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Early Christians depict Christ as a Good Shepherd

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By the later Middle Ages, the Christian Church was the greatest patron of Western art. Yet Christian painting and sculpture prior to this period reflect the humble status of Christian art.

During the early years of its existence, Christian art was discreet in part because followers of Christ lived under the shadow of persecution. Martyrdom was commonplace under Roman rule, and this situation did not improve until 313 when Constantine granted full religious freedom to Christians throughout the Roman Empire.

Early Christian art developed in the catacombs, subterranean burial galleries located outside Rome. The images were very simple, often little more than symbols — a fish, a dove, an anchor, a vine, a lamb, the sign of the Cross. These stemmed from passages in the Bible. The anchor, for instance, came to represent the Christian promise of salvation: "Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast" (Hebrews VI: 19). The vine symbol derives from Christ's comment: "I am the true vine" (John XV: 1).

The modest scale of early Christian art reflected the way the religion developed. Services were held in secret, inside private houses, using portable altars. Prior to the reign of Constantine from 313, those linked to the religion would find their career ambitions and social standing threatened. As a result, most Christians had neither the finances nor the incentive to commission artworks. Also, since there were no public places of worship, art could not be displayed.

The visual image of Christ was slow to evolve. In common with the artists of several other religions, Christians were initially wary of depicting God in human form; for fear that this might be interpreted as idolatry. In addition, there was a strong reluctance to portray the Crucifixion, the central episode of the faith, since there was such a stigma attached to this type of execution. It was


6 The Good Shepherd

Artist unknown, c.300

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