The History of Art And The Curious Lives of Famous Painters



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Early Christian Art

Christian  art began  as a language of symbols, the Good Shepherd,  fish,  anchor, birds, and the cross, served  as a kind of hieroglyphic writing, opening the history of Christian art.   Art was forced to go underground, literally, via the Catacombs. This era was called the Period of Persecution and lasted from  1 - 313  AD. The Catacombs served as an underground cemetery as well as a church for services and secreting Christians fugitives.

The history of Christian painting may perhaps be conceived as a great compromise with Hellenism. With the collapse of the classical  world, the most subtly refined civilization that the world has ever seen came to an end. By its spiritual tendencies and its denial of the earthly, Christianity placed almost insuperable barriers to art. "Great Pan was Dead"

Religion with the Greeks had been a joyous cult of the senses teaching men to enjoy life in the here and now; it now became a belief in the other world, which regarded earthly existence as only a sad preparation for the life to come. True, the spring still came; men loved, the flowers bloomed, the birds sang, and the meadows were green. But all this was a delusion of Hell intended to lead the believer astray and to fill his soul with sinful thoughts. The world beyond his home, the present world only a Golgotha, where the skull lay and Christ hung crucified.

This ascetic trend was so hostile to sensuality, which proscribed the love of nature and the enjoyment of this world, Christianity tied up the chief artery of artistic creation; and only in one direction was the course left open.

As Greek art had been sensual and physical, the Christian must become physical and spiritual. If the former had sought its aim in the ideal perfection of bodily form, Christianity must find hers in the apotheosis of the soul. Although by a circuitous route, painting approached this aim. The first reaction against Hellenism was this, that art was entirely forbidden. "Cursed be all those who paint pictures," is a sentiment often recurring in the early writings of church fathers. Not until Christianity had come in contact with other cultures, after it had come to Rome, did it lose its hostile character to art.

Not until after the first churches were constructed, and Christianity represented no longer a sect but the ruling state religion, could Christian art develop. The symbolic element, which borrowed from paganism, became less prominent, and the sacred personages of Christian art receive their fixed types. This development is reflected in mosaics.,Christ is central to Byzantine Art. According to the Holy Church "All the signs in the liturgical celebrations are related to Christ: as are sacred images of the holy Mother of God and of the saints as well. They truly signify Christ, who is glorified in them. They make manifest the "cloud of witnesses" who continue to participate in the salvation of the world and to whom we are united, above all in sacramental celebrations. Through their icons, it is man "in the image of God," finally transfigured "into his likeness," who is revealed to our faith. So too are the angels, who also are recapitulated in Christ" 

According to author Ernest Govett
, "It is evident that the ideal Christ as established by the Italians can scarcely be improved upon in art within the prescribed limitations. Christ having lived as an actual man, His representation must be within the bounds of possible experience; and since He died at the age of thirty-three, intellectual power cannot be suggested in His countenance, for this in life means an expression implying large experience warranted only by mature age. The representation is therefore confined to that of a man who, while exhibiting a healthy regularity of form and feature, has lost all sense of earthly pleasure. The beauty achieved by this type is negative, the only marked quality being a suggestion of sadness which, in painting, is necessarily present in all expression where an unconcern with human instincts and passions is depicted. The Italians in their representation of Christ were thus unable to reach the height of the Greek divine portrayals. They were confined to earth, while[Pg 95] the Greek figures were symbols of spiritual forms which were pure products of the imagination. Giotto and his successors sought a physically perfect man with all purely human features in expression eliminated. The Greeks, even when representing divinities below Zeus, generalized all human attributes, excluding nothing but the exceptional. They embodied in their forms, truths acknowledged by the whole world; summed up human life to the contentment of all men: there was nothing in their divinities which would prevent their acceptance as spiritual symbols in all religions of civilized peoples. To them human instincts were sacred: all human passions could be ennobled: everything in the natural progression of life came within the purview, and under the protection, of the gods. So the course of their art was definite: there was never a difference as to the goal, for it was universal. "

Gothic  Northern Renaissance and Renaissance Art are rich in philosophical and Christian symbolism.William H. Hunt once wrote "When language was not transcendental enough to complete the meaning of a revelation, symbols were relied upon for heavenly teaching, and familiar images, chosen from the known, were made to mirror the unknown spiritual truth."  Narrative paintings, with their layer upon layers of readily understood symbolic meaning, provided  instruction to the uneducated commoners that yearned for scriptural understanding.   Paintings were used as guides that helped  illuminate the divine mysteries of  Church doctrine. Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance Art are rich in philosophical and Christian symbolism.  Narrative paintings, with their layer upon layers of readily understood symbolic meaning, provided  instruction to the uneducated commoners that yearned for scriptural understanding.   Paintings were used as guides that helped  illuminate the divine mysteries of  Church doctrine.

The Meaning of Sacred Symbols in Paintings. Most prominently featured  symbols and their meaning:

The  Serpent

Good Shepherd


Adam and Eve



Mythological Creatures


Virgin Mary


The Four Evangelists

The Anchor

The Apostles



The Cross

Architectural Elements



The Saints









Household Object

Clothing and Accessories

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ref - Art Principles With Special Reference to Painting Together with Notes on the Illusions Produced by the Painter by Ernest Govett