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Mural Decoration
(Part 13)


Early Christian Mural Paintings in Italy.

Early Christian Mural Paintings in Italy.— A very interesting series of these exists in various catacombs, especially those of Rome and Naples. They are of great value, both as an important link in the history of art and also as throwing considerable light on the mental state of the early Christians, which was distinctly influenced by the older faith. Thus in the earlier paintings of about the 4th century we find Christ represented as a beardless youth, beautiful as the artist could make him, with a lingering tradition of Greek idealization, in no degree like the "Man of Sorrows" of mediaeval painters, but rather a kind of genius of Christianity in whose fair outward form the peace and purity of the new faith were visibly symbolized, just as certain distinct attributes were typified in the persons of the gods of ancient Greece. The favourite early subject, Christ the Good Shepherd (fig. 9), is represented as Orpheus playing on his lyre to a circle of beasts, the pagan origin of the picture being shown unmistakably by the Phrygian cap and by the presence of lions, panthers, and other incongruous animals among the listening sheep.

Painted vault, catacombs of St Callixtus, Rome image

Fig. 9 -- Painted Vault from the Catacombs of St. Callixtus, Rome. In the centre Orpheus, to represent Christ the Good Shepherd, and round are smaller paintings of various types of Christ.

In other cases Christ is depicted standing with a sheep borne on his shoulders like Hermes Criophoros or Hermes Psychopompos—favourite Greek subjects, especially the former, a statue of which Pausanias (ix. 22) mentions as existing at Tanagra in Boeotica. Here again the pagan origin of the type is shown by the presence in the catacomb paintings of the pan-pipes and pedum, special attributes of Hermes, but quite foreign to the notion of Christ. Though in a degraded form, a good deal survives in some of these paintings, especially in the earlier ones, of the old classical grace of composition and beauty of drawing, notably in the above-mentioned representations where old models were copied without any adaptation to their new meaning. Those of the 5th and 6th centuries still follow the classical lines, though in a rapidly deteriorating style, until the introduction of a foreign—the Byzantine—element, which created a fresh starting-point on quite different lines. The old naturalism and survival of classical freedom of drawing is replaced by stiff, conventionally hieratic types, very superior in dignity and strength to the feeble and spiritless compositions produced by the extreme degradation into which the native art of Rome had fallen. The designs of this second period of Christian art are very similar to those of the mosaics, such as many at Ravenna, and also to the magnificently illuminated MSS. On which the utmost skill and labour of the time were lavished. For some centuries there was but little change or development in this Byzantine style of art, so that it is impossible in most cases to be sure from mere internal evidence of the date of any painting. This to some extent applies also to the works of the earlier or pagan school, though, roughly speaking, it may be said that the least meritorious pictures are the latest in date.

These catacomb paintings range over a long space of time; some may possibly be of the 1st or 2d centur, e.g., those in the cemetery of Domitilla, Rome; others are as late as the 9th century, e.g., some full-length figures of St Cornelius and St Cyprian in the catacomb of St Callixtus, under which earlier paintings may be traced. In execution they somewhat resemble the Etruscan tomb-paintings; the walls of the catacomb passages and chambers, excavated in soft tufa, are covered with a thin skin of white stucco, and on that the mural and ceiling paintings are simply executed in earth colours. The favourite subjects of the earliest paintings are scenes from the Old Testament which were supposed to typify events in the life of Christ, such as the sacrifice of Isaac (Christ’s death), Jonah and the whale (the resurrection), Moses striking the rock, or pointing to the manna (Christ the water of life, and the Eucharist), and many others. The later paintings deal more with later subjects, either events in Christ’s life or figures of saints and the miracles they performed. A very fine series of these exists in the lower church of S. Clemente in Rome, apparently dating from the 6th to the 10th centuries; among these are representations of the passion and death of Christ—subjects never chosen by the earlier Christians, except as dimly fore shadowed by the Old Testament types. When Christ Himself is depicted in the early catacomb paintings it is in glory and power, not in His human weakness and suffering.

Other early Italian paintings exist on the walls of the church of the Tre Fontane near Rome, and in the Capella di S. Urbano alla Caffarella, executed in the early part of the 11th century. The atrium of S. Lorenzo fuori lemura, Rome, and the church of the Quattro Santi Incoronati have mural paintings of the first half of the 13th century, which show no artistic improvement over those at S. Clemente four or five centuries older.

It was not in fact till the second half of the 13th century that stiff traditional Byzantine forms and colouring began to be superseded by the revival of native art in Italy by the painters of Florence, Pisa, and Siena (see FRESCO). During the first thirteen centuries of the Christian era mural painting appears to have been for the most part confined to the representation of sacred subjects. It is remarkable that during the earlier centuries council after council of the Christian church forbade the painting of figure-subjects, and especially those of any Person of the Trinity; but it was quite in vain. The double desire, both for the artistic effect of painted walls and for the religious teaching afforded by the pictorial representation of sacred scenes and the celebration of the sacraments, was too strong. In spite of the zeal of bishops and others, who sometimes with their own hands defaced the pictures of Christ on the walls of the churches, in spite of threats of excommunication, the forbidden paintings by degrees became more numerous, till the walls of almost every church throughout Christendom were decorated with whole series of pictured stories. The useless prohibition was becoming obsolete when, towards the end of the 4th century, the learned Paulinus, bishop of Nola, ordered the two basilicas which he had built at Fondi Nola to be adorned with wall-paintings of sacred subjects, with the special object, as he says, of instructing and refining the ignorant and drunken people. These painted histories were in fact the books of the unlearned, and we can now hardly realize their value and importance as the chief mode of religious teaching in ages when none but the cleargy could read or white.[Footnote 44-1]


(44-1) See Rossi, Roma sotterranea (1864-77); Northcote and Brownlow, Subterranean Rome (1877); Bottari, Roma sotterr. (1737-54); Perret, Catacombes de Rome (1851-55); Bellermann, Katacomben zu Neapel; Garrucci, Arte Cristiana (1880); Mullooly, Paintings in S. Clemente, Rome (1868); Lord Lindsay, Christian Art (1847); Agincourt, Hist. de l’ Art, ive--xvie siècle (1823-47); Theophilus, Div. Art Schedula, Hendrie’s ed. (1847); Eraclius, De Art. Romanorum, MS. in Bibi. Roy., Paris, partly printed by Raspe; "Mappa Claviculae"—a 12th-century MS.. -- Archaeologia, xxxii. pp. 183-244; Cennino Cennini, Tratttato della Pittura; Vasari, Tre Arti del Disegno, Milanesi’s ed. (1882); Mrs Merrifield, Fresco Painting (1856); L. Batista Alberti, De Re aedificatoria; Richmond, Monumental Painting, Lectures on Art published by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (1882); Martigny, Dict. des Antiquités Chrétiennes (1877); Dionysius of Zagora, Ermeneia tes zographikes [Gk.] (1853); Eastlake, Materials for Hist. of Painting, new ed. (1869); Wessely, Iconorgraphie Gottes u. der Heiligen (1874); Didron et Durand, Iconographie Chrétienne (1845); Cave Thomas, Mural Decoration; Bull. di Arch. Cristiana (1864-65).

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