mummy portraits
Pompeiian styles 2-4
Early Christian
ca. 200-500
catacomb murals

General Features

Roman painting survives mainly in the form of murals and panel portraits, executed in a realistic style. This style descends from Classical/Hellenistic Greek painting (see Greek Painting), which was absorbed by the Roman state as it expanded across the Mediterranean Basin (see History of Roman Europe). Building on Greek techniques, the Romans brought realistic painting to its highest development in the pre-modern world.E19,H216

Roman murals are the main subject of this article. They can be divided into two types: pagan (which have been discovered mainly at Pompeii) and Early Christian (which survive primarily in the networks of catacombs beneath Rome).

Most surviving Roman panel paintings are Egyptian mummy portraits, prepared upon the subject's death for inclusion in burial. These portraits, which comprise the only large preserved body of ancient panel painting, were produced under the Roman Empire (of which Egypt was a province). Encaustic (paint with a wax binder) was the usual medium, as opposed to tempera (paint with a water-based binder, like egg yolk); this fact, along with the arid Egyptian climate, was key to the portraits' survival.3,5,10

Mummy Portrait from Roman Egypt
Mummy Portrait from Roman Egypt
Mummy Portrait from Roman Egypt

A third form of Roman painting (along with murals and panels) was illumination: painted decoration of manuscripts. Once again, the Romans absorbed this art form from the Greeks, who practised it in Egypt (during the Hellenistic period) upon papyrus scrolls. While no Greek illumination survives, a modest amount of Roman work does, due largely to the Roman use of parchment (adult animal skin) and vellum (young animal skin) rather than papyrus, which is much less durable. The style of Roman illumination reflects that of Roman mural painting.H277,16

Roman Illumination (illustrated edition of the Iliad)
Roman Illumination (illustrated edition of the Iliad)
Roman Illumination (illustrated edition of Vergil)
Roman Illumination (illustrated edition of Vergil)

Main Article

Pompeian Styles

Knowledge of pagan Roman murals springs mainly from the city of Pompeii (and other nearby settlements), buried under many feet of ash and pumice by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year 79. This deadly ash blanket converted Pompeii into a vast time capsule, providing modern archaeologists with a rare glimpse into many aspects of Roman life.E19,5

One of these aspects was wall painting. By studying works at Pompeii (and the surrounding region), art historians have identified four consecutive styles, dubbed the Pompeian styles.

The first style, which could be called the "masonry style", creates the illusion that a wall is composed of stone blocks (especially marble) of various colours and patterns. Sometimes other architectural elements (e.g. entablatures, pilasters) are also painted in. This style, adopted from the Hellenistic Greeks, flourished in the two centuries leading up to the Roman Empire period.H210,3,22

First Style Mural
First Style Mural
First Style Mural
First Style Mural

The first style thus embodies a quite rudimentary aesthetic. The three subsequent Pompeian styles, on the other hand, are highly developed and distinctly Roman. The first style may therefore be considered a prelude to the "real" history of pagan Roman wall painting, which spans Pompeian styles two through four. Together, the final three Pompeian styles stretch roughly from the beginning of the Roman Empire (which lies a few decades BC, though it is convenient to round this figure to year 0) to the eruption of Vesuvius (79).

The second style could be named the "three-dimensional style". A scene is painted with realistic shading and deep perspective, creating the illusion that one is looking through the wall at a scene beyond. In some cases, the scene is framed with architectural elements, as though one were looking out from inside a building.3,4,22

Second Style Mural
Second Style Mural
Second Style Mural
Second Style Mural
Second Style Mural

In the third style, which could be dubbed the "tapestry style", rectangular areas of solid colour are the dominant visual effect. Each rectangle is sparsely covered with fine decorative elements (e.g. arabesques, miniature figures), yielding the overall impression of a wall covered in large, lightly embroidered tapestries. Sometimes a realistic scene is embedded among the tapestries, as though it were a framed painting hanging on the wall.3,5,19,22

Third Style Mural
Third Style Mural
Third Style Mural

The fourth style, which could be termed the "hybrid style", simply merges the second and third styles. Deep perspective and three-dimensional architecture are merged with the rectangular "tapestries" and "framed paintings" described above.3,19,22

Fourth Style Mural
Fourth Style Mural

Early Christian

ca. 200-500

The Early Christian age of art history was the first period during which a large body of Christian-themed art was produced (see Early Christian Art). This period was roughly simultaneous with the Late Roman Empire (ca. 200-500). The primary body of Early Christian painting is found upon the walls of the Roman catacombs.

Catacombs (underground networks of tomb chambers) were a common feature of Roman cities. They were built by Christians, who preferred the funerary practice of burial (as opposed to cremation, the standard pagan Roman practice). Catacombs were dug on private lands, allowing Christians to bury their dead in relative safety. (Christianity was illegal and heavily persecuted in the Roman Empire until Constantine granted official tolerance in the year 313.)

The term Roman catacombs refers to dozens of catacombs under the city of Rome; these structures can sprawl for miles, and are often multiple levels deep. Since Christian art could initially be safely produced only in secluded places, catacombs served as the birthplace of Christian art. The Roman catacombs gave rise to the foremost bodies of Early Christian painting (in the form of murals) and sculpture (in the form of sculpted tombs).D126,G170,H259-60

Since catacomb paintings were intended mainly to communicate the importance of biblical figures and events (rather than to serve as beautiful works of art), they shun realism for a flat, hastily-sketched style. Perspective and shading are weak (compared to earlier Roman painting), and backgrounds are simplified. Early Christian murals thus embody the transitional phase between the smooth realism of earlier Roman painting and the rigid stylization of medieval art.H272-73,5

Early Christian painters naturally adopted many elements of pagan Roman art. For instance, Christ is often depicted as a shepherd (a common representation of a wise, virtuous person in classical art) or in a similar manner to a classical god. Other times, Christ is represented more covertly, via symbols (e.g. fish, bread, wine). The traditional winged creature symbols of the four evangelists also developed during the Early Christian period: man (Matthew), lion (Mark), bull (Luke), and eagle (John).G174,H268,18

Early Christian Mural
Early Christian Mural
Early Christian Mural
Early Christian Mural
Early Christian Mural
1 - "Rome, city, Italy", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed April 2009.
2 - "Western Painting: Western Mediterranean » Roman » Etruscan and Hellenistic Greek influences", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 2009.
3 - "Roman Art and Architecture: Painting » Roman Painting", Encarta. Accessed April 2009.
4 - "Roman Art", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed April 2009.
5 - "Western Painting: Western Mediterranean » Roman » Pagan Roman paintings", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 2009.
6 - "Encaustic", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed April 2009.
7 - "Western Painting: Western Mediterranean » Roman » Early Christian", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 2009.
8 - "Etruscan Civilization", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed April 2009.
9 - "Rome (Italy): History » Rome of antiquity » Founding and the kingdom", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 2009.
10 - "Fayum Portrait (Egyptian Art)", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 2009.
11 - "Illumination, in art", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed April 2009.
12 - "Illuminated Manuscripts", Encarta. Accessed April 2009.
13 - "Western Painting: Western Dark Ages and medieval Christendom » Dark Ages » Rome and Italy, c. 600–850", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 2009.
14 - "Encaustic Painting", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2009.
15 - "Early Christian art and architecture", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed July 2009.
16 - "Western Painting: Western Mediterranean » Roman » Book illustration in antiquity", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2009.
18 - "Early Christian Art", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2009.
19 - "Painting", World Book Encyclopedia. Accessed November 2009.
20 - "Western Painting: Eastern Christian", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed November 2009.
21 - "Early Christian art and architecture", Encarta 2004.
22 - Department of Greek and Roman Art. "Roman Painting". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ropt/hd_ropt.htm (October 2004)