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An Introduction to
Early Christian Art
Please note:
All of the following examples are from
3rd-
and 4th-
century Christian sarcophagi.
How can I identify Jesus in early art?
• Jesus was often depicted using a wand during
his miracles.
Jesus used his wand to multiply bread in baskets (left)
and to change jugs of water into wine (right).
How can I identify Jesus in early art?
• Jesus was often depicted using a wand during
his miracles.
• Before the last two decades of the 4th
century,
Jesus was often depicted beardless.
Beardless Jesus
healed the lame
man, who then
picked up and
carried his bed
on his back.
How can I identify Jesus in early art?
• Jesus was often depicted using a wand for
during his miracles.
• Before the last two decades of the 4th
century,
Jesus was often depicted beardless.
• Jesus was usually depicted with longer hair
than the men around him.
Long-haired Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate
Longer haired Jesus performs
the miracles of the bread and the wine.
How can I identify women in early art?
• Women usually had longer dresses.
A woman wearing a long skirt
depicted between two scenes with Jesus.
How can I identify women in early art?
• Women usually had longer dresses.
• Before Constantine, some artists – not all –
depicted Christian women without veils
and with short hair.
Pre-Constantine depiction of a short haired
unveiled woman with doves and sheep.
How can I identify women in early art?
• Women usually had longer dresses.
• Before Constantine, some artists – not all –
depicted Christian women without veils
and with short hair.
• After Constantine, almost all artists
depicted Christian women with veils.
Post-Constantine depiction of Jesus with a veiled woman
How can I identify the Biblical
scenes on a sarcophagus?
With close attention to details, you can
recognize most of the iconography.
Jesus changed jugs of water into wine.
Jesus multiplied bread in baskets.
Jesus healed the blind.
Jesus, Peter and the crowing cock
Jesus raised Lazarus from the tomb.
Mary fell at his feet.
The baby in the manger
Jesus healed the woman with the issue
of blood who touched his hem.
Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac.
Moses received a scroll of the law.
This was the tomb of a man
named “Claudiano.”
This was a portrait of Claudiano.
Some scenes are less well known to us, but
most art historians agree what they depict.
An apostle—Peter or Paul—was arrested.
The apostle baptized his jailers.
There is no agreement, however,
about this female figure.
This female figure, called the Orante,
appeared often in the earliest Christian art.
Graydon F. Snyder says, “In the Christian
culture that emerged about A.D. 180, no
symbol occurs more frequently and integrally
than this female figure with lifted arms.”
Snyder says, “She must be the most important
symbol in early Christian art.”
Karen Jo Torjesen says, “Although male
figures are occasionally found in this
traditional posture, the overwhelming
number of orantes are female.”
Torjesen says this figure is “evidence of
the earliest tradition of women preachers.”
Some say she is the symbol of piety.
Others say she is the symbol of the church.
Yet others say she is the symbol of the soul.
Some call her the portrait of a dead woman.
Some call her the portrait of a dead woman.
But here she appears on the tomb of a man.
In the 1800s, some researchers suggested
early Christians knew her as Mary.
Other researchers said that was ridiculous.
Who or what do you think this
female figure in the center
of these biblical scenes depicted?
Who or what do you think this
female figure in the center
of these biblical scenes depicted?
Who or what do you think this
female figure in the center
of these biblical scenes depicted?
Who or what do you think this
female figure in the center
of these biblical scenes depicted?
Who or what do you think this
female figure in the center
of these biblical scenes depicted?
Who or what do you think this
female figure in the center
of these biblical scenes depicted?
Who or what do you think this
female figure in the center
of these biblical scenes depicted?
Who or what do you think this
female figure in the center
of these biblical scenes depicted?
Why do you think it is only the woman
whose name we do not know?
Art as Text
By Ally Kateusz
In honor of Robin Jensen

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Intro to Early Christian Art

  • 1. An Introduction to Early Christian Art
  • 2. Please note: All of the following examples are from 3rd- and 4th- century Christian sarcophagi.
  • 3. How can I identify Jesus in early art? • Jesus was often depicted using a wand during his miracles.
  • 4. Jesus used his wand to multiply bread in baskets (left) and to change jugs of water into wine (right).
  • 5. How can I identify Jesus in early art? • Jesus was often depicted using a wand during his miracles. • Before the last two decades of the 4th century, Jesus was often depicted beardless.
  • 6. Beardless Jesus healed the lame man, who then picked up and carried his bed on his back.
  • 7. How can I identify Jesus in early art? • Jesus was often depicted using a wand for during his miracles. • Before the last two decades of the 4th century, Jesus was often depicted beardless. • Jesus was usually depicted with longer hair than the men around him.
  • 8. Long-haired Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate
  • 9. Longer haired Jesus performs the miracles of the bread and the wine.
  • 10. How can I identify women in early art? • Women usually had longer dresses.
  • 11. A woman wearing a long skirt depicted between two scenes with Jesus.
  • 12. How can I identify women in early art? • Women usually had longer dresses. • Before Constantine, some artists – not all – depicted Christian women without veils and with short hair.
  • 13. Pre-Constantine depiction of a short haired unveiled woman with doves and sheep.
  • 14. How can I identify women in early art? • Women usually had longer dresses. • Before Constantine, some artists – not all – depicted Christian women without veils and with short hair. • After Constantine, almost all artists depicted Christian women with veils.
  • 15. Post-Constantine depiction of Jesus with a veiled woman
  • 16. How can I identify the Biblical scenes on a sarcophagus?
  • 17. With close attention to details, you can recognize most of the iconography.
  • 18. Jesus changed jugs of water into wine.
  • 19. Jesus multiplied bread in baskets.
  • 21. Jesus, Peter and the crowing cock
  • 22. Jesus raised Lazarus from the tomb. Mary fell at his feet.
  • 23. The baby in the manger
  • 24. Jesus healed the woman with the issue of blood who touched his hem.
  • 25. Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac.
  • 26. Moses received a scroll of the law.
  • 27. This was the tomb of a man named “Claudiano.”
  • 28. This was a portrait of Claudiano.
  • 29. Some scenes are less well known to us, but most art historians agree what they depict.
  • 30. An apostle—Peter or Paul—was arrested.
  • 31. The apostle baptized his jailers.
  • 32. There is no agreement, however, about this female figure.
  • 33. This female figure, called the Orante, appeared often in the earliest Christian art.
  • 34. Graydon F. Snyder says, “In the Christian culture that emerged about A.D. 180, no symbol occurs more frequently and integrally than this female figure with lifted arms.”
  • 35. Snyder says, “She must be the most important symbol in early Christian art.”
  • 36. Karen Jo Torjesen says, “Although male figures are occasionally found in this traditional posture, the overwhelming number of orantes are female.”
  • 37. Torjesen says this figure is “evidence of the earliest tradition of women preachers.”
  • 38. Some say she is the symbol of piety.
  • 39. Others say she is the symbol of the church.
  • 40. Yet others say she is the symbol of the soul.
  • 41. Some call her the portrait of a dead woman.
  • 42. Some call her the portrait of a dead woman. But here she appears on the tomb of a man.
  • 43. In the 1800s, some researchers suggested early Christians knew her as Mary.
  • 44. Other researchers said that was ridiculous.
  • 45. Who or what do you think this female figure in the center of these biblical scenes depicted?
  • 46. Who or what do you think this female figure in the center of these biblical scenes depicted?
  • 47. Who or what do you think this female figure in the center of these biblical scenes depicted?
  • 48. Who or what do you think this female figure in the center of these biblical scenes depicted?
  • 49. Who or what do you think this female figure in the center of these biblical scenes depicted?
  • 50. Who or what do you think this female figure in the center of these biblical scenes depicted?
  • 51. Who or what do you think this female figure in the center of these biblical scenes depicted?
  • 52. Who or what do you think this female figure in the center of these biblical scenes depicted?
  • 53. Why do you think it is only the woman whose name we do not know?
  • 54. Art as Text By Ally Kateusz In honor of Robin Jensen

Editor's Notes

  1. Sarcophagus of the Trees. Musee de l’Arles antique, Arles, France. Dated on its plaque to around 375. Photo copyright: Kateusz
  2. Unnamed sarcophagus dated 300-325 in the Vatican Museum. Photo copyright: Kateusz
  3. Sarcophagus of the Columns, dated 330-360 on Vatican Museum plaque. Pontius Pilate washes his hands in a bowl. Photo copyright: Kateusz
  4. Sarcophagus of Marcia Romania Celsa, dated 300-325 in the Musee de l’Arles antique, Arles, France. Photo copyright: Kateusz
  5. Sarcophagus of Marcia Romania Celsa, dated 300-325 in the Musee de l’Arles antique, Arles, France. Photo copyright: Kateusz
  6. Third century “Sarcophage de la Gayolle,” in the civic museum of Brignoles, France. Photo copyright: Kateusz
  7. Sarcophagus of “Two Brothers” dated 325-350 in the Vatican Museum. Photo copyright: Kateusz
  8. Sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus, dated 330-335, in the Palazio Massimo National Museum in Rome. Photo copyright: Kateusz
  9. Sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus, dated 330-335, in the Palazio Massimo National Museum in Rome. Photo copyright: Kateusz
  10. Sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus, dated 330-335, in the Palazio Massimo National Museum in Rome. Photo copyright: Kateusz
  11. Sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus, dated 330-335, in the Palazio Massimo National Museum in Rome. Photo copyright: Kateusz
  12. Sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus, dated 330-335, in the Palazio Massimo National Museum in Rome. Photo copyright: Kateusz
  13. Sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus, dated 330-335, in the Palazio Massimo National Museum in Rome. Photo copyright: Kateusz
  14. Sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus, dated 330-335, in the Palazio Massimo National Museum in Rome. Photo copyright: Kateusz
  15. Sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus, dated 330-335, in the Palazio Massimo National Museum in Rome. Photo copyright: Kateusz
  16. Sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus, dated 330-335, in the Palazio Massimo National Museum in Rome. Photo copyright: Kateusz
  17. Sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus, dated 330-335, in the Palazio Massimo National Museum in Rome. Photo copyright: Kateusz
  18. Sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus, dated 330-335, in the Palazio Massimo National Museum in Rome. Photo copyright: Kateusz
  19. Sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus, dated 330-335, in the Palazio Massimo National Museum in Rome. Photo copyright: Kateusz
  20. Sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus, dated 330-335, in the Palazio Massimo National Museum in Rome. Photo copyright: Kateusz
  21. Sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus, dated 330-335, in the Palazio Massimo National Museum in Rome. Photo copyright: Kateusz
  22. Sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus, dated 330-335, in the Palazio Massimo National Museum in Rome. This iconography is very similar to that of the Junius Bassius sarcophagus and the Trees sarcophagus from the Via Salaria, both in the Vatican Museum, which have two scenes, one of Paul, balding, arrested, and the other of Peter, with a full head of hair, with his jailers. This is likely Paul because Paul was typically depicted balding. David R. Cartlidge and J. Keith Elliott, Art & the Christian Apocrypha (London: Routledge, 2001), 134-171. Photo copyright: Kateusz
  23. Sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus, dated 330-335, in the Palazio Massimo National Museum in Rome. This scene is more frequently associated with Peter, who strikes a rock for water, and then baptizes his jailers. In this case, however, the apostle, depicted balding, may represent Paul. Photo copyright: Kateusz
  24. Sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus, dated 330-335, in the Palazio Massimo National Museum in Rome. Photo copyright: Kateusz
  25. Sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus, dated 330-335, in the Palazio Massimo National Museum in Rome. Photo copyright: Kateusz
  26. Snyder, Ante Pacem (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1991), 19.
  27. Snyder, Ante Pacem, 19.
  28. Karen Jo Torjesen, “The Early Christian Orans,” in Women Preachers and Prophets, edited by Beverly Mayne Kienzle and Pamela J. Walker (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1998), 43.
  29. Torjesen, “The Early Christian Orans,” 53.
  30. Snyder, Ante Pacem, 19-20.
  31. Snyder, Ante Pacem, 20.
  32. Snyder, Ante Pacem, 20.
  33. Snyder, Ante Pacem, 20.
  34. The top center square identifies this as the sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus, a male name. Other sarcophagi with an orante in the center are also identified as tombs of men.
  35. J. Spencer Northcote and W.R. Brownlow, Roma Sotterranea (London: Longmans, 1869), 255-256.
  36. W.H. Withrow, The Catacombs of Rome (New York: Nelson & Phillips, 1877), 308-313.
  37. Sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus, dated 330-335, in the Palazio Massimo National Museum in Rome. Photo copyright: Kateusz
  38. 4th c. sarcophagus in the Musee de l’Arles Antique, Arles, France. Photo copyright: Kateusz
  39. 4th c. sarcophagus in the Musee de l’Arles Antique, Arles, France. Photo copyright: Kateusz
  40. 4th c. sarcophagus in the crypt of the cathedral in Clermont, France. Photo copyright: Kateusz
  41. 4th c. sarcophagus in the Cathedral of St. Trophime in Arles, France. Photo copyright: Kateusz
  42. 4th c. sarcophagus in the Vatican Museum. Photo copyright: Kateusz
  43. 4th c. sarcophagus in the Vatican Museum. Photo copyright: Kateusz
  44. 4th c. sarcophagus in the Vatican Museum. Photo copyright: Kateusz
  45. 4th c. sarcophagus of a man named Sabinus in the Vatican Museum. Photo copyright: Kateusz