1902 Encyclopedia > Sculpture > Introducton. Classical Sculpture. Sculpture of the Early Christian Period.

(Part 1)

Sculpture - Introducton. Classical Sculpture.

The present article is confined to trie sculpture of the Middle Ages and modern times; classical sculpture has been already treated of under ARCHAEOLOGY (CLASSICAL), vol. ii. p. 343 sj., and in the articles on the several individual artists.

Early Christian Period.

In the 4th century A.D., under the rule of Constantine's successors, the plastic arts in the Roman world reached the lowest point of degradation to which they ever fell. Coarse in workmanship, intensely feeble in design, and utterly without expression or life, the pagan sculpture of that time is merely a dull and ignorant imitation of the work of previous centuries. The old faith was dead, and the art which had sprung from it died with it. In the same century a large amount of sculpture was produced by Christian workmen, which, though it reached no very high standard of merit, was at least far superior to the pagan work. Although it shows no increase of technical skill or knowledge of the human form, yet the mere fact that it was inspired and its sub-jects supplied by a real living faith was quite sufficient to give it a vigour and a dramatic force which raise it aesthetically far above the expiring efforts of paganism. Fig. 1 shows a very fine Christian relief of the 4th century, with a noble figure of an archangel holding an orb and a sceptre. It is a leaf from an ivory consular dip-tych, inscribed at the top AEXOY ITAPONTA KAI MA06JN THN AITIAN, "Receive these presents and having learnt the occasion ..." A number of large marble sarcophagi are the chief exist-ing specimens of this early Christian sculpture. In general design they are close copies of pagan tombs, and are richly decorated outside with reliefs. The subjects of these are usually scenes from the Old and New Testaments. From the former those subjects were selected which were supposed to have some typical reference to the life of Christ: the Meeting of Abraham and Melchisedec, the Sacrifice of Isaac, Daniel among the Lions, Jonah and the Whale, are those which most frequently occur. Among the New Testament scenes no representations occur of Christ's sufferings; the subjects chosen illustrate His powei and beneficence: the Sermon on the Mount, the Triurr

FIG. 2.—Reliefs in ivory of the Baptist and the Four Evangelists in front of the episcopal throne of Maximianus in Ravenna cathedral.

phal Entry into Jerusalem, and many of His miracles are
frequently repeated. The "Vatican and Lateran museums are rich in examples of this sort. One of the finest in the former collection was taken from the crypt of the old basilica of St Peter; it contained the body of a certain Junius Bassus, and dates from the year 359. Many other similar sarcophagi were made in the provinces of Rome, especially Gaul; and fine specimens exist in the museums of Aries, Marseilles, and Aix; those found in Britain are of very inferior workmanship.

In the 5th century other plastic works similar in style were still produced in Italy, especially reliefs in ivory (to a certain extent imitations of the later consular diptychs), which were used to decorate episcopal thrones or the bindings of MSS. of the Gospels. The so-called chair of St Peter, still preserved (though hidden from sight) in his great basilica, is the finest example of the former class ; of less purely classical style, dating from about 550, is the ivory throne of Bishop Maximianus in Ravenna cathedral (see fig. 2). Another very remarkable work of the 5th century is the series of small panel reliefs on the doors of S. Sabina on the Aventine Hill at Rome. They are scenes from Bible history carved in wood, and in them much of the old classic style survives.


556-1 A partial exception to this rule is the scene of Christ before Pilate, which sometimes occurs.

556-2 See Dionysius, Sac. Vat. Bas. Cryp., and Bunsen, Besch. d. Stadt Rom, 1840.

556-3 Various dates have been assigned to these interesting reliefs by different archaeologists, but the costumes of the figures are strong evidence that they are not later than the 5th century.

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