The period of early Christian art began about the year 100 and lasted until the Byzantine style, or roughly the year 500. The beginning of this period did not see widespread works of Christian art. For one, Christians faced persecution and this would certainly have placed constraints upon artistic production. Also, early Christians were part of the lower classes of society so artists would have lacked opportunity for patrons. Early Christians must also have been mindful about refraining from producing graven images which they believed similar to pagan iconography.
Nevertheless, in time Christian artists would create a recognizable movement and their works would survive in dark places like in the catacombs beneath Rome. While these artists often borrowed from Roman motifs, they changed their underlying symbolism to reflect a Christian ethic. For instance, the image of the shepherd, once a Roman motif, was transformed into the “good shepherd” under the Christian mantle. Early Christians also adopted the grapevine and even peacocks as reflected in their early frescoes; and, indeed, the medium of fresco was also borrowed from the Romans. Christian artists also produced mosaics, illuminated texts, and sculpture—artistic forms that were popular in the pagan world.
Yet, early Christian artists also developed their own motifs. The identifying image of the fish, a popular image even today, stems from these first Christian artists. Hitherto, the fish had not been borrowed as an artistic motif from any other culture. Likewise, the dove became an early symbol of peace. Art historians believe that many of the icons borrowed from pagan cultures early on allowed Christian artists to remain furtive. Adopting the lamb to represent Christ also allowed their message to remain hidden in plain sight.
As Christianity became more widespread and accepted, artists began to turn to new constructions of churches that replaced hidden meeting places—especially after the Edict of Milan in 313 which named Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. During the period of early Christian art, the basic tenet for artists was to transmit faith and to teach the word of God. Art was not produced for beauty’s sake alone. Once imperial sponsorship attended Christian artists, works became more elaborate and sumptuous works were displayed within basilicas, baptisteries, and mausoleums.
Surviving examples of early Christian art include many bas-reliefs, frescoes, wall slabs, mosaics, and metal works. Historians believe there were probably significant examples of panel art, but this medium would not have survived the aging process. Early Christian art laid the groundwork for the Byzantine art period which would grow out of their traditions.